As Israel led by 10 runs and had one out left to clinch its first Olympic baseball berth, manager Eric Holtz made a pitching change. He called on 40-year-old Shlomo Lipetz, a sidearm right-hander with a beard and mullet who had not appeared in any of the team’s four previous games in its Olympic qualification tournament.
“Shlomo was born and raised in Israel,” Holtz said in an email early Monday morning from Italy, where the joint Africa-Europe tournament was held. “He has put in over 30 years into the growth and development of this program. He played on fields that did not exist. Soccer fields transformed into some sort of diamond. He exemplifies what we are trying to show and prove to the youth in Israel. That if you work hard and put your time in, that even homegrown Israelis have an opportunity to do something special.
“Given the right opportunity there was no question that he would hold the baseball at the end of the game. He’s special to the team and he special [sic] to the kids in Israel.”
Lipetz, a vice president for booking musical acts at City Winery based in New York City, forced a flyout from the second South African batter. Israel won 11-1. Teammates dogpiled Lipetz on the mound in one of Israel’s greatest sporting moments.
“It slowly starts sinking in and repeating, again and again, that this great group of people are all going to be Olympians,” Lipetz, profiled by the Wall Street Journal in 2012, said by phone late Sunday night while celebrating the victory. “The feeling is disbelief and happiness, excitement. It’s a bunch of emotions, but it’s really hard to believe. The odds were so against us that you kind of train your mind not to have your mind wander there.”
The 2020 Olympic baseball tournament — the first since 2008 and the last until, at the earliest, 2028 — will feature six nations. Israel was ranked 41st in the world before its captivating 2017 World Baseball Classic run that included wins over the Netherlands, South Korea, Chinese Taipei and Cuba.
By this year, that ranking was up to No. 19. But Israel still had to qualify for the Olympic qualifier. It went through a July European Championships b-pool event, beating Greece, Serbia, Russia, Ireland and host Bulgaria in front of listed attendances of fewer than 100 people per game and “a field carved out of a mountain,” Lipetz said. “With sheep.”
Then it won a playoff at Lithuania — “in the middle of a horse racing track, and right field was 270 feet” — just to get into the top-flight Euros earlier this month. At Euros, Israel was the fourth-ranked team going in and went 5-3 to finish fourth, good enough to advance to the Africa/Europe Olympic qualifier, but far from a favorable position. Only the winner of the Africa/Europe qualifier would clinch a place in Tokyo.
So Israel went to Italy for the qualifier and proceeded to avenge those three defeats to Spain, the Netherlands and Italy in its first three games. All it needed was one more win Saturday against the Czech Republic or Sunday against South Africa.
When Israel’s most recognizable name, former MLB infielder Danny Valencia, smacked a three-run home run in the top of the eighth on Sunday, it had an 11-1 lead. The 10-run mercy rule would come into effect to end the game an inning early, assuming Israel could close it out. The plan all along was for Lipetz to get that chance.
“Symbolic, I would say,” said Lipetz, who called himself part of Israel’s first generation of baseball players and was one of four Israel-born players on the 24-man roster. “The personal achievement aside, I represent in a lot of ways what Israel baseball is and what it can potentially be.
“One of the first things that came to mind when I was throwing that last pitch — if I can be a role model for any players on this team, can be a role model for a 10-year-old Israeli watching this on TV for the first time, then that really is everything I want because I never had that Israeli role model.”
Lipetz, born and raised in Tel Aviv, said there were no pitching mounds where he grew up. He practiced on soccer fields. Still, he was one of the first players to get a special athletic scholarship in the military. He played for Team Israel for the first time in 1989, at a Little League World Series qualifier on a German military base.
He moved to the U.S. at age 21 to play college ball in San Diego in the early 2000s. He was part of that 2017 World Baseball Classic team that included a mascot, “Mensch on a Bench,” that did not make the trip for the Olympic qualifier.
“Stuck in customs,” Lipetz joked.
That 2017 WBC team included many players who were not Israel citizens, a requirement for the Olympics. Lipetz was the only Israel-born player, but he did not see game action.
All of the men who celebrated with Lipetz on Sunday have an Israeli ID.
“This, I think, tops , all because when it comes down to it, we did it with a group of Israelis,” Lipetz said. “Yeah, some of them may have been born in the U.S., but today everyone was Israeli. That’s what Israel is all about.”
Lipetz believes most of the players on the qualifying team will be brought back for the Olympics, which is also 24 players, though he could not be sure that its oldest player will be kept one more year.
Lipetz turns 41 in February and would be one of the oldest baseball players in the sport’s short Olympic history (since 1992).
“Let them try,” to leave me off the team, he joked. “Anything can happen. I feel very lucky that I’ve been able to be part of Team Israel for so long. My role on this team is more than just throwing the last out or playing a game. It’s what makes the team what it is, basically the Israeli national team. I plan to continue to be part of the team one way or the other. I would like to think that I still have something to add as a sidearmer, late movement guy.”
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