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Friday, July 11, 2014

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Israel to take part in World Baseball Classic qualifiers

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Howard Osterer umpires a game in Israel in this undated photo.

Israel isn’t the first country that comes to mind when you think about baseball.

But next month, Jewish and Israeli ball players will compete in the qualifying round of the World Baseball Classic.

The international tournament, which takes place every four years, was started by Major League Baseball in 2005 largely to fill a void left by baseball’s removal as a sport at the summer Olympic Games. The qualifying round kicks off Sept. 19 in Jupiter, Fla,. when the Israeli squad takes on the team from South Africa.

The Israeli team is being put together by the Israel Association of Baseball (IAB), and players need only be of Jewish descent or native Israeli to make the roster.

Well, they should have some skill, too. And this team does.

It’s managed by former Major League all-star catcher Brad Ausmus, who recently reconnected with his Jewish roots – his mother is Jewish – and visited Israel in May, where he laid tfillin for the first time while touring the Kotel.

Ausmus’ coaching staff will include other former MLBers Gabe Kapler and Shawn Green.

The IAB said it has also contacted other active Jewish MLB stars. Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun, Chicago White Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis, Texas Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler, New York Mets first baseman Ike Davis and San Diego Padres right-handed pitcher Jason Marquis have all been approached to play for Israel should it make it to the actual tournament, which will be be held in March 2013.

Glenn Copeland, a consulting physician with the Toronto Blue Jays, will be Israel’s team doctor.

Haim Katz, president of the IAB, said the final deadline for the qualifying round roster is Sept. 12, so it was impossible to provide a complete list of players before then.

“We will not know the final roster until then, as some players will be called up by their major league teams, and chas v’chalilah, injuries will affect the final roster,” he said.

“We only have former MLB players playing for us, since the qualifying tournament takes place during the MLB season and the teams won’t release their stars for the [World Baseball Classic] qualifiers. Should we win, however, the tournament itself will be held in March 2013 before the next MLB season starts. Then we can expect to have some current MLBers join our team.”

Last week, Youkilis told Israeli Sports Radio that if he’s healthy, he’ll play for Israel. He also said other Jewish MLBers are interested in playing.

Howard Osterer, an expatriate Canadian and tour guide living in Jerusalem, guided Ausmus and his wife around Israel earlier this summer.

When not shepherding tourists around the country, Osterer, 57, is one of Israel’s most experienced baseball umpires.

The former Ottawa resident also played minor league ball with the Ottawa Sooners. He made aliyah in 2008.

Though he doesn’t officiate in the Israel Baseball League, the country’s premier league, he umps in most of the others, preferring to provide his skills to the junior circuits.

Osterer, who recently returned from travelling with Israel’s under-12 baseball team to the European championships in the Czech Republic – Israel finished a respectable fourth – told The CJN that baseball is beginning to flourish in the Holy Land.

“Baseball in Israel is very popular. More than 1,000 players at all age levels from eight to 55 are playing the game, he said.

“I am a grassroots guy who believes in developing baseball from the bottom up.”

Osterer said there are teams all over Israel now, including in Be’er Sheva, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Hod Hasharon, Modi’in, Efrat, Ma’alei Adumin, Ra’anana, Kfar Saba, Tel Mond, Ginot Shomron, Even Yehuda, Bet Shemesh, Yuvalim, Gezer and Rehovot.

The IAB is also on a fundraising drive to raise $4 million to build the country’s first dedicated baseball stadium in Ra’anana.

Asked what he thought about the Israeli team’s chances at the World Baseball Classic, Osterer said: “It’s baseball. Anything can happen.”

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