Israel is set to play its first-ever Olympic baseball game on Thursday, against the defending champion, South Korea.
The outcome of the game (11 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday) might seem foretold. Israel is ranked last among the six teams playing in the Tokyo Games, and in Beijing in 2008 — the last time baseball was played in the Olympics — South Korea beat Cuba, 3-2, for a gold medal.
This year, South Korea is fielding a young team seen as likely to medal.
On Friday in Tokyo, Israel faces the U.S., whose team is unable to field major league players because they are in midseason. And there are formidable teams in the later elimination rounds: the Dominican Republic, a medal possibility; Mexico, another medal possibility; and Japan, which is heavily favored for the gold.
Israel’s team has only four players native to the country. The rest are mostly American players whose Jewish roots allowed them to obtain citizenship in Israel.
The team’s star is Ian Kinsler, 39, a second baseman and four-time major league All-Star. He announced his retirement from the majors in early 2020 and traveled to Israel to gain citizenship that March, just before Israel locked down to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
The team is also fielding some current minor league players, and some amateurs. The team’s veteran pitcher works in Manhattan as head of programming for City Winery, a wine, food and music space. Another pitcher is an investment analyst with Goldman Sachs.
Team Israel was formed in the 1990s but rarely had much success until recently. Four years ago, the team was ranked 48th in the world, but in a stunning turn, it qualified for the World Baseball Classic, making it into the tournament’s second round. In 2019, the Israeli team continued its surprising run by qualifying for the Olympics.
“We joke that we’re a combination of the Bad News Bears and the Jamaican bobsledding team,” the team’s trainer, Barry Weinberg, said during the team’s recent visit to New York City. Mr. Weinberg served stints as a trainer for the New York Yankees, the Oakland A’s and the St. Louis Cardinals, and has earned seven World Series rings.