“Are the Olympics still happening?”
That’s the question Joey Wagman of Danville — a right-handed pitcher for Team Israel — says he’s been getting ever since the pandemic postponed the 2020 Summer Olympics in Japan.
On March 30 last year, the International Olympic Committee and other stakeholders announced that the competition would be delayed to this summer, but many have continued to wonder: Are the Games of the 32nd Olympiad still happening?
Indeed they are, notwithstanding the strangeness of the 2020 Olympics being held in 2021. The opening ceremony is set for July 23 in Tokyo.
Wagman, who’ll turn 30 two days after that, is one of two Bay Area pitchers on the Israeli baseball squad, which was (surprisingly) the first team to qualify for these Olympics. The other is right-hander DJ Sharabi, 29, of Burlingame.
“It’s surreal,” Wagman said of representing a country that has not had a team in the Olympics in more than 40 years. (Israel regularly sends dozens of individuals in sports from gymnastics to weightlifting, but the last time it sent a team was in 1976, when it competed in soccer in Montreal,)
“Being able to wear Israel across my chest — it’s a huge honor,” added Wagman, who grew up in a “mixed” home (his dad is Jewish) and has formed a strong connection to his Jewish heritage and to the Jewish state. He made aliyah, as all players on this version of Team Israel are required to do, in 2018.
“It’s so much bigger than myself, so much bigger than the guys on the team or even baseball,” he said. “It’s not only representing a country, it’s representing a people.”
It was back in September 2019, about three months before cases of an unknown virus began being reported in China, when Israel became the first baseball team to clinch an Olympic berth (as hosts, Japan had an automatic bid). Team Israel stunned most observers by winning the Europe/Africa Qualifier, posting a 4-1 record that included wins over higher-ranked teams from Netherlands and Italy.
Since then, the team has added a handful of players, including 38-year-old former major-league second baseman and four-time all-star Ian Kinsler, who obtained Israeli citizenship before the pandemic hit, and veteran major-league catcher Ryan Lavarnway, 34, who’s currently in the minor leagues and will play for Israel only if he’s not on a major-league roster.
Baseball has appeared sporadically at the Olympics since 1904, usually as an exhibition sport, and has not been played since 2008. The United States hasn’t qualified for the six-team field (thanks to an extra-innings loss to Mexico two years ago), but is still vying for one of two open spots against the likes of Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.
Already qualified are Israel, Japan, South Korea and Mexico.
“It feels great to have your ticket punched,” said Wagman, comparing Team Israel’s mentality dealing with uncertainties during the pandemic to other teams still waiting to hear whether they had qualified. “We know we’re going to be there. Now we’re just trying to be as prepared as possible.”
Wagman played at Monte Vista High School before heading to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. The 6-foot, 185-pounder has a four-pitch arsenal of fastball, curveball, changeup and slider, and he was a team leader during the qualifying process, pitching a complete-game shutout in the opener against Spain, striking out eight and walking none.
Selected by the Chicago White Sox in the 17th round of the 2013 MLB draft, he reached as high as Double-A after the Oakland A’s organization acquired him as a free agent. In 2019, he played for the Milwaukee Milkmen in an independent league, but last year, with most teams and leagues on hiatus due to the pandemic, he sat out. For this season, he signed with the Tempo Praha, a Prague-based team in the Czech Extraliga.
One advantage for Wagman was that the Czech Republic league was one of the first in the world to start playing this year. Another was “they were extremely cool with me leaving and playing at the Olympics,” Wagman said, speaking to J. over WhatsApp from Prague.
Ever since shocking the world in the 2017 World Baseball Classic — No. 41 in the world rankings at the time, Israel beat No. 3 South Korea, No. 4 Chinese Taipei and No. 9 Netherlands in the first round, and then No. 5 Cuba in the second round before bowing out — Team Israel has become a darling of American Jews, Israelis and anyone who enjoys an underdog story. ESPN called them the “Jamaican bobsled team of the WBC,” and the squad was profiled in a 2018 documentary called “Heading Home.”
In late 2019, Team Israel thought it would be heading straight into preparations for the 2020 Olympics following its Champagne-soaked celebration in Parma, Italy, after winning the qualifier.
Instead, the pandemic scuttled those plans, and players spread out around the country (and the world). Some played in professional independent leagues whose 2020 seasons were shortened by the pandemic, some held down day jobs and trained in their spare time.
Sharabi, a three-sport star at Burlingame High School, was among the former. He played in 2020 for the Sioux Falls Canaries in the independent American Association, appearing as a relief pitcher in 28 of the team’s 58 regular-season games. The multisport athlete once considered playing professional football and is 6 feet, 211 pounds, but despite his size, he is a finesse pitcher, relying on deception and accuracy rather than overpowering fastballs.
“I think using my mind is a lot better than using brute force,” Sharabi told J. “I try to make the ball move and locate.”
After community college, Sharabi played briefly at San Jose State. Since then, he’s bounced around independent-league teams and has been effective in relief for Team Israel. He helped Israel gain its Olympic berth by pitching two scoreless innings in an upset win over the Netherlands.
Sharabi is Modern Orthodox and dons tefillin and davens daily. He had a bar mitzvah at Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame, where his Israeli father runs the Sephardic minyan.
It’s not always easy finding kosher food in independent-league towns like Cleburne, Texas, and Great Bend, Kansas, he said. Usually it’s vegetarian or pescatarian meals. “Sometimes Chabad is around to help me find kosher meat.”
He hooked up with the Israeli national team on a lucky break when he met longtime Team Israel player Mitch Glasser while playing for the Cleburne Railroaders. “Let’s go to the consulate. Let me get my passport,” he told his father the day he learned baseball was returning to the Olympics.
“Before I was even on the team, I had a vision that we’re going to make it to the Olympics,” he added. “And this is it.”
While Wagman and Sharabi have used the pandemic interruption to improve their game, there have also been some baseball-related casualties.
Among them is pitcher Gabe Cramer of Santa Rosa. The right-hander pitched at Stanford University and in the minor leagues for the Kansas City Royals, and was part of Team Israel’s eye-opening 2017 squad. But about a month ago, he injured himself in what he called a freak accident while playing tennis. He displaced a bone in his foot, which required surgery, putting him out of commission for the Olympics.
“It’s pretty heartbreaking,” said Cramer, who had been training at the University of San Francisco baseball diamond with some professional players (including Austin Slater of the San Francisco Giants).
He hopes to remain involved with Team Israel in some capacity, but for now, “I’ve gone through my grieving period. Now I’m gonna be watching as a fan like everyone else.”
Team Israel will reunite for minicamp in Arizona starting May 10, though Wagman won’t join the team until a 10-game, pre-Olympics exhibition schedule on the East Coast in early July. General manager Peter Kurz released an expanded roster of 44 players in April, but only 24 will make the Olympic squad.
The world Jewish community continues to rally around the team. The Jewish National Fund helped launch a fundraising campaign called “Be the 25th Player,” which offers opportunities to join the team at the minicamp or at exhibition games. The fundraiser, which is ongoing, has raised close to $300,000.
While Major League Baseball players won’t be in the Olympics, professionals from the pro leagues in South Korea and Japan (two of the best leagues in the world) will be. That makes the task Israel is facing an even more daunting one. But the team has overcome daunting obstacles before.
“We’re a bit of a scraped-together team,” Cramer acknowledged. “Guys are at different parts of their career,” including some who haven’t played at a high, professional level in years.
But Cramer sees the team’s underdog status as an advantage.
“You can’t really have less pressure than Team Israel playing baseball at the Olympics,” he said. “There are no expectations — no one in their life ever thought they’d be at this moment. Everybody can play so loosely and freely.”
Added Wagman: “We don’t have maybe some of the history and some of the names that some of the other teams do. But, realistically, we’re quite confident in the team that we have. We’ve overcome a lot just to get here. And in my experience, that’s the most dangerous team to be.”