2020 Olympics Watch
The first time I watched Jeremy Wolf hit a baseball was in 2016. He was the slugging leftfielder for Trinity University in San Antonio. I was at the game because one of Trinity’s relief pitchers sleeps down the hall from me. (He’s my son.)
Actually, I was impressed by Wolf before he even came to bat. His walkup song was “Helter Skelter” by the Beatles. I had to ask him, “How do you even know that song? It was recorded 26 years before you were born.” Wolf said, “My mother was a Beatles fan and played their music all the time when I was growing up. I’ve loved the Beatles my whole life.”
Wolf, a senior that year, was named Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference Player of the Year, and Trinity won the D3 World Series, the first Texas school to take the title. Wolf was drafted by the New York Mets and played two years in the minors before a back injury cut his career short … but not for long.
This year, injury-free, Wolf is an outfielder on the Israeli national baseball team. They’ve already survived three preliminary tournaments in their quest to play in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. The team is competing this week in the final Europe-Africa qualifying tournament in Italy. Six teams are entered, with the winner gaining automatic entry to the Olympics.
Unlike most sports, only six countries will play baseball in the Olympics: one from the Americas, one from Europe/Africa, two from Asia, and two at-large teams to be named later.
The Israeli team is 2-0 in the Europe/Africa tournament, with a shutout win over Spain and a shocking 8-1 blowout of reigning Europe champion, The Netherlands. Games remain against the Czech Republic, Italy, and South Africa. Win them all, and come Sunday night, Israel will be headed to the 2020 Olympics — an amazing feat, considering that Israel has only one baseball diamond, and the team doesn’t play games regularly, in fact, rarely practices together.
Wolf is one of 10 U.S. players, including three former Major Leaguers, who became Israeli citizens this year in order to be eligible for Olympic qualifying events. I caught up with Wolf shortly after The Netherlands stunner.
CultureMap: Where do you live now?
Jeremy Wolf: I’m living in Tel Aviv. I will be there for the next six months or so, possibly a year. Saturday nights here are epic. It’s like Miami, very relaxed. I live a block from the beach. The cost of living in Israel isn’t crazy. My total internet and phone bill is about $30 a month. Food is cheap but there are little things, like deodorant and toothpaste, that cost double what they cost in the U.S.
CM: Tell me about becoming an Israeli citizen.
JW: The Olympics require that athletes be a citizen of the country they represent. The process for a Jew to become a citizen of Israel is called Aliyah, the law of return, and usually requires being in Israel for a year. The process for us was simple, we got an athlete’s exemption. I have two passports and dual citizenship now, U.S. and Israel.
CM: What’s been your biggest adjustment to living in Israel?
JW: The time zone difference when I call family back home. I’ve had to adjust to Israeli norms, things like crossing the street at the right time or how much to tip at restaurants. I’m trying not to stand out. I want to look and act like another Israeli.
CM: Do you feel like a temp employee or an Israeli?
JW: I feel comfortable knowing everyone is Jewish. Even though I’m half-Italian, I’ve always identified more as a Jew. But now that we’re in Italy this week, I’m telling everybody that I’m half-Italian. Identity crisis is a real thing.
CM: Do you miss U.S. television and watching Major League Baseball games every night?
JW: What’s television? Everything is streaming. I don’t have cable, so I watch nothing on their television. I do, however, listen to ... music playlists on Spotify.
CM: Are the other teams in the Olympic trial tournaments like the Israeli team — they don't practice or play regularly?
JW: The Netherlands does. Their players are full-time employees of the sporting federation. They’re really good. When we played Russia, half of the players were professionals, including some Cubans. The Netherlands, Italy, and South Africa have baseball leagues.
CM: Do Israeli kids play baseball? Is there a Little League there?
JW: There is a Little League. But the only real field is 30 minutes outside of Tel Aviv. It’s like a regular Little League like you’d see in the U.S., with different age groups and teams. Most of the kids are American or Japanese who know about baseball already. The game is starting to grow with more Israel-born athletes, though.
CM: Israelis don’t eat like Americans. Have you changed your diet?
JW: Hummus with a side of hummus. Everything is fresh and Mediterranean. I eat eggs and rice for breakfast every day. I feel better now.
CM: What does Israel need to do to grow the sport?
JW: With money comes players. The government needs to do a better job allocating more money to baseball. Making the Olympics will do amazing things for Israeli baseball. We will be representing Israel on a global stage. In the meantime, I’m working with young Israelis, doing camps, and coaching high schoolers in Tel Aviv.
CM: If the team doesn’t play games or practice regularly, how do you stay baseball sharp? Are there batting cages in Israel?
JW: We don’t practice together because there are too many guys to get to the same place, and then another place. Not enough money. Baseball shape is interesting because you can’t practice repetitions. I wish there was a baseball facility in Tel Aviv, but not yet. To stay baseball ready, I exercise regularly and throw a heavy, weighted ball against a wall to keep my arm healthy. If I need to hit, I travel to the field. But for me, hitting is like riding a bicycle.
Ken Hoffman is a columnist for CultureMap Houston.