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From Chukar to Israeli baseball team

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We can say without fear of contradiction that the Idaho Falls Chukars haven’t quite ascended to baseball’s fields of heaven just yet. How could they? As a minor league baseball franchise, they play in Idaho’s Eastern league, as far away from the hotbeds of United States (US) baseball as it’s possible to be. (To give you an idea of where Idaho is, roughly-speaking, San Francisco lies 1 300km to the south west, while Salt Lake City is three-hour drive due south. To all intents and purposes, Idaho Falls is in the middle of nowhere.)

Playing out of Melaleuca Field in Idaho Falls itself, the Chukars count as their regional rivals in the Pioneer Baseball League the Billings Mustangs and the Missoula Paddleheads. Once upon a time, they were called the Spuds, before being re-named the Russets. They’ve also been called the Braves, the Angels, the Eagles, and the Padres before the club owners finally settled on calling them the Chukars in 2007.

Their mascot is called Charlie the Chukar, a chukar being a pheasant like game bird not unlike a grouse. They are much-loved but little known, although things in this regard are changing very slightly for the better.

This is because one of their players, a young New York investment banker by the name of Eric Brodkowitz, used his experience pitching for them in the minor leagues as a springboard to becoming a member of the Israel baseball team. Brodkowitz thought he had played his last game of competitive baseball in 2018, when he pitched for Yale in a losing cause in an Ivy League game against Columbia. He had given the sport his best shot, and was now off to Goldman Sachs in Manhattan. Baseball was something he’d tell his grandchildren about.

Fate had other ideas. Watching from the stands that day, was Eric Holtz, whose son played for Columbia but who, more importantly, was the manager of the Israel baseball team.

After the game, Holtz approached Brodkowitz. He liked his fast-ball very much, he said. Brodkowitz thanked him politely. Then came Holtz’ pitch, “He was Jewish, right?”

Intrigued and irritated in equal measure, the 25-year-old pitcher replied that he was.

Holtz sketched a proposition. Israel was forming a baseball squad to take to the Tokyo Olympics in a couple of years’ time. Would Brodkowitz be interested in taking out Israeli citizenship? More importantly, was he prepared to chase the dream? An arduous qualifying campaign in places as far afield as Lithuania, Bulgaria, and Germany beckoned. Oh, and before he forgot, would Brodkowitz be prepared to ask his employers if they could allow him to work remotely. Holtz rather fancied a furlough in Idaho with the Chukars would be good for Brodkowitz’s fitness and pitching arm. What did he say?

Brodkowitz said yes to all of the above as Israel set about gathering up a baseball team, mainly raiding the minor leagues of the US for Jewish players who weren’t yet Israeli citizens. During their odyssey, they have trained like demons, bonded like they didn’t believe they could, and beaten far more fancied teams like Sweden, Italy, and the Netherlands. And they qualified for Tokyo with more than a year to spare, becoming the first Israel team to qualify for the Olympics in a team sport since 1976.

Truth be told, very few are expecting the Israelis to get a medal, but stranger things have happened. There are only six competing teams in the competition itself (the hosts, the US, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and South Korea) so Israel have to be in with a shout. Their first two matches this week (South Korea on 29 July) and the US a day later, will be crucial if Brodkowitz and his colleague are going to get any traction on the competition.

Baseball has a chequered Olympic history, a sport never quite sure of its foothold on the event. It was introduced as an official Olympic sport only at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, with Cuba taking gold from Taiwan (Chinese Taipei) and Japan.

Cuba again won gold four years later, this time being followed by Japan and the US. The sport, however, hasn’t been included since the Beijing Olympics in 2008, not appearing in either London or Rio, so the Israelis’ qualification as the world’s 24th-ranked team is even more remarkable. It also has to be one of the stories of the games, full of the once-in-a-lifetime romance that Hollywood moves are made of.

Brodkowitz wouldn’t have it any other way. “I thought my baseball career was probably over,” he told the Wall Street Journal’s Andrew Beaton in talking about the punishing loss to Columbia when pitching for Yale in 2018. That was three years ago, and so much has happened in-between. Perhaps there’s a chapter or two left for the pitcher and his team.

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