POMONA, N.Y.—Eric Brodkowitz’s baseball career was finished. He had just pitched his final game at Yale and had no pipe dream of playing in the big leagues. He was taking his talents to Goldman Sachs.
Then he received another job offer: pitching for Israel’s national baseball team.
He would have to become an Israeli citizen. He would have to travel to countries like Bulgaria and Lithuania just so the team could qualify for the chance to qualify for the Olympics. He would have to move to Idaho and pitch for an independent-league team to stay in shape. And there was no guarantee that he would make the team even if Israel did somehow make the Olympics.
He decided to do it anyway. And he never stopped working for Goldman.
“I’ve sort of proven that I can work effectively remotely,” Mr. Brodkowitz says from Team Israel’s practice stadium in Rockland County, N.Y., where the mostly American-born squad was based before playing a series of exhibitions in the U.S.
Mr. Brodkowitz embodies the wild and improbable journey that made Israel, a national baseball team ranked 24th in the world, one of the six in Tokyo after years of playing in empty stadiums and even a horse-racing track across the sport’s European hinterlands.
It was a minor miracle the Israeli national team even stumbled upon Mr. Brodkowitz, now 25 years old. He had just pitched in the 2018 Ivy League championship against Columbia in a game he could only describe as a “brutal” ending to his senior year. He allowed one run in seven innings. So did Columbia’s starting pitcher. Yale lost 2-1 in the 15th inning.
“I thought my baseball career was probably over,” he says.
But one of the parents in the crowd for that game happened to be Eric Holtz, whose son played for Columbia. Mr. Holtz had gone from coaching at Westchester Community College to managing Team Israel, and there was something about the Yale right-hander that caught his attention. It wasn’t just his fastball.
“Obviously, with the name Brodkowitz, I assumed he was Jewish,” Mr. Holtz says. He was. That meant he could qualify for Israeli citizenship, which meant he could play ball for Israel in the Olympics. (Such poaching isn’t uncommon for countries that want to enhance their showing at the Games.)
Mr. Holtz soon learned that Ben Wanger, the Yale first baseman who threw five shutout innings in relief of Mr. Brodkowitz, was Jewish too. Mr. Holtz was blunt as he explained to his two new players the convoluted and laborious climb facing the Israelis. First, they would have to win the European Baseball Championship B-Pool. Then they would have to emerge as one of the top teams in the actual European Baseball Championship. If they made it that far, Israel could go to the Africa-Europe qualifying tournament. And there one country would get a spot in the Olympics.
There was also the caveat that Israel had never even gotten out of the B-Pool.
“It was absolutely a long shot,” says Alex Jacobs, who works in the Arizona Diamondbacks front office and moonlights as Israel’s bench coach.
It’s one thing for someone to join an Olympic roster. It’s something else entirely to ask them to uproot their lives on a faint hope. Even if the team qualified for Tokyo, these players might not make the roster.
The first step, getting Israeli citizenship, was straightforward. Keeping his day job was harder. Mr. Brodkowitz, who works as an analyst within Goldman Sachs Asset Management, built his life around the Israeli baseball team’s schedule and never took a leave of absence. Using vacation days and squeezing work in during late nights and early mornings, he was part of the team that traveled to Bulgaria in July of 2019 for the B-Pool, where they stayed in a half-finished hotel.
It didn’t take long for this young debt banker to emerge as Israel’s workhorse. Mr. Brodkowitz threw a team-high 9.1 innings with 15 strikeouts, albeit with a 5.79 earned-run average, as Israel went undefeated against Bulgaria, Russia, Greece, Serbia and Ireland. That won them a trip to the playoffs in Utena, Lithuania, against the home team. In the opening game, on a field inside a racetrack where the announcer on the PA system explained the rules of baseball to the attendees, Mr. Brodkowitz threw three more innings without allowing a hit to get the save and help Israel advance to the actual European Baseball Championship.
Israel had just beaten a bunch of teams it was supposed to beat. But at the next stage, in Germany, it had to beat countries it wasn’t supposed to beat. This required luck and a bit of help from opposing countries that aren’t exactly famous for playing baseball.
In one game Mr. Brodkowitz started, Israel beat Sweden, 4-3, only after the Swedes blew a ninth-inning lead when their pitcher couldn’t throw a strike in a biblical downpour. (“There was some greater force looking down and willing that to happen,” Mr. Brodkowitz joked.) Israel also beat Germany in extra innings, only after a German runner on second base was thrown out at home on a ball hit off the outfield fence.
Those unlikely wins took Israel to the playoffs, where it came in fourth place, good enough to reach the promised land otherwise known as Africa-Europe qualifying.
That’s when something happened that nobody expected.
With an improved roster, Israel crushed the Netherlands and upset Italy. And suddenly they had qualified for the Olympics with nearly a year to spare.
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The pandemic then delayed the Olympics for another year. Mr. Brodkowitz became very good at working from home. He was so efficient as a remote employee that, even as vaccines became available and bankers returned to Manhattan offices, he got a thumbs-up from his bosses to do the exact opposite. He moved to Idaho.
Mr. Brodkowitz knew he had to pitch to have any hope of making the team that would go to Tokyo. So he joined an independent club called the Idaho Falls Chukars.
He had never been to Idaho when he moved into the basement of a house with five teammates. He threw a mattress on the floor and bought a desk, chair and monitor. The entire time he was pitching for the Chukars, he continued working his day job.
He was on his computer by 5:30 a.m. while his housemates slept for hours more. He would go to the field in the afternoon, typically get back around midnight from the game and do the same exact thing the next day.
Mr. Brodkowitz has been named an alternate for Israel in Tokyo, where the team will be a heavy underdog against the U.S., Mexico, the Dominican Republic, South Korea and favored Japan. Yet he figures the wild ride that took him from New Haven to Blagoevgrad to Idaho Falls was completely worth it even if he’s not added onto the roster: Israel somehow qualified, and he learned something along the way.
“It’s been a good experience in terms of time management,” Mr. Brodkowitz says.
Write to Andrew Beaton at email@example.com
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