Kinsler to rep Team Israel in Olympic Games

March 15th, 2021
Ian Kinsler at the Israeli baseball federation academy in Petah Tikva, near Tel Aviv.

tapped the clay off his spikes and glared coolly toward Rays reliever Andrew Kittredge. The 8,299th plate appearance of his career came in the ninth inning at Petco Park on Aug. 12, 2019.

Kinsler’s familiar profile -- pants slightly baggy, pulled up to the knees -- belied the story we couldn’t see: His Major League career was about to end.

Ten months earlier, Kinsler won a World Series ring with the Red Sox. He was then part of the Padres’ Opening Day double-play combination -- alongside the debuting Fernando Tatis Jr. -- but by this August night, the four-time All-Star was batting in the low .200s and didn't enter the game until the ninth for his first career pitching appearance.

The Rays led by eight runs as Kittredge moved ahead with two quick strikes. Kinsler, a baseball traditionalist to his core, surely appreciated what came next: a 96-mph fastball at the top of the zone. The 37-year-old unleashed his trademark bat whip. The ball landed in the left-field seats for his 257th Major League home run. Among second basemen this century, only Robinson Canó and Chase Utley have more.

The homer bumped Kinsler’s career hit total to 1,999.

The round number never arrived.

The next hitter -- Tatis -- struck out. San Diego lost, 10-4. Soon afterward, the Padres placed Kinsler on the injured list with a herniated disk in his neck. He never played in the Majors again.

Kinsler had a contract with San Diego for 2020, but he retired before Spring Training and joined the organization as a special assistant. His last competitive swing would be a home run.

Or so he thought.

In July, nearly two years after Kinsler played what he thought would be his final game, he’ll be back in uniform at the pandemic-delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

Kinsler won’t play for Team USA, with whom he won a gold medal at the 2017 World Baseball Classic. He will represent Israel, after gaining dual citizenship a little more than one year ago.

“To play for Team USA was an enormous privilege,” Kinsler told in a recent interview. “I think every kid growing up in this country would dream of wearing the Team USA jersey and winning a gold medal. For me, the World Series is the only thing that could measure up to it.

“There’s also a huge sense of pride in competing for your heritage with Team Israel. It’s a different experience and a unique opportunity, to represent both countries that have made me who I am.”

Ian Kinsler (right) with Jordy Alter at the Good Samaritan Museum, en route to the Dead Sea.

Israeli law provides that anyone with one Jewish grandparent is eligible for citizenship. Kinsler has Jewish ancestry on his father’s side of the family.

Two of Kinsler’s paternal great-grandparents, Benjamin and Rose Kunstlich, were born in Germany and immigrated to the United States in the 1930s to escape the rising antisemitism in Europe prior to World War II. Benjamin and Rose anglicized their last name to Kinsler by the time their son, Jack, was born in the U.S.

Jack and his wife, Hana, had three children, including Ian’s father, Howard, who worked as a prison warden while Ian grew up in Tucson, Ariz.

Ian was in college when his grandfather died in 2001. The stories of what Jack and his parents endured before -- and during -- World War II went largely untold while he was alive.

“He would change the subject whenever it came up,” Ian said. “I only knew what I’d read about in school, because our family usually stayed away from talking about it.”

Over a 14-year Major League career, Kinsler played in -- and traveled to -- cities with notable memorials and museums dedicated to Holocaust remembrance. He never entered one. That changed in January 2020, when he and his wife, Tess, visited Yad Vashem in Jerusalem during his weeklong trip to Israel.

“I overstayed the time they gave me to spend there,” Kinsler said. “It was so moving. That was a very emotional day for me.”

Even before taking the field in Tokyo, Kinsler’s experience fulfills the vision of Israel baseball federation president Peter Kurz: To represent Israel at the Olympics, one must have an Israeli passport. To obtain the Israeli passport, a non-native Israeli travels to the country -- thus making aliyah -- in accordance with the Law of Return. And to undertake the journey invites deep contemplation about one’s family story and place in the world.

“Guys played baseball all their lives and never really connected with this part of themselves,” said Kurz, a New York native who has lived and worked in Israel for the past 32 years. “By making the physical journey to Israel, they also make an emotional journey into their past, and that really ignites something.

“This is not just another national baseball team. It’s made up of players who are connected by a common past, often persecuted, but sometimes championed as well.”

Ian Kinsler (center) in Jerusalem last year with Danny Grossman (left) and Peter Kurz (right).

Kinsler remembered following Israel’s games from afar during the 2017 Classic. Israel went 3-0 in Group A and defeated Cuba in the second round before falling one victory shy of the semifinal.

In September 2019 -- one month after Kinsler played his final game in San Diego -- Israel earned its Tokyo bid by winning the European Olympic qualifying tournament in Parma, Italy.

After Kinsler announced his retirement from Major League Baseball a few months later, he accepted Kurz’s invitation to join an Israeli Olympic roster expected to feature numerous Jewish Americans with MLB experience: pitchers Jon Moscot and Josh Zeid, catcher Ryan Lavarnway and infielders Ty Kelly and Danny Valencia.

Kinsler is healthy again after he underwent cervical spine fusion surgery that utilized a bone graft from his hip. He’s progressing through a normal routine of offseason training, even as he begins his second year as a Padres adviser, and he expects to start baseball activities next month near his home in the Dallas area.

For now, the Israeli team is staying connected and building relationships over Zoom calls.

“In baseball, we always talk about team chemistry and how quickly it can develop,” Kinsler said. “When you have those common roots, it’s an instant connection.”

Team Israel has training camps scheduled in the U.S. beginning in May, leading up to the first game of the six-team Olympic tournament on July 28. Japan qualified automatically as the host nation; Mexico and South Korea won bids through tournaments. Team USA will make its second effort to earn a spot at an Americas qualifying tournament, likely in June.

Kinsler hit the only home run in the 2017 World Baseball Classic gold medal game, an 8-0 U.S. victory over Puerto Rico. This summer, he could become the first player in baseball history to win the Olympics, World Series and World Baseball Classic.

For Kinsler, the pursuit of Olympic gold is only part of the reason he’s putting on the Israeli uniform. Especially after visiting the baseball academy at Baptist Village in Petah Tikva, near Tel Aviv, he’s thinking of the children who will be watching from afar.

“Youth baseball is a huge passion for my dad,” Kinsler said. “We’ve talked about what it would mean to both of us to see baseball really take off in Israel.

“My goal is to medal, create a buzz for baseball in Israel, and inspire young people to play. That’s the ultimate goal that I have.”

In the Majors, Kinsler spoke his mind as easily as he turned double plays. He’s become increasingly reflective in retirement. A new, abiding connection to his heritage is part of the reason. The yarmulke he autographed for a fan in Boston has added significance now, along with memories of kids calling out from the stands, “Hey, Ian! I’m Jewish, too!”

Tess wants to take another trip to Israel. The Kinslers are discussing a unique time to do it: just prior to the Olympics, amid the uncertainty surrounding whether family and friends of athletes will be permitted in Japan due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. Ian would travel on to Japan while Tess and their daughter and son would remain in Israel.

Given the scope of Kinsler’s ambition, it’s fitting for his family to watch the Olympics with the Israelis whose hearts and minds he’s hoping to win. Baseball would have three new ambassadors in Israel: Tess, 12-year-old Rian and 9-year-old Jack, who has his great-grandfather’s name.