In early July, shortly before Major League Baseball’s All-Star break, an erstwhile four-time All-Star suited up for the Long Island Ducks, an independent league team best known as a guinea pig for experimental rule changes.
Ian Kinsler hadn’t played a competitive baseball game in nearly two years. In that time, something had been lost. When a ball was hit to short right field, the two-time Gold Glove second baseman ran back for it like he always had, but the catch never came.
“My eyes are telling me I should be able to catch that easily. But I just keep going and I just don't have the same ... I don't cover the same ground,” he said a few days later.
That’s age for ya. The older you get, the harder it is to outrun it.
Kinsler hadn’t resisted that reality when it came for him in 2019. After a 14-year career, he retired from MLB with one year left on a contract with the San Diego Padres, moving from the field to their front office as a special assistant with no regrets.
“Playing Major League Baseball is very difficult,” Kinsler said. “It grinds you down mentally, physically, and when you leave it, you look back like, ‘Man, that's really freakin' hard.’ And then when you come back and try to do it again, it's an out-of-body experience. Like, how did I even do that for that long period of time?”
Kinsler found that he relished retirement, the chance to give his body a break and spend more time with his family. So then why bother with unaffiliated batting practice in 90-degree heat when he could be drinking a beer by the lake, enjoying his summer like he never could?
“Peter Kurz, the general manager, called me in the offseason after I retired,” Kinsler said. “He must have seen in the news or something that I retired. He called me and asked me if I want to play in the Olympics.”
Kurz is the general manager of Team Israel — a job that often entails scouting for Jewish baseball players to supplement a squad that gained international attention after going from being ranked 41st overall in the world to a surprising contender in the 2017 World Baseball Classic.
Kinsler played for Team USA in that tournament, but he couldn’t help but notice Israel’s surprising Cinderella run to sixth.
“There was a buzz around them,” he said. “They were playing good baseball and it was fun to watch.”
Two years later, when Kurz called to see if Kinsler was interested in joining an Israeli team that had just qualified for its first Olympics (and first team ball sport appearance since 1976), “that influenced me on saying yes right away.”
That made him the headliner on a roster with just a handful of native Israelis representing a country where it’s estimated only 1,000 people play baseball. But a big part of the goal is to grow that number.
“That's the motivation, that's the excitement that I have — to make the country aware of this sport, and to really love it and really latch on to it,” Kinsler said. “Because that's what I know: baseball. I don't really know much else.”
To qualify, Kinsler had to go to Israel and obtain dual citizenship. He and his wife went in March 2020. They arrived just hours before the country started to quarantine all new arrivals. Even with the world shifting around them, it was an “eye-opening” trip that awakened Kinsler to his heritage. He talks eagerly of going back — a week next time, or maybe two; once every two years, or even annually, to host baseball clinics or camps.
But first those plans were put on hold, along with the rest of the Olympics. When the Games were postponed a year, Kinsler was a little relieved. He went to Idaho for the summer, watching baseball on TV because it’s necessary for his new job with the Padres and because his son loves it and because he still does, too.
That’s not the same, though, as standing in the box. Which brings us back to Long Island, where Kinsler spent a short stint shaking off the rust, retraining himself to see pitches, and confronting the fact that some skills, like explosiveness, are never coming back. All so he can fly to Tokyo to play a maximum of six more games.
I start to ask him something, pause, and say I don’t want to call the Olympics his “last hurrah.” But Kinsler cuts me off.
“Yes. It is. One hundred percent. My knees are killing me. My hips are killing me. I’m not doing this again,” he said.
“You know, 10 years ago I would have told you, ‘Yeah right, I'm gonna play until they rip the jersey off me.’”
But that was before everything started to take a toll — the miles he put on his legs and the inevitable effects of pushing 40, of course. But also the pressure of understanding the big picture, worrying about whether a reliever was going to get sent down if he bobbled a ball, worrying about whether that reliever has a family. Big league baseball is a prideful man’s game, and it’s a grind that will run right over you as soon as you lose half a step on your sprint speed.
“But now that it's over, this is a little bit of closure, I guess,” Kinsler said about the Olympics. “I'm just trying to embrace it and enjoy it as much as I can and win some games. Just have fun.”
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