Born and raised in the East Bay Area town of Danville, Joey Wagman learned early on in life that becoming a professional athlete was something he wanted to pursue as a career.
He even started rolling a baseball around him before he could even walk, Wagman’s father said.
Wagman’s mother kept a letter he wrote to his “future self” when he was in first grade, in which Wagman proclaimed his desire to become a major league baseball player for his hometown team the Oakland Athletics.
Wagman, who pitched for Cal Poly Baseball from 2010 to 2013, nearly accomplished that dream when the Athletics signed him to a minor league contract in 2014. The Chicago White Sox drafted Wagman a year prior in 2013.
“I was always the guy that wasn’t supposed to be there,” Wagman said. “I was always the under-recruited guy, the not-prospect guy, but that always kind of gave me the drive to prove everybody wrong.”
Video by Eric Villalpando
Despite becoming a “journeyman” within the minor league system and not fulfilling his dream of playing Major League Baseball, Wagman refused to give up and said he welcomed the idea of occupying the journeyman role.
“It takes a lot to be a journeyman, so I actually take pride in that,” Wagman said.
Wagman then stepped into playing international baseball for team Israel upon hearing the Israel Association of Baseball was constructing a roster to qualify for the 2017 World Baseball Classic, an international baseball tournament featuring a plethora of major league talent from all parts of the world.
He then earned his dual Israeli citizenship in October 2018 to compete for team Israel and qualify for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Team Israel earned a spot in the Olympics by winning the six-team European and African Olympic qualifying tournament back in September 2019.
Prior to the baseball team’s qualifying tournament, Israel fielded only three Olympic teams in the nation’s history which dated back to the 1950s and 1960s.
The club’s accomplishments allowed players born outside of Israel, like Wagman, to establish a relationship between their country and the Israeli citizens who wanted to learn more about baseball. Aside from three primary baseball parks located throughout Israel, the majority of baseball games are held on soccer fields that are converted to baseball fields.
“There is a small contingency of youth in Israel that love baseball and really want to get better, but it’s just those numbers are really small,” Wagman said.
The team’s success also allowed the players to serve as baseball diplomats in Israel, which is something Wagman said he and the other players in the club talk about often.
“It comes up in conversation all the time,” Wagman said. “We can kind of be those ambassadors, those groundbreakers for the game of baseball in Israel and give these kids in Israel someone to look up to and try to usher in the game to a place that doesn’t really have it.”
The long-term goal to build up baseball in Israel is on standby, as the COVID-19 pandemic forced the International Olympic Committee to postpone the event for the first time in their history. The Tokyo Summer Olympics is scheduled to start in July 2021. However, the postponement did not rattle Wagman’s spirit as he recognized there are more pressing issues beyond baseball, he said.
“We were not going to be able to move forward the way [competition] was supposed to, and if all I have to do is wait another year and then it’s truly the Olympics like it’s supposed to be, then it could be a whole lot worse,” Wagman said.
Much like the adversity he has endured throughout his career, this pandemic will only serve as another bump in the road in the baseball journey of his journey, Wagman said.