Robb Paller’s journey began in early December 2018. It included two trips to Israel, a long process to get his citizenship and three rounds of Olympic qualifying over the summer of 2019.
The Brooklyn native and former star outfielder at Columbia was just months away from heading to Tokyo to represent Israel’s national baseball team, a group that was set to make history as the country’s first team to compete in the Olympics since 1976.
Late last month, however, that dream was extinguished for the time being when the Summer Games were postponed until 2021 because of the global coronavirus pandemic.
“You work your butt off preparing for the biggest stage in sports,” Paller, who helped Columbia reach two NCAA Tournaments and was an All-Ivy League first-team selection as a senior in 2016, said in a phone interview. “It took a few days to regroup mentally after the announcement.”
Paller wasn’t complaining about the decision. He stressed the importance of everyone’s health. He’s a New Yorker and has seen how badly this virus has hit his home. Sports, he said, come second.
Still, it was a bitter pill to swallow. Paller put his professional dreams on hold to play for Israel after spending the time since he graduated from Columbia playing in independent leagues like the Frontier League, United Shore Professional Baseball League and Canadian American Association of Professional Baseball. Al the while, he gave hitting lessons and worked for the Player Development Systems in Philadelphia.
In December 2018, Israel coach Eric Holtz sent Paller a direct message on Instagram, asking on simple question: “Are you Jewish?” Holtz’s son, Brett, had played for Columbia while the 5-foot-11, left-handed-hitting Paller was there, and the coach thought he would be a strong addition to the team.
To be eligible, Paller had to get his citizenship, a process called “aliyah” in Hebrew. It included a massive amount of paperwork, an FBI background check and a letter from a rabbi. After a five-day trip to Israel with a few teammates in April 2019, he was set. The team returned to Israel again in January after qualifying for the Games to run a few clinics, meet Israeli president Reuven Rivlin and spread the word.
“It was mixed. A lot of people didn’t know there was even baseball in Israel,” Paller said. “There were so many people thanking us, welcoming us. They were super proud we made aliyah to represent Israel in the Olympics.”