D.J. Sharabi capped his high school career at Burlingame by getting the start on the mound and earning the 7-4 win in the 2010 Central Coast Section Division II championship over a Palo Alto squad that came into the game riding a 24-game winning streak.
Eleven years later, Sharabi has a new career highlight: being a member of the Israel national baseball team and a spot in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Team Israel begins play July 28 against South Korea before taking on Team USA the following day.
It was a quick turnaround for Sharabi, who went from contemplating retirement from independent baseball to not only a earning a spot on the Israeli national team, but to being a key cog in the team qualifying for the Olympics.
“It’s been a great journey, but I understood you have to be patient and I have to go through the hard work that goes with it,” said Sharabi, a 29-year-old, 6-foot, 220-pound right-handed swing man. “I was near quitting (while playing) in Sonoma. … But I didn’t. I went from Sonoma to, four months later, being an Olympian.”
While the journey has a been a lifetime in the making, it didn’t become a reality until 2019 which was then put on hold in 2020. Sharabi was playing for the Sonoma Stompers, a member of the Pacific Association — an unaffiliated, independent league based in Northern California. The Pacific Association made national headlines in 2015 by becoming the first league to use a computer system to call balls and strikes in a game.
As Sharabi contemplated quitting baseball, he had an opportunity to move on to a more respected independent league, the American Association, joining the Cleburne-Texas Railroaders. While playing for the Railroaders, one of his teammates was already a member of the Israeli team. After playing with Sharabi, his teammate talked him up to a Team Israel teammate, who happened to play in the same league.
To make a long story short, Sharabi got the call from Team Israel and earned his way on to the squad. To qualify, however, Sharabi needed to have Israeli citizenship.
No problem. His dad was already an Israeli citizen and his mother was also Jewish. Sharabi said it took only a couple of days to get the paperwork signed, sealed and delivered.
“Prior to the that (2019) season, I saw that Israel was getting players to get (Israeli) citizenship because baseball was back in the Olympics,” Sharabi said. “I had been trying to get on Team Israel from when I was 19 years old. Before this Olympic season, during the qualifiers, I forced my dad to help me get citizenship before I was even on the team. I felt this was my chance.
“I’m close with my (Jewish) culture. (Getting Israeli citizenship and playing for Team Israel) was important to me.”
Even though Sharabi got the call up to the Israeli national team, the team still had not qualified for the Olympics. The team had raised eyebrows by qualifying and finishing sixth at the 2017 World Baseball Classic. In 2019, with Sharabi on the roster, Team Israel qualified for its first-ever appearance in the European championship, as Sharabi appeared in four high-leverage situations as Israel stunned everyone in winning the tournament and qualifying for the Europe/Africa tournament. Again, Israel beat everyone’s expectations, winning that tournament to become Israel’s first Olympic-qualifying team since the 1970s.
“We really shocked everyone, that’s for sure,” Sharabi said.
During those tournaments, Sharabi became the team’s workhorse and a pitcher capable of relieving and starting. He closed out Israel’s win over the Netherlands in the Olympic qualifying tournament before starting the next game against Czech Republic.
“I see myself in the back end of the bullpen,” Sharabi said. “But I’ve pitched in relief and then two days later, started.”
Then came the pandemic of 2020 that put the world on hold, including the Olympics. Because of the delay, it enabled the Israeli federation to continue to try and improve the team, which led to the arrivals of former MLB players Ian Kinsler and Danny Valencia. So despite having secured a spot in 2019, Sharabi was never under the illusion his job was secure. Instead of focusing on the negatives of pandemic, Sharabi went to work, appearing in 28 games for the Sioux Falls-South Dakota Canaries.
“Honestly, it seems like you always have to keep your job and always have to fight for it. It can be taken away from you,” Sharabi said. “For me, I’ve always been the underdog. … I’ve always been an under-the-radar type guy. But I prepared a lot and worked hard when people weren’t looking.
“When the pandemic hit and I figured this is more time to be better. More time to work harder.”
It’s that attitude, more than anything else, that led Sharabi to Team Israel and the Tokyo Olympic Games. It would have been easy, years ago, for Sharabi to give up the dream of playing Big League baseball, which has always been the ultimate goal. Injuries have derailed Sharabi along the way — he pitched his senior season at Burlingame with a torn elbow ligament and did not get surgery until he was at College of San Mateo.
After rehabbing that injury and transferring to San Jose State University, he suffered another setback with an elbow strain with the Spartans, then earlier this year, spent time recovering from a hamstring injury.
Through it all, Sharabi kept battling back. Battling back to play at the lowest levels of professional baseball because he is not ready to give up on the game.
“I’m still doing it. It’s crazy. A lot of people quit right away, but I understood you had to be patient and work hard,” Sharabi said. “At the end of the day, I’ve always loved baseball. I always say I want to make it to the Big Leagues. That’s my dream. My goal is to play as long as I can. As a pitcher, I feel I have 10 more years to get that shot.”
Meanwhile, Sharabi and Team Israel will take a shot at a medal in Tokyo, where the squad will not just be a “happy to be here.” The Associated Press predicted Israel to win the bronze medal — behind Japan and the United States.
Sharabi has an attitude of, “Why not us?”
“Any team can win. It’s about who plays best on that day,” Sharabi said. “It’s one game. It’s going to be intense and every pitch is going to matter, for sure.”