Team Israel Sets Its Sights High for Upcoming World Baseball Classic; ‘We Hope Fans Will Be Proud of Us,’ Pitcher Says
by Barney Breen-Portnoy
Team Israel is setting its sights high for the upcoming World Baseball Classic in March, one of the squad’s pitchers told The Algemeiner this week.
“Our goal is to win all our games,” 29-year-old right-hander Josh Zeid — a current free agent who played in the Major Leagues for the Houston Astros in 2013 and 2014 — said.
As a member of Pool A of the tournament, Team Israel will travel to Seoul, where it will face South Korea on March 6, Chinese Taipei on March 7 and the Netherlands on March 9.
If it finishes first or second in its pool (one of the tournament’s four groupings), Team Israel will advance to the second round of the tournament in Tokyo — scheduled for March 11-16. The championship round will take place in Los Angeles on March 20-22.
“The bracket we are in is a very, very good bracket,” Zeid — a New Haven, CT native — said. “Every team has a handful of Major Leaguers on it; they’re all going to be good. But our expectation is to win our bracket and go from there.”
Last Tuesday, Zeid returned to the US after a week-long visit to the Jewish state with nine other Team Israel members — all current or former Major Leaguers, including Ike Davis, Ty Kelly, Ryan Lavarnway, Sam Fuld, Cody Decker, Jon Moscot, Corey Baker, Jeremy Bleich and Gabe Kapler.
For Zeid — who was raised as an observant Conservative Jew — the trip was his first to Israel.
“It was unbelievable,” he said. “It was a life-changing experience to finally, after years of wanting to, being able to go and see everything that I had read about, studied as a kid and prayed about and to.”
“Being Jewish has always been a source of pride for me,” Zeid noted. “I’ve never shied away from explaining, telling or talking about what I believe in.”
Zeid and his teammates were in Jerusalem when the deadly Jan. 8 truck-ramming attack took place. “That was kind of shocking,” he said. “But we never felt unsafe.”
“I actually think what surprised me the most about Israel was how everyone kind of lives side-by-side so well,” he went on to say. “Everyone said hi and talked to us and it was a really great experience for all of us.”
A self-described food lover, Zeid said his favorite Israeli dish was shakshuka. “I couldn’t eat enough of that,” he noted. “Shakshuka, with some challah and tahini, what more can you want? I would go to sleep and wake up early just so I could get down to breakfast and have some. I could live in Israel, food-wise.”
World Baseball Classic rules allow players to compete for any countries in which they qualify for citizenship. This enables Israel to draw on the talent of non-native Jewish athletes who are eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.
Israel narrowly missed out on making the 2013 World Baseball Classic — won by the Dominican Republic — when it fell 9-7 to Spain in a winner-takes-all final game at a qualifier tournament in Jupiter, Florida in September 2012. Israel did not seek to qualify for the 2006 or 2009 World Baseball Classic events — each of which was won by Japan.
“We were devastated when we lost [in 2012],” Zeid said. “We were a good team then, but now we’re significantly better. Everyone is very proud to be on this roster.”
“As one of the originals, to see how this has grown and now that we won the qualifier [in Brooklyn last September] and get to go to South Korea, it’s exciting,” Zeid continued. “We hope Israelis notice the effort we’re giving and that they’re proud of us.”
During their recent Holy Land visit, which was organized by the Israel Association of Baseball, Zeid and his teammates took part in a number of events — including the ground-breaking of a new field in Beit Shemesh — meant to promote the sport in a nation where soccer and basketball reign supreme.
“When there are only legitimately, I think, three baseball fields in an entire country, there is certainly a way to go,” Zeid said. “But the baseball-related events we did were incredible. The outpouring of support and the passion and desire the kids had to want to play and to want to watch and support us makes me believe baseball is going to grow exponentially in Israel in the coming years. One of the more rewarding parts of the trip, besides seeing the religious sites, was talking to the kids and teaching them about the game.”
Zeid’s personal goal for the World Baseball Classic is to “pitch better than I’ve ever pitched before.”
“There are going to be 25,000 fans at the games banging drums and blowing horns and going crazy, which makes it harder than the Major Leagues, where you can’t recreate that atmosphere,” Zeid said. “That only happens in the World Cup of soccer. So it’s going to be a very intense atmosphere and the games are going to be really, really tough. We just have to go in there, ignore the noise and have fun.”