In 2012, there was finally a stage for Jewish professional baseball players to come together and complete on a national platform. A roster of Jewish players represented the country of Israel in the 2012 World Baseball Classic Qualifiers in Jupiter, Florida. Right-handed relief pitcher Josh Zeid — who was then a member of the Houston Astros’ organization — was one of the players selected to pitch for Israel in 2012.
“I was pretty excited the first time they asked me to play,” Zeid said. “I’ve always been very proud of my religion. I’ve always [worn] a Star of David or a Chai, I had a Bar Mitzvah and went to Hebrew School three days a week as a child.”
When young, it’s very common for Jewish kids, like Zeid, to play sports competitively through their local JCC (Jewish Community Center). The New Haven, Connecticut native prided himself on playing with other Jewish ball players, saying that he “had to jump at the offer.”
Team Israel made it all the way to the finals of the qualifier after two wins over South Africa and Spain. However, in this modified double-elimination bracket, a single loss to Spain in the finals eliminated the Israeli side and sent the Spanish side — which was made up mostly of players who had ancestors from Spain and Cuban players that had defected and resided there. The player that picked up the loss in the final game? Josh Zeid.
“I felt like I let the team down in 2012 getting the loss in the championship game in extra innings,” the 29-year-old right-hander said.
Qualifying pools came out in the fall of 2015 and Israel got placed in the final qualifier in Brooklyn, New York — which was comprised of Great Britain, Brazil, first-time participant Pakistan and Israel. Coming into the qualifier, Israel was viewed as the favorites, due to many players having major-league experience on their roster and the qualifier taking place in a city which has a rich Jewish population.
Zeid again pitched in relief for Israel — recording a 1.35 ERA in 6 and 2/3 innings out of the bullpen — as he was part of the squad that bulldozed their way to a perfect 3-0 record and a spot in Seoul, South Korea in March.
“Besides knowing that we would have a really good team and group of guys with a lot of potential, I came back for redemption,” he said when he was asked to come back and pitch for Israel in the September qualifier. “Getting to play and pitch in meaningful innings and advance our team from the 2016 qualifier had been a huge goal for me individually before the tournament.”
Players who have previously participated in the World Baseball Classic have appreciated their selection to their national squad, as they’ve said there’s noting like playing for your county. When playing for Israel, you’re also playing for your religion — Judaism.
“Like I said earlier, I’ve always been very proud of my religion,” Zeid said confidently. “Being able to play on a team with like-minded individuals in a tournament that has so much at stake is really a great opportunity.”
He praised the Israeli Baseball Federation — which put together a professional league of their own in Israel in 2007 but folded after one season — saying that it is “full of great people who are very passionate about baseball and expanding baseball’s reach in Israel.” The team’s success in 2012 and 2016/2017 is helping the organization “gain funding and following and proving that hard work and passion will finally pay off,” Zeid added.
Zeid has has two incredible experiences pitching for Team Israel in 2012 and 2016, as he cited the players on the team as being awesome to play with. He again noted that the team was obviously excited to qualify for the main tournament in 2017, but that the real magic will start in Seoul in 2017.
“The 10 of us who were on the team in 2012 knew the pain of losing and we did our best to relay to the guys in 2016 that it was more than just a game,” he said. “The guys all pulled together and everyone played with big time passion and that’s why we won.”
As mentioned before, Team Israel had a huge advantage over the other nations due to their extraordinary fanbase that they had in Brooklyn. A spectator there myself, it was like no other sporting event ever experienced before by myself.
“The fans in Brooklyn were unbelievable,” Zeid noted. “Families flew from Israel to watch us play and people drove from all over to see us give all we had.”
Zeid said it would obviously be great for Israel as an up-and-coming baseball nation to enjoy success in the World Baseball Classic in the spring.
“It would mean a lot for the exposure for Team Israel,” he said. “It could really jump start the [Israel Baseball Federation] into building more fields and being able to supply all the kids who want to play with the right equipment for them all to be successful.”
Success would not only be beneficial for the country, but for the players on the roster. Many players — including Zeid — are still trying to find spots on rosters.
“For the players on the team to have success in the tournament could mean lots of exposure for minor leaguers or free agents who might still be looking for jobs,” he mentioned.
Israel does have current and former major-league talent on their roster, as well as future guys that could crack a big league roster, so they have a shot at making some noise in Seoul. They will be competing against the likes of the Netherlands, South Korea and Taiwan. However, the team believes that they have a valid chance and it all starts with confidence.
“You can never go into a tournament without confidence or else their is zero chance of a positive outcome,” Zeid said. “I do believe we have a chance, because we will have (I believe) 8-10 guys with major-league experience and a lot of other players who have played in Double-A and Triple-A. That amount of experience will be hugely beneficial but it’ll still be a challenge too because our bracket is very, very talented. It’ll be lots of fun and we can’t wait to get out there and see what we have.”
Zeid and the rest of Team Israel will suit up in the opening game of the WBC, as they will take on host nation Korea at 7:00 PM local time (5:00 AM ET) on Monday, March 6.