In early April, former Houston Astros and more importantly, Team Israel WBC pitcher Josh Zeid announced that he was retiring from professional baseball. We chatted with him about his experiences with Team Israel.
Seoul, Korea, March 6, 2017, top of the 10th inning in the World Baseball Classic opening game between Team Israel and top ranked Team Korea in Pool A. Israel pitcher Josh Zeid is sitting to the side of the Team Israel dugout, alone, deep in thought, as his batters tried their best to capitalize on a meager one run lead, in a charged 2-1 game. The run batted in with two outs at the top of the 10th by Scott Burcham had edged them ahead, but the Israel batters couldn’t expand on the lead, leaving Zeid with everything to pitch for in the bottom of the 10th. A win for Israel here significantly increased Israel’s chances of making it to the second round of the tournament.
Anyone attempting to approach Zeid in those moments, would have been repelled by a force field of unadulterated concentration. His task was daunting – holding back the home team that had reached the final round of the previous WBC in 2013. The packed stadium was roaring in unison for their team to win. Zeid had the specter of a loss in the final game of the 2012 WBC qualifier looming in his memory – was the losing pitcher in that game, he took it personally. For Zeid, his part in Team Israel’s redemption at the 2016 qualifiers in Brooklyn was only one piece of the puzzle. Now, at the main event, this was his moment.
With a slender one-run lead in hand at the end of top 10 for Team Israel, the 1.93m Zeid glided onto the mound in the Gocheok Sky Dome. The crowds were screaming for Koren runs, the reverberating din was unstoppable. Zeid was unfazed. “What’s going through my head?” Josh thinks back, “I’ve worked so hard to get back to this position. So many games have been played since I lost the qualifier in 2012 and so much has happened just so I could play on this team again, that I knew this was my game. It didn’t matter if I went over the 50-pitch count, I was going to make the last out.” And he did.
The first Korean batter up Geonchang Seo lined out to shortstop Burcham for the first out. Jaewon Oh then drew seven pitches from Zeid before the strikeout. Two outs - Dae-Ho Lee faced four pitches for a 2-2 count before swinging and missing for Korea’s third out and a glorious victory for Israel. Zeid released his tension with a now-iconic roar, clenched fist and a run over to Team Israel catcher and close friend Ryan Lavarnway for an ecstatic embrace.
Zeid put up three scoreless innings. The bookies were in dismay – Israel had come into the tournament at 200-1 odds to win. This had all changed with Zeid’s final pitch. The global smirks and titters about Team Israel quickly turned into raised eyebrows and changed tunes. All at once, Israel was a force to be
reckoned with, and Zeid was a pitcher to take notice of.
He had only pitched 49 pitches, just one under the WBC’s limit, allowing him to pitch 3 days later against Netherlands. And, after an easy win against Chinese Taipei the day before, Team Israel won the Netherlands game too, swept Pool A and sent to Pool B in Tokyo in first place.
It was a triumphant tournament for all the Team Israel players. But after beating Cuba in an astounding first game of Pool B at the Tokyo Dome, Israel couldn’t keep the momentum going, losing to a revenge-seeking Netherlands and then to home team Japan. But its 4 wins placed Israel sixth overall. When the tournament was over, the WBC published it’s 2017 All-World Baseball Classic Team, a virtual roster of the top 12 players in the tournament. On the list were players including Yadier Molina, Eric Hosmer, Carlos Beltran…and Josh Zeid.
“Validation” was the word Josh uses to describe the feeling of being listed among the top 12 players in the world. “My career has been up and down to say the least. I got to live out a dream that millions of boys and men from all over the world have of playing in the Major Leagues. But even though my experience was awesome, I didn’t have the most successful tenure in the big leagues. And since then it’s resulted in losing my job on three separate occasions. But getting named to the All World Team made me feel like the work I’ve put in since I was 5 years old and the support that my parents and family and wife Stephanie have given me, was recognized. It was a moment I’ll never be able to top.”
Sharing the Experience
On and off the field, in the club house and wherever Josh went, he didn’t stop smiling and embracing the Team Israel WBC moments. “I loved every second of being on Team Israel. Being on a team of 28 players and coaches who all come from similar backgrounds and beliefs is truly a once in a lifetime experience.”
The Zeid/Lavarnway pitcher/catcher partnership spilled off the field and into their down time, from Brooklyn, to Israel, to Asia. “Meeting and becoming best friends with Ryan Lavarnway has to be one of my top moments,” he says. “The relationship we built off the field in New York during the qualifiers, and in Israel and Korea, led to me being an unbelievably confident pitcher on the mound and maybe doing more than I even knew I was capable of. It turned facing South Korea into a fun game, not stressful, and it made one of the scariest games in the world against Japan, an uphill battle, one that as a pitcher and catcher we were able to navigate pretty well for four innings.” In fact, Zeid threw four scoreless innings against Japan, his fastball hit 96 mph, and Israel held onto a scoreless fifth inning before Japan’s bats came alive for the 8-3 win.
Lavarnway, who was named MVP of Pool A, is enthusiastic about his friend and team mate. “Josh pours so much of himself into everything he does,” he enthuses about Zeid. “He makes you want to give your best in return. His passion is infectious. His baseball talent is obvious. And he is incredibly humble and competitive. He has a beautiful, wonderful family and they mean everything to him. He’s everything you could want in a friend and a teammate.”
Giving and Receiving
As a member of Team Israel 2012, 2016 and 2017, Josh is one of the stalwarts, along with a small group of players - Nick Rickles Shlomo Lipetz, Cody Decker and Nate Freiman. Josh’s part in the 2017 tournament was decisive, but he is quick to note that while he did contribute to the team, the experience benefited him as well. “Being part of Team Israel kept me playing. I didn’t play well in 2012 and parts of 2014, 2015 and even 2016,” Josh acknowledges, “but I refused to give up. I knew that I needed to represent Israel in the WBC and I had to earn my spot. So, I pushed and pushed until I knew I could be an important part of the team. Playing for Team Israel made me a better competitor and fighter in times when I thought I shouldn’t give up playing in between losing in 2012 and the next qualifier in 2016. I am so thankful for the whole team Israel Experience.”
IAB President Peter Kurz, who was also the General Manager of Team Israel in 2012, 2016 and 2017 says, “Zeid has been one of Team Israel’s All-Stars since 2012. With our loss in the final game of the 2012 qualifier weighing heavily on him, he set the tone for the team at the 2016 Brooklyn qualifiers when he gave the players the motivational speech of a lifetime, taking personal responsibility for what happened. He was looking for redemption and swept the whole team up in his fierce determination to win – and it worked.”
Zeid on Israel
Josh was born in 1987 in New Haven, Connecticut and grew up in a Jewish family, attended Hebrew school, and had a bar mitzvah. Zeid deepened his connection to Israel when he traveled to Israel in January 2017 with the group of 10 MLB and former MLB players, most of whom were to play in the WBC tournament. Joined by his wife Stephanie, he embraced everything Israel had to offer, from eating steaming hot rugelach straight from the oven in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehudah market, slathering himself with Dead Sea mud, haggling over souvenirs in the Old City, and signing autographs for hundreds of young Israeli baseball players (and their parents). He describes the trip as an eye opener. “I can’t wait to go back. Israel is a magical place and I can’t wait for baseball to become a national pastime there. My wife and I can’t wait to go back and learn more.”
As for the local baseball program, Josh was excited about what he saw when he and the rest of the players came out to meet the kids at a practice at the Baptist Village in Petah Tikvah. “The passion was outstanding,” he enthuses. “The kids love the game, they just needed more reasons to love the game they do. And hopefully we were able to give that to them.” When asked if he sees himself continuing to be a part of Israel Baseball, Josh modestly replies: “I hope so. If they’ll have me. Just because I’m retiring from professional baseball doesn’t mean I’m retired from baseball…!”
While Josh hung up his glove as a professional ball player in early April, he’s not leaving baseball behind. “I’m taking my time deciding,” he says. “I’m having fun helping kids play baseball at the local level, but I’ve got other things in the works too. So, the future will be fun.” He’s teamed up with fellow Team Israel player Nate Freiman hosting the live video app talk show “The Launch Angle” on Francred.com. As Zeid chats to Freiman about the topic of the day in the MLB, his Team Israel jersey is hanging up behind him, a continuing nod to his ongoing connection. He wears his connection to the team on his sleeve – his Twitter profile picture shows the clenched fist victory roar at the end of the Israel Korea game, and pinned to the top of his Twitter page is the picture of his Team Israel hat on display in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
And as one of the stars in the “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel” documentary that’s doing the rounds of the Jewish film festivals in the US and will be shown in Israel in May, Zeid has attended many of the screenings and participated in the panel discussions in several theaters around the US, where, he says he’s “sharing the once in a lifetime experience with anyone who will listen.”
“On the field,” say Kurz,” Zeid is an exceptionally talented pitcher as we all witnessed; off the field, he is one of the finest people you will ever meet. We wish him all the very best in the next stage of his career and life, and we look forward to Israel Baseball’s continuing close relationship with him.”