Over 70 players from the Israel baseball Enrichment Program were treated to a special practice run by former Atlanta Braves center fielder Andruw Jones on June 10 at the Baptist Village. Visiting Israel on vacation, Jones, 41, made a special effort to come and coach the local players. He was visiting with friend and sports agent Orlando Cepeda Jr. Currently serving as Special Assistant to the Braves General Manager, Jones focuses on working with kids around the world, and on developing the sport.

Born and raised on the small Caribbean island of Curaçao, Jones was only 16 years old when he signed with the Atlanta Braves organization as a free agent in 1993. He debuted with the Braves in 1996, and in the World Series that year, Jones became the youngest player ever to hit a home run in the postseason, and the second player ever to homer in his first two World Series at bats. He added a long list of achievements in his 11 years with the Braves, including 5-Time All-Star (2000, 2002–03, 2005–06); 10-Time NL Gold Glove Award Winner (1998-2007); leading the majors with 51 home runs in 2005; NL Silver Slugger Award in 2005, NL Hank Aaron Award as the league's best offensive player in 2005; and many more. Between 2008 and 2012 he played for the LA Dodgers, the Texas Rangers, the Chicago White Sox and the New York Yankees.

Jones also played on the Netherlands national team in 2013 the World Baseball Classic and was a bench coach for Team Netherlands at the 2017 WBC. He fondly recalls that Team Israel 2017 manager Jerry Weinstein was his coach in junior college in 1989-90.

During his trip, he spent time in Jerusalem, the Dead Sea and even at the border with Syria. He and Orlando were excited by the local food, especially the hummus. Jones even hinted that he is looking forward to coming back to Israel.
During the practice, he shared his knowledge and experience, working one-on-one with the players and focusing on the fundamentals. He also answered players’ questions during a Q&A and signed every last autograph.
After the practice, Jones was positive about what he had seen. “There’s talent, I can see the passion in their eyes to get better. They listen and are willing to learn. Some are raw and some have it. It’s about being patient, helping them, and preaching the eight thing so they can understand the game.” He is optimistic about the Israel Baseball trajectory: “If they keep playing, one day there will play a player (from Israel) in the major leagues.”

Once again, the Israel Association of Baseball will be offering 4 weeks of ‎summer vacation baseball this year. All sessions will take place at Kibbutz Gezer:

Week 1: July 1-5‎, 8:30-13:30
Week 2: July 8-12‎, 8:30-13:30
Week 3: August 5-9‎‎, 8:30-13:30
Week 4: August 12-16‎, 8:30-13:30‎

Registration is now open - go to "Summer Training Camps". Early bird specials apply for those who register before June 1, after which the prices will be adjusted. Sibling discounts of 10% apply.

The camps are open to players from minors through juniors (ages 8-16)‎. Players can join for all or any of the weeks. Players will have pool time every day.

The staff will include top ‎coaches from our ‎organization.‎ This is an excellent way for ‎players to increase their skill levels and have a lot of fun in the process. Bring along friends and family, as the camps are a great opportunity for new players to ‎gain baseball knowledge before starting to play for the first time.‎

For more information, email Justin Peedin - justin@baseball.org.il 

 

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.Josh portrait

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.Josh Nick

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

Josh KoreaOn 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.Josh

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 camelJosh 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…!”

Next Steps

Zeid halloffameWhile 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.”

Assaf Lowengart is doing his service in the IDF as a sportsman representing baseball. Recently, as part of his program, and supported by the IAB, he traveled to the US on a whistle-stop trip to train and seek new baseball opportunities. Now he is back in Israel finishing his army service and continuing to work on his baseball. In additoina to being in the army, Assaf coaches the Under 14 National Team as well as the Israel Baseball Academy. He told us about what he did at each stage of his trip.

Stockton: First stop was in Stockton, California. I practiced for 2 weeks at Delta College, and every day that I was there, I was able to practice with Dean Kremer, a member of Team Israel WBC, the Senior National Team and currently playing in the LA Dodgers organization. I learned a lot from the coaches at the college, both about hitting and fielding, as well as some team defense strategies that I will try to incorporate in my U14 National Team and my Academy team for this upcoming season. Practicing with Dean was a great experience, talking to him and learning first hand about the life of a pro baseball player. Delta’s Head coach talked to me in the end of my stay and has invited me to join the team next year.

Seattle: My second stop was at the Driveline Baseball Academy in Seattle. I practiced there for two weeks, hitting and pitching. The Avademy is small hub for baseball players where minor leaguers, independent ball players and some MLB pitchers practice with college and high school guys. They teach the younger players based on their own experience. It was an awesome experience! I learned a new swing technique which is the “new” swing in the baseball world. There is currently a lot of debate surrounding this new swing, but I’m happy I learned it. I also I learned some new workouts with weighted balls for arm care and strength, which I will teach pitchers in Israel. This leg of my trip ended with Tweets from Jason Ochart, the director of hitting at Driveline (see below), which restulted in three more college coaches reaching out to me about the option of coming to play at their college. 

Cypress: The last stop was Cypress College in California, where I practiced for a week and a half. Cypress was in the middle of the season playing three games per week, so I didn’t get as much practice time as I would have liked, but  I did get to experience an in season mentality, which was benefical to understand. During the games I did warmups and BP, and during the game I sat on the bench with the players. As with Delta Collage, Cypress’ head coach and his assistant coach talked to me in the end of my stay and told me my strengths and weaknesses. They invited me to join the team next year.

Back to reality now, I am working on starting my college career as soon as possible as I am already three years older then the players there. In addition, I am sharing what I learned in the US with the players here, and I hope this will show results in how they play.

I would like to thank the IAB for helping me making this trip happen. As you can see I achieved a lot and learned so much that I can share with the players and coaches in Israel. 

View the embedded image gallery online at:
http://www.baseball.org.il/en/news-blogs/news#sigProId5796cb6aaf

 

In the recently published World Baseball and Softball Confederation (WBSC) rankings for 2017, Israel Baseball moved up a massive 22 places to 19th in the world. We chatted to Peter Kurz, President of the Israel Association of Baseball, about this and other great successes in Israel Baseball last year.

Israel rose 22 places in the 2017 world rankings to 19th place in the world. What were the factors that contributed to this rise?
One of the most important factors was the success of Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic where we came in 6th place in the WORLD, ahead of countries such as Cuba, Venezuela, Canada and South Korea. After sweeping the Qualifiers in Brooklyn in 2016, we miraculously swept the first round of the WBC tournament in Korea, defeating Taiwan, Netherlands and host South Korea. In the second round in Japan, we defeated Cuba, but then fell to the Netherlands and Japan.

But just as importantly, Team Israel finished second in the European Championships in Belgrade in July and our U12 and U14 teams finished in first place in tournaments in Italy. Although these Italian tournaments aren’t “official” WBSC tournaments, they do show the dominance of Israel baseball at the youth level.

What were your Israel Baseball highlights for 2017?Belgrade
No doubt it was our showings at the WBC and European Championships, and even though at both tournaments we fell short of winning, we did reach the highest pinnacles that Israel baseball has ever reached. In fact, Israel’s 6th place finish in the World Championships, is the highest plateau EVER reached for any Israeli National team, in ANY sport. And it’s no mistake that it happened in baseball.

We also hosted the 2017 Maccabiah Baseball Tournament, which was a great success, with Team USA taking gold. We were fortunate to have Seattle Mariner Robinson Cano visit our Enrichment Program. He spent time talking to our playing and also showed his skills at bat.

At the same time, I still get a thrill when an 8-year-old’s face lights up when he successfully throws his first strike, or one of our Academy players makes a perfect play under the direction of Richard Kania, our constantly smiling coach from Czech Republic, or one of our IDF Sportaim as he hits a double into the gap at a Premier League game. Those are the real highlights for me and they happen every week in the IAB.

What impact did Israel’s great success at the WBC have on baseball in Israel?
The players who agreed to play for Team Israel WBC, guys including Sam Fuld, Ty Kelly, Jason Marquis, Ike Davis, Ryan Lavarnway, Josh Zeid, all had incredible experiences that they will remember all their lives, and that they still talk about on social media today. The visit of the 10 MLB players in January, and their intense enthusiasm at performing in the Baptist Village in Petah Tikvah for all the kids, hitting Team Pichome runs, signing autographs, taking selfies, was awesome and spread throughout the association. Our performance in Korea and then Japan meant a lot more media coverage with each win, from newspapers, radio, TV, nightly news shows – exposure that we wouldn’t have had any other way. There’s no-one in Israel today who can say they haven’t heard about Israel baseball unless they spent March in a cave!

The result was that we got a lot of new kids wanting to play and there is a definite increase in Israeli interest in baseball. There’s also serious interest from American Jewish players who want to be in a team that can compete in the Olympic qualifiers in 2020 with a team of Israeli passport holders.

You’ve been IAB President for 4 years and previously you served as Secretary General for 8 years. What have been the major changes you’ve seen over these years?
First off, the number of players. When I started we had less than 400 and today are close to 1000, so I think that’s an Maccabiah2017achievement.
I also think the professional level of play has improved dramatically. Today we have the Israel Baseball Academy, we have much more IDF sportaim. The coaching and umpiring has also improved dramatically, and we bring in many visiting coaches to give clinics, and coach teams and coaches.

There is a lot more buzz, more media coverage and a lot more knowledge of baseball in Israel. Awareness of Israel Baseball among the baseball community in the US and among the Jewish community is much greater today. 

President of the IAB is a volunteer position. What motivates you to dedicate so much time to this demanding role?

I LOVE it. I LOVE baseball, I LOVE watching the kids and adults play and love bringing something meaningful to the youth of Israel. It means a lot to me to be a trailblazer and I want to see the first Israeli play in the MLB! I also feed off the other volunteers, on our Executive, our Board and our coaching staff.LeagueWinners2017

What can we expect in the coming years for Israel baseball?
The MOST important thing is in 2018 to build two new fields! If you build it, they will come is not a cliché but a way of life for me. That our the most important mission right now and it will happen this year in Bet Shemesh and Ra’anana.

We are also looking to add more players and leagues, locations and fields, coaches and umpires. We want to send more national teams to international tournaments, and our goal for the Senior National Team is to win the European Championships B pool, place in the top 5 in the A pool, and reach the Olympic qualifiers.
My goal is to have 2,500 players in the IAB by 2021.

And finally… your favorite MLB team and favorite player? Cano 1
New York Mets of course…no favorite players, just anyone who was ever a Met!!

 

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