(This is Part One of a two-part article in which we speak with members of Team Israel, soon to play in their first World Baseball Classic in South Korea, as well as the documentary film being produced that follows team members on their visit to Israel and how it impacts each of them.)
As Team Israel prepares to head to Seoul, South Korea, for the first round of the 2017 World Baseball Classic, there is a sense of pride and camaraderie among teammates that cannot be described simply as nationalistic pride.
It's true that all but one member of Israel's roster was born outside of Israel. However, all of them share a bond that isn't defined by borders or cities on a map. Each member of this team shares a heritage with roots deep in the history of the country they represent. On this worldwide stage, they will face off against the best national teams in a true “world series.”
In a year in which Israel is fielding a potent roster, the memories of their bitter loss in 2012 still lingers with some who were there.
Israel was in the same pool as France, South Africa (making their second WBC qualifier appearance) and the aforementioned Spain. That first Israeli team had beaten South Africa to advance to the second game of the qualifier in a modified double-elimination tournament. Winners from Game 1 would match up in Game 2, while the losing teams would do the same. Then, the winner of the elimination game played the loser of the non-elimination game in a “win or go home” scenario.
The two teams remaining would have a one-game playoff to move on to the WBC. However, because the first two qualifying rounds took place during the MLB season, the teams in those rounds would have to play the tournament without players who were active on a ML roster, and this cost Israel many of their veterans (Kevin Youkilis, Ike Davis, Ian Kinsler, Jason Marquis and Craig Breslow, just to name a few.)
Still, with players like first baseman Nate Freiman (.417 with 4 homers in 12 AB), OF Joc Pederson (.308), second baseman Josh Satin (.273) and shortstop Ben Orloff, all players who were among their respective organizations' top prospects, as well as retired outfielder Shawn Green (.333), Israel won the preliminary game vs. South Africa on the strength of Freiman's two homers, catcher Charlie Cutler's three RBI and a literal team effort on the mound, with Eric Berger, Bret Lorin and Josh Zeid combining for seven scoreless innings. Freiman's first home run came off of Dylan Unsworth, currently a prospect of note in the Mariners' system.
In the semifinals, Israel faced Spain for the first time. Former Giants' prospect and RHP Justin Schumer gave the team 5 2/3 of one-run ball, with righty David Kopp (2nd rd. pick for St Louis in 2007) following up with 2 scoreless innings and Rangers' lefty Richard Bleier closing out the 7th inning. Zeid closed out the ninth, allowing one run on a double by Spain's catcher Adrian Nieto followed by two ground-outs, picking up the save in the process.
The following day, Spain came out strong against South Africa, eliminating them from the qualifier 13-3. They would face Israel in a deciding third game.
On September 23rd, with Berger once again starting for Israel, Spain scored four runs off of eight hits in 3 1/3 innings. Israel had scored two in the first off of an RBI single by Green and an extra base taken by Freiman when Spain's third baseman Jesus Golindano deflected a grounder into left field, then RBI by Decker in the third and three runs forced in (HBP, BB, BB) in the bottom of the fourth.
Spain would add three more to Israel's one, leaving the score tied in the ninth inning, when Zeid would take the mound once more. After a scoreless ninth, Spain finally broke through in the top of the tenth when shortstop Yunesky Sanchez knocked in two runs on a single to center field. In the bottom of the inning, Israel could not answer.
Cody Decker, the self-proclaimed “Anti-Hero”, remembers all too well. For the serious fan, Cody Decker needs no introduction. A man of many interests, Decker spent the off-season running trivia nights at Brü Haus in Los Angeles and feeding his obvious interest in film (as evidenced by his YouTube channel.) Drafted by the San Diego Padres in the 22nd round in 2009 out of UCLA, Decker has seen time at every stop from rookie ball to Triple-A with ten different minor-league teams in three different organizations.
Decker spent a good portion of the last two years with his bags packed: he was out-righted off the 40-man roster by the Padres in November 2015, signed by the Kansas City Royals in December, traded to the Colorado Rockies four months later, released, signed by the Red Sox in June 2016, became a free agent this past fall, and finally signed by the Brewers.
A veteran of 867 minor-league games over eight seasons, Decker can launch bombs; his 173 homers over that time-span would attest to that. Primarily a first baseman, he has spent a little time at third, left and right field, catcher, and even two appearances on the mound. He gives the impression that he is literally willing to play anywhere, if it's good for the team.
Having worked at catcher with coach Pat Murphy while at San Diego, Decker is now looking to make it a permanent switch. Having just turned thirty, time would seem to be against him. Still, a catcher with a power bat isn't exactly common in the pro ranks.
His presence on Team Israel's roster gives them added power and versatility in the field. Decker is fiercely proud to be a part of this history-making group of players for the WBC.
“Originally in 2010 I heard a rumor that they were thinking of adding Israel to the World Baseball Classic,” Decker recalls. “That was my second year of pro ball, and I said, 'that sounds awesome!'” And I asked if I would be eligible to play for them. I thought it would be an amazing opportunity.”
There were early doubts as to whether the team would be formed, however. “I thought that maybe it was a pipe dream; I didn't know it was actually going to happen,” he remembered. “So I reached out to just about everybody possible, trying to find out if it was going to happen.
“And then I heard that (then-Padres manager) Brad Ausmus was going to be the manager. So I immediately sent him an e-mail, because he was in my organization at the time,” Decker added. “And I told him, 'Hey, Brad, I don't know if you know this, because I know the name Decker doesn't sound like it, but I'm Jewish,” he said. “My uncle was born in Israel. Would I be eligible to play?”
It wasn't long before Decker had his answer. “He immediately called me and told me, 'you're on the team.”
Decker's reply: “I am?”
One can understand his surprise, but Ausmus had been doing his homework; he already knew which players would be eligible for Team Israel, and had made a list of those players from which he could choose.
“I almost get emotional when I think about it, winning that first game to move on,” said Decker, taking a deep breath. “It kind of ended in heartbreak for us, unfortunately, but when it came back around (2016), I think the guys who did it last time had a chip on their shoulder, wanting to get this done and move on together.”
It was a loss that stuck with Decker, as well as a number of others on the team. “It was a tough loss, for it to go like that,” he continued. “I understand the format being what it is, but when you lose a game to a team you already beat, there's something about that that just didn't sit well for, well, about four years.”
This team had an awareness about it that there was more involved for them than just baseball. “We've all been able to experience some great things in the game, but for some reason, there was something different about that,” Decker remembered. “Maybe it was just the pride of us all being Jewish ballplayers because, you know, there aren't a whole lot of Jewish ballplayers.
“Getting to share that victory together...it was nothing short of special.”
The stage doesn't get any bigger than this, a fact not lost on Decker. But to represent a country that is often inseparable from a belief held dearly in the hearts of so many of its citizens is something else, altogether.
“It's unique,” he said, “but that's not to say that everyone in this tournament doesn't have a strong sense of pride in their country.”
He hesitated for a moment. “I'm sure a lot of our guys have dealt with a certain amount of antisemitism, at some point, on or off the field. And there's something about all of us coming together, all being in the same boat like this, that just seems slightly different.
“But maybe I'm just biased because I'm in it,” he offered, as a counterpoint.
“And I can't begin to tell you what it was like to actually be at the Western Wall,” said Decker, effusively. “To be there with all the people praying, and to know that all those years we weren't even allowed to come to this wall, it just all hit me like a ton of bricks.”
Decker admits, without reservation, “I walked away in tears.”
With so many players returning to this tournament's roster for Israel, the pressure is still on, but there is a history and a team chemistry built on the experiences of the first qualifier that makes it easier to handle. In the 2016 WBC Qualifiers, Israel beat Great Britain in their first game 5-2, then played a very closely-fought game vs. an ascending Brazil program, 1-0, before finally defeating Great Britain 9-1 in the deciding game. Home runs from outfielder Blake Gailen, catcher Ryan Lavarnway and third baseman Decker accounted for five of the nine runs. Marquis and Zeid combined to hold GB hitless through seven innings.
“In this past year's qualifier, getting that first run out of the way (vs. Great Britain), we were able to just relax a little bit, take a deep breath,” Decker said. “I think some of us had a little bit of PTSD about it, getting to the 4th inning, still tied, waiting to score that first run (in the fifth)” he laughed.
RHP Josh Zeid understands that feeling very well. A 10th round pick by the Phillies in 2009, the 6'4” Mets prospect has in the past been called one of the best in the nation, he's been a South Atlantic League All-Star, and he's been named the best reliever in full-season Class-A ball. He was part of the trade that sent Jonathan Singleton, Jarred Cosart and Domingo Santana to the Astros for Hunter Pence, and he rode his mid-90's heat and wipeout slider all the way to the big leagues in 2013.
On July 30th, Zeid made his first ML appearance against the Baltimore Orioles, getting the last two outs of the 8th inning in a 4-3 Astros loss. He would post a respectable 3.90 ERA in 27 2/3 innings for Houston that season. He made another 23 appearances in 2014 for the Astros, though foot problems led to inflated numbers and eventual surgery (6.97 ERA, 6 home runs allowed) and was waived in November. While the Tigers would claim him, he was optioned to Triple-A Toledo to start 2015.
His 2016 season began with the New Britain Bees in the Atlantic League, an unaffiliated league based primarily in New England. Zeid says it was a wake-up call, and readily admits that there were times in the previous couple of years that he felt he had “arrived”, so to speak.
“It was a pretty steep fall, definitely,” Zeid remembered. “Coming off of 2013, 2014, I had to have two different surgeries (removal of sesamoid bone, both feet), then 2015 came and I was let go by the Astros, then picked up by the Tigers. And to prepare for getting back to the majors, I think I sped up my recovery too much. I had just been signed by Detroit and I wanted to be ready for spring training, when in all reality I probably could have taken another month to get ready and still had the same amount of time (to return to the ML roster.)”
There was more to things than the injuries. Zeid remembers that it was a shock to him to be playing indy ball. “But I got to live at home with my parents for the first time in ten years,” he added, laughing.
Zeid has since signed with the New York Mets, returning to Triple-A ball and becoming a likely addition to the ML relief corps in 2017.
Along with Decker and seven other players, Zeid had the opportunity to make the trip to Israel in 2016. “My sisters had gone about ten or twelve years ago. My parents had gone, my friends,” he mentioned. “It's a trip that I think everyone should make. It's such an incredible experience. Just to be able to see the Dead Sea, to see the Western Wall, the mountain at Masada, the Room of the Last Supper and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. There are things that you only dream about seeing, and then to see them and touch them and be there...” Zeid paused for a moment. “To be there with friends and ball players, together?” He laughed to himself. “It's pretty incredible.”
“And the team!” Zeid is quick to mention the expectations he and others hold for this roster. “This is not just 'Well, it's a bunch of Jewish boys on the team. Let's wait and see how they do.' No, we expect a lot from this team.
“I mean, ten current or former major-league players and a lot of high-level minor-league prospects? We have high expectations for this team.”
While he mentions the dearth of Israeli-born players, he also reminds us, “While there were one or two Israeli players on the team four years ago, we had a couple of coaches who were Israeli as well,” Zeid added. “And we have a couple of Israeli-born players who played professionally on the team, this time (Dean Kremer and Shlomo Lipetz).
“The ultimate goal is having Israelis on the team, having them make a serious impact. And once that happens, then the game in Israel is going to take off,” said Zeid. “We had two events here in Israel, and there were hundreds and hundreds of people there. So the game is going to grow.”
Another pitcher who will likely play a key role in this year's WBC, Kansas City Royals prospect Jake Kalish has been working his way up the ladder for only two years now. However, he has shown little difficulty in adjusting to the pro ranks.
Drafted in 2015 in the 32nd round, Kalish made it to the High-A Wilmington Blue Rocks last year, where he went 3-0 with a 2.97 ERA over 36 1/3 innings (18 appearances). Working as a reliever through nearly all of his 37 minor-league appearances, Kalish has walked only 16 in 81 1/3 innings while striking out 85 batters and giving up a paltry 58 hits.
The Shrewsbury, New Jersey native is likely to bolster the Team Israel 'pen, and the lefty will be seeing time on the biggest stage possible. Kalish is, like many others on this team, unfazed by that notion.
“In July, I was approached by one of the Royals' analytical department guys, who was actually working on the roster for the qualifiers in September,” Kalish recalled. “My brother (Ryan) was supposed to play for the team a couple of times, but it didn't work out because of injuries.
“I was supposed to play in September, but I had a shoulder injury myself so I couldn't play then.”
Kalish had no hesitation. “Two years into my pro career, I had the opportunity to play for Israel and I jumped on it. I couldn't have been more excited.”
“Obviously, being on the world stage is something new,” he admitted, “but it's nothing that I'm going to shy away from.
While religion didn't play a large part in his childhood, Kalish remembers it was still important to him on a personal level. “My mom is Catholic and my dad is Jewish,” he said. “Growing up, we celebrated Christmas and Hanukkah. We tried to incorporate both religions into our family.”
While faith plays a different role for each member of this team, it unites them all in their core beliefs. Even more, for the players who made the trip to Israel, it has had an unexpected and perhaps even life-changing effect. This tournament will stimulate interest in the game of baseball with native Israelis, as well as demonstrating what it means to be a Jewish athlete in the 21st century. One very well-known baseball writer has spearheaded the effort to bring a first-hand account of Team Israel's journey to the WBC.
(In Part Two, we speak with the coach of Team Israel, American Baseball Coaches Association HOF Member and current manager of the Double-A Hartford Yard Goats Jerry Weinstein, as well as MLB.com's own Jonathan Mayo, who is working to complete a documentary film on Team Israel's experience and its greater significance to the Jewish community.)