Josh Zeid

Original Article Published on The JNS

For Team Israel and members of the media who spent three tense, very exciting nights at Maimonides Park in Coney Island, N.Y., back in September 2016, July 11 was a true homecoming.

Team Israel played a Sunday afternoon game against the FDNY (Fire Department of New York) in Brooklyn, N.Y.—at the same stadium as the miracle games of 2016—before embarking on a series of exhibition games on the East Coast that will then see them fly to Tokyo to compete in the Summer Olympic Games. Israel will face Japan, Mexico, South Korea, the United States and the Dominican Republic. While their medal chances are uncertain, the 24 players on the Olympic roster could not be more excited.

In 2016, nobody took Team Israel seriously as they played in the World Baseball Classic qualifiers. That began to change after they defeated Great Britain once and Brazil twice, and advanced to “Pool A” in South Korea in March 2017 against South Korea, Taiwan and the Netherlands.

Team Israel proceeded to battle through the World Baseball Classic and won the 2019 European Baseball Championship. By finishing in the top five, Israel earned the right to participate in the 2020 Olympics qualifiers. As the winner of that tournament, Team Israel qualified to be one of six national teams to compete in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, however, the 2020 Olympics were postponed to July 2021, where, being that COVID remains an issue in Japan, they will largely take place without fans and with players living in a bubble reminiscent of the NBA bubble in Florida in 2020.

Nevertheless, July 11 was a day for nostalgia and celebration for the journey and for what Team Israel represents for Israel and the Jewish people. The 12 pitchers, three catchers, six infielders and three outfielders are mainly American-born players of Jewish descent, although there are some native-born Israelis on the team. In order to represent a country in the Olympics, a player must be citizen of that country; thus, all members of Team Israel hold citizenship. Some are former Major Leaguer Baseball players with extensive MLB or Minor League experience.

Team Israel (again) playing at Maimonides Park in Coney Island, N.Y., on July 11, 2021. Photo by Howard Blas.

‘Crazy, rewarding, hard, fun, tough’

Pitcher Shlomo Lipetz, 42, was born in Tel Aviv, played college baseball in the United States and has been affiliated with Israel baseball for more than 30 years. At the World Baseball Qualifiers in 2017, the right-handed pitcher was the only native Israeli on the team.

Baseball and Team Israel have helped keep him focused throughout the pandemic. “The fact that I just keep playing the game kept me really sane while doing my day job,” he says.

Lipetz is vice president of programming for City Winery. He says he is proud of how far Team Israel has come since 2017. “It is no longer the underdog mentality—that we are just happy to be here. With the help of some of the big league guys, folks like Ian [Kinsler] and Danny [Valencia], I think that really helped change our mentality to something of ‘we belong here, and we can make some noise!’ ”

Pitcher Josh Zeid, 34, has played for the Houston Astros and is currently working for the Chicago Cubs in Phoenix, where he is the rehabilitation pitching coordinator. He also pitched for Team Israel at the 2017 World Baseball Classic, where he was named to the 2017 All-World Baseball Classic Team.

At the end of the WBC, Zeid thought his baseball career was over. As he looks back on the past four years, he says “it has been crazy, rewarding, hard, fun, tough, but it is crazy. We are standing here today in Brooklyn. Four years ago, we were all here. I thought my career was over at the end of the season. We had a swan song starting in Brooklyn; it is pretty surreal, pretty special.”

The right-handed pitcher uses a bright-blue mitt with the expression “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” inscribed in Hebrew. “My grandfather died six months ago, and these were his last words to me,” he reveals.

Zeid pitched the second inning of the FDNY game and struck out all three batters. “I am honored to play for Team Israel in the Olympics,” he says. “It’s a lifelong dream come true. I feel I have been blessed. Just putting in the work and care and effort to making sure this one comes true as well.”

Pitcher Joey Wagman, 29, was also all fired up to return to Brooklyn as part of Team Israel. Drafted by the Chicago White Sox in the 17th round of 2013 draft, he recalls, “The last time I was here was five years ago for the qualifiers, so it definitely brings back a lot of memories.”

Wagman did not play in 2020, though he resumed training with Team Israel teammate, Zach Weiss, when both lived in Southern California.

“I used the time to refine some things in my movement and delivery and shore up my mental game,” he relates. Over the past three months, Wagman has played professional baseball in the Czech Republic. “It was a different pace of baseball. After an 18-month layoff, it was a decent, relaxed environment, where I could control pitch counts and innings, and it served its purpose as prep for the Olympics.”

Of the opportunity to reunite with his teammates, Wagman says: “It has been years since I’ve seen all these guys—being together brings back so many good memories. There have been so many good memories with Team Israel in the past five years.”

‘We need to start playing some good baseball’

Danny Valencia is arguably Team Israel’s most accomplished player. Valencia, 36, has played for eight Major League teams, and had 795 hits and 95 home runs in 3,000-plus plate appearances. He says he is looking forward to representing Israel in Tokyo. “It is a really cool experience, and it is going to be an awesome memory for all of us.”

Valencia also knows what being in the Olympics will take, noting that “we need to start playing some good baseball.”

Valencia knows this Olympics will feel different due to COVID precautions. “Obviously, we will be in a bubble. There will not be many fans at the games, but it should be an amazing experience. We will be around a lot of great athletes. And we’re there to handle the job but also to enjoy the experience.”

Ben Wanger, 23, a right-handed pitcher, also serves as a designated hitter. His parents, David and Gwen Wanger—both clothed in “Wanger” jerseys—traveled from Newton, Mass., to Brooklyn and watched their son from behind the Team Israel dugout. While they’re unable to attend the Olympics in Tokyo, they dream of the day they will be able to visit Israel for the first time—and celebrate what they hope will be a medal for Team Israel.

Whether Israel ultimately wins gold, silver or bronze, the Wangers are practically glowing over the accomplishments of their son and his teammates—and of what the experience has done for everyone’s Jewish identity.

“The experience for these players, especially American Jews who made aliyah, has been incredibly enriching,” says David Wanger. “They are so much more attuned to their heritage, and they feel incredibly connected to Israel and to the Jewish people.”

The Wangers and the good-sized observant Jewish crowd that showed up in Brooklyn are praying that the miracle of Team Israel will continue. The team is off to a promising start with a 12-3 victory over New York’s bravest: the FDNY. Israel scored an impressive 12 runs on 15 hits, with the first run at the top of the sixth.

Team Israel in Brooklyn, N.Y., on July 11, 2021, before they are off to the Tokyo Olympics. Photo by Howard Blas.

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Adam Greenberg

NEW HAVEN – Even before Adam Greenberg made headlines a couple of weeks ago by signing a one-day contract with the Miami Marlins and swinging his bat as a one-day-only Major League Baseball player, the Guilford native was making the Connecticut Jewish community proud by stepping up to the plate for the State of Israel during the recent World Baseball Classic (WBC) qualifiers. And Greenberg wasn’t the only Connecticut native to do so – Josh Zeid, who grew up in New Haven, was right there with him.

It all began when Greenberg, who now lives in Branford, and Zeid were among those selected to Team Israel’s 28 player roster, which was managed by Brad Ausmus, the former Major League catcher who was born in New Haven.

Team Israel had a very strong showing in its first ever WBC qualifying tournament, held Sept, 19-21 at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla. The modified round robin format tournament featured teams from France, Spain, South Africa and Israel. Israel defeated South Africa 7-2 in game 1, and Israel defeated Spain 4-2 in its second game. Israel played Spain again in the final game of the tournament — the winner would advance to the main WBC tournament, to be held in March 2013. Israel lost a heartbreaker, 9-7 in ten innings, before a crowd of 1,500.

The World Baseball Classic is considered to be the premier international baseball tournament. Run by World Baseball Classic, Inc, it is sanctioned by the International Baseball Federation. Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Player’s Association together created the event, which has thus far been played twice. Team Japan, the reigning World Baseball Classic Champion, won the tournament in both 2006 and 2009.

Haim Katz, president of the Israel Association of Baseball (IAB) was excited when he was approached by the World Baseball Classic to “present motivation and a potential roster” for a team to potentially participate in the 2012 qualifiers. “Somewhat to our surprise, they accepted us,” notes Katz with a laugh.  “We would have preferred to play the tournament in Israel, but we have no field — we’re are working on it!”  Katz reports that there is an initiative underway to build a $5 million field and ballpark in Ra’anana.  The city has reportedly agreed to provide land and the Israel Sports Authority will pay $1.5 million; the IAB would be responsible for the rest of the funds.  Katz reports that he and the IAB have always sought to increase awareness of Israel baseball in the U.S. and Israel, to try to engage North American Jews around Israel baseball, and to build bridges with the U.S. and Israel.

Josh Zied pitching for Team Israel

Fortunately, Team Israel was able to reach far beyond the Jewish state’s borders for its pool of potential players. According to WBC tournament rules, countries are allowed to field players who are eligible for citizenship in a given country.  Thus, in Israel’s case, anyone eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return was permitted to try out for Israel’s team. In fact, only three Israeli citizens actually made the team. The rest were American Jews — like Zeid and Greenberg.

Adam Greenberg, interviewed by this reporter for a Dec. 1, 2004 Jewish Ledger article, attended Hebrew school and celebrated his bar mitzvah at Temple Beth Tikvah in Madison, excelled at baseball, soccer and basketball at Guilford High, and was a scholar/athlete at the University of  North Carolina.  In 2002, Greenberg was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the ninth round of the First-Year player draft.  He spent several summers in the Florida State League, then a Double A team in  West Tennessee, then a Triple A team in Iowa.

Greenberg’s promotion to the Major League Chicago Cubs was watched with great excitement.  He was called to the plate as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning of a July 9, 2005 game against the Florida Marlins.  Sadly, the now 31-year old was struck in the back of the head by a 92 mile per hour fastball in his first and only major league appearance. He suffered a concussion and many months of dizziness, headaches, double vision and nausea.

In recent years, Greenberg has gotten married, started Lu Rong Living, a dietary supplements company, and returned to playing baseball. Greenberg was invited by Manager Ausmus to serve as his special (non-playing) assistant for Team Israel.  When former Major Leaguer Gabe Kapler bowed out of the roster due to a groin injury, Greenberg was invited to join the 28-man roster.

Prior to the qualifiers, mother Wendy Greenberg reported, “I am so excited and proud of Adam—and even more excited that he is getting the opportunity to do what he loves to do. Adam loves the game. He plays his heart out and it shows!” After the first game, Wendy said, “I felt so many emotions—I was overwhelmed and proud—to hear Hatikvah played was just, wow! And when he had his first at bat, I had tears in my eyes.”

Adam Greenberg was pleased with the opportunity to be part of Team Israel and to play the game he loves. “I am honored to have this opportunity,” he said. “It is the start of part two of my career. It was such an amazing group of guys. They were all in it for the right reasons — it didn’t seem like we were only together for ten days.”

Greenberg is excited that plans are underway for a team trip to Israel—with possible clinics for Israelis. “It will change the game over there,” he noted.  Greenberg was excited “just wearing the uniform with the word ‘Israel’ across my chest. I have always wanted to go to Israel, but I haven’t been yet.”

Following the World Baseball Classic, Greenberg decided to stay in Florida to work out with his hitting coach and stay in shape.  While there, he found out that the Miami

Marlins would sign Greenberg to a one-day contract that would earn him his first and only official Major League at-bat on Tuesday, Oct. 2 against the New York Mets. While he struck out on three pitches against the Met’s ace, RA Dickey, it was a dream come true.

Zeid, 25, is a 6’ 5” pitcher who was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in the tenth round of the 2009 Major League baseball June amateur draft. Zeid just finished his season with the Corpus Cristi Hooks, a AA affiliate of the Houston Astros. Zeid’s parents, Ira and Karen Zeid, currently live in New Haven and are members of Congregation B’nai Jacob in Woodbridge. Zeid lives in Houston, Tex. with his fiancée, Stephanie.

“We are very proud of our son,” says Zeid’s mother, Karen Zeid, of her son’s participation on Team Israel. “As we watched the games from our home computer, we loved seeing Josh in his uniform, spectators wrapped in Israeli banners, Israeli flags being waved, Hava Nagilah being played between innings, the sense of cultural pride – the nachas and kvelling that goes deep into our hearts. When Josh became a bar mitzvah in the year 2000, he shared during his bar mitzvah speech that his dream was to play professional baseball. He also referenced his admiration for Sandy Koufax.”
Zeid was scheduled to go to Israel in 2001 to play in the Maccabia Games.
“Josh was the youngest player to be named to the U.S.A. Jr. baseball team,” Karen  notes. “Because of the unrest in Israel, all of the junior sporting events were canceled. This was a big disappointment as he had looked forward to playing and traveling in Israel. This was to be our first trip to Israel as well.”

Zeid has not yet traveled to Israel, but he did get several chances to play for Team Israel.  He pitched in all 3 games, got out of a tough inning with one out and two on against South Africa, and earned a save in Israel’s victory over Spain. Zeid  also pitched two innings in the championship game against Spain, Zeid’s size 13 New Balance game-worn cleats are currently listed on eBay, with half the proceeds from the sale going to charity.

(Source: http://www.jewishledger.com)

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