You could tell from the look of the group, mostly men, gathered in the lobby of Tel Aviv’s Royal Beach hotel on Wednesday that they were not a random collection of tourists. Everyone looked relatively young, physically fit and attractive.
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The men were members of a delegation of Team Israel baseball players, brought here by the Israel Association of Baseball for a weeklong trip. The 10 athletes will be part of the 25-player roster representing Israel at the World Baseball Classic in Seoul, South Korea, in March.
The group arrived aboard a Boeing 767 owned by billionaire Sheldon Adelson. Cosponsors of the trip include Jeff Aeder, founder of the Jewish Baseball Museum, and the JNF Project Baseball.
While it may seem odd that Team Israel players have never been to Israel, part of the purpose of the trip is to cement their relationship with the country and to give aspiring young baseball players their first opportunity to meet real baseball pros. Based on interviews with several players, however, it’s clear that it wasn’t for lack of trying that they never made it, but a combination of dedication to their baseball careers and unfortunate circumstances.
Josh Zeid, who pitched for Israel in both the 2012 and 2016 qualifiers, almost made it as a teenager, but got tripped up by the conflict. “I made the team for the World Maccabiah Games,” he said. “It was 2001 and it was the second intifada. The USA’s 18-and-under team wasn’t invited, so that didn’t happen. I was extremely disappointed, obviously.”
Teammates Ike Davis, a former New York Met, and Ryan Lavarnway of the Oakland Athletics both noted that baseball kept them from participating on Taglit-Birthright trips, which their friends and family did.
Davis has been looking forward to this trip since the qualifiers in Brooklyn last September because of his experience meeting Israelis.
“I haven’t met a lot of people in my life from Israel, so when Peter and his family came and brought some people to the team from Israel, I kind of gravitated toward them,” he explained. “Hanging out with the Israeli kids and players and coaches and staff – just learning about myself through a different person. It was really cool. It is obviously a whole different society, [with different] social norms, what people wear, and what it’s like in a place that has history that goes back 6,000 years; what it’s like living there and the amount of cultures they have just living here. You can talk to them for hours and hours, and that’s what ended up happening.”
So getting a call from IAB president Peter Kurz to come to Israel was exciting. “I could feel my fire. I wanted to go there and experience this and hangout with them in Israel, and let them show me what they’ve been talking about,” Davis recalled. “This is almost like a Birthright trip for us in a sense – which is really, really cool.”
Lavarnway, who is more soft-spoken and private about his Judaism, was no less enthusiastic at the prospect of visiting. “It is a trip I definitely would have made eventually, but with my baseball career and schedule it’s been hectic for a long time,” he said. “My wife and I were on vacation when Peter sent me the email asking if I wanted to come. As soon as I got that email, this was the priority. Anything else that could have been a conflict was postponed.”
Davis also sees the trip as improving the American-dominated team’s ties to Israel.
“I grew up in Arizona – so I didn’t have a lot of falafel or shawarma or food of the Middle East and Israel,” he noted. “So, getting just a week of plunging into it is going to make the bond stronger to Israel.”
The players and their families have enjoyed some Birthright-like experiences, getting a lecture on the conflict; meeting with Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States; and visiting the Tel Nof Israel Air Force base near Rehovot. Yesterday afternoon, they practiced on the Baptist Village field in Petah Tikva.
Each player took a different path to this team. While Davis and Lavarnway were unable to join the 2012 effort because of their Major League commitments, Cody Decker and Zeid seized the opportunity to play for the first squad.
“They recruited me, and I recruited myself because I knew Israel was wanting a team and I found Jonathan Mayo, who works for mlb.com, and I knew that he was involved in setting the team up,” recalled Zeid, who notes that he has always been outwardly Jewish, like wearing a Star of David or Hai. “I reached out to him saying that I really wanted to play, and I thought it would be a huge honor, because I am proud of who I am and where I come from, to finally get to see it and live it.”
Zeid said that after missing out on visiting Israel because of baseball, he’s come full circle. “Baseball kind of took me away and now it’s bringing me back,” he observed.
Decker was on board even before things became official. “I initially sought them out in 2011, when there was rumblings that Israel might field a team for the Baseball Classic, and I sent emails to whoever would listen that I wanted to be a part of the team,” he said.
Fortunately for Decker, playing for the San Diego at the time, Brad Ausmus became manager of the team. “He worked for the Padres at the time, so it was the easiest thing in the world,” Decker said. “When he got announced as the manager, I texted him an hour later saying, ‘I want to play.’ He said, ‘I have you on my list, you’re playing.’”
That 2012 qualifier turned out to be a major disappointment, but also a catalyst and motivator.
“2012 was formative in that it was completely disappointing and depressing and upsetting that we lost, but it was transformative in that it turned my career around,” recalled Zeid, the losing pitcher in the decisive game with Spain. “The disappointment of losing that tournament propelled me to play in the major leagues the next year, and it also helped me into working twice as hard to make sure I was playing in 2016 when the next qualifier was, so that I could play and the turnout would be totally different.”
Decker recalled that the impact of the 2012 experience surprised him.
“In 2012, I didn’t really expect it to become such a prideful thing for me and all of us. I thought it was going to be a lot of fun and we have one thing in common – we’re all Jewish,” he said. “But as things progressed, it was more like the outreach from fans and the people in Israel, and Israelis in America and Jewish Americans, everyone was excited and it really affected them. Once we started seeing how people latched onto it and grabbed onto it and started rooting for us and supporting us, it just kind of changed into something more.”
In the interim, “there was an undeniable connection between most of the guys on the team who knew we wanted to come back,” Zeid said of the camaraderie among the Jewish players that emerged from that failed qualifier bid. “So when it was announced that we were going to be playing again in 2016, there was an instant Peter called me, I called Cody and then we called Nate [Friedman[, we called a whole bunch of guys.”
Decker added: “This last go when we got knocked out, it affected a few of us a lot. Like me and Nate Friedman would text each other until last season about how much it bothered us that we didn’t move onto the next round.”
For both players, 2016 was redemption – particularly for Zeid, the losing pitcher in 2012. He was on the mound, pitching Israel to a victory in Brooklyn that will send them to Korea.
That game also turned out to be a career highlight for Decker.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have some really good moments in my career. I’ve got to win a couple of championships,” he said. I’ve had the chance to get called up to the big leagues, which was an amazing moment – telling my parents was an amazing moment. But winning that game and celebrating it ... was the best thing that ever happened in my career.”
Some players see this visit as the beginning of something bigger. “I want to start a little spark in Israeli baseball and hopefully see the first Israeli-born MLB player,” said Davis. “I think that would be so cool, and I think they could have the potential to have a really good baseball program in Israel.”
He adds, speculatively, “Who knows? We could have superstar Israelis.”