Choices: Part I
Every time international competitions arise, the age-old debate about birth rights verse citizenship becomes the hot topic.
In the 2020 Olympic Games Israel represented Europe. On the bench sat just four Israeli-born citizens. During the 2017 World Baseball Classic (WBC), that number was one.
This is a 5-part story of two American-born Team Israel players, Josh Zeid and Ryan Lavarnway, and how their choices are shaping not only their personal lives, but a generation of European baseball players.
Of course Israel is part of Asia but, in international sports competitions, they compete in the European bracket. In doing so, their national team players are setting the example by which other citizenship-awarded players can grow Europe’s game.
Featured prominently throughout the 2017 WBC, Zeid and Lavarnway’s social and media presence helped place Israel’s pin on the international baseball map.
EBSM sat down with the battery to look back on the past few years. Originally intended to be our Experience of the Year piece, we learned how their choices have affected a multitude of lives, and communities, since they joined Team Israel.
To tell their story properly, we’re going to switch format, breaking the piece apart and letting the guys do most of the talking. We’ve helped note the transitions with color changes for each speaker: EBSM, Ryan and Josh.
It was at practice week for their 2016 WBC qualifying run that Lavarnway first noticed the man who would become the heart of their battery.
Ryan: The first time I remember Josh was at that mini-camp at West Point Academy. We spoke and visited with the kids. After, we had a practice.
Josh took over the team meeting and said, ‘Guys, before we leave I want to let everyone know what this tournament means to me. Four years ago we had the chance to play in the WBC. I was the pitcher that kind of blew the lead. We didn’t make it in because of me and I’ve carried that with me for four years. That’s been one of the biggest disappointments in my career. If I have a chance to redeem myself in this tournament, that’s going to be the most meaningful memory in my sports story.’
Up until that point, playing in the WBC seemed like a great baseball opportunity for me. It was something that I was looking forward to, but I didn’t have a huge connection to Israel yet. It was just another thing, the next thing, that I was going to do.
Josh saying that was the spark for our whole team that gave the tournament greater meaning. It made us all buy in completely.
So Josh, you Vince Lombardi’d the Cinderella story…
Ryan: Kind of, yeah. I mean, that was the spark for me, and I think everyone would agree.
What do you think about that Josh?
I still think about that moment, how lucky we all are. Honestly, I have a history of getting overly-emotionally involved. I don’t know if you can say I’ve never been blessed with God-given ability, but I’ve always used my emotions to help me get that last push. I could sense that the group needed it.
I was devastated in 2012. I was crushed by it. I wanted people to know how awful it felt. I didn’t want to ever have that feeling again.
I remember that speech, but I still didn’t really know Josh. He was another pitcher, on another team, just like everyone else. I didn’t know he was Jewish. It didn’t mean that much to me that other people were Jewish before this Team Israel experience.
We won the qualifier and the team decided to bring us to Israel to learn what we were playing for. It was on that plane flight that our friendship really sparked.
We were playing poker and he asked Gabe Kapler, then in the front office of the Dodgers, ‘Gabe, can you do anything to help me get a job? I played for you before.’ Gabe thought about it, walked away, came back a bit later and said, ‘These are the four reasons the Dodgers will never sign you.’ I felt for him. I was also a free agent and could, very much, relate to what Josh was feeling.
I was like the sad puppy but that’s why Gabe has gotten to where he’s been able to get, because he’s honest. He’s a straight shooter. He gives it exactly the way that players have never heard it before. That’s actually the way that I work now. I speak very honestly to players because we’ve always been danced around.
That’s why I love Ryan, because he’s very honest. There’s no sugar-coating anything.
Then, Josh asked me, ‘Do you know your name is up on the wall in my office?’
I’m like, what does that mean? I don’t even know who you are, why is my name on your wall? He goes, ‘You were my first major league strikeout.’ He still has the ball. He showed it to me when we went to his house.
When we were in Israel, any time we weren’t fully booked with the team Josh and I did outings together. We did the market in Jerusalem, road in 4-wheelers and hiked Masada together with our wives.
Josh: I think we were just so drawn together because the pitcher and catcher relationship is one that’s unique, in and of itself. He could handle my personality. A lot of people can’t.
We have so much in common - which is usually a bad thing - but for him and I, I think it was just so easy and natural. We come from good families. We both care a lot about our families, our loved ones, our hobbies, our habits, we’re both very prideful.
He’s smart and intuitive. It was very easy for me to talk to him, and to his wife, and for his wife to talk to my wife. I like to think I’m a good judge of character but my wife is a good judge of character and if she thought he was good it all kind of made sense. It was just perfect.
During the 2017 World Baseball Classic the battery became an unstoppable twosome on, and off, the field. Zeid completed the tournament with a 0.00 ERA over 10 innings of work through 4 games. He was named to the All-Tournament team and awarded a one-year contract with the Cardinals. Ryan hit .417 and took home MVP honors.
We were in Korea before the tournament started, and again, our friendship grew exponentially in those 7 or 8 days. We’re in a country where no one speaks the language but that we definitely want to see. Josh said yes to all of my crazy ideas and I said yes to all of his crazy ideas and we got to experience this culture together. The same thing in Japan this year.
Josh was probably a more famous baseball player than me, at that point, because the MLB.com reporters asked him if he wanted to do an authentic Korean foods tour. Josh was like, well, my friend Ryan is a big foodie, can he come with? So I got invited, second-hand, as a tagalong. That was an unbelievable experience. It started as, Jews try Korean food, and quickly turned into let’s see what these crazy idiots won’t eat.
It was so much fun.
Watching the videos is like seeing two guys who’ve known each other their whole lives be awesome together. Your friendship was clear. There’s an undeniable connection. Did you feel it, in those moments?
Josh: For me it was instantaneous. There was nothing forced or unnatural about it. It’s like, when you know, you know. When you know you’ve found the right wife or husband, you know the reality of it, you kind of just know.
They asked if we had to sign a waiver to eat the live octopus (2:53). I think that was when we knew that we were in it for the long-haul together (Jewish custom dictates only aquatic creatures with fins and scales should be consumed).
Though Josh and Ryan first met in 2016, as Ryan alluded to, their story began years before. Their life paths were caught in the oil-slick effect, continually sliding over one another’s surfaces without ever touching.
Josh Zeid is a 6’4” 220-pound RHP born in Connecticut in March 1987. In 2003 he won gold with Team USA in the IBAF World Youth Championships. He was named an All-American in 2004. With 400 Ks, Josh set his school strikeout record. While attending university, Josh played in the Cape Cod league.
In addition to pitching you’ve played 1B, SS and CF. Do you have a favorite?
I loved playing centerfield. SS and 1B were involved in a lot of plays but, in the outfield, I could have some fun and zone out a little bit. Pitching requires so much attention to detail and unbelievable amounts of focus. Playing CF allowed me to relax and have some fun.
Did you learn anything in the Cape Cod league that you don't think you would have in the MiLB.
I was extremely lucky to be asked to play in the league. It was a very unique experience. Every player was one of their school’s best players so you’re virtually playing against an all-star team. It taught me to be the best version of myself every time out there.
In 2009 Zeid was signed by the Phillies. On July 30, 2013, he made his MLB debut with the Houston Astros. Josh played two seasons with the team pitching in 48 games. He completed his career with a 5.21 ERA and an 0-1-1 record over 48.1 innings of work.
You pitched two season in the majors. How hard was it to continue on without ever getting back there?
I loved every second of my major league career. In 2014 I ended the season, unfortunately, needing surgeries on both feet. It took almost two years to return to full strength. By then, for me, full strength was not what it used to be. I worked hard, tried to put myself into the best position possible to get back to the major leagues, but it just never happened.
Instead, I played in the World Baseball Classic AND the Olympics since my last major league game, so I would consider myself very lucky! I never regret not getting another chance to play in the major leagues, because I know how lucky I was to get a chance to play against the best players in the world, on the biggest stage in the world.
In 2018 the RHP hung up his cleats. He became a rehab pitching coordinator, and player development pitching analyst, for the Chicago Cubs. Currently he runs the club’s Pitch Lab in Arizona.
You’ve been in the front offices since your retirement. Any surprises from the other side of the table?
Being in player development has been very eye opening. As a pitcher I wondered why things happened the way they did, why players are treated the way they are. I understand all of that now.
It is a business, certainly, but the true intention of player development is to make each player as good as possible, to help improve the major league team.
From the player, or fan, side it may not seem like it all the time, but every coach and coordinator works tirelessly to put players in the best possible positions.
I try to do my part to help bridge the ‘why’ gap for players. I try to be honest and open with all of my players so they can have the best shot to make the most out of their careers.
Ryan Lavarnway, a 6’3” 239-pound catcher, was born in August 1987. The California native was drafted out of Yale by the Red Sox in the 2008 Amateur Draft. Ryan made his MLB debut on August 18, 2011 and spent the next four seasons with Boston, winning a World Series with the team in 2013.
Over his 10-year career in the majors Lavarnway has played for 9 MLB teams. He’s caught 111 games and batted in 165. Behind the dish he has a cumulative .993 fielding percentage. At the plate he’s averaging .217 with a .272 OBP and a .357 SLG for a .617 OPS.
You’ve spent most of your career as a journeyman. What are the lessons you’ve learned?
Early in my career I thought of journeymen as players who weren’t good enough to excel and stay with one organization. What I’ve learned is that journeymen keep getting new opportunities because they are doing a lot of the little things right. Leadership. Hustle. Attitude. Good in the clubhouse. Solid defensively, and they will give you a good at bat. They are just good all-around players. Now that I understand what it takes to be a journeyman, I wear the label with pride.
You’ve played for a lot of clubs. Name a top takeaway.
Every team I’ve played for has had something that they do better than everyone else. The way teams are using statistical analysis, the pro game right now feels like an intelligence race and every team I’ve played for thinks they are way ahead of everyone else. It’s been a cool insider perspective to see how different teams are going about it.
Inducted into the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2020, the 34-year old appeared in 8 games for Cleveland in 2021, fielding .962 and hitting .250.
Both men were born the same year and each has only one sibling, a sister. Josh grew up in CT where Ryan went to school. Both played minor league ball in the Boston area. They were in the majors at the same time. Each is married. Both men left school for baseball and completed their education in later life. Their paths were crossing without touching.
Anyone watching their 2017 WBC Cinderella run would admit that, in 2016, their time was ripe.