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How a Jewish Kid From Connecticut Made It to the Major Leagues

Josh Zeid plays for one of the worst teams in baseball but still says he’s living the dream

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Joshua Zeid, No. 61 of the Houston Astros, tosses the ball after hitting Adrian Beltre, No. 29 of the Texas Rangers, in the eighth inning at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington on Sept. 24, 2013 in Arlington, Texas. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Your parents may have already told you this, but the odds of becoming of professional baseball player are infinitesimal. Historically, if you’re Jewish, that number gets even smaller. A hundred times smaller. The 2010 documentary Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story estimated that Jews account for only about 160 of the nearly 17,000 current and former players of Major League Baseball.

The ones who make it achieve legend status almost instantly. Ask a Jewish sports fan about America’s pastime and you will be regaled with the heroic feats of players like Hank Greenberg, Al Rosen, and Shawn Green. The most famous of them all is Sandy Koufax, who refused to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur, making him a hero to generations of Jewish kids. One of them is Josh Zeid, who considers Koufax to be the greatest ballplayer of all time.

If you haven’t heard of Josh Zeid yet, it’s probably for two reasons. Zeid only made his major league debut in late July, and Zeid pitches for the Houston Astros, one of just a sad handful of teams in baseball history to lose more than 100 games in a season three seasons in a row. But Zeid throws a wicked slider and four-seam fastball that averages close to 95 miles per hour, putting him among the top 15 percent of major league pitchers.

Late last month, Zeid and I met in the dugout at Minute Maid Park, in downtown Houston. The team was prepping for its final series of the season, against the New York Yankees. The Disastros had lost 12 straight games, including five games by just one run along with two shutouts, a 12-0 drubbing by the Cincinnati Reds, and a 10-0 beat down by their rivals the Texas Rangers. One loss in that dirty dozen has already become something of legend, after it yielded a 0.0 Nielsen rating in the local market, meaning maybe 1,000 people in the country’s fourth-largest city had tuned in to watch.

It’s tempting to think that Zeid’s story is tragic: He joined the league’s worst team with the league’s lowest payroll and spent his inaugural months in the majors pitching in the league’s worst-performing bullpen. But Zeid is all smiles. “I’m living the dream,” he told me. “You play high-school baseball, you play college baseball, you play minor league baseball, and your goal, your dream, is to play in the major leagues.”

***

Zeid grew up in New Haven, Conn., where his father Ira is a dentist; his mother Karen works at a senior center. In high school, Zeid set a record with 400 strikeouts, winning two New England championships along the way. Baseball America ranked him No. 27 on its list of top national prospects.

Zeid also made the Maccabiah Baseball team, but the outbreak of the Second Intifada kept him and his peers from competing in Israel. After graduating high school, in 2005, Zeid resisted recruitment efforts by big state schools and chose Vanderbilt, where he met his wife, Stephanie, a neuropsychologist. (“She’s very, very smart,” Zeid told me.) But he couldn’t find consistency in his game. After struggling through his sophomore year, he transferred to Tulane. “My parents didn’t mind if I spent equal time with school and sports, but it couldn’t be any less school and more sports,” Zeid told me. “It had to be a fair and equal balance.”

Things got better in New Orleans. In 2009, his senior year, the Phillies selected him in the tenth round of the draft, launching him on a circuitous route through the minor leagues with stints on teams that had unfathomable names: the Lakewood Blueclaws, the Williamsport Crosscutters, and the Mesa Solar Sox.

Farm league baseball is a timeless and inimitable American enterprise, something both native and specific to the world of baseball, a confederacy apart of miniature stadiums with aluminum bleachers and cheap admission in small cities and rural towns across the country: Altoona, Midland, Lynchburg, Stockton. For a player, the work is hard, the pay is lousy, and the path is uncertain. None of that was a problem for Zeid. “You get to travel across the country, you get to see the biggest cities, you get to see the smallest cities, you get to meet some amazing people, you get to meet some people who might not be as privileged as others,” Zeid explained. “You can be president, you can be a rabbi, you can be someone who actually has a platform, but to so many kids out here, we may be someone they look up to.”

Zeid used the experiences as fodder for a blog he started publishing on the MLB Network in 2010. In his inaugural entry, Zeid wrote about his Jewish heroes and reminisced about his childhood pitching days:

Like I was back in New Haven, CT, playing for the Andy Papero Little League on a Tuesday night.  Where the only bit of constructive criticism during my coach’s mound visit was: “Hurry up now, my macaroni’s getting cold!” He would then smile, and jog off the field.

Zeid also detailed how his path had diverged from those of the kids he grew up with in New Haven:

Growing up in a Jewish household, we focused on having a sound foundation based on private schools and living very close to my extended family. I only had Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg to look up to as legitimate Jewish heroes, so in the back of my family’s mind was a hesitation and a desire for me to focus on getting a good education. Where I grew up Jewish kids dreamt of playing pro sports, but in reality, becoming doctors, lawyers, accountants, or real-estate entrepreneurs was more realistic. I felt I had a platform to be different, and I had the support from my parents and sister to do that.

After reading the blog, I thought about Philip Roth’s book American Pastoral, the plot of which centers around a character called the Swede. Like Zeid, the Swede is Jewish, a star high-school baseball player, and a Mets fan who comes of age just outside of New York. The similarities end there–the Swede played first base and eventually has his life trampled by the mayhem of the 1960s. But in an early scene, Roth’s narrator Nathan Zuckerman describes a book in the Swede’s adolescent library wedged between two bookends in the shape of Rodin’s “The Thinker.”

The book, The Kid From Tomkinsville, is about a young pitcher from Connecticut whose journey to the big leagues is laden with its share of challenge and heartbreak. Calling it “the boys’ Book of Job,” Zuckerman notes that what the book’s primitive illustrations make “graphically clear is that playing up in the majors, heroic though it may seem, is yet another form of backbreaking, unremunerative labor.”

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How a Jewish Kid From Connecticut Made It to the Major Leagues

Josh Zeid plays for one of the worst teams in baseball but still says he’s living the dream