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.”
In 2011, Zeid and three other players were traded to Houston in a deal that sent the Astros’ last marquee player—Hunter Pence—to the Phillies. Zeid pitched for four more teams: the Salt River Rafters, the Corpus Christi Hooks, the Oklahoma City RedHawks, and the Israeli National Team.
The last Jewish player to grace the roster of the Houston Astros was the catcher Brad Ausmus, who caught games from the likes of Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and Roy Oswalt on the Astros’ march to their sole World Series appearance, in 2005. Last year, Ausmus managed the Israeli National Team on its fruitless inaugural quest to qualify for the World Baseball Classic. Only three players on the 28-man roster were Israeli. The rest were Americans like Zeid, who had at least one Jewish grandparent.
In the team’s first ever game—played in Jupiter, Fla.—Israel was clinging to a 1-0 lead over South Africa when Zeid was called in to pitch in the bottom of the sixth inning. South Africa had runners on second and third and only one out. Zeid, facing the heart of the South African line-up, struck the first batter out and intentionally walked the next batter. With the bases loaded, Zeid ended the inning by forcing a pop-out. Israel held the lead and went on to win the game. “Zeid’s inning-plus there was probably the turning point of the game for us,” Ausmus said after the game.
“One thing you notice right away is his ability,” Ausmus told me last week. “He’s got a strong right arm that touches the upper-90s, and he gets strikeouts with his slider. We immediately slotted him in the back of our bullpen.”
In the second game, Israel defeated Spain, with Zeid pitching again and earning a save. Having beaten both teams in its pool, Israel seem poised to advance. But tournament rules stipulated that even though Israel was undefeated, Spain and South Africa would play each other for the right to face Israel in a winner-take-all game. Spain beat South Africa and then bested Israel, 9-7, in an epic five-hour, 10-inning battle. Zeid pitched the Israeli team through the ninth inning, getting three straight batters out. In the top of the 10th, Zeid gave up a walk to the first batter, much to the chagrin of Israeli catcher Charles Cutler, who was ejected for arguing calls with the umpire. Zeid hit the next batter and then got the next two out before Spain scored the decisive two runs on a single off of Zeid.
Almost a year later, he finally got his call from the Astros. At 26, Zeid is still a young player, but old for a rookie. This year, on an Astros roster with an unprecedented 20 rookies, Zeid’s experience lent him some perspective on the struggles of the young players. “Instead of having three good outs, they’ll have two good outs, and then there will be that mental lapse,” Zeid said. Then, with his characteristic optimism, he added, “This year is going to make everyone good for next year.”
Zeid wears two items around his neck when he pitches: his wedding ring and a Star of David. “People say, ‘You should be careful, a lot of people don’t know Jewish people or they don’t understand Judaism, they associate you with the Middle East,’ ” Zeid said. “You know, everyone wears a cross, but you don’t ever see anyone wearing a Star of David or anything for any other religion.”
Baseball has a Jesus-heavy essence. After Zeid left to go warm up, Astros skipper Bo Porter, the steward of Houston’s slow rebuilding process, joined reporters in the dugout to talk about the season’s endless disappointments, including the 12-game losing streak. Porter, at 41, still looks like a ballplayer. While the team had just come back from a losing road trip, bringing home a palpable sense of weariness, Porter seemed excited. Accordingly, the coterie of sportswriters around him had long stopped asking questions about strategy and moved on to pop psychology. “When you go through what it is we’ve been through this year,” Porter said, “it really made me take a step back and realize how God prepared me for this position because without the preparation, there’s no way we would made it through all the ups and downs this year.”
Despite the historic futility, the Astros are considered a team whose farm system will produce some winning seasons with enough time. After the press conference, I asked Porter for his thoughts on Zeid. “He’s done a tremendous job,” Porter said. “He’s been a great addition to our bullpen, he’s a workaholic. What I love about him is that he’s durable. He’s a bullpen guy who can go two innings, come back to the next day, throw an inning, you give him a day off, he’s available the next day. He has that closer’s mentality. He gets after it, he’s not afraid. I think he has the chance to be a pretty special pitcher for a long time in the major leagues.”
Earlier that day, Zeid had spoken with excitement about the prospect of playing the Yankees for the first time as a major-leaguer. The Yankees had just been unceremoniously eliminated from playoff contention after an injury-plagued season. The night before in the Bronx, the team had bid farewell to its legendary reliever Mariano Rivera. Yankees star pitcher Andy Pettitte, a Houston native, would be pitching the last game of his career in his hometown. “As much as you want to idolize them, think that they’re really good, you have to believe that you’re just as good or better, and get them out,” Zeid told me. “You have to convince yourself to get them out from the get-go.”
That night, with the Astros already down in a 3-0 hole, Yankees star Alfonso Soriano hit a long double in the top of the sixth inning with one out. Porter called Zeid in from the bullpen to replace the starter Brett Oberholtzer. Zeid induced a pop-out and then, with his slider, struck out the next player swinging to strand Soriano on base and end the inning. Zeid came back for the seventh inning where he ran the Yankees out in no time, striking out two Yankees and causing another to ground up weakly. With that, Zeid’s night was done. The Astros scratched out two runs in the eighth inning and lost 3-2.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Jewish players are a hundred, not a thousand, times less likely to play professional baseball.
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