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How Team Israel Found the Resolve to Succeed in the WBC

When a baseball team unexpectedly wins and is classified as a “Cinderella” bunch, it isn’t stardust and hoodoo that comprises the final stats of the “just win, baby” formula of one more run than the opponent.

The surprise clubs have common factors: wise and wizened coaches and administrators, great preparation, uncommon motivation, and team chemistry that outshines and outsmarts foes.

Such was the story of Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic through the eyes of a longtime, admired pro coach named Tom Gamboa, Israel head coach Jerry Weinstein’s lifelong friend and right-hand man as his third-base coach. Everything Gamboa — turning 69 this year — had ever learned in baseball had been applied to 41st-ranked Team Israel’s startling success of winning its three-game qualifier in Brooklyn, then stunning WBC powers with four more victories in a row in South Korea before the clock struck midnight.

The Team Israel story was an appropriate valedictory for Gamboa, who retired after the WBC. A former big-league coach with the Chicago Cubs and Kansas City Royals, Gamboa also had been a veteran minor league manager and field coordinator. His final American pro job was as manager of New York Mets affiliate Brooklyn Cyclones of the Class-A New York-Penn League. Team Israel played its three qualifying games last fall at the Cyclones’ MCU Park, chosen for its artificial turf that emulated the playing surfaces in South Korea.

Weinstein also was a longtime minor league manager and instructor, operating at a level where motivation and team bonding under less-than-ideal conditions is critical. He took a page from that background to bring the 26 American Jewish players and two Israelis together from the start.

“After the first practice, Jerry got all the players together in the dugout,” Gamboa said. “In 2013, Israel tried to qualify, had a two-run lead over Spain in ninth and lost. Jerry had everybody on the team in 2013 speak about the experience of playing in the World Baseball Classic. When they got to the last guy, it was Josh Zeid, the losing pitcher in that game.”

Zeid pitched in 48 games in relief for the Astros in 2013-14. But none seemed as unforgettable as his losing effort against Spain.

“He got so choked up, and he got me so choked up, and I was not even Jewish,” said Gamboa. “He was reliving the game like it was the night before. I told Jerry, 'I don’t know where you got the idea of getting these guys to speak about playing for their heritage with Israel. But when Josh Zeid spoke, that immediately put the whole team on a path as a mission to accomplish something, to be the first team from Israel to get into the (main) tourney.'”

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Foreign Jewish players were allowed to play for Team Israel due to the country’s Law of Return, in which any Jew worldwide can come to Israel and qualify for citizenship. About half the roster had never visited Israel. But that status changed with an opportune trip in January.

“To add to the chemistry, about a dozen went to Israel with their wives and girlfriends,” Gamboa said. “They went to see Jerusalem, the Western Wall, the Dead Sea. That added to the bonding of spending more than a week together as well as their mission.”

A prevailing sentiment was recorded from pitching coach Andrew Lorraine, who had known Gamboa from two previous baseball stops: as a star high-school left-hander in the northern Los Angeles suburbs, and from two months together concluding the otherwise forgettable 1999 Cubs season.

“When we qualified, they brought that Israeli flag out there, my mom and dad were there, and I was really choked up the whole time,” said Lorraine, now a pro scout with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Team Israel management also arranged for a training session at the Hudson Valley ballpark, 90 miles from New York. Hudson Valley was the only other New York-Penn League affiliate with an artificial surface for better acclimation to the regular WBC fields. Weinstein’s employment with the Colorado Rockies also enabled Team Israel to work out at the big-league team’s spring-training base in Scottsdale, Ariz.

The preparation paid off, and Zeid turned motivation into action.

“In the first (qualifying game), we beat Great Britain. Zeid got the save,” Gamboa said. “The second game, we beat Brazil 1-0. The third game we played Great Britain again. This time we won 9-4. Zied pitched the last three innings for the save.

Weinstein reminded the players they were not sightseers.

“Jerry said it’s nice to be invited to the dance, but we’re not going to Korea for three-and-out,” Gamboa said. “He believed we had a realistic chance. We’ve got the scouting reports on all, and we’re going over to win.”

In succession, Team Israel, ranked as low as 41st in the original WBC seedings, beat three top-10 teams — South Korea, Taiwan, and the Netherlands, the latter of which had five starting big leaguers on the roster. Then the upstarts defeated Cuba, where baseball is still the firm national pastime, before the rigors of likely the most competitive WBC in its history overwhelmed them.

Although the end result wasn’t what Weinstein or Gamboa hoped for, the journey was unforgettable, and a lesson for others who at first are shaky in their convictions of victory. 

From GameChanger and George Castle.

Baseball, Baseball Features