The Olympic Games are typically about bringing home the gold. But for Los Angeles Angels pitcher Zack Weiss, representing Team Israel in the Tokyo Summer Olympics in 2021 was all about the legacy Team Israel left behind.
Weiss, 29, competed on a 24-person roster, including four Israeli-born and 20 American-born athletes with Israeli citizenship.
From beginning his baseball career with the UCLA Bruins, to then signing with the Cincinnati Reds, and now currently with the Angels, Weiss took his career to new heights for the Olympic Games.
Aside from the competition itself, Weiss and the rest of Team Israel had a mission: bring the world of baseball to Israel.
Weiss spoke with Hillel International about his experience on Team Israel and his career as an American-Israeli baseball player.
You pitched for Team Israel in the Tokyo Summer Olympics in 2021. What was it like to compete in the Olympic Games?
“Getting to compete for Israel on an international stage was an incredible feeling, even without fans in the stands. First, players went through the process of getting Israeli citizenship so we could represent Israel in the Tokyo games. We had no idea the roadmap to qualify for the Olympics would be so long and difficult. We had to win a series of tournaments to secure our spot, ending with the Africa/Europe Qualifying Event in 2019. Once we got there, we played pretty well. Teams underestimated us because baseball isn’t a popular sport in Israel. They were unpleasantly surprised.
There was originally one baseball field in Israel at the Baptist Village, a religious organization near Tel Aviv. In Israel, baseball is primarily played by American Jews who have made aliyah. But given the recent exposure and fundraising from baseball camps hosted by Team Israel, Israel just finished another field in Beit Shemesh, a city near Jerusalem. Our ultimate goal is that we continue to grow the representation of baseball in Israel and pave the future for kids who want to play.”
How did it feel to represent Israel as a Jewish athlete?
“If my great-grandfather was alive to see me represent Israel, it would have been an overwhelming feeling for him. The impact it has on my family is what means a lot to me. I was able to represent a country that my ancestors died for. The best feeling is being able to represent the group of older people who saw the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. They’ve experienced the struggles Israel has gone through and continues to go through, and can now see Israel at this level of success.”
How did you turn your passion for baseball into a career?
“Baseball was my family’s sport. Growing up in Irvine, California, my dad, his brothers, my cousins, and I would go to a lot of Angels games. We spent so many Tuesday and Friday nights at Angel Stadium. I fell in love with being a fan of the game. My dream was to play for the Angels. It wasn't until I got a little older and developed more talent that I realized I could become a professional baseball player. This past offseason, the Angels offered me an opportunity to sign with them. I knew this was something I really wanted to do and could really contribute to, and now, I can live out that childhood dream of mine.”
In 2013, you pitched for the UCLA Bruins and helped the team win the 2013 NCAA Baseball National Championship for the first time. Take me back to that tournament. What was it like to be a part of UCLA baseball history during such an important year?
“In 2012, we didn’t win the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska. So that loss was something that I had to sit on for a full year. But getting to go back as a junior in 2013 and win gave me this feeling of redemption. The fact that it was the first win in UCLA baseball history is amazing. Nine years later, UCLA baseball is still very much a part of my life and the championships were an amazing experience that I share with my old teammates. The team still feels like home to this day. I love going back to watch the games and see my old teammates who are now coaching the team. It feels like everything has come full circle.”
What advice can you give to college students who want to play professional baseball?
“As I’ve gotten older, I've learned to trust myself more and more. I would advise you to be entirely committed to whatever it is you're doing. Immerse yourself in it, ask a lot of questions, talk to good people to understand what they do and why they do it. But ultimately, you have to be your own decision maker and be committed to doing what you want to do. There have been times where I've gotten in my own way. I always seem to regret feeling like I was the one that put myself in my own way. Remember, there's not one right way to play the game. Because if you don't believe you will, you won’t.”
Tell me about your Jewish upbringing.
“I was raised in a pretty traditional Jewish home. My family went to Congregation B'nai Israel in Tustin, California. I went to Hebrew school and I had a bar mitzvah there. Identity wise, it's a very strong component of who I am and a big part of my makeup. A lot of that ties into the family bonds and knowing what generations before me had to endure. That really is what I would say defines my Jewish upbringing and my identity as a Jew.”
As a college student, how did you engage with Jewish life on campus? How are you active in Jewish life now?
“In college, I went to UCLA Hillel for holidays and Shabbat services. And as a college student living so close to home, I would often do Jewish services with my folks. This year, during baseball season, I celebrated Rosh Hashanah in Billings, Montana at the one synagogue in the entire state. There were even people driving across state lines to come to the service. We were also playing in El Paso, Texas during Yom Kippur. I went to the services at a synagogue a former Team Israel and UCLA teammate, Cody Decker, connected me with.”
What are you looking forward to in your career as a professional baseball player?
“I hope to keep doing this for a while because I really love it. I feel like I'm getting better as I'm getting older. I really enjoy competing against other teams and competing against myself, continuing to get better. My desire to compete at the highest level in the major leagues is a massive motivating factor.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.