"When I put on my uniform, I feel I am the proudest man on Earth," is a quote attributed to Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente. Indeed, anyone among the relative few with the opportunity to play professional baseball, let alone ascend to its highest levels, feels the intense privilege that comes with being a grown man paid to play a kid's game, as another axiom goes.
To hear Tacoma Rainiers outfielder Eric Filia and his teammate, right-handed reliever Zack Weiss tell it however, the opportunity to don the uniform of your country, native or adopted is an experience difficult to put into words as succinct as Clemente's.
"Wearing those letters across your chest, I mean, it's a completely different feeling. In the Olympics, knowing that the whole country is behind you, whether certain people follow baseball or not, it's just an incredible feeling," says Filia, right fielder for the United States of America.
For Weiss, now an Israeli citizen for reasons ascribed to both baseball and heritage, the gravity of playing for your country is especially present.
"When you think about everything that country represents to so many people who don't have a home, or don't feel they've had a safe place over the last couple thousand years, we were aware of what we represented, and I think we were all proud of that," said Weiss.
As the only club in Triple-A West to have multiple Olympians, Filia and Weiss each took an approximate month-long leave of absence from the Rainiers this summer, from mid-July to mid-August, to represent their countries at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, delayed of course to 2021 due to the pandemic. It was the latest striking parallel for the pair, who grew up knowing and competing against one another at the youth and student levels in Southern California, before each attending and playing for UCLA. The two were members of the Bruins' 2013 College World Series-winning National Championship squad, now re-united as professional teammates for the first time after Weiss signed as a free agent with the Seattle Mariners for this season, the organization which drafted Filia in the 20th round in 2016. Weiss turned pro in 2013 as a sixth round pick of the Cincinnati Reds, and made his MLB debut in Cincinnati on April 12, 2018 against the St. Louis Cardinals.
"We've known each other since we were really, really young. We played against each other in club baseball when we were kids, and we actually umpired a Little League game together when we were like 13, umpiring seven-year-olds or something," recounts Weiss. So it's cool, it's exciting to be back with him and obviously I was excited for him to get that opportunity to play with Team USA, which was awesome."
"I was pumped, I was rooting for Zack, and he made history which was incredible. I mean, going from 13 years old to where we are now, it's surreal to be where we're at and the opportunities we've had," added Filia.
The two have not faced one another as professionals, a result of playing in organizations whose affiliates are located on opposite ends of the country. Die-hard Rainiers fans waited with baited breath during Team USA's Olympic opener against Israel on July 30, but unfortunately Weiss did not pitch during an 8-1 U.S. victory in which Filia went 2-for-4 with a stolen base and a run scored.
Weiss did however pitch in Israel's 12-5 victory over Mexico a day later, working the fifth and sixth innings (1 ER, 3 K). The result knocked the Mexicans out of the tournament, and was not only Israel's first ever Olympic baseball win, but the country's first Olympic win in any team sport.
"It is a very cool thing that my name is attached to that. The best part about doing everything with Israel baseball right now is, you're probably setting a precedent, whether it's the WBC (World Baseball Classic) a few years ago, or the Olympics now. People ask me, 'did you ever dream of being an Olympian?' and I was like 'no, I play baseball, I dreamt of being a big leaguer.' But when the opportunity presented itself to do something special like that, I was very adamant about doing it and really excited to be a part of it," said Weiss.
While the Israeli team did not reach the medal round, the Americans entered the Olympics among the favorites, capturing silver with a 4-2 tournament record, their only losses to host and eventual gold medalist Japan. A team of primarily Triple-A players with MLB veterans such as infielder Todd Frazier and left-handed starter Scott Kazmir mixed in, Filia started and played the duration of each game in right field for manager Mike Scioscia, the longtime L.A. Dodgers catcher and Angels manager, another bit of synergy for the SoCal-bred Filia.
Filia went 5-for-19 for his Olympics (.263), walking once with two stolen bases and two runs scored. In the first U.S. meeting with Japan, he hit a double off former Yankee and Japanese legend Masahiro Tanaka in a 7-6, 10-inning defeat on August 2. Team USA reached the Gold Medal Game with a 7-2 victory over South Korea in the semi-final round, before succumbing to Japan 2-0 in the final. Top Mariners outfield prospect Julio Rodriguez (Double-A Arkansas) was a member of the Dominican Republic's bronze medal-winning club (beat South Korea); the U.S. defeated the D.R. 3-1 to open the medal round.
"There were multiple guys on our team that had won a World Series. And even they said that the chemistry we had playing together - we only played six games in the Olympics - but to build a chemistry that strong that quickly, it was very clear to our more veteran players that the experience was so special for everyone," said Filia.
And while the Americans came up short to the host country, and it's fair to say Japan is the United States' chief international rival, it was clear from the beginning of the tournament that it was a rivalry built on respect and not animosity, certainly an ideal that Olympic athletes in any sport subscribe to on such a unique stage. While Scioscia's club fell just shy of their ultimate ambition, the disappointment was tempered by mutual admiration.
"Everybody takes the game to heart there (in Japan). Even with the lack of crowds because of Covid, you could still feel how much the game means to people in Japan," said Filia. "That's the beauty of baseball, I believe the everyday competition brings out the best in people, and especially during the Olympics. It's hard to describe, but it's gratifying."
"I open the case my medal is in and look at it once in a while. It gives me an incredible feeling. I mean, we wanted gold, of course. But I couldn't be any more grateful and humbled to bring an Olympic silver medal back for my country, and to my family."
While his birthright, and of course his talent landed Filia on Team USA, Weiss took a bit more circuitous route to Team Israel. Per Olympic rules, athletes must be citizens of their competing country. Weiss and several of his teammates have spent time in Israel in the process of officially becoming an Israeli.
"We spent about two weeks in Tel Aviv and would participate with the Israeli Youth Baseball Academy and help run some clinics; meeting kids, creating younger players and growing the game is really the goal."
While Israel Baseball is an ambassadorship in that way, Weiss makes it clear that it is not merely a team of primarily American Jews who want to compete at the highest international levels. All the players, especially with the Olympic citizenship requirement (players in the WBC need only be "eligible" for citizenship of a country), feel pride not only for their heritage, Judaism and the weight of the history they're playing for, but also an intense pride to represent Israel, period.
"American Jews have always had a passion for and love of baseball, but growing the game for the country, the ultimate goal of trying to raise money to build fields in Israel and make baseball a thing there, that's really what it's all about," says Weiss. "I'm hopeful that for the 2044 Summer Olympics, when Israel Baseball qualifies, that it'll be a bunch of Israeli-born kids that make up the team."
"I am practicing, and I'm not an overly-religious person by any means, but it is very much a culture and an identity for me that's important. I had some stuff on my cleats in the Olympics, a homage to my grandfather. Both of my parents are Jewish, but I know a lot more about my dad's side. My grandfather's parents' generation, there were seven siblings and three got to the States from Europe, four went through the Holocaust and then ended up making it to the States, so yes, it's a big part of my identity, something I'm very proud to represent, and feel a strong emotional connection to."
The combination of spending time in Israel, putting in the work to continue to make baseball a true world sport outside of only the Americas and the Pacific, coupled with the deep emotional connection to one's heritage makes it clear to Weiss and his teammates that their adopted home country is still very much their country.
"We knew that we were representing Israel. It wasn't that we were just there to play in the Olympics, and it was an arbitrary name across the chest. It was not that at all. We're building a foundation, and everyone who competed on that team, and is a part of that team, is an Israeli."
Moving forward, Weiss plans to continue to pitch for Israel, with he and the national team's sights set on the next World Baseball Classic, to take place during Spring Training 2023.
For Filia, amidst a myriad of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, there were several brushes with fame amongst the Team USA delegation. Seeing in the Olympic Village and being teammates at large with gymnast Simone Biles, sprinter Allyson Felix and meeting ballers Damian Lillard, Kevin Durant and Breanna Stewart, the gravity of what you're trying to accomplish begins to sink in.
"In the Olympic Village, there's so much respect there. Every person I met - famous or not - had so much class," said Filia. "Yeah, there were very few spectators, but the entire experience was still incredible."
"I'll admit that I sat down a couple of times just to pinch myself and say, 'holy smokes, I am really here.'"
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