If you’ve never heard of Jeremy Bleich, you’re not alone.
After all, it’s been a while since the New Orleans product — who was an All-American left-hander at Stanford University — became a first-round “sandwich” pick (No. 44) in the 2008 Major League Baseball Draft by the New York Yankees. He was chosen ahead of such stars as Craig Kimbrel, Charlie Blackmon, Tyson Ross and Brandon Crawford.
Since then, a combination of injuries, mediocre performance and bad timing has left his career in uncertainty; he’s a free agent after spending part of last season at Reading in the Philadelphia Phillies farm system and the one before that with the Pirates. But that’s for April and beyond. For now, the 29-year-old Bleich (pronounced Bly-sh) has something more important on his mind.
This past week, he’s been in Israel as part of the team that will compete in the upcoming 16-team World Baseball Classic from March 6 to 10.
Team Israel will head to South Korea to play in a group with the host nation, along with the Netherlands and Chinese Taipei. Two teams will advance to Tokyo for the second round, with the semifinals and finals slated for Dodger Stadium March 20 to 22.
Bleich, the grandson of Auschwitz Holocaust survivors, feels confident Team Israel can at least get to Japan.
“We can go pretty far,” Bleich said via telephone during a break from a hectic schedule which could best be described as “Birthright for Ballplayers.” “We’ve all played the game at a high level. We need to attack this with an even-keel attitude and see where we can end up. Whatever role they want me in, I’m fine with that.”
That’s the bullpen these days, primarily as a specialist to get left-handed hitters out with his 92 mph fastball and slider. It’s an adjustment from his days as a starter, which lasted until he was released by the Yankees in 2014.
Since then, he’s spent a year in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, followed by the Phillies, still hoping to latch on somewhere that will give him that golden ticket to “The Show.”
“I got hurt, had shoulder surgery and worked my way back,” said Bleich. “I’ve continued to put up numbers and hope for a break to get through that major league wall.”
Bleich has a rich Jewish heritage, which he’s come to appreciate more through the years and especially now being in the Jewish homeland.
“Being Jewish and having grandparents who were Holocaust survivors has made being here special,” said Bleich, an economics major at Stanford. “They were always a big part of my life.
“My grandfather was a leatherman. He sewed boots for German soldiers. My grandmother was in several camps. As I got older, it sunk in more what they’d been through. They’re gone now, but I still hold them very close to my heart.”
The feelings and kinship Bleich has experienced with Team Israel were shared by many of his teammates.
“The most amazing thing is how connected the players have felt to the country,” said Pittsburgher Jonathan Mayo, who’s chronicling the events for MLB.com and is helping out with a documentary. “For a lot of these guys playing for Team Israel, it’s their first time there.
“It’s been more about them exploring their connection to being Jewish baseball players and also helping grow their name by playing for Israel in international competition.”
With Colorado Rockies coach Jerry Weinstein as the manager, aided by former major leaguers Jerry Narron and Andrew Lorraine, Team Israel should be competitive. Among those with major league experience expected to be on the roster are former All-Star pitcher Jason Marquis, Craig Breslow, Ike Davis, Sam Fuld and Ryan Lavarnway.
For Bleich and the rest, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime.
“After this [Israel trip], we’ll go our separate ways, continue to train and then meet up in Korea,” explained Bleich, who hoped to connect with his father’s cousins who live in Israel. “Right now, the team is the main focus rather than my career. I just want to do a good job and help us advance.”
Jon Marks writes for the Jewish Exponent (in Philadelphia), an affiliated publication of The Jewish Chronicle.