Interview: Bringing Heat on the Mound and to his Brisket – Zack Weiss

The final pro athlete is Zack Weiss, who last year finally got called up by the Reds. This season he finds himself in the Twins system hoping to improve. Weiss was part of the group this past summer who made Aliyah and he hopes to pitch for Team Israel. Judaism is in his blood and he proved it this past year with his stellar brisket making abilities. Zack was a mench through the interview and we are excited to share his story with you.

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1) How did you get into baseball? What led it to be a career path?

I started playing baseball when I was probably 3 or 4. My dad and his brothers would play softball on Sunday mornings and I would always tag along and get to hit and take ground balls after games. I grew up close to Angel Stadium and after the strike in 1994, my dad got a partial season ticket plan. I spent a lot of my childhood at Angel Stadium and loved it. As I grew up, I was fortunate that my love of the game never surpassed my skill level. After missing my sophomore season for an ACL injury, I suffered in football, I came back after a growth spurt and some added strength for my junior season. Junior year was when I started really developing as a pitcher and after that season, committed to UCLA. I was drafted by the Pirates following my senior year but chose to go to school. I loved my three years at UCLA and was fortunate to be selected after my junior year by the Reds. I think what has allowed me to continue playing the game as long as I have, is that I truly love the intricacies and the craftsmanship associated with pitching. There is constant adjustment, physically and mentally, and at no point has the game ever failed to challenge me as an athlete or a student. 

 

2) You got a taste of the majors last year. How does that help your mindset going into this season with the Twins?

The experience of making the team out of spring training and getting to the big leagues is one that I will forever be grateful for. However, seeing as how it could not have gone worse on the field, it naturally leaves a whole lot more to be desired. Mentally, I know that I am a much better pitcher than the guy that was out there that night. Spending the rest of the 2018 season and off-season with that one outing being all I had to show at the major league level, was not easy. I have done my best to learn from the experience, analyze and move forward, but the sour taste still has not left me. With that being said, I know I have the ability to compete at that level and I am extremely grateful for the opportunity the Twins have given me to prove that. I feel ready mentally to spend 2019 in a positive space looking towards the future. 

3) What was your biggest take away from pitching for the Reds last season? 

My biggest takeaway from 2018 is that sometimes when you’re struggling, you spend so much time banging your head against the wall. You are constantly trying to tinker and make mechanical adjustments when sometimes, a mental adjustment and how you go about attacking hitters is what you really need. I spend a lot of time trying to make myself more efficient as a pitcher mechanically but when somebody is in the box, it needs to be a 1-on-1, me vs. you competition. When the lights are on, it’s all about competing and finding a way to get it done. 

4) Who has been your toughest out and why?

I can’t think of one specific guy in recent years that I have consistently had to grind against. In college, Matt Duffy and Steven Piscotty were absolutely grinding at bats because they had the plate discipline they’ve shown in the big leagues at a young age. But through the minor leagues, I have always felt that the quick bat, fast left-handed hitter that will take what you give him and shoot the ball around the park is a challenging at-bat. You know he’s fast and wants to run when he’s on and they make you beat them in the zone. Those at-bats where you throw your best breaking ball and they just foul it off, those are always the toughest outs. 

5) You and nine others made Aliyah this past year to potentially represent Israel in the Olympics. What was that experience like? What made you want to do it?

My friend Jon Moscot told me that he had been approached to do it and when I found out about the situation, I was all-in. I was unfortunately hurt during the World Baseball Classic, so I didn’t get to be a part of that experience. I had been to Israel twice before and absolutely loved my time there. I am fortunate to have some family there that I was able to see and share a dinner with during the trip. We stayed in an apartment in Tel Aviv which was really nice because it allowed us to feel a part of the city. In the past I had done more traveling around the country, but this time I was able to feel fully immersed in the culture. We still made it to Jerusalem and did take some day trips but coming home to the same place nightly was a cool experience that I had not had prior. 

In terms of the baseball, Israel is trying very hard to grow the game. As someone who loves baseball, I wanted to help grow the grow the game there. We put on some camps and clinics for young children that I believe were very beneficial. Since the game is fairly new there, kids don’t start playing until they are a little older and it is hard to find good coaching so we wanted to stress certain drills on the coaches and help encourage kids to start younger when they can really develop those early fine motor skills. 

6) I follow your tweets and sometimes Jewish in nature. What makes Judaism an important part of your life? Has it always been?

Judaism has always been a very big part of my identity. I have been extremely fortunate to grow up in a large, tight-knit Jewish family. We were always gathered together with family and friends for Seders, Hanukkahs and High Holy Days. The traditions and ties to my family and my community are what really solidified the importance of Judaism for me. I grew up with a close group of Jewish friends and attended camps when I was a kid. While my “faith” is not always the strongest, I have always felt a strong sense of community among other Jews. When I was in Billings, Montana in my first year of pro ball in 2013, I needed to find a synagogue for Rosh Hashana. Fortunately, the one synagogue in Montana was in Billings so I attended. The group was small, around 30, and the majority had driven hours to be there. I felt that I needed to be in services and finding a special community like that in an extremely unexpected place was a truly special experience. Unfortunately, I had to turn down the dinner invitations I received because we had a game that night. 

7) Have you ever prayed on the mound? If so, did it help?

I have never prayed on the mound. I think prayer is extremely personal and I prefer not to share it with lots of people watching. 

8) Favorite Jewish food? Holiday?

This is a very challenging question. I truly do not discriminate and love all Jewish foods. My grandma lives in West LA, so I do indulge in great Jewish deli. When we’re at Label’s or Canter’s, I bounce back and forth between a hot pastrami sandwich or a lox bagel. My favorite holiday would probably be Passover. The family was always together and when we were kids, there would be some quite theatrical performances of the plagues and Seder readings from my sister and my cousins. Passover also meant my Aunt’s matzo ball soup, Nana’s brisket and Grandpa’s chicken. On the Shabbat that fell during Hanuakkah this year, I did a dinner for my parents, my sister, my fiancé and her parents. I went all out and made my Nana’s brisket recipe and after a few attempts, I had it dialed in. I got really good reviews on the meal and think I may have accidentally committed to myself to doing it annually. 

9) After your playing days are over where do you see yourself? What else do you want to accomplish?

I have always had a passion for the planet. In college I was a Geography/Environmental studies major and minored in Geographic Information Systems which is basically a fancy way of saying “maps and map related things.” Baseball does not do a great job of doing things with a focus on sustainability, so I recently started working for a non-profit called Players for the Planet where our goal is to reduce waste among teams and athletes and promote environmental awareness. I have not decided the specific direction I would like to head in the field, but sustainability and the planet have always been high priorities for me, and I would love to help transition certain industries like baseball into making better decisions for our future. 

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