March 21, 2017 at 1:00 PM
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The World Baseball Classic has provided a number of great moments over the past few weeks—take, for example, last night’s thriller between Puerto Rico and the Netherlands in the tournament’s first semifinal game, won by the Puerto Ricans in the 11th in walk-off fashion.
But it’s easy to forget that the tournament’s first game was also one of its most exciting—a stunning upset that took place in the wee hours of the morning here in the States. And it may be even easier to forget that a Red Sox minor leaguer played a crucial part in that contest’s climactic moment.
Team Israel entered the 2017 World Baseball Classic as the longest shot in the 16-team field to win the tournament, but the club put the baseball world on notice with a shocking upset of Pool A host Korea on March 6, with Red Sox outfielder Mike Meyers scampering across home in the top of the 10th with the deciding run in a 2-1 victory.
Meyers knew that his job entering the tournament was to serve as a defensive replacement and late-inning pinch runner. So when Ike Davis drew a one-out walk in the 10th, Meyers sensed his time was coming. Former Red Sox prospect Ryan Lavarnway singled Davis over to third, and Meyers was up.
“Once that situation came about, [Israel manager Jerry Weinstein] looked at me and asked, ‘Are you ready?’” Meyers said after arriving back in Florida for minor league spring training. “I said, ‘Of course, yeah.’”
Meyers took his place at third. After a failed bunt attempt led to the second out, he could only look on and hope as the next batter, Scott Burcham, sent a bouncing ground ball up the middle. Meyers took off towards the plate as Korean second baseman Geonchang Seo slid and fielded the ball to his back hand.
“I was just watching the play, [saying] ‘please get through, please get through,’ and then he got it, but had no play,” he recalled.
After closer Josh Zeid shut down the Korean offense in the bottom of the frame, the members of Team Israel had showed that they were not a squad to be taken lightly. After then toppling Chinese Taipei, 15-7, and the Netherlands (with Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts), 4-2, the team found itself moving on to the Second Round in Tokyo—and perhaps more importantly, also clinching a spot in the 2021 Classic.
The Cinderella story ended in Japan, unfortunately, as a fourth win over Cuba was followed by losses in a rematch with the Dutch and to Japan. But despite the run coming to an end, Meyers had an experience that he will always remember.
“More than anything, our goal was to grow the game of baseball in Israel. And I think with how successful that we were, it definitely is going to help,” Meyers said. “It’s going to help fund a baseball facility there, so that’ll help athletes get involved. For me personally, it was one of the best baseball experiences I’ve ever been a part of. I hope I’m on the team again in four years, because I think in four years, the game will grow in Israel and it’ll just keep growing, and that’s our goal for sure.”
Meyers’ journey to the WBC began long before his nine-day whirlwind in the tournament. He first learned he was in consideration for a spot on the team in last September’s WBC qualifier in Brooklyn when a scout approached him after a 2016 midseason game in Potomac. Then in his fourth full season in the organization, Meyers was splitting time between left and right field for the High A Salem Red Sox.
“I was like, ‘I’m not Israeli, so I don’t know how I’d possibly play for Team Israel,’” Meyers said. “He [explained] how the citizenship works and said, ‘As long as you’re Jewish, you can play for us.’ So I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m Jewish, so if it’s a possibility, I for sure want to.’”
A source that participated in the selection process said that Meyers was selected as a player who could provide versatility and a high baseball IQ. Meyers played a bigger on-field role in the qualifier than in the tournament proper, seeing action in all three games. In the course of Israel winning that four-team round-robin, Meyers also bonded with a new set of teammates—including a few former members of the Red Sox organization in Lavarnway, Craig Breslow, Cody Decker, and Nate Freiman.
Meyers credited the opportunity to build camaraderie in September, months before the WBC, as a factor that allowed the team to overcome the talent deficit it may have faced during the tournament. In addition to gaining notoriety for its success on the field during its most recent games, the team also got attention for bonding during a trip to Israel before the tournament and for bringing a stuffed “Mensch on the Bench” to the field each day, the brainchild of noted prankster Decker (look for Meyers, wearing number 7, in the final picture at the link).
“It was a lot of fun. Everybody was there to have a good time, and we bonded really well as a team,” Meyers recalled. “The qualifier helped us big-time. We went to dinner together, we had a good time together. Decker of course was being Decker and got us going a little bit.
“I think in any game, bonding as a team, it helps any team, [including] if your talent isn’t quite as good—like when ours wasn’t quite as good as the Netherlands. To be able to know that we had each other’s backs, to know that we’re not going to pick fights with each other, I mean, we were all cheering for each other. Even if we’re on the bench, you’d want everyone to do well. It’s a different dynamic being in the minor leagues. We were all for one cause, and I think it was awesome.”
In addition to the action on the field, traveling for the tournament was its own experience for Meyers, who previously had “never been anywhere near Asia.”
“It was a culture shock for sure. I mean, you walk around, you don’t see any faces you recognize. No one speaks, literally, a lick of English,” Meyers said. “So you’re just trying to communicate. You have to point to things, like, ‘where’s the bathroom?’ They have no idea what you’re saying. ‘Bathroom?’ ‘Where do I eat?’ ‘How do I eat with chopsticks?’ It’s a different culture.”
Meyers returned to camp with the Red Sox last Wednesday night, and admitted it was a stark change going from playing in front of the announced 43,179 fans in the Japan game in the Tokyo Dome to the back fields at Fenway South. However, it is a change that Meyers has been using for motivation.
“It makes me want to get to the big leagues, honestly. If I play with all these big leaguers, I understand their routines, what’s gotten them to where they are, so now it’s my turn to get where I want to go and keep working my butt off to get there,” he said.
Told by the organization that he is competing for a spot in the Portland outfield—a spot we at SoxProspects.com project him to earn—Meyers returned to camp hoping to continue to build on a quietly solid 2016 campaign in Salem that saw him hit .272/.333/.384 with 26 steals. A 12th-round pick out of Silverado High School in Las Vegas in 2012, a position change—he was drafted as a middle infielder—and injury kept Meyers in short-season ball until 2015, when he hit .296/.364/.426 with 12 steals in 92 games before an August promotion to Salem. Perhaps a poster child for the saying that player development is not linear, if Meyers can break out with the Sea Dogs, the organization’s lack of outfield depth in the high minors could put him on the precipice of a major league debut.
While his on-field experience at the WBC may have been limited—and there may no longer be a stuffed Mensch in the clubhouse to bring him good luck—perhaps he can capture a little bit of the magic from Team Israel’s run to propel him up the final rungs of the minor league ladder.
To hear Meyers talking about his experience at the WBC, download the latest SoxProspects.com Podcast coming later this week.
Photo Credit: Kelly O’Connor
Chris Hatfield is Executive Editor of SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @SPChrisHatfield.