Meet the Bucs staffer in the Olympics

A grandson of Holocaust survivors, Bleich will pitch for Israel

July 27th, 2021

PITTSBURGH — Many days this season at PNC Park, before either team takes the field for pre-game batting practice or fielding drills, there is one man who has been throwing bullpen after bullpen, preparing for his biggest moment in baseball.

He’s not on either active roster. His last season in the Majors was 2018. These days, he mainly does paperwork.

But Jeremy Bleich’s story is bigger than what’s on the field or his resumé, and he’s about to carry his tale to the 2021 Olympics this week, when he will pitch for Israel.

If you watched him throw his afternoon bullpens, you would have never known how big the moment approaching is. Pitchers step into the box, go down on a few pitches against the lefty, then relax and talk amongst each other. Other staffers, including grounds crew members, put on a helmet and take cuts, including one back-foot slider that led to a hilarious attempt and laughter from Bleich and those standing around the batting area.

For Bleich, a Major League staff assistant whose day job includes research and documentation for games, it’s one of the few opportunities the former 11-year pro baseball player has to compete with the guys he works with.

“I keep it loose,” Bleich said. “In fact, I think it helps with some of the relationships with players. Instead of just some guy who sits behind a desk, it’s like, ‘Oh, you can pitch a little bit!’”

But behind that fun spirit is a passion for the game of baseball and an undying commitment to honor the legacy of his family, who survived the greatest atrocity in modern society.

Bleich’s paternal grandfather, George, was born in Poland. At 25, he was forced into a concentration camp, where he survived in part thanks to his abilities as a leatherman, mending German soliders’ boots.

Bleich’s grandmother, Yolanda, was from what was formerly an area of Czechoslovakia, but now is in Ukraine. She was moved between camps, including Auschwitz, and the Germans had her fill explosives with gunpowder.

At least seven of Yolanda’s siblings died in the Holocaust, but she and George were able to escape with their lives. They emigrated to the United States, where they met soon after.

"If they don't survive that experience," Bleich said, "I'm not here.

"So it means something to me. There’s definitely a family aspect to this, and I’m proud to wear the jersey and compete with a lot of these guys.”

Bleich never got much of a chance to stick at the Major Leagues, pitching two games with the A’s in 2018. However, on the international stage, he’s played a pivotal role, most notably when he helped lead Team Israel to a sixth-place finish in the 2017 World Baseball Classic.

After that experience, Bleich and some other teammates decided to apply for dual citizenship to Israel, connecting him even more deeply to his ancestors. It also opened up the possibility to compete in the Olympics.

One year delayed, he’s getting his opportunity.

The delay in the event, which is being held in Tokyo, offered Bleich a unique situation. He was hired in February 2020 as part of the Pirates’ informatics staff, assisting the club in its game preparation. Catcher Jacob Stallings said Bleich’s role is critical to how he prepares, as every day, he walks in and expects a full written report from Bleich on the hitters Stallings will guide pitchers against.

“I really lean on those notes,” Stallings said, “because my typical routine is I’ll watch video of the hitters’ recent at-bats, and then I’ll go to his notes to kind of confirm what I saw. Maybe he’ll have something different, and we’ll kind of talk about it. He’s been great.”

In return, Bleich has been assisted by the Pirates. Beyond the job opportunity, he was able to keep his arm in shape at their facilities and against their players, not knowing when he wanted to call it quits for his playing days. Ever the learner, he still picks the brain of staff members and pitchers to prepare for the Olympics.

“The staff here has been incredible from top to bottom. To be able to just encourage me to get the work in, get the resources I need from any Major League player I need, has been really, really helpful.”

Bleich’s Israel team will begin its slate of games against South Korea, then a strong United States squad, which features former Pirate Todd Frazier. The left-hander is realistic about Israel’s chances, but he realizes how weird baseball can be.

“Maybe we’re not the most talented, but we’re talented enough,” Bleich said. “And in baseball, in a short sprint [with six teams], anyone can win. I told someone earlier that we’re probably not built for a 162-game season, but I think anyone is built for a short sprint.”

The 2021 Olympics may be the last time Bleich pitches professionally, especially given the long waits between international events. When asked about the competition in Tokyo this week, he called it “a beautiful opportunity for me to put a cap on a long career.”

Whether it’s his last ride or not, and whether Israel goes deep or falls quickly, Bleich is sure to have a big contingent cheering him home, whether in Israel, in his home state of Louisiana or in Pittsburgh.

“When he walks out, we’re going to find out -- whatever time of the day it is when he pitches -- we’re going to figure it out and watch it as a staff,” manager Derek Shelton said. “... I’m super stoked for him and we’re going to be cheering for him. It’s going to be a really, really cool thing.”