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Lavarnway, Zeid excited to be on Israel's 1st Classic team

Special to MLB.com

SEOUL, South Korea -- When taking the cab from the Gocheok Sky Dome and marveling at the citywide sight of Seoul, Team Israel catcher Ryan Lavarnway and right-handed pitcher Josh Zeid could not contain their amazement and excitement of being in the capital -- both as tourists and baseball players.

"It's beautiful, because there are mountains, ancient structures, palaces and high-rises -- right next to it," said Zeid. "And to me, that is beautiful."

SEOUL, South Korea -- When taking the cab from the Gocheok Sky Dome and marveling at the citywide sight of Seoul, Team Israel catcher Ryan Lavarnway and right-handed pitcher Josh Zeid could not contain their amazement and excitement of being in the capital -- both as tourists and baseball players.

"It's beautiful, because there are mountains, ancient structures, palaces and high-rises -- right next to it," said Zeid. "And to me, that is beautiful."

Israel is set to open the 2017 World Baseball Classic against South Korea, the host of Pool A, in the first round on Monday at 4:30 a.m. ET (6:30 p.m. local time) on MLB.TV and MLB Network. It will also face Chinese Taipei and the Netherlands in the days ahead at the Sky Dome. Israel is the only team in the pool that doesn't have World Baseball Classic experience, but Lavarnway and Zeid feel that the team has the foundation to compete in this tournament. 

:: 2017 World Baseball Classic ::

According to Lavarnway, that confidence comes from years of research and preparation, thanks to Peter Kurz, who is the president of the Israel Association of Baseball.

Kurz reached out to players and used word of mouth to float the idea of a Team Israel competing in the World Baseball Classic. In 2012, Israel joined the qualifiers for WBC 2013.

Israel went 2-1 in group play in '13, beating South Africa and Spain to get to the winner-take-all game. However, it lost to Spain, 9-7, in a 10-inning affair, dashing its Classic hopes.

Video: Decker, Marquis discusses exploring Seoul

For the 2017 World Baseball Classic, Israel bolstered its roster with more players who had Major and Minor League experience. There are certainly more recognizable names, like outfielder Sam Fuld, right-handed pitcher Jason Marquis and first baseman Ike Davis. In the qualifier in Brooklyn, Israel won all three games -- beating Great Britain twice and Brazil once -- to book its trip to Seoul.

"The 25 players is the best of what we could have," said Lavarnway, who won a World Series ring with the 2013 Boston Red Sox. "I'm pretty excited about the group we got."

A few years ago, the idea of an Israeli baseball team competing on the highest international baseball stage seemed far-fetched. On Monday, Israel will face a storied Korean national team in its long-awaited World Baseball Classic debut. Lavarnway thinks that the tournament regulations have had an impact on Team Israel's rise.

Video: Marquis discusses what it means to play for Israel

"You don't have to be a citizen of the country you're representing," the catcher said. "It's obvious with the Israel team with the amount of players that don't hold the Israeli passport. But the way this tournament is set up, it establishes a unique opportunity to bond people that come from other parts of the world and really feel pride and represent different countries and play baseball at the most competitive tournament in the whole world."

There are some concerns among fans regarding the World Baseball Classic, which have to do with the timing of the tournament. It takes place during MLB Spring Training, when most players work to prepare for the regular season. The worry is that going right into tournament competition, without the gradual warmup process of spring camp, could increase the likelihood of injuries. However, the players have a different perspective.

"We are playing in competitive games," Lavarnway said. "It is the same [intensity] that we would be playing in Spring Training if we were there. If you're going to play the game, none of the players are out there worried about getting hurt. We're trying to win as many games in the WBC and advance. If you're going to take a grander perspective, the quality of competition here is going to prepare us for the season probably even better than the Spring Training."

Video: Zeid, Lavarnway eat pig head on Korean food tour

If anything, Lavarnway and Zeid are excited by the prospect of being a chapter in the growing history of Israeli baseball.

"One of the main goals of the tournament is to grow baseball around the world, and by allowing these countries that maybe don't have the great amount of talent, by allowing these guidelines and entrance rules, you allow countries like Israel, where baseball is still growing. It's in the grassroots stage of growing over there," Lavarnway said. "You're going to allow exposure, allow funds to grow, allow fields to be built, and you're going to have more Israeli kids who want to play baseball. And we are hoping for that to happen all around the world."

The World Baseball Classic runs from Monday through March 22. In the U.S., games will air live exclusively in English on MLB Network and on an authenticated basis via MLBNetwork.com/watch, while ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN will provide the exclusive Spanish-language coverage. MLB.TV Premium subscribers in the U.S. will have access to watch every tournament game live on any of the streaming service's 400-plus supported devices. The tournament will be distributed internationally across all forms of television, internet, mobile and radio in territories excluding the U.S., Puerto Rico and Japan. Get tickets for games at Marlins Park, Tokyo Dome, Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, Estadio Charros de Jalisco in Mexico, Petco Park, as well as the Championship Round at Dodger Stadium, while complete coverage -- including schedules, video, stats and gear -- is available at WorldBaseballClassic.com.

Sung-Min Kim is a contributor to MLB.com.

Israel, Ryan Lavarnway, Josh Zeid