This past week, I celebrated my first birthday ever when there was no baseball game for me to attend or watch on television.
It was pretty strange because ending the day with some baseball is how I've always enjoyed celebrating my birthday.
So, instead - at the encouragement of a few people I spoke to recently - I took some time to finally write something I probably should have written a while ago.
I'm going to share my journey as both a baseball enthusiast and a professional and end with a personal mission statement of sorts, basically what I have told so many people throughout the continued pursuit of my goal.
Baseball has been my sport, by far more than any other, since the day I was born in South Florida. I would say it was my dream, just like many other young baseball fans, to want to play baseball or work in baseball when I grew up, but that wouldn't be true.
All I ever talked about was baseball. All I ever thought about was baseball. All I ever wanted to play was baseball. And all I ever wanted to buy was baseball cards.
But no one from my community went on to play or work in professional sports of any kind - or at least not that I knew of. It just wasn't something that my neighbors or friends saw as feasible.
That wasn't going to stop me from trying after finishing high school and I had my sights set on studying sports management at Rutgers University.
Life changes unpredictably, though, and it did for me on a whim.
I ended up studying abroad in Israel starting after the summer of 2010...which turned into 2011...then 2012.......all the way to 2019 - nearly nine years of living abroad which gave me life experience I would not have gotten otherwise and deepened my love for baseball in ways I would have never predicted.
Remaining a diehard baseball fan while living on a 7-10 hour time difference from the States is not easy, especially - and don't get me wrong, I have been an extremely loyal Marlins supporter my whole life - when you're following nine losing seasons in a row as a Florida/Miami Marlins fan.
But I did just that and my friends and family always thought I was crazy...
...for training my mind and adjusting my sleep schedule to wake up at 2 am for games that I didn't want to miss (like many of José Fernández's starts or playoff games in October).
...for spending much of my free time reading any baseball-related article or book I could get my hands on.
...for planning my occasional visit back to the States around the dates of the baseball schedule to attend as many games as possible.
My response was always, "if you're truly passionate about something and it brings you joy, you'll do what needs to be done, even if those around you don't necessarily get it".
So, that's how it went for the first 5+ years of my new life abroad. I studied for my BA degree, I studied for my MBA degree, and I began my career filling a variety of roles at an e-commerce startup in Tel Aviv...while tuning in to as many games as I could, reading anything I could about baseball, and planning visits back to the States according to the baseball schedule.
That all changed in September of 2016.
Just a few months earlier, I had taken the first big risk of my career. I left my first-ever job after a great year and a half and quickly found a new and challenging digital marketing and advertising role at a bigger and faster-growing e-commerce startup.
Luckily, I was still able to make a special trip back to the States in September to watch a moment that I had been eagerly awaiting for four years - Israel attempting to qualify for the 2017 World Baseball Classic.
So, I was in New York for the last week of September when Israel was one game away from clinching a berth for the 2017 tournament.
But I had already seen this story play out once in person - back in September of 2012 when I first heard of Israel trying to qualify for the 2013 WBC and was able to attend all of the team's qualifying games in Jupiter, FL.
Unfortunately, Israel lost in a heartbreaker in the final game against Spain and didn't get a tournament berth that year.
That had been the saddest moment of my baseball fandom to that point in my life, so I was nervous beyond belief for Israel's final qualifying game vs. Great Britain on the morning of September 25, 2016.
I hoped it was going to be the greatest and most rewarding day in my life as a baseball fan.
Boy, was I wrong...
September 25, 2016, was the morning when the news broke about José Fernández's death. José was not just my age but my favorite player on my favorite team and the reason I often woke up at 2 am to watch baseball.
And later that night...
Well, my really good friends somehow managed to pull me to MCU Park in Brooklyn to unleash a day's worth (or even four year's worth) of emotion and anticipation. We watched Israel beat Great Britain and qualify for the 2017 WBC the following March. It was a moment I had been waiting for four years.
I didn't realize it at the time, but something in my mind had completely changed.
Something clicked and an already strong passion was reignited.
I began to view every aspect of baseball and what it meant to me and my life in a completely different manner from that point on.
I'll fast forward a bit through the next part of the story, even though it's the most exciting part. I got to experience baseball in South Korea during the first round of the 2017 WBC, where Israel miraculously (in everyone else's mind, not mine) won all three of their first-round games. Spontaneously, I then ventured to Japan and experienced baseball there, too, where I watched Israel win one more game before the magic ran out and they were finally eliminated. More importantly, though, my eyes and ears were opened to the passion for baseball across the globe and the reach that the sport has worldwide. I gradually became more active in the baseball (and general sports) world on Twitter, where I gained much more knowledge on the fly about sports-related social media and digital marketing approaches. I began making incredible connections and friendships with fellow baseball enthusiasts and industry professionals all across North America (and all over the world, for that matter). My eyes continued opening to a point where I could personally see, and even feel, the positive impact and meaning of baseball for so many people, including myself, more than ever before.
Meanwhile, both in the office and independently, I built up a wealth of knowledge and hands-on experience in digital marketing, advertising, social media, e-commerce, and customer experience.
In my last full-time role, six months after joining as a junior marketing employee, I was entrusted with managing 60% of the company's online advertising budget, driving significant website traffic and revenue, and eventually hiring, training, and managing my first team member as well. All the while, I kept hearing and seeing the common refrains of "baseball is dying", "baseball is decreasing in popularity", "baseball is losing the younger generation", etc. Honestly, each time I read or heard something like that, a small piece of me was crushed on the inside - even while I was 6,000 miles away. I had that nagging feeling that continued to pose the following question:
There is a product in the world that you believe in and are passionate about, an industry that you wanted to enter as far back as in high school...so, well, what are you waiting for? Why aren't you channeling your expertise and your passion to help the sport improve in any way you can from a business and marketing standpoint yet? Long story short, I listened to my gut, and last year I took the next big risk of my career. To the surprise of many around me, I left my comfortable marketing position after nearly three amazing years.
I took some time off to reset, travel and check off some bucket list items, and enjoy some baseball back in the States (as well as in Germany and Italy in September to watch Israel qualify for the Olympics).
Along the way, I picked up my life and moved back to the States with a new personal and professional goal in mind.
Over the first 5+ years of my career, and really throughout my entire life, I have proven to be adaptable, to pick things up very quickly, and to always be, not just ready or prepared, but eager to put my best foot forward for a purpose that I believe in. That purpose right now is baseball. There is no product that I believe in and am more passionate about than the game of baseball. I have experienced and seen first-hand - locally, worldwide, and via social media - the connection that people have with the greatest game in the world. So, if I can find an opportunity to combine my growing marketing and business expertise, my work ethic, my growth mindset, and my passion for the game to positively impact the sport's growth and popularity even by 1%, why would I set my sights on something other than that? No one said it was going to be easy, and I didn't expect it to be. Most people said it was going to be very difficult.
But this is why I moved back to the States, and this is why I continue to give it my all each and every day, just like I would in any full-time role.
I'm not in this as a fan and I'm not in this to simply say I work in sports. I'm in this to make the positive impact I know I'm capable of making. Hopefully soon, once the sports industry (and the rest of the world) can safely stop pressing the pause button, I can begin making that positive impact and make the organization or company that gives me an opportunity very happy that they did. To me, this is a goal worth pursuing. It's a dream worth following.
- Zack Raab