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Making it to the majors

Pro baseball’s next generation of Jewish players

 
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From left, clockwise, Josh Satin, who suited up for the New York Mets in September, during his time in Class Double-A. Ken Mandel; Boston Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis. Courtesy MLB; and San Francisco Giants Minor League catcher Aaron Lowenstein. Ken Mandel

It is simple, really. If you are Jewish, wield a scalpel, not a baseball bat. Master the nation’s laws rather than the rules of the national pastime.

“You’re not supposed to be a ballplayer if you’re Jewish,” former White Sox pitcher Marv Rotblatt says in the 2010 documentary “Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story.” He adds, “You’re supposed to be an attorney or a doctor.”

However, while Milwaukee Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun, Boston Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis, and Texas Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler remain the exception — not the rule — among Jewish athletes who have risen to baseball’s Major League ranks, a growing number of young athletes are looking to join them.

“It’s a terrible stereotype,” said Houston Astros pitching prospect Josh Zeid. “A lot of my friends are really athletic and could’ve played college sports. Maybe at an early age, their parents tried to be more realistic. You don’t have to be a doctor or lawyer, though getting an education is important. When you look across the Major Leagues, you see the Jewish players. I want to be one of those guys.”

Growing up in Connecticut, Zeid found it easier than most to focus on athletics. All students were required to participate in sports at school, and Zeid thrived. A hard-throwing pitcher at Hamden Hall Country Day School, he possessed a blazing fastball that produced a school record of 400 strikeouts.

As a senior, he led the Hamden Hall Hornets to a second straight New England Championship and was listed by Baseball America as the nation’s 27th-best prospect.

His collegiate travels took him from Vanderbilt to Tulane. After struggling in his third year of college, Zeid considered non-athletic endeavors, like law school or writing spy and murder mystery novels. Things improved once he stopped worrying about on-field performance.

“Baseball became easier,” he said. “I didn’t stress out as much and failing didn’t matter as much. When you’re a high school star, everyone tells you it’s easy, and you listen when you’re 18 years old. It takes being humbled to fight through it.”

The Philadelphia Phillies drafted him in the 10th round in 2009. He advanced as high as Double-A Reading this year before being included in the July 29 trade for outfielder Hunter Pence.

Academics are still a big part of his life. An English major, Zeid blogged about his experiences in the Arizona Fall League and wants to compose stories about growing up as a Jewish baseball player in New England.

“A lot of people don’t know anything about Jewish people and our culture,” said Zeid, who’s read biographies about Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax. “There are a lot of bad stereotypes. It’s about letting people know we are capable of playing sports, doing well in school, and being generous.”

The U.S. Jewish population, despite waves emigrating from Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, has remained underrepresented in dugouts.

According to “Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story,” only 160 of more than 16,700 MLB players have been Jewish. Because of such scarcity, aspiring Jewish baseball players know the stories of Greenberg or Koufax, who each famously sat out games on Yom Kippur. But do they also know about Phil Weintraub or Harry Danning, who were nearly refused road lodging in 1934 because of their religion?

Lipman Emanuel Pike, a Jew of Dutch origin, was the first known salaried player, earning $20 in 1866 from the Philadelphia A’s. When the first professional baseball league was formed years later, Pike was one of its first stars.

Thirteen Jewish players populate Major League baseball rosters today: Braun, Breslow, Ike Davis, Scott Feldman, Sam Fuld, John Grabow, Ryan Lavarnway, Jason Marquis, Josh Satin, Michael Schwimer, Danny Valencia, and Youkilis. Three of them: Satin (Mets), Schwimer (Phillies), and Lavarnway (Red Sox) debuted this season. More could be on the way.

Like Zeid, pitcher Eric Berger is another Minor League farmhand looking to break through. The lefty generated a lot of misses this season, striking out 87 batters in 71 and 1/3 innings at Double-A and Triple-A in the Cleveland Indians organization.

“I love the fact of how few we are and I’m trying to represent for us that we can be athletes,” said Berger, a former star at Woodcreek High School in Roseville, Calif. “The amount of professional [Jewish] athletes is so small. If kids can latch onto somebody, he can help inspire them.”

Berger and San Francisco Giants catching farmhand Aaron Lowenstein grew up in California, finding that inspiration in their home state from former Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Shawn Green. The pair would love to become big-league role models.

“It’s awesome to get recognized for being Jewish,” said Lowenstein, who spent the 2011 season with the Richmond Flying Squirrels. “For some reason, it’s tougher for us. Hopefully, Jewish kids can look up to us and follow in our footsteps.”

The list of Jewish players is increasing. According to jewishbaseballnews.com, which tracks the progress of Jews in baseball, 50 populate rosters from Triple-A to the Rookie Leagues, including former top picks Aaron Poreda (Padres) and Jeremy Bleich (Yankees).

Jesse Levis has noticed. The former catcher, who spent parts of nine seasons in the big leagues with the Cleveland Indians and Milwaukee Brewers, is now a professional scout for the Phillies. He does not recall meeting as many Jewish players when he was coming up in the late 1980s and 1990s.

“I notice the names,” Levis said. “My mother always talked about it. Could he be...? It’s a topic of conversation. When I hear a name, I’m always curious. When I met a Jewish kid, we would start talking and become friends.”

Levis is a Conservative Jew and raising his three children with that identity.

“The older I got, the more proud I felt and the more it meant,” he said. “My sense of religion really increased when I got married and my wife’s family was religious. That’s when it hit me. I was so happy to be a Jew who played Major League baseball, because not many of us did.”

Levis got lucky in 2005 when, while in spring training with the New York Mets, he met Koufax. Although the two did not discuss religion, Levis understands the importance of sharing experiences.

“A couple of times during my career, youth groups would come to the park and ask me questions,” Levis said. “That was always an honor. I was never a superstar. I was the backup catcher, but still a big leaguer. You can make an impact and give them someone to identify with.”

For Zeid, furthering customs and a Jewish identity never stops.

“If you become a successful athlete, you should let people know where you’re from,” said Zeid, who always wears a star of David and a chai. “Guys aren’t afraid to say they’re Jewish. The more you can tell people, the more everyone will understand who we are as a community.”

JointMedia News Service

 
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Standardizing the Times

In which we announce and describe our new online partnership with the Times of Israel

The Jewish Standard is excited and pleased to announce our online partnership with the Times of Israel.

What does that mean to us, and to you?

It means that our hard copy version will stay as it is, but in the next two months or so our web presence will change entirely.

To explain, first we have to go backward.

Not really so very long ago, the world was so much more black and white.

Take newspapers. To begin with, they actually were black and white (and no matter what color your fingers were when you started to read, they’d be black by the time you were done. Ink didn’t stick on newsprint very well).

 

Vaccinate your kid!

Local Jewish leaders talk about their policies

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav was a great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov; he was a chasidic master whose mysticism, extremism, creativity, asceticism, willfulness, and wild emotional swings from despair to ecstasy and then always back to despair make him an almost Byronic figure — had Byron, his contemporary, been a Jew from eastern Europe.

Nachman was thought to be so irreplaceable to his chasidim that they never did replace him; his spiritual descendants go to his grave in Uman, an otherwise obscure Russian town, around Rosh Hashanah every year, wearing their Na-Nach-Nachman-Me-Uman kippot as they brawl noisily around the town.

So why, you might wonder, is Nachman at the start of a story about vaccines?

 

Who stood at Sinai?

Conference to look at 25 years of Jewish feminism, examine what might come next

Every Jew who ever was and ever will be born stood together at Sinai when the mountain smoked and trembled and God revealed the law to them, midrash tells us.

Born Jews stood with those who were born into other faiths but were created with a Jewish spark that was liberated when they left their native people to join us. Souls encountered each other there, across millennia and over the boundless expanses of ocean that separate the continents.

At that one time and place, we were one people.

But wait a minute.

Exactly who was at Sinai?

According to the text, was everyone really there?

 

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Born to lead

The head of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey tells his story — and federation’s

Learning to cull less-than-perfect goldfish as they hurtle by you on a slimy assembly line, using your bare hands, disposing of them in garbage bags, is not a skill most nice Jewish boys acquire.

Nor is standing in the middle of an ice-cold pond in a torn wetsuit and hand-selecting the most decorative available koi, at the orders of overseas hoteliers, again with your bare hands.

Jason Shames of Haworth did both those things, during a stay on an Israeli kibbutz. Those and similar skills, oddly enough, were part of a logical progression that took Mr. Shames from the Bronx to the helm of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, a job he accepted four years ago this week.

 

Hunting, hiding, finding — remembering

Israeli treasure hunter Yaron Svoray speaks in Ridgewood for GBDS

Usually — or at least in common mythology, because in truth most of us have limited knowledge in this area — adventurers are amoral. They are men, or occasionally women, who are driven by adrenaline, the rush of danger, the need to go higher or faster or farther away.

And then there are the people moved by mission, by a sense of justice. The do-gooders. They are usually better people, but most likely less interesting — or so the same common mythology suggests.

Yaron Svoray, 58, the Israeli son of Holocaust survivors, is driven by the very basic need to have good conquer evil. Toward that end, he has infiltrated a group of neo- Nazis by pretending to be one of them. He has worked to recover treasures that the Nazis looted, not to enrich himself — he has not — but to pry the destroyers away from their bloodstained prizes. He is now devoting himself as well to working with police across Europe to keep terror from overcoming the continent once again.

 

Fifty shades of gold

Morgan Library showcases modern illuminated Jewish manuscripts by Barbara Wolff

Psalm 104 is about beauty.

It is about other things as well, true, but it starts with beauty and returns to it as a touchstone.

It describes the world with rapturous metaphor. God, who is “clothed with glory and majesty,” who covers himself with “light as with a garment, who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,” has made the world in his image.

When you walk into “Hebrew Illumination for Our Time: The Art of Barbara Wolff,” at the Morgan Library in Manhattan until May 3, you are surrounded by the wild precise beauty of that creation, in rich lush exquisite witty masterfully detailed controlled miniature.

To walk into that room is to be stunned by beauty.

 
 
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