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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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Passage to India

Local academic finds Jewish parallels in Hindu university

Dr. Alan Brill of Teaneck faced his students.

The classroom reminded him of British Mandate era buildings in Jerusalem. It obviously had been built in the 1940s, or at least refurbished then. All the desks had inkwells.

Among the students earnestly taking notes were three Buddhist monks from Cambodia wearing orange robes; two Tibetans, one of whom looked like a Sherpa in his yak-wool vest; an Australian Christian dressed like a hippie trying to dress like an Indian, and several Indians dressed in modern clothing. Up front, wearing a traditional long golden coat, was the professor of Hindu religion and philosophy who normally taught this course. He was particularly diligent in his note-taking.

The day’s topic was the Bible.

 

From the Union to the Union

Rabbi Daniel Freelander of Ridgewood moves from one Reform institution to head another

Rabbi Daniel Freelander of Ridgewood is an avuncular, charming, modest man. To talk to him is to feel entirely at ease.

And then you realize that you are talking to someone who has been instrumental in the development of liberal Judaism — in both the way it looks and operates, and even more profoundly in the way it sounds.

Rabbi Freelander, 62, is leaving his comfortable berth as senior vice president at the Union for Reform Judaism — the organization for which he has worked in various capacities for 39 years — to become president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. In some ways the move is minor — the two organizations share a floor in a midtown Manhattan office building, and Rabbi Freelander is keeping his office. But in other ways it is huge — his responsibilities go from national to international, and from the Reform movement to the larger liberal world, of which Reform Judaism is a significant — but not the only — stream.

 

A love story

Cory Booker talks about growing up in Harrington Park, falling in love with Judaism

Often it’s easy to pick out a non-Jewish candidate trawling for Jewish votes.

He’ll show up at a shul wearing a fancy crocheted kippah with his name spelled out along the edge; it’ll be pinned to cover the bald spot precisely. (Really, if you’re going to wear one, you might as well benefit from it, right?)

He’ll throw out Yiddishisms with abandon — mishuganeh here, mensch there, oy, oy everywhere. He’ll talk about getting a bagel with a schmear. (Do you know any Jew who has ever eaten one of those? Me neither.)

In order to show his deep, lifelong sense of connection to the Jewish community, he’ll pander so hard it must make his teeth hurt.

But if you are looking for an actual Judeophile, a non-Jew whose connection to the Jewish world is longstanding, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and clearly real, you would have to direct your gaze in another direction.

 

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Retelling Genesis

Okay. Let’s start with full disclosure.

I’ve never met Barry Louis Polisar, so it’s nothing personal. But his music for children — he says now that he’s been told that he’s a pioneer in the “kindie” movement (that’s indie music for kids) — was a huge part of our lives, back when my kids and the world and I were young.

Mr. Polisar is based in Maryland, but he sometimes played here; he’d do the occasional early-Sunday-morning live show at WFDU, at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, and we’d all go to see him. We first heard about him on Kids America, an extraordinary (and therefore short-lived) children’s public radio show aired on WNYC, where such classics as “I’ve Got A Teacher, She’s So Mean” and “I Lost My Pants” and “Don’t Eat the Food That Is Sitting on Your Plate” were in heavy rotation.

 

A love story

Cory Booker talks about growing up in Harrington Park, falling in love with Judaism

Often it’s easy to pick out a non-Jewish candidate trawling for Jewish votes.

He’ll show up at a shul wearing a fancy crocheted kippah with his name spelled out along the edge; it’ll be pinned to cover the bald spot precisely. (Really, if you’re going to wear one, you might as well benefit from it, right?)

He’ll throw out Yiddishisms with abandon — mishuganeh here, mensch there, oy, oy everywhere. He’ll talk about getting a bagel with a schmear. (Do you know any Jew who has ever eaten one of those? Me neither.)

In order to show his deep, lifelong sense of connection to the Jewish community, he’ll pander so hard it must make his teeth hurt.

But if you are looking for an actual Judeophile, a non-Jew whose connection to the Jewish world is longstanding, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and clearly real, you would have to direct your gaze in another direction.

 

5774 Year in Review

Read about the highs and lows of 5774 — and everything in between.

September 2013

• The United States and Russia reach a deal to rid Syria of its arsenal of chemical weapons, promoting Jewish groups to suspend their efforts lobbying for U.S. strikes against Damascus.

• Rabbi Philip Berg, founder of the Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles and teacher of Jewish mysticism for A-list celebrities, dies at 86.

• William Rapfogel, the ousted leader of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty in New York, is arrested on charges of grand larceny and money laundering. Investigators later say the scheme involving Rapfogel netted $9 million in illicit funds, including $3 million for Rapfogel himself. Rapfogel pleads guilty the following April and is sent to prison in July for 3 1/2 to 10 years.

 
 
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