DETROIT, MI - JUNE 3: Brad Goldberg #67 of the Chicago White Sox pitches during the eighth inning of the game against the Detroit Tigers on June 3, 2017 at Comerica Park in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images via JTA)

Jewish pitcher Brad Goldberg makes his White Sox debut


Relief pitcher Brad Goldberg, who is Jewish, made his Major League Baseball debut with the Chicago White Sox.

Goldberg, 27, was called up from the minors, the Triple-A Charlotte Knights, over the weekend, after pitcher Michael Ynoa was placed on the 10-day disabled list with a right hip flexor strain.

Goldberg pitched part of the eighth inning against the Detroit Tigers on Saturday, allowing four runs on a walk and three hits.

He was drafted by the White Sox in the 10th round of the 2013 MLB draft, after ending his college baseball career at Ohio State University in Columbus.

Goldberg left this year’s spring training with the White Sox to pitch for Team Israel in the second round of the 2017 World Baseball Classic in March. The Israeli team was eliminated from the tournament after the second round, with a loss to Japan in Tokyo.

Goldberg was born in Cleveland and grew up in the heavily Jewish suburb of Beachwood.

From left: Lou Rosenberg, the L.A. executive director of JNF; Peter Kurz, president of the Israel Association of Baseball; and Sharon Freedman. Photo courtesy of Jewish National Fund

Israeli baseball pursues its dream of fields with L.A. fundraiser


“The cliché is true. If you build it, they will come,” Peter Kurz, president of the Israel Association of Baseball (IAB), said at the Los Angeles Sports Museum on April 27.

He, of course, was evoking the words of Ray Liotta, playing the ghost of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson in the 1989 film “Field of Dreams,” as he tells Kevin Coster’s character to build a baseball diamond in his Iowa cornfield.

Kurz might not be hearing voices, but his organization is teaming up with Jewish National Fund’s (JNF) Project Baseball to transform some of Israel’s dilapidated lots into new fields to meet the needs of an upstart baseball culture.

“There are about a thousand kids playing baseball in Israel, but we have a serious lack of fields,” Kurz said. “We have one good field in Israel in Petah Tikvah, where our national team plays and practices, but we need other fields.”

Riding the wave of momentum created in March by the Israeli national team going 4-2 overall and qualifying for the second round in the World Baseball Classic, the IAB and JNF hosted a fundraiser dubbed “Build a Field of Dreams.” Nearly 80 people, mostly baseball junkies, paid $250 each to admire the L.A. Sports Museum’s vast memorabilia collection, pose in a green screen photo booth, munch on Cracker Jack and participate in a silent auction to raise funds for a new field in Beit Shemesh.

Los Angeles Dodgers Director of Player Development Gabe Kapler, a former major leaguer, was scheduled to speak but a last-minute scouting assignment called him away.

“If the Dodgers could hit, he’d be here,” Kurz joked, surrounded by many patrons clad in Dodger blue.

A two-minute video played for guests illustrated the current situation in Beit Shemesh, where baseball-loving kids play on rocky, weed-infested fields in nearby kibbutzim and moshavim.

“In Beit Shemesh, we have 150 kids playing, but if we had a field in the middle of the city, I’d have 300 or 400 kids, without a problem,” Kurz said.

Kurz, who lives in Israel with his family, told the Journal his organization would like to see ground broken on the Beit Shemesh field by the end of the year, followed by six months of construction. The IAB hopes to raise a third of the $1.7 million cost through donors in the United States with Beit Shemesh’s municipality prepared cover the rest.

Lou Rosenberg, Los Angeles’ executive director of JNF and the lead on its Project Baseball task force, said the need for fields in Israel existed well before the national team reached the final eight in the WBC tournament. But his organization, in conjunction with the IAB, is taking full advantage of the team’s success.

“Project Baseball is a niche sort of interest,” Rosenberg said, wearing his pin-striped Valley Beth Shalom softball league uniform. “There was always this need, but the WBC has definitely helped get the word out to people who are interested in this and get things going like this event tonight. We have a lot more ideas to keep the momentum going and get us in front of the right people.”

Rosenburg and Kurz are hoping to find someone to be for baseball in Israel what Robert Kraft, the Jewish owner of the New England Patriots, is for American football there. Last year, Kraft donated $6 million to build a sports complex in Jerusalem to expand football culture in Israel.

Days before the fundraiser in Los Angeles, Kurz met in Milwaukee with former Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, a meeting Kurz had sought for 10 years. During his 23 years as commissioner, Selig pushed to expand the sport’s international appeal.

“I showed him how much interest there is in baseball in Israel and how wonderful the whole WBC experience was, and that we need help to get more fields built,” Kurz said of his conversation with Selig, who is Jewish.

Kurz told the Journal that Selig promised to help the IAB connect with Jewish major league team owners like Jerry Reinsdorf of the Chicago White Sox, Fred Wilpon of the New York Mets and Ted Lerner of the Washington Nationals.

Jonathan Fishman, 16, came to the fundraiser with his dad, Jeffrey Fishman, to learn more about baseball in Israel. Jonathan, who wore a Jackie Robinson Dodgers throwback jersey, plays third base for Shalhevet High School. He said he was compelled to come after seeing Jewish ballplayers shock the world in the WBC.

“It made me really proud. It was cool to see,” he said. “Hopefully, we get to see more Jewish ballplayers making those kind of contributions.”

The juniors division for 13- to 15-year-olds is the most senior in the Blue Star League. Photo by Leslee Komaiko

A league of their own is a hit with Jewish youth baseball players


It’s a beautiful spring afternoon. And as on baseball diamonds across the country at this time of year, kids in North Hollywood are playing ball. But this isn’t Little League or Pony Baseball, the organizations that dominate the youth sport. This is the Blue Star League, a local baseball league that runs from January to June for Jewish kids ages 4 to 15.

At a glance, this could be youth baseball anywhere in America. There are kids in sharp uniforms, fielding and hitting on manicured fields. There are coaches shouting to their players and parents cheering the players on. There are hot dogs and french fries. In the words of Katherine Saltzberg, a Valley Village-based parenting coach whose son Eli, 11, has been playing in the Blue Star League for about a half-dozen years, “Baseball is baseball is baseball.”

But look a little closer and some things may not appear so universal. Some of the boys wear kippot under their caps and batting helmets, and tzitzit under their jerseys. The names on the backs of jerseys read like a Jewish phone book: Feldman, Hirsch, Lipsker, Ben-Gal, Lipman, Boboroff, Weiss. At a certain time in the late afternoon, men gather for afternoon prayer a few feet from the makeshift snack stand where volunteers grill kosher franks and burgers. And when was the last time you sat in the stands with a rabbi playing acoustic guitar?

Unlike Little League, which usually has Saturday games during the spring, Blue Star schedules games on Sunday afternoons to avoid conflict with the Sabbath or Sunday school. If it weren’t for Blue Star, many of these kids would not play at all.

The league got its start in North Hollywood nearly 30 years ago. According to its current commissioner, Valley Village resident Hershel Goulson, 45, who works for the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles foundation, it began as Emek Baseball League, started by parents of students at nearby Emek Hebrew Academy. It still has a loose relationship with the Orthodox private school, and many Emek students participate in Blue Star.

But nearly half of the 240 kids currently playing come from places outside the San Fernando Valley, including a large group from the Pico-Fairfax neighborhood. Some families come from as far north as Oxnard, as far south as Redondo Beach and as far east as Riverside.

“As far as I know, it’s the largest Jewish kids baseball league west of the Mississippi,” Goulson said.

Goulson got involved in the league as a coach in 2005, when his oldest son, now 16, was 4 and became eligible to play. And even though none of his five children, all boys,
is playing this season, Goulson stayed on
for his fifth year as the volunteer commissioner.

“I love kids and I love sports. And nothing brings me greater joy than to see kids having a great time playing sports that they love,” Goulson said. “Obviously, it started with my kids. That was a natural starter for me. To me, it’s all about the kids, and when the kids are happy, I am thrilled. That’s the only payment I need.”

Goulson played baseball growing up in Detroit. “Back then, in the ’70s, they did not have Jewish leagues,” he said. “We played in a non-Jewish league. So, many Jewish kids did not play on Saturdays. I think these kids are so lucky to have this league.”

For Daniel Harrison, 12, an Emek sixth-grader and die-hard Dodgers fan who has been playing Blue Star baseball for the past seven years, the Sunday game is one of the highlights of his week.

“This year, we aren’t such a good team,” said Daniel, who plays for the Reds. That doesn’t seem to have dampened his enthusiasm, however. He said he still is out there having fun and getting exercise. His goal for the season is to learn to stay more calm on the mound and increase his pitching speed and accuracy. “Sometimes when you get nervous, the ball goes off course,” he said.

Eli Saltzberg, an Emek fifth-grader and Daniel’s teammate, is equally gung-ho. According to his mom, Katherine, he wants to put on his uniform first thing in the morning on game days, arrive two hours early and stay after his own game to watch other games.

“The players have a great time,” she said, adding that she appreciates “the Torah atmosphere” of the games. The league requests, for example, that parents and family members dress modestly. “It’s good middos,” she said.

A few years ago, when Beverly Hills Little League switched its Saturday games to Sundays, Blue Star lost a large contingent of kids who attend Gindi Maimonides Academy. But the league’s numbers have held steady ever since, around 250, and the league always has more interest than roster openings.

Goulson said he hoped that someday lights would be installed on the East Valley fields where the teams play. That would allow the league to schedule additional games, with more teams and more players. But for now, the league is limited by the number of games it can squeeze in on the four fields between about 2 and 6 p.m.

So, could a future Clayton Kerhsaw — or rather, Sandy Koufax — be playing in Blue Star? Odds are against it. Nearly all of the kids who play Blue Star baseball are Orthodox. And as Goulson pointed out, you can’t be Orthodox and be a Major League player because you can’t play on Saturdays. But, he added, some players have gone on to play baseball in college, including at Yeshiva University. Ultimately, though, that’s not Blue Star’s purpose.

“This league is about providing a fun Jewish environment for kids,” Goulson said.

For that reason, he reminds managers at the beginning of every season not to sweat the small stuff. “I always share the old Jewish joke: Unless we are impeding your child’s chance to become a doctor, lawyer or CPA, it’s not worth getting upset about.”

Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, left, and second baseman Ian Kinsler on July 20, 2015. Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Baseball 2017: All the Jewish major leaguers to watch


In baseball, they say time begins on Opening Day. Everyone has a chance for a fresh start. Most of the old familiar names are back, although some have new addresses. If you count Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, there are nine Jews who begin the year on Major League rosters. But then there’s the question of what to do about Ty Kelly of the New York Mets: Is he or isn’t he? That’s still a matter of debate among those who decide on such matters.

The 28-year-old utility player was added to the roster just before Monday’s opener against the Atlanta Braves won by the Mets, 6-0. Kelly, who has a Jewish mother and Catholic father, was a member of Israel’s surprisingly strong team in the World Baseball Classic and one of 11 American ballplayers to participate in a get-acquainted trip to Israel in January. He made his debut with the Mets last season, but without the fanfare usually afforded the rare Jewish athlete.

Ryan Braun hitting a home run against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field on Sept. 17, 2016. Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

Ryan Braun hitting a home run against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field on Sept. 17, 2016. Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

If the Milwaukee Brewers’ Ryan Braun has a decent season, he will become the third Jewish major leaguer to have more than 300 home runs and 1,000 runs batted in. The 33-year-old outfielder currently trails Hank Greenberg (331, 1,276) and Shawn Green (328, 1,070) on the all-time lists. He has been dealing with some health issues over the last three seasons, missing a total of 76 games. A six-time All-Star, Braun was the National League Rookie of the Year in 2007 and Most Valuable Player four years later, but was suspended for part of the 2013 season for using performance-enhancing drugs. He was hitless in four at-bats in the Brewers’ 7-5 Opening Day loss to the Colorado Rockies.

Many Jewish fans would probably tell you that Ian Kinsler of the Detroit Tigers was the hero of Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. His two-run homer in the finals against Puerto Rico gave the Americans the only runs they would need in an 8-0 victory. Kinsler, 34, cracked the 200-home run mark (212) last season with 28 round-trippers, the most he’s had since 2011. That put him fourth in the Jewish record book. A few more good seasons will most likely increase his Hall of Fame consideration. To date, out of 317 members of baseball’s Valhalla in Cooperstown, only 20 are second basemen.

This might be a make-or-break year for Kinsler’s manager. Ausmus, now in his fourth year at the helm, has been something of a disappointment to Tigers fans. The team has been considered a perennial pennant contender in the American League but have little to show for it. Ausmus led the Tigers to a first-place finish in his rookie season (2014), but they were ousted in the first round of the playoffs. The Tigers opener against the Chicago White Sox was postponed by rain.

Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Joc Pederson hits a grand slam home on opening day game at Dodger Stadium. Photo by Gary A. Vasquez-USA Today Sports

Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Joc Pederson hits a grand slam home on opening day game at Dodger Stadium. Photo by Gary A. Vasquez-USA Today Sports

Joc Pederson topped the Los Angeles Dodgers in spring training with six home runs. That power carried over into Opening Day when the lefty swinger blasted a grand slam to help his club to a 14-3 rout of the San Diego Padres. The 24-year-old outfielder worked hard on his bat control with a goal of cutting back on his strikeouts, but still had 20 K’s this spring, tied for the team high. Pederson, a center fielder, is considered one of the better defenders in the game.

Like Kinsler, Alex Bregman, the third baseman for the Houston Astros, decided to play with for the United States in the WBC rather than Israel. Unlike Kinsler, however, he had little impact, appearing in just two games. The Astros, as well as baseball cognoscenti in general, expect great things from the 23-year-old sophomore, the second overall pick in the 2015 draft out of Louisiana State. He started slowly after making his Major League debut last June, but adjusted to “The Show” and finished with eight home runs and 34 RBIs in 49 games. In the Astros’ 3-0 Opening Day victory over the Seattle Mariners, Bregman had a hit, scored a run and stole a base.

Danny Valencia, 32, begins 2017 as the starting first baseman for the Mariners, his seventh team in eight Major League seasons. Last year he saw action at five positions, including designated hitter, for the Oakland A’s. He enjoyed career highs in several categories, including games, hits and home runs. He went hitless in three at-bats with one walk in the loss to Houston.

Kevin Pillar making a diving catch in a game against the Houston Astros on Aug. 3, 2016. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Kevin Pillar making a diving catch in a game against the Houston Astros on Aug. 3, 2016. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Kevin Pillar had a strong spring for the Toronto Blue Jays as he worked on his approach to hitting, improving his bunting skills and exhibiting more patience at the plate. Will this be the year he finally wins recognition for his outstanding outfield defense with a Gold Glove? (He won a Wilson Defensive Player of the Year award in 2015). He was 1-for-4 with a walk and a run scored in the Jays’ 11-inning, 3-2 loss to the Baltimore Orioles.

Scott Feldman of the Cincinnati Reds made a most unlikely candidate for the coveted Opening Day starting assignment. He had more than his share of difficulties, giving up three runs on seven hits, including two home runs, in a 4-3 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies. On the bright side, he struck out six. Feldman, 34, had declined to play for Team Israel because he wanted to focus on making the Reds, who signed him as a free agent in January. He has a lifetime record of 71-78 record over 12 seasons.

Reliever Craig Breslow returns to the majors with the Minnesota Twins, his team in 2008-09. The oldest of the Jewish major leaguers at 36, the Yale graduate has a lifetime record of 22-29 with eight saves over 11 seasons. The lefty reliever appeared in 15 games for the Miami Marlins before they released him in July. The Texas Rangers picked him up but he never took the mound for them. Breslow signed with the Twins as a free agent in February.


Ron Kaplan is the author of the forthcoming book “Hank Greenberg in 1938: Hatred and Home Runs in the Shadow of War” and writes Kaplan’s Korner, a blog about Jews and sports.

Israel’s players line up for the national anthem before a World Baseball Classic game against the Netherlands, in Tokyo. (Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

Campaign to build baseball stadium in Israel takes off after World Baseball Classic


Plans to build the first regulation baseball stadium in Israel have gathered steam in the wake of Team Israel’s surprisingly strong performance in the World Baseball Classic.

Members of Team Israel participated in the groundbreaking for the complex in Beit Shemesh, a city located near Jerusalem with a large ex-patriate American population. Most of the team roster was American Jewish players with major and minor league experience who came in December with their families to visit Israel and meet Israeli fans before representing the country in the international tournament.

It is one of several baseball fields being built in Israel through the Jewish National Fund’s Project Baseball.

Following Team Israel’s three victories in the first round of the World Baseball Classic and its win in the first game of the second round, the Beit Shemesh stadium project has received donations from around the world through a GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign, bringing the total to $11,000 as of Tuesday morning. The goal is $850,000.

The city of Beit Shemesh provided the Israel Association of Baseball with the land for the complex, which will include a regulation-size baseball field for adult play and two smaller fields for youth baseball, batting cages, dugouts, lights and spectator stands.

The Israel Association of Baseball, founded in 1986 by a group of expatriate baseball enthusiasts living in Israel with the goal of promoting and teaching the game of baseball in Israel, has been renting local soccer fields for games and practices. It has about 1,000 participants throughout the country from Little League to adult.

Israel’s players line up for the national anthem before a World Baseball Classic game against the Netherlands, in Tokyo. (Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

Team Israel aims for Hollywood ending in World Baseball Classic


Editor’s note: This article appears in the March 16, 2017 print issue of The Jewish Journal.

If Hollywood executives are looking for the next “Hoosiers” or “Mighty Ducks,” they might want to pay attention to Team Israel at this year’s World Baseball Classic.

The team ranked 41st in the world by the World Baseball Confederation jumped out to a 4-0 record in the 16-team tournament, which takes place every four years, beating several powerhouses known for producing Major League talent in the process. That includes unlikely wins against the world’s third-, fourth- and fifth-ranked teams in South Korea, Chinese Taipei and Cuba, respectively. 

Even after subsequently dropping a second-round game to the Netherlands in Japan, Israel had a real shot to advance to the championship round to be held March 20-22 in Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium. Standing in the way: Japan, the top-ranked team in the world. The teams were scheduled to play March 15, after the Journal went to press. (Israel could advance with a loss, but it would be difficult.)

A trip to Los Angeles for the final round would mean a homecoming for Ike Davis, an American-Jewish infielder currently playing for Team Israel, who signed a minor-league contract with the Dodgers in January.

Outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post as well as sports titan ESPN have been among those covering Team Israel’s unlikely rise.

“It’s essentially the Mighty Ducks, Hickory High [of “Hoosiers”] and the Jamaican bobsled team all rolled into one,” wrote ESPN senior writer Eddie Matz in a story. “In other words, it’s straight out of Central Casting for the role of ‘underdog team that stands absolutely no chance of winning but somehow goes on to win it all.’ ”

Nate Fish, who has been involved with the Israel Association of Baseball (IAB) for 10 years as its director, and the national team coach from 2013 until 2016, is now the team’s first-base coach. He told the Journal — via email from Tokyo, the site of Israel’s second-round games — that the success experienced by the team this year (the first time it has qualified for the tournament) has been overwhelming.

“It’s been a wild ride. This is by far the biggest thing we have accomplished,” he wrote. “We are trying to control our emotions during the games, but after games individually and as a group it can get emotional when [we] realize we just beat the number four ranked team in the world. Then we see the reaction from friends and family and online and it takes it to a whole other level when we see how many people are supporting us.”

While winning helps garner support, other factors in Israel’s Cinderella story have contributed too. The team has shirts that read “Jew Crew” and a mascot they call “Mensch on a Bench” — a life-size Chassidic doll wearing a black hat and a blue Star of David robe — that makes appearances in the dugout and in post-game press conferences.

“He’s a mascot, he’s a friend. He’s a teammate. He’s a borderline deity to our team,” Israel’s first-baseman Cody Decker said at a news conference after the team’s win over South Korea on March 6. “He brings a lot to the table.”

Despite long-shot odds, Fish said, his team has believed all along it can beat anybody. Still, he admitted in his March 14 email, that taking on Japan represented its tallest task yet.

“We do not view ourselves as underdogs,” he wrote. “In our coaches meeting we map out the games and usually say, ‘Okay, we can beat this team.’ But the further we go in the tournament the more that will change. At a certain point we will truly be underdogs. When we play Japan tomorrow is a good example.”

Israel’s team is made up of mostly American-born Jewish minor leaguers and men who have bounced around the majors. Thirty-eight-year-old pitcher Jason Marquis may be the best-known member of Israel’s pitching staff; he’s currently a free agent who has played for nine major league teams throughout his professional career. The team’s starting shortstop, Ty Kelly, is in the New York Mets’ farm system, but is also focused on a career as a screenwriter.

According to Fish, members of the team have their differences beyond coming from varying baseball backgrounds. However, the joint task of representing the Jewish state on a global stage is bringing them together and adding a layer of significance to the competition that transcends the diamond.

“We all have various levels of connection to Judaism and Israel, but when Hatikva plays before each game, the guys really feel connected and proud of what we are doing,” he wrote. “We know we are representing an entire nation and a group of people from around the world and we take that very seriously.” 

Israel players are seen in front of the dugout prior to the World Baseball Classic Pool E Game Six between Israel and Japan at the Tokyo Dome on March 15, 2017 in Tokyo, Japan. Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images.

Israel’s surprising World Baseball Classic run ends with loss to Japan


Team Israel saw its Cinderella run at the World Baseball Classic end with a loss to Japan in Tokyo.

Japan snapped a scoreless tie with five runs in the sixth inning on the way to an 8-3 victory on Wednesday before more than 40,000 fans packed into the Tokyo Dome.

Israel, the lowest-ranked team to qualify for the showcase tournament, dropped its last two games in the second round and will not advance to the semifinals next week in Los Angeles. Japan, with a tournament record of 6-0, and the Netherlands will advance from Pool E. They will join the top two teams from the Pool F games currently being played in San Diego.

Israel had startled the baseball world by opening the tournament with four straight victories, including a 4-1 win over powerhouse Cuba in the first game of the second round. But Israel lost 12-2 to the Netherlands on Monday and needed to beat Japan to move on.

Last week, in the first round, the Israelis squeaked past third-ranked South Korea, 2-1, in extra innings, outscored fourth-ranked Taiwan, 15-7, and defeated ninth-ranked the Netherlands, 4-2, to finish first in Pool A with a 3-0 record.

This is the first year that Israel has qualified for the tournament. In 2012, its inaugural WBC squad narrowly missed advancing past the qualifiers.

Most of the players are American Jews, among them several former major leaguers. WBC rules state that players who are eligible for citizenship of a country may play on its team. Jews and their grandchildren, and the grandchildren’s spouses, have the right to become Israeli citizens.

The team appeared on the field at each game for the national anthem of Israel, “Hatikvah,” with matching blue kippahs. The club’s mascot was known as Mensch on a Bench.

Sam Fuld of the Israeli World Baseball Classic team reacting after striking out in a game against the Netherlands at the Tokyo Dome, March 13. Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images.

Team Israel suffers first loss in World Baseball Classic


Israel’s surprising squad in the World Baseball Classic lost its first game in the tournament, dropping a rematch with the Netherlands, 12-2.

Israel is now 1-1 in the second round of the 16-team quadrennial tournament and 4-1 overall. Israel likely must defeat powerhouse Japan on Wednesday to advance to the semifinals.

Didi Gregorius, the New York Yankees’ shortstop, homered and drove in five runs to power the Netherlands. The game was called after eight innings due to the mercy rule stopping a contest with a team trailing by 10 runs after seven innings or 15 runs when at least five innings have been played.

Israel was the lowest-ranked team to qualify for the showcase tournament, coming in at 41st in the world. But last week in the first round, the Israelis squeaked past third-ranked South Korea, 2-1, in extra innings, outscored fourth-ranked Taiwan, 15-7, and defeated ninth-ranked the Netherlands, 4-2, to finish first in Pool A with a 3-0 record.

This is the first year that Israel has qualified for the tournament. In 2012, its inaugural WBC squad narrowly missed advancing past the qualifiers.

Most of the players are American Jews, among them several former major leaguers. WBC rules state that players who are eligible for citizenship of a country may play on its team. Jews and their grandchildren, and the grandchildren’s spouses, have the right to become Israeli citizens.

Billy Crystal attending the Samsung Studio at SXSW 2015 in Austin, Texas, March 15, 2015. Photo by Rick Kern/Getty Images for Samsung.

Billy Crystal on being Jewish, playing ball and more


The inimitable Billy Crystal is back on the road. The six-time Emmy Award-winning comedian, actor, producer, director and writer — most recently of a book of essays, “Still Foolin’ ‘Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys” —  is currently touring the U.S. with his new show, “Spend the Night with Billy Crystal.”

The show, scheduled to tour through April, promises to feel like an intimate chat with the audience  — a blend of standup with a “sit-down” interview with Crystal, moderated at many shows by comedian and actor Bonnie Hunt. Crystal, who lives in Los Angeles, will tell stories, talk about the world as he sees it, reflect on his life and show some film clips from his long career.

Of course, the popular nine-time Oscar host has numerous iconic films and roles to choose from: The title character in the quintessential rom-com “When Harry Met Sally;” the grouchy “miracle worker” in “The Princess Bride;” Mitch, a New Yorker heading toward a midlife crisis who goes on a cattle drive with his buddies in “City Slickers;” and in “Analyze This,” a shrink to Robert De Niro’s mob boss.

But before he was charming millions, Crystal, 68, was entertaining his family and friends while growing up in the quaint beach town of Long Beach, New York. Then a predominately Jewish and Italian town, Crystal describes it as the “perfect place to grow up.” He often references his beloved hometown in his act, and in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy’s battering of New York in 2012, Crystal and his wife of nearly 47 years, Janice, helped raise more than one million dollars to help Long Beach rebuild and rebound.

Crystal’s early childhood, back in the 1950s, was filled with music and laughter. His mother, Helen, was a talented tap dancer and singer. His father, Jack, worked six days a week at two jobs — as a jazz promoter and manager of the family’s popular New York City record store. Jazz greats like Billie Holiday — who were friends of his parents — would frequent their home.

Crystal and his dad would spend most Sundays together watching baseball games. Their relationship was chronicled in Crystal’s Tony Award-winning one-man show “700 Sundays” (also adapted into a book and HBO special), named for the number of Sundays he spent with his father before his dad died of a heart attack when Crystal was only 15.

The only thing Crystal ever aspired to do as much as comedy was play baseball for his beloved New York Yankees — in fact, he says the highlight of his long career came in 2008 ,when he signed a one-day contract with the team in honor of his 60th birthday.

In a phone interview with JTA, Crystal looked back on his family, his Jewish identity, his long career and the “one thing” that keeps him going.

JTA: You seem to be a celebrity who wears your Judaism as a badge of honor, and not in a self-hating sort of way. Would you agree?

Billy Crystal: I do. I mean, I still make fun, but it’s not about Jews — it’s about my Jews, it’s about my relatives. It’s not generalizations.

What are some of your favorite parts about being Jewish?

You mean, besides the circumcision?

You remember that, huh?

Yeah, oh yeah, that’s why I’m an insomniac. I’m waiting for that guy to come back in the room.

What else do you love about being Jewish?

The storytelling, the warmth, the sense of humor. My dad was strict about the holidays. We honored them, we went to temple. I like the ritual, and the caring for our planet that’s written into so many of the works I read in Hebrew school.

How do you compare when you were just starting out in showbiz 4o-plus years ago to touring with your new show today?

It all feels the same. I don’t think I’ve stopped working since the eighth grade. Backstage, when I was on Broadway, felt the same as it did backstage when I was getting ready to do a school play in high school. It’s that same energy of confidence, a little bit of nerves … The moment you go out, you release and say, ‘OK, I’m ready, here I come.’ It’s kind of an intoxicating feeling to go out and entertain people.

That’s why, after all these years, I’m going back on the road with this show … At this age and this point in my career, to still have the hunger I did as a young man is a great feeling.

Besides signing to a one-day contract with the New York Yankees, what’s another of your proudest professional achievements?

I was the first American comedian to perform in the Soviet Union back in 1989 in an HBO special called “Midnight Train to Moscow.” It was a Russian-speaking audience [with] some Americans. Gorbachev was in power, the [Berlin] Wall had not come down yet, and [I felt honored] that HBO trusted me. I found all these relatives that I didn’t know I had there [in Russia]. But performing there and being an ambassador, if you will, for American humor in that country is something I look back on with great pride.

What did your father teach you during those “700 Sundays,” before he passed away?

Besides teaching me a love for comedy, a love for reading, a love for baseball, he also taught me about doing the right thing. My dad was a civil rights giant in his own quiet way, in that he was one of the first promoters to integrate jazz bands. So the house, yes, was filled with Jewish relatives with stories, but sitting next to them was Zutty Singleton, who was a great jazz drummer, or Tyree Glenn, who was Louie Armstrong’s trombone player, or any of these other great musicians. They were all just friends. My family label — Commodore Records — produced “Strange Fruit,” which is Billie Holliday’s epic song about lynching. It took a Jewish family to produce that record, to write that song.

How did your father’s premature death shape your life and your relationship with your mother?

I was 15 and was dealt a bad hand. You can’t help but be angry, and I was angry and had to learn to live with that, and to deal with my mother, who was suddenly widowed and forced back into the workforce. [Being] back home alone with her, while my brothers were away at college, made me grow up really fast. I admired her strength — at the age of 50 she was suddenly back in the workforce. Three sons in school and we all graduated college because of her. You watch that and learn what parenting is really about, and what being a son is really about. My mom sent me on a path of trying to do the right thing in my life and also valuing every moment that you live.

What’s your secret to your happy, healthy and long marriage?

We still feel that we’re dating. After all these years, and all the things that we’ve been through, and all the joys and sadness that we’ve shared together — right from the beginning: You’re 18 and you have to tell the in-laws [that] you’re going to be a comedian.

But Janice’s faith in me, her trust in me, her strength when things aren’t going well. Our key is we keep laughing, we keep talking and we keep loving.

I’m going to remind you about a scene from your own movie, “City Slickers.” Curly, a cowboy, asks your character, Mitch, if you know the secret to life. Then, Curly holds up one finger and says “One thing.” What I took Curly to mean is that each of us have to find that one thing that give our lives meaning. What is that one thing, or maybe a couple of things, that give you purpose?

The purpose is Janice and the kids, and continually doing right by them and right by myself. That’s the most important thing … and in my job, I have a purpose. I have a mind that still loves to create and I follow that deeply.

Cindy Sher is the Executive Editor of Chicago’s JUF News.

Baseball more than a game in ‘going … going … GONE!’


In 1958, the Dodgers’ first season in Los Angeles, 8-year-old Ken Levine got a hometown baseball team and his first taste of legendary play-by-play announcer Vin Scully. The rest is history. 

“Most kids grow up wanting to be ballplayers. When I first heard (Scully), I knew I wanted to be an announcer,” Levine said, beaming from behind a plate of eggs and biscuits inside John O’Groats on Pico Boulevard. 

The press box of a Los Angeles baseball stadium provides the backdrop for Levine’s third playwriting effort, “Going … Going … GONE!” The baseball-centered stage play is set for its world premiere at the Hudson Guild Theatre in Hollywood on Oct. 1, continuing through Nov. 6. 

In a television, film and broadcasting career that has spanned more than 30 years, the Emmy-winning Levine, 66, has served as the head writer of “M*A*S*H,” produced “Cheers,” co-created three sitcoms of his own, and has spent the last 20 years doing radio/TV play-by-play for the Baltimore Orioles, Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres. He also served as host of “Dodger Talk” on the Los Angeles sports radio station KLAC-AM for eight years. Levine even shared broadcasting duties via simulcast for a Dodgers spring training game with his idol Scully — the crown jewel of his accomplishments, he says. 

Levine’s play blends poignancy and Neil Simon-esque comedy and is grounded in rich characterizations. Set over the course of one long, extra-inning game, the lives of four very different sports media personalities — Shana, a female sideline reporter; Dennis, a first-time official scorer; Big Jim, a blogger; and Mason, an L.A. Times reporter — are changed forever while covering the game. 

The central idea of the play was the impetus for Levine, rather than characters or plot — a rarity in Levine’s writing process. 

“I wrote the play backward in the sense that usually when I write anything — a television episode, a film or a play — I have an idea and see the potential of it. I work on characters and plot out the story, then start writing it. As I write it, theme generally emerges. You see what it’s really about. On this one, I started with the theme first. I started with the notion of how we all want to be remembered, which I call my mid-AARP crisis.” 

The sharp-edged, rhythmic banter of Levine’s characters makes for an engaging avenue to explore the concept of legacy. A shocking twist near the end then brings the conversation to a head, raising questions we all find ourselves asking at times — at least inwardly. 

“How important is it to be remembered? What are we trying to be remembered for? How does chasing your legacy impact how you live your life now? That seemed to me like an interesting area for a play,” Levine said. 

For Levine, baseball felt like the natural backdrop. But he foresaw one issue early on: how to show the game being played. The solution he concocted provided the play’s unique take on a baseball narrative. 

“I landed upon baseball because it’s a sport built around history and milestones and passing that on from generation to generation more than any other sport. As it just so happens, I’ve been a baseball announcer for close to 30 years. It’s a subject I know well. The problem with baseball plays or movies is usually you need to see the game. I figured out a way of seeing the game without seeing the field. Once I decided to center it on the press box, the play began taking shape.” 

Although the play’s characters are technically on the job, very little actual work is being done, with the game mostly an afterthought. For example, Dennis, the official scorer for the game, often misses key plays on the diamond. A few elements of the game manage to slip into the action up in the press box — some interplay with the announcer and a hilarious gag involving the national anthem come to mind. 

Though Levine admits to exaggerating certain elements for comedic effect, he insists his depiction of the press box — the practical jokes, ruthless digs, blatant sexism and political incorrectness — is mostly true. In fact, the play’s four characters are all loosely based on people Levine has come across while covering baseball. It was territory he mined that felt ripe for theatrics. 

“When I hosted ‘Dodger Talk,’ I would do the pre- and postgame show. During the game, I’d sit in the press box with all the reporters and many, many nights they were way more entertaining than the game.”

On the flip side, the play doesn’t pull punches when alluding to pop culture portrayals of sportswriters and reporters. Even Neil Simon, whom Levine credits as a major influence, can’t escape ridicule. 

Mason, the L.A. Times reporter, at one point remarks, “How could Oscar cover the Mets and still host a weekly poker game?” referencing Walter Matthau’s Oscar Madison character in Simon’s “The Odd Couple.” And Big Jim, a blogger for “Balls dot com,” asks, “How could Ray cover the Yankees and never leave his house?” implicating Ray Romano’s character in “Everybody Loves Raymond.” 

The play is currently in rehearsal under the helm of Andrew Barnicle, the former longtime artistic director of the Laguna Playhouse. Barnicle directed Levine’s last play, “A or B,” for the Falcon Theater. Citing his admiration for Barnicle’s directing style, the familiarity present in the pair’s working relationship and a shared love of baseball, Levine said Barnicle was his clear-cut first choice to direct his latest play. Levine is present at rehearsals, “a fly on the wall,” as he puts it, making minimal changes to the script when called upon. 

“The last thing the actors need is two directors,” Levine said. 

With the play set to premiere Oct. 1, Levine is adamant that baseball simply provides the framework and hopes that his story, its characters and the prevailing comedy will make the production widely accessible. 

“Baseball is just the backdrop of the play. You don’t have to love baseball to enjoy it. This is about the characters and their lives. Hopefully, it’s very funny.”

Levine then pauses, stirs his iced tea with his straw, ruminating on this, and finally adds:

“I was on ‘Cheers’ for nine years. Think of these characters as Norm and Cliff, and all the idiots at the bar.” 

For more information and tickets, visit plays441.com.

At Maccabi, forging Jewish identity between the baselines


When I was 10, my family got frum, and I started playing baseball. Oddly, the overlap wasn’t a coincidence: Our new rabbi added me to his Little League team and taught me how to throw; I broke in my first mitt — and a new peer group — playing catch with his son. For me, a connection between the national pastime and Judaism is not just easy to make on a personal level. It’s seminal to my interest in both.

I’m not sure that’s what qualified me to coach a cadre of bright-eyed, bar mitzvah-aged ballplayers in this summer’s JCC Maccabi Games, an annual Olympics-style tournament for Jewish teens held in Stamford, Conn., this month. But there I was, shooing a gaggle of over-sugared charges through security and, along with more than 100 other boys and girls from our Westside JCC delegation, onto a plane headed for John F. Kennedy International Airport. That everyone in the group was Jewish — a unique, fledgling Jewish identity for every plane ticket — struck me as remarkable and exciting. There were kids who went to Jewish day school and kids who’d never had bar mitzvahs, and the vast majority fell somewhere in between. In other words, it looked like a cross-section of American Jewry.

At the same time, it seemed clear from the outset that Jewish identities would not be getting the workout on this trip. The chaperones were coaches, not rabbis, and other than the occasional allusion to “Jewish values,” the programming stuck to sports. Religion was more a selection criteria than unifying theme, and it stayed in the background most of the time. Which was fine! The kids were being Jewish without their parents; for more than a handful of them, the games could end up being the only Jewish thing they do all year.

Maccabi’s ideologically aloof playing field instead lent itself to a more organic contemplation of Jewish faith, at least on the team I coached. In fact, it turned out to be the ideal space for dialogue — low-stakes, diverse and totally voluntary. When Judaism did come up, I observed these sunflower seed aficionados shell, chew and spit religious ideas with bracing open-mindedness and originality. The discussions were more brief than shallow; these athletes were also budding intellectuals, which is to say, growing friends.

It started during the Friday night meal at our hotel — you couldn’t really call it Shabbat dinner since there was neither Kiddush nor challah — when the boys started considering who at the table was “actually” Jewish. “Both my parents are Jewish,” our center fielder began, with a modest whiff of self-assurance. “I’m half,” volunteered the left fielder, rather fearlessly. Which half? the others needed to know, for obvious reasons. “My dad is Jewish,” he responded, evidently knowing where this was headed because he then added, “I have Jewish blood.”

The crowd was tougher than the sell. “But you’re not Jewish!” the center fielder exclaimed. Here, I finally jumped in with what is at least tacitly Maccabi’s eligibility guideline: “You’re Jewish if you say you’re Jewish,” I said. “Who’s to say you’re not?” “The Conservative movement,” quipped the center fielder, who goes to Jewish day school. The left fielder (a Hebrew-schooler) called him off, unimpressed: “Who gives a” — and here he said a word that I, his baseball coach, did not teach him and do not condone using — “about the Conservative movement?” They laughed, and went back to testing each other’s memorization of baseball statistics.

Later that week, at an amusement park for their evening activity, two teammates broached the topic of God. While working on a mouthful of hamburger, our second baseman volunteered his theory that the ocean — the origin of life and forever unknowable — is God. Our shortstop countered that God might be the invisible, all-powerful force of gravity. The middle infield got pretty abstract.

All the while, their rookie baseball coach felt stuck, torn between helping them navigate Jewish ideas and just letting them make a fine mess. Was I to join these conversations and risk curtailing their reach? (Is God not on land or in space? I asked, unhelpfully.) What did these restless, creative minds — whose spiritual bandwidth was just beginning to stretch — have to gain from anything I had to say? Sure: God can be anywhere you look. Does saying that really help someone who is already experiencing God at the beach? And of course: Your parents don’t determine whether you’re Jewish, you do. Does that help a young Jew, who’s already comfortable defying the Conservative movement, understand that faith is inexorable, and inexorably personal?

Our oldest player was barely 14 years old — he and his teammates are a long way from answering Judaism’s big-picture questions, and that’s as it should be. What’s important is that they have already started to talk about those questions — and that their new friends will listen to and challenge their ideas as they evolve. They went to Connecticut to play baseball, and yet here they were, negotiating Jewish identity. And, perhaps, forging a meaningful connection between their Jewish experience and their favorite sport. I can’t say where any one of them will wind up. It was just a treat to see all of them on their way.


Louis Keene is a writer living in Los Angeles who can now say he has coached baseball. You can find more of his writing on his website at VICE Sports, and at www.keene.la.

Highly touted baseball prospect Alex Bregman to make MLB debut for Astros


Alex Bregman, a Jewish player and one of Major League Baseball’s top prospects, has been called up by the Houston Astros.

Bregman, 22, will make his debut on Monday night against the New York Yankees after being promoted the night before from Houston’s Triple A Fresno minor league affiliate. He will likely play third base and the outfield for the Astros.

“It’s a dream come true,” Bregman told MLB.com. “And I’m ready to go to work, keep my mouth shut and hopefully help contribute.”

Bregman is the son of two lawyers and hails from Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he attended Congregation Albert, the city’s oldest synagogue.

He was the second overall pick in the 2015 MLB draft and is currently ranked the 19th best prospect in the game by ESPN. He was hitting .333 with six home runs and 15 runs batted in 18 games with the Fresno squad.

Bregman, who was an All-America shortstop at Louisiana State University, said the first thing he did after getting the call from the Astros was to call his mother.

“She was screaming,” he said.

The only Jewish player to be drafted higher than Bregman was Ron Blomberg, who was drafted No. 1 overall by the New York Yankees in 1967 and became baseball’s first designated hitter.

Tablet reported that Bregman’s grandfather Stanley, who was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, worked with baseball’s Washington Senators (the second team with that name, which eventually became today’s Texas Rangers) through his law firm.

Los Angeles Dodgers sign Israeli in Major League first


Dean Kremer became the first Israeli to sign a contract with a Major League Baseball team.

The Los Angeles Dodgers signed Kremer, a 20-year-old Israeli-American Tuesday. The team drafted the right-handed pitcher in the 14th round of this month’s 2016 MLB draft.

Kremer, a Stockton, California native born to Israeli parents, was drafted last year in the 38th round by the San Diego Padres but did not sign with the team. He transferred from San Joaquin Delta College to the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, where he went 4-5 with a 4.92 ERA in 12 starts.

He was the first Israeli to be drafted by an MLB team.

Kremer played for Israel’s national baseball team for the past three years. He was named the European baseball championship’s most valuable pitcher each of the last two years and led Israel out of the tournament’s C-pool into the stronger B-pool last year.

“I was born here in the United States, but I go back and practically live [in Israel] for two months out of the year in the summer, so it’s definitely home,” Kremer told the Las Vegas Review Journal in February.

Kremer will play this summer for the Dodgers’ Rookie League team, the first of six leagues he will have to progress through to make it onto the major league roster, Haaretz reported.

Thanks to viral video, Holocaust survivor gets wish to sing at Detroit Tigers game


An 89-year-old Holocaust survivor will sing the American national anthem at a Detroit Tigers baseball game, after her granddaughter circulated a video of her that went viral.

Amid a flood of requests on her behalf, the Tigers invited Hermina Hirsch to fulfill her bucket list wish by singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at their May 21 game, Fox Sports reported.

“At my age, I figure that this would do it,” Hirsch, of Southfield, Michigan, told Detroit’s CBS Local. “I don’t want to die before I sing at a baseball game.”

Hirsch survived multiple concentration camps, including the Auschwitz death camp, and lost her parents, three brothers and other relatives in the Holocaust.

Asked by CBS Local if the prospect of singing before thousands of fans at Detroit’s Comerica Park made her nervous, Hirsch said, with a smile on her face: “If I lived through the concentration camp, it couldn’t be that bad.”

Born in 1927 in a town in what was then Czechoslovakia, Hirsch was deported to a ghetto in 1944, and then moved among five different concentration camps, including Auschwitz

“She was liberated from a concentration camp (she doesn’t remember the name) in either Germany or Poland on Jan. 21, 1945,” her granddaughter Andrea Hirsch wrote in an email to CBS Local. “She walked and hitched rides with strangers to get back to where she was born.”

Hirsch married Bernard Hirsch in 1947. The couple moved first to New York and then to Detroit. Hirsch sings the national anthem at weekly Holocaust survivor meetings at the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit and also sings in her synagogue choir.

“At first when I told her that her video went viral and there’s so many people that caught wind of her story, she didn’t really understand,” Andrea Hirsch told CBS Detroit. “You know, she didn’t really understand how or why, how something like this could happen through social media. She just couldn’t believe how it progressed. … I didn’t even believe this could happen. We’re so excited.”

Baseball’s back: Here’s a look at 8 Jewish major leaguers and a manager


Will Joc Pederson rebound from his second-half struggles of last season? Can Kevin Pillar build on his strong 2015 campaign? Will injuries derail one-time MVP Ryan Braun?

These are some of the questions to be answered as these Jewish players and others get set for the Major League Baseball season that opens Sunday.

Pederson (Los Angeles Dodgers), Pillar (Toronto Blue Jays) and Braun (Milwaukee Brewers) – all outfielders – are among the position players who will start for their teams. They will be joined by second baseman Ian Kinsler of the Detroit Tigers, who also have a Jewish manager, Brad Ausmus. And Danny Valencia, a solid hitter, appears to be the starter at third base for the rebuilding Oakland Athletics.

Among pitchers, right-hander Scott Feldman will be part of the Houston Astros’ starting rotation. And the Miami Marlins bullpen will include Craig Breslow, who has mostly made his living for 10 years as a lefty specialist, the last three with Boston. With the Red Sox he earned a World Series championship ring in 2013, then last year achieved a first: He started a game after making 522 appearances in relief.

In Oakland, outfielder Sam Fuld joins Valencia to make the Athletics the only team with multiple Jewish players. Fuld is injured and will start the season on the disabled list.

Boston had been “the” Jewish address of late: The Red Sox had Breslow, catcher Ryan Lavarnway and outfielder Ryan Kalish in 2012, and infielder Kevin Youkilis and outfielder Adam Stern played together in 2005 and 2006. Only Breslow of that Boston bunch remains in the majors.

“It’s the first time in years the Red Sox don’t have a Jewish ballplayer,” said Ephraim Moxson, co-publisher of the Jewish Sports Review newsletter.

Several others who have played in the majors weren’t fortunate enough to make Opening Day rosters. They include infielders Nate Freiman, Ike Davis, Josh Satin and Cody Decker, as well as relief pitcher Josh Zeid.

Up-and-comers include shortstop Alex Bregman, the second overall pick in last June’s collegiate draft by the Astros, and Zach Borenstein, an outfielder in the Arizona Diamondbacks system. Bregman hit .294 for two of the Astros A teams last season, while Borenstein hit .281 in spring training before being demoted to the minors.

Pederson shouldn’t have worries about being sent down, but will look to avoid the second-half doldrums he suffered last season. The center fielder had started for the National League in last summer’s All-Star game as a rookie one night after finishing second in the home-run-hitting contest. But his horrid second half, which included his benching as the starter, saw his batting average fall to .210 and he finished with a team record-tying 170 strikeouts. Still, he slugged 26 homers and played stellar defense.

Pillar could be the real deal. He was outstanding in the field, finishing second among all center fielders in defensive ratings. While lacking Pederson’s power, Pillar showed far better skills as an all-around hitter – so much so that he’s been elevated to leadoff in the batting order of one of the majors’ best offensive clubs. In 2015, his first full season in the majors, Pillar hit .278, socked 31 doubles and stole 25 bases.

“Pillar is probably the best of them all now” among Jewish major leaguers, Moxson said. “He’s got a good glove, a good bat and speed.”

All-Star Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers is coming back from postseason lower-back surgery that affected him even through spring training. (Scott Paulus/Milwaukee Brewers)All-Star Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers is coming back from postseason lower-back surgery that affected him even through spring training. Photo by Scott Paulus/Milwaukee Brewers

Braun, a left fielder starting his 10th season, possesses those tools, too, and remains the brightest light on a rebuilding Brewers team that finished last a season ago in the National League Central. But he’s coming back from postseason lower-back surgery that affected him even through spring training.

Last year Braun made the All-Star team for the sixth time and is steadily building a Hall of Fame-level career — if his suspension in 2013 for using performance-enhancing drugs can be overlooked. Keep in mind that he’s just 31.

The Tigers are also looking to return to contention and will need Kinsler to have a typically solid season, as he did in 2015 batting .296, though driving in 19 fewer runs than the previous campaign. A sharp falloff in pitching doomed the Tigers, who finished with the American League’s second-worst record and last in the Central Division. The poor showing nearly cost Ausmus his job one year after winning the division in his managerial debut.

In Houston, Feldman provides veteran leadership to a young staff headlined by Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel. Feldman missed half of 2015 with knee and shoulder injuries, making just 18 starts as the Astros emerged as a wild-card team. Feldman could find himself pitching with much more at stake in October, as the Astros are favored by some to contend for the World Series this year. Pillar’s Blue Jays will provide stiff competition, as Toronto is the consensus pick to reclaim the A.L. East crown.

 

For ex-baseball players, Israel a place to learn and teach


Out of baseball after four years playing in the minor leagues, Brent Powers, a Christian from Texas, took a tour of Israel last year with his wife. He was smitten with the country and considered how to return.

The Masa Israel Journey will provide his path.

Powers and about a dozen American college players will be part of the group’s five-month, baseball-themed program launching in January. Israel’s baseball czar figures their expertise will do wonders for a sport that is growing in popularity, but remains a niche sport in a country where soccer and basketball reign.

Masa provides an internship-like framework that encourages young Jewish professionals from the Diaspora to experience Israel from the inside. Masa now encompasses some 250 professions.

Along with Hebrew-language classes and trips, the baseball players, like Masa participants generally, will work in their professions and interact in depth with their Israeli counterparts: coaching at Israel’s new baseball academy, playing in an adult league and teaching the sport to elementary-school children.

Israel Association of Baseball director Nate Fish believes his organization’s partnership with Masa “can really revolutionize” the level of play in Israel. Now, he says, coaching in Israeli youth and adult leagues is handled by parents and other untrained volunteers.

“If you have 10-20 college players coming in, and put two to three on each team, the level of play goes up,” Fish said of the adult league. “And when we send them to the communities to coach once a week, it gives the little kids some real baseball role models. You’ll get better practices. There’s no substitute for that.”

The visitors will gain, too, because “it gives them an opportunity to start their coaching careers,” he said.

The program is spreading by word of mouth, and Fish says he plans to more actively recruit future cohorts by appealing to their sense of sports adventure and career aspirations.

That’s what reeled in Powers, who had pitched in the minors from 2011 to 2014 for the Oakland Athletics and Toronto Blue Jays. Three teammates from the Athletics’ team in Burlington, Vermont, in 2012 played for Israel in that autumn’s World Baseball Classic qualifiers and connected him to Fish, a coach on the club.

When Fish tweeted early this year about the Masa launch, Powers said, “Whoa – that’s exactly what I want to do.”

In Israel, “I really look forward to working with the kids,” said Powers, who coaches youth in a Houston program.

Joshua Scharff, an outfielder and pitcher for Yale University before graduating in 2013, has been in Israel working with the program since September and awaits the arrival of his American colleagues. He had enjoyed the pro-Israel advocacy work he did in Boston, but left for the baseball calling.

“My heart is here, so when I found something that combined the two things I love the most – baseball and Israel – I jumped at the opportunity,” Scharrf said from his apartment in Tel Aviv.

To add heft to the program, Masa recruited former major league outfielders Art Shamsky and Shawn Green, both of them Jewish, as spokesmen and might bring them to Israel to lead clinics.

Masa officials see their initiatives in lacrosse – which launched a year ago – and baseball as providing Israel with a stream of talented athletes from overseas who will inject their experience locally. Accomplished players in such sports as soccer, American football, basketball, swimming and the triathlon could soon find opportunities to ply their trade in Israel. Scholarships and grants scaled to each athlete’s experience and ability help reduce the $9,400 per person fee.

The organization also aspires to take the athletic program beyond the field of play to include those working in coaching and sports management – even sports writing.

“We always aim to have a large number of opportunities for professionals to come to Israel and enhance their careers,” said Freda Surki, Masa’s director of development and organizer relations. “We realized that sports portfolios didn’t really exist, and thought that this would be a great opportunity.”

The new baseball track comes as the Israel Association of Baseball is forming a team to compete next September in the WBC’s qualifying round in Brooklyn, New York.

“The timing couldn’t be better,” Green said. “The better the [Israeli] team does in the qualifiers, the more that momentum kicks in … to help grow baseball in a country with a contingent of fans. It’s the right way to do it.”

Much of the seed money is coming from Andy Bloch, a Northern California resident who says he plans to persuade Jewish owners of Major League Baseball clubs to become involved and contribute financially, too.

While the program might “take awhile” to become entrenched and to draw ever-more accomplished players to Israel to play and to coach, Bloch says, the effort will bear fruit as a greater mass of talented homegrown ballplayers develops.

“It’s a great opportunity for Israel and for the players,” he said.

That’s just how Powers sees it.

Like in many Jewish families, Powers had a parental influence pushing him to visit Israel – his father, also a Christian, had been to the country several times for work.

By program’s end, Powers said, “I’ll have a phone book full of friends.”

Israel looks to the United States for baseball tutors


Baseball is known as the national pastime of the United States. The same cannot be said in Israel, but a new program enlisting American Jewish ballplayers is aimed at honing the skills of Israeli hopefuls and elevating the game there.

The Israel Association of Baseball (IAB) is hoping its “Israel Baseball Experience” program, importing the American players for five months starting in January to play in the top Israeli baseball league, will turn out to be a grand slam.

“We want guys to come over just to raise the level of playing and coaching in the country,” said Nate Fish, the association's head national team coach. “If you can take 10 or 20 Division I college baseball players and you put them in the Premier League it would drastically impact the level of play. I'm not really worried about having too many of these guys.”

Art Shamsky, an outfielder with the 1969 World Series champion New York Mets who in 2007 served as manager of a team in a now-defunct Israeli baseball league, said his Israeli players “didn't understand the nuances of the game.”

“Baseball is a very subtle game in a lot of ways,” Shamsky said. “Sure, there's run, throw, hit, pitch and field. But there are parts of the game you learn playing Little League or in high school. They didn't have that.”

Shamsky, who is Jewish, said there are some Israeli players who have some ability. “I wouldn't rule out some player over there eventually playing minor league ball and then make it to the big leagues (in the United States). This program could help make it happen.”

Shamsky, 74, said the program, sponsored by the IAB and Masa Israel Journey, could help Israel qualify for the World Baseball Classic (WBC), an international tournament sponsored by Major League Baseball.

'NOT SO FAR-FETCHED'

“It's not so far-fetched to think that the game can get developed there and kids can play it at a competitive level,” Shamsky said. “Who knows what can happen? At one point they said that about Japan, about China and Australia. It can be done.”

The American players, ages 18 to 29, will be set to play in the Premier League and go into communities around Israel to help promote and develop the game, the program's organizers said. The Americans are due to work with Israeli coaches and children in five cities, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

The Israeli national team, ranked 22nd in the world in baseball and sixth in Europe, is preparing to try to qualify next year for the 2017 WBC.

Few of the Israeli national squad's players are on Israel's WBC team, which consists mainly of American Jews who qualify to play for Israel in the tournament. WBC rules allow players to represent a country if they are merely eligible for citizenship.

Israel lost in the WBC qualifying round in 2012, losing to Spain in the finals.

Shawn Green, 42, a retired two-time Major League Baseball all-star outfielder who is Jewish, said baseball “has started to take off in Israel” and that “the key is to get American players there.”

“Not only can they help instruct and show the Israeli players how to play the game, they can also go out there and demonstrate what it takes to perform as a professional baseball player and exemplify the right way to play the game,” Green said.

Fish acknowledged that current Premier League attendance is little more than “a few parents and friends scattered around,” with no stadium announcer or concessions.

He also noted that Israel's current security problems can intrude on sports.

“Baseball is an escape,” Fish said. “We've had a lot of problems over the last month. For the kids that play, it's essentially a time where they don't have to think about it.”

Fish added, “We were running summer camps last year and almost every day the sirens would go off and we'd have to hustle kids into the bomb shelter behind the third-base dugout. It's just a reality that we deal with.”

Israel baseball creating diamonds in the desert


America’s pastime, meet the Holy Land.

While soccer and basketball have long ruled the Israeli sports scene, a new program by Masa Israel aims to make inroads in the Jewish state on behalf of baseball, and one of the faces of the effort is none other than former Los Angeles Dodger (and member of the tribe) Shawn Green.

“I think it’s a great idea, and I think it’s going to be very positive for Major League Baseball, who’s trying to expand the world footprint of the game, as well as for Israel, which has a strong contingent of fans that are in need of something like this,” Green told the Journal in a recent phone interview.

Green is teaming up with Art Shamsky, a member of the 1969 World Series champion Mets, to serve as stateside ambassadors for Masa Israel’s initiative, the Israel Baseball Experience, in partnership with the Israel Association of Baseball. 

Masa Israel, an initiative of The Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israeli government, connects young Jewish adults (ages 18 to 30) with a wide range of opportunities, including study abroad, internships, service learning and educational content. The new baseball program will be fully launched in January. 

Alex Elman, Masa’s director of marketing and communications, said the five-month internship will bring 10 to 20 ballplayers, perhaps former college or minor leaguers, to live in Israel, play and coach in the country’s premier league, and run clinics with local youth to help build the game on a grass-roots level. 

The cost is $9,400, which includes housing in Tel Aviv, all baseball coaching, uniforms, cultural and language programs, and more. To apply, go to athletics.masaisrael.org. Scholarships and grants are available. (Applicants do not need to be Jewish, but it is required for grants.)

Elman said the initiative is a recognition that athletics can be one more way to provide young people with an immersive experience in Israel. 

“All our Masa Israel programs are focused on long-term engagement,” he said. “We’ve realized that there are so many interests there among young Jewish adults. How can we get them over there? … Sports is obviously something — if you love to do it, why not do it in Israel?”

Currently, baseball is an afterthought to many Israelis, and one might expect those trying to pioneer the legitimacy of baseball in the Jewish state to be facing an uphill battle. Josh Scharff, a St. Louis native and former Yale University first baseman, is the program’s first participant. He arrived 2 1/2 months ago as a sort of guinea pig and so far he doesn’t disagree with that assessment. 

“Baseball is a part of being American,” Scharff said. “When you come to a place that doesn’t have that, especially when you have 45 minutes with a kid in a school, you have to come in there and be the coolest person in his entire life. It’s a great challenge. You have to have a great session and be really impactful.”

According to Nate Fish, leader of day-to-day operations for the Israel Association of Baseball (the body that runs Israel’s youth leagues as well as its professional one), the state of Israeli baseball looks something like this: There are approximately 800 registered baseball players of varying competitive levels in the country, and only one high-quality baseball field. It’s in the city of Petah Tikva, is owned by a Baptist church, and has to be rented out for use. A lone baseball academy exists in Israel, which is recognized by the Major League Baseball (MLB) academy system. Fish started the academy two years ago; now he and Scharff run it together. 

“We have 17 kids in the academy this year. We send them to MLB elite camps in Europe to help them get scouted for college and pro ball,” Fish said. 

Fish grew up in Cleveland and played college ball at the University of Cincinnati with future Jewish major leaguer Kevin Youkilis. Fish’s major league ties don’t end there. He coached and played for Israel’s national team in several 2013 World Baseball Classic qualifiers, alongside Green and Hollywood native Gabe Kapler, who played for numerous major league teams and is now the Dodgers’ director of player development. 

Fish’s own professional career has included time spent playing in top European leagues. Now he has his sights set squarely on building Israel’s four-team premier league (currently with teams in Jerusalem, Modi’in, Tel Aviv and the academy’s team based in Petah Tikva) into something comparable to European ones. Fish sees Masa’s role in bringing over seasoned American players as crucial.

“This is a model used in Europe. They bring in two or three Americans, add them to rosters and bump up the level of play. We can definitely improve and move up to the quality of play in midrange European countries’ leagues,” Fish said. 

Once the league’s American imports arrive in early 2016, Fish said, he plans to expand the league, adding two more teams. Fish and Scharff — the Israel Association of Baseball’s only full-time employees — are hard at work to keep things moving forward until the cavalry arrives. 

At least, that’s the idea. There is a dedicated base of volunteers helping, but manpower is still stretched thin. Resources might be in relatively small supply but optimism certainly isn’t. 

“You can find us at headquarters — my apartment in Tel Aviv,” Fish joked about their day-to-day. “If we’re in my car, we’re fully mobile.” 

“Just call us the Israel Baseball Road Show,” Scharff added. 

Why Sandy Koufax sitting out a World Series game still matters 50 years later


Jesse Agler was pretty talented as a catcher and pitcher in Little League, yet his parents benched him regularly.

That’s because the Aglers had a no-baseball-on-Shabbat rule, one cloaked in sports royalty.

“It was a source of frustration as a kid, but I appreciated later what they tried to do,” said Agler, a 33-year-old radio broadcaster for the San Diego Padres who grew up in South Florida. “It goes back to Koufax making the point about that day, that it’s not for baseball.”

Agler was referring to the decision by Sandy Koufax, the star pitcher of the Los Angeles Dodgers, to sit out Game 1 of the 1965 World Series against the Minnesota Twins because it fell on Yom Kippur. Koufax instead started Game 2 the next afternoon. The Dodgers lost both days, but won the championship in seven games.

The mighty left-hander had dominated that regular season, leading the majors with 26 wins, a 2.04 earned run average, 27 complete games and 336 innings pitched – not to mention he also pitched a perfect game, set a 20th-century record with 382 strikeouts and earned the National League’s Cy Young Award.

Koufax was the supreme pitcher of his generation and the greatest Jewish hurler ever, and his taking a stand occurred at baseball’s centerpiece event. It’s become the stuff of legend in American Jewry as an example of ethnic pride.

“There was no hard decision for me,” Koufax said later in an ESPN documentary released in 2000. “It was just a thing of respect. I wasn’t trying to make a statement, and I had no idea that it would impact that many people.”

Intended or not, Koufax’s call continues to resonate 50 years later. While the decision was a personal one for Koufax, now 79, it represented a visible, even monumental, progression for Jews of his generation in claiming their place in this country. If a great athlete could proudly stand up as a Jew, the feeling went, we can, too.

Koufax followed in the deep footprints of the previous generation’s American Jewish baseball icon, Hank Greenberg, who sat out an important game played by his Detroit Tigers during the 1934 pennant race that fell on Yom Kippur.

“I think it was a matter of conscience with both of them,” said Larry Ruttman, author of the 2013 book “American Jews and America’s Game.” “Koufax was a huge star when he did it, and Greenberg in ’34 wasn’t – but he was coming to be one.”

Greenberg’s legend has faded a bit because nearly a century has passed, Ruttman said. Koufax, by contrast, “remains so potent now because his playing days are still within living memory” for many fans.

Koufax’s decision remains so profound, in fact, that a half-century later it still carries lessons for those raised neither with the sport nor in the United States.

London native Alexandra Benjamin teaches a course on Jewish history during the semester-long Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim international high school program. In discussions about the sometimes disparate pulls of secular and Jewish culture, she returns time and again to the Koufax decision.

“The reason the Sandy Koufax example works so well is that baseball is very much a part of American culture and he is Jewish,” Benjamin said. “At some point he had to make a choice.

“So some guy stayed home from work and it was Yom Kippur – he’s not the only one, but he’s a public figure,” she added. “Still today, that example is relevant, it works and it has impact.”

In the summer of 1999, Benjamin chaperoned a British Jewish youth group visiting the United States, where they enjoyed a quintessential American experience: a baseball game at New York’s Yankee Stadium. Lunch involved buying food at the ballpark’s kosher hot dog stand.

“It was mind blowing,” said Benjamin, because such availability is inconceivable at a British sports venue. She said the kosher hot dogs, like Koufax, demonstrated that enculturation and Jewish pride are highly compatible.

At a recent Padres-Nationals game at Nationals Park here, Carly Meisel, a former student of Benjamin, had Jewish values and baseball on her mind. The previous week, she and some friends had attended a game at Boston’s Fenway Park – on Jewish Heritage Night.

Meisel, 18, was attending the Nationals’ game with approximately 50 other incoming freshmen at George Washington University. Among those waiting at the stadium’s kosher kiosk was Yoni Kaiser-Blueth, the kippah-clad executive director of the university’s Hillel.

Kaiser-Blueth, 40, was born in Brazil, but quickly adopted baseball as a child in America. He grew up in Los Angeles, where, unsurprisingly, Koufax’s legend was strong.

“The takeaway is that you’ve got values, and choices to make in life. It resonates especially today because of the lack of relevancy of Judaism in some people’s lives,” Kaiser-Blueth said as he pumped mustard across his kosher sausage.

“If you see an athlete — for better or worse a role model, make that choice — it can reverberate in their [the fans’] lives. Think of what Madonna did for kabbalah – she created a whole industry.”

Apropos of Koufax, Kaiser-Blueth noted that every year at this time, his students raise concerns over school conflicting with the approaching Jewish holidays. The issue is acute this year, with all seven days falling during the week.

Meisel expressed confidence in professors’ willingness to help her make up missed classes and coursework. She related that surety directly to Koufax’s example. (Koufax, through his agent, declined JTA’s interview request.)

“We’ll make it doable,” she said. “If he can miss a game, and everyone’s watching – it takes strength to do that. It’s a good example of what we can do in day-to-day life.”

Koufax’s former catcher, Norm Sherry, made a different choice; he played on the High Holidays. As a teen, he had attended school and played basketball on those days, even though the overwhelmingly Jewish student body in Los Angeles’ Fairfax High School stayed home.

Koufax “made the right decision,” said Sherry, who roomed with Koufax for road games in 1962, but in 1965 was a minor-league manager for a Dodgers’ farm team. “So many people followed him, who were in awe of him, and he was doing it for all [of them].”

As it happens, Koufax sitting out Game 1 in the 1965 World Series also yielded one of baseball’s most famous quips.

Don Drysdale, who would later join Koufax in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, replaced him on the mound that day. The Twins pounded Drysdale for six runs in the third inning on the way to an 8-2 victory.

When Dodgers’ manager Walter Alston took the ball from Drysdale, the big righty reportedly said, “I bet you wish I was Jewish, too.”

Meet the Baptist baseball lifer who will coach Israel’s team


Visiting Israel the past few winters to see his daughter and her family led to an unexpected job for Jerry Narron, a devout Christian and a baseball lifer: a coaching position for Israel’s team in the next World Baseball Classic.

In 2013, Callie Mitchell had just enrolled her son Aviel, now 5, in the Israel Association of Baseball’s T-Ball league and mentioned to the IAB’s president, Peter Kurz, that her dad is Narron, the bench coach for the Milwaukee Brewers and twice a big league manager.

On Narron’s visit that winter, he met with Kurz in Tel Aviv and offered to help promote baseball in Israel. After Narron addressed some youth players on the field in Petach Tikvah last December, a light bulb went off for Kurz: Add Narron to the WBC staff.

“I love the game, I love the Jewish people and I love Israel, especially through my daughter,” Narron said recently at the Brewers’ hotel here while the club was in town to face the Phillies.

Narron, 59, has worn a Major League Baseball uniform nearly continuously since being called up to the New York Yankees in 1978 as a backup catcher. (The following year, he was behind the plate in the Yankees’ first game following the death of their captain, Thurman Munson, in the crash of his private plane.)

The trip to Israel was his fourth in recent years to see his daughter, son-in-law and their two children in the capital’s Arnona neighborhood.

“I’m honored they’d consider me,” Narron said of the IBA while savoring a bowl of oatmeal and sliced banana.

When her dad was offered the WBC position, Mitchell said “he had a joy on his countenance I hadn’t seen in a long time.”

As to Narron not being Jewish, Kurz figures it doesn’t matter.

“He knows what Israel’s about and … obviously has great MLB pedigree,” Kurz said. “He’s a guy who loves Israel. It’s really from the heart.”

Saying “there are no coincidences in life,” Narron believes his WBC role follows a path blazed by his late father, John, having worked as a floor layer and salesman for the Isaacs-Kahn Furniture Company, owned by one of the few Jewish families in their native Goldsboro, North Carolina.

That relationship fostered in the Baptist-raised Narron clan an appreciation for Judaism – so much so that whenever he visits Jerusalem’s Western Wall, Narron places his hands on its boulders and utters words “in thanksgiving” for the late Sol Isaacs and Isaacs’ son-in-law Berl Kahn, his dad’s bosses. Narron also recites the names of the Weil and Leader families – other Jewish residents “who really built up Goldsboro after the Civil War,” he said.

“I’m a sentimental old fool,” Narron said of feeling moved to honor “people my dad cared about and loved. I thank the Lord for them.”

In Israel, where Jerusalem’s Old City and the Galilee’s mountains hold particular appeal, “I see God’s hand,” Narron said. “The gifts to this world that have come through the Jewish nation – it’s unbelievable. When God told Abraham the world would be blessed through his seed, it has been blessed.”

Narron doesn’t know how he’ll be serving the Israeli club, which will be managed by Jerry Weinstein, a coach in the Colorado Rockies’ farm system. Retired All-Star outfielder Shawn Green will be part of the coaching staff, as he was in 2012.

The roster of players and other coaches hinges on the WBC qualifying tournament’s schedule. Kurz said he hopes the games will be played during the 2015-16 offseason, making major leaguers available. The last qualifiers occurring in-season in September 2012 excluded major leaguers.

The championship rounds will be held during MLB’s 2017 spring training, enabling the pros to play.

Narron has already approached several major leaguers to join him in Israel next winter to run baseball clinics, and he’s recruiting Jewish players – starting with Milwaukee’s All-Star outfielder Ryan Braun – to join the WBC club.

Braun, whose father is Israeli, told JTA he was noncommittal.

“I can’t even think that far ahead, man,” he said, noting the challenging season for the Brewers, who are last in the National League’s Central Division.

Baseball has blessed the Narrons, and vice versa.

Narron’s son Connor is an infielder in the Brewers’ system and Narron’s brother Johnny served with him on the Brewers coaching staff. They had a great-uncle Sam, who played as a catcher and coached in the majors, appearing in the World Series in both capacities. The great-uncle had a son who caught in the minors, and the latter’s son, another Sam Narron, made it to the majors as a pitcher and now coaches in the minor leagues. And three other Narron relatives played professional baseball for independent teams.

It’s “a family business,” Narron said.

Braun called Narron “one of the smartest baseball people I’ve ever been around,” providing some keen insights on baserunning and opposing defenses.

The Brewers’ manager, Craig Counsell, said: “You’re not going to find people with more experience than Jerry Narron – and he comes from a great baseball family.”

To Gabe Kapler, an outfielder for the Texas Rangers when Narron managed there and a coach on Israel’s 2012 team, Narron is “an exceptional human being” who is “great at leading men.”

Narron also managed the Cincinnati Reds, coached for five teams and played for three. Unlike his uncle, he has never reached the World Series, coming tantalizingly close as a player with the California Angels in 1986 and as a coach with the Boston Red Sox in 2003 before losing on last-inning, playoff series-deciding home runs.

For Israel’s WBC club, the stakes are more modest. Narron wants to help the sport grow in a country with a paucity of ballfields and no cultural pull to baseball.

“I hope I can impart some of that wisdom and experience,” he said. “I’ll just try to help the team in any way I can. I’ll do whatever I can to help the ballclub – isn’t that the line in ‘Bull Durham’?”

How a bunch of Hollywood Jews saved youth baseball in South Los Angeles


“Oh! Oh! That’s my baby! Right there! He’s catching it!” Bridgette Harper called out as her son, Dillen, 11, stood at shortstop, glove in the air, his eyes on the baseball plummeting toward him. Notwithstanding his mom’s confidence, it was evident Dillen had misjudged the pop fly as he stumbled backward, trying to adjust at the last second. The ball missed his glove, fell behind him and rolled into shallow center field.

But suddenly, in a typical — and typically entertaining — youth baseball misjudgment, the runner didn’t stop at first base. He tried to extend his fortune, heading to second. Dillen quickly recovered from the misplay, scooped up the ball and threw it to the second baseman, who caught the toss, turned, and applied the tag just in time. Out!

“He got him!” Harper yelled. “All right, Dillen!”

Dillen and his team, the Mariners, were playing on a beautiful, sunny, 75-degree afternoon in mid-June on the immaculately groomed fields at Jesse Owens Park. It was a perfect day for youth baseball in South Los Angeles. 

Four teams in the Hollywood Indies Little League (HILL), which comprises kids ranging in age from 5 to 16, were playing on two of the park’s fields in games slated for a 5 p.m. first pitch. Four more teams were slated to play in the early evening, and HILL would return to Jesse Owens Park on Saturday, as they do every week from March through July.

In some ways, the baseball environment HILL has created at Jesse Owens Park can be found at thousands of American parks, and at baseball fields throughout Los Angeles.

But in South L.A., the summer baseball scene at Jesse Owens Park is an exception — a strong athletic and community institution set in a low-income, often gang-infested neighborhood. It’s a part of Los Angeles that was once a breeding ground for baseball stardom, but because of a confluence of economic and cultural factors in the 1980s and early ’90s, South L.A. lost its baseball culture. Then, 21 years ago, thanks to a group of Hollywood benefactors, as well as a group of committed coaches and community leaders in South L.A., organized baseball has made a comeback for this neighborhood's kids. And along with it, they're learning far more than just the game.

South Central — home to MLB greats

For a baseball fan, a drive through South Los Angeles can take you through a chapter in baseball history. In the 1960s and ’70s, parks in the section of Los Angeles south of the I-10, formerly known as South Central, were filled with the cracks and thuds of baseballs making contact with bats and leather mitts on fields where future greats such as Eddie Murray, Ozzie Smith, Darryl Strawberry and Eric Davis got their start. 

In South Central, as in other low- and middle-class, predominantly Black neighborhoods throughout the United States, baseball was once a staple, a go-to team activity for kids and teens.

But that was decades ago.

Murray, Smith, Strawberry and Davis, whose Major League Baseball (MLB) careers spanned from 1977 to 2001, all grew up in L.A. at a time when baseball was as much a part of inner-city youth life as it still is today in middle- and upper-class neighborhoods in places like Santa Monica, Brentwood and Bel Air. Those players were all in the majors in 1986, when African-Americans accounted for 19 percent of all MLB players.

Today, though, only 7.8 percent of MLB players are African-American, a consequence of many factors nationwide — including an increased emphasis on college scholarships for football and basketball, local governments cutting budgets for public parks and sports programs, the rising cost of equipment and league registration fees, and an unemployment rate for African-Americans above 10 percent nationally. The 7.8 percent figure doesn't include, for example, players from the Dominican Republic.

In the early 1990s, Los Angeles County’s Department of Parks and Recreation was forced to make cuts after the Board of Supervisors approved an $8.2 million budget for the agency — $2.7 million less than what it had requested. The shortfall didn’t close parks in South L.A., but Parks and Rec cut staffing and began charging families more to sign up their kids for county-run sports leagues, which in turn made it more difficult, if not financially impossible, for kids in low-income families to join a baseball team. Organized youth baseball in South L.A., for all intents and purposes, disappeared.


“The main thing is to keep my kids, keep anybody, just in the rank with everything — keep them off the streets.” — Eric Garmendez, a father of four

In 1993, when Stan Brooks, a successful independent filmmaker, read a Los Angeles Times article that described how impending cuts would affect the county’s South L.A. baseball programs, particularly at Helen Keller Park, but not at parks in L.A.’s wealthier neighborhoods, he was beside himself.

An L.A. native and die-hard Los Angeles Dodgers fan, Brooks phoned Parks and Rec, looking for an explanation. 

As he recalled during a recent interview in his small office in Santa Monica, the official on the other end of the line told him the staffing cuts and hike in user fees were simply a result of funding shortfalls. “That’s insane,” Brooks remembers telling the official. “What would it take to bring it back?” 

The answer was “money” — from someplace other than the government.

“So you’re only cutting it in South Central, where you have kids who are at risk, and this is the sport that plays during the summer when the kids don’t have a place to go,” Brooks said, asking rhetorically whether baseball was also disappearing in West L.A. (It wasn’t.) 

“How does somebody not fight this?” Brooks said. “Well, the [South Central] parents don’t have the clout and they don’t have the money.”

Brooks, who at the time was often absent from L.A. because many of his productions were filmed in Canada, felt the least he could do to reinvest in the community was to put some Hollywood money into Hollywood’s backyard. So he wrote letters to a handful of other producers and managers — people he’d pitched to or whom he had worked with on projects over the years. He asked each one to chip in a few hundred dollars to support an inner-city youth baseball league that would be free for all participants, with the hope that some children who may otherwise spend their summers on the streets could instead learn how to pitch and catch.

Brooks received eight checks back in the mail totaling nearly $6,400. With that seed money, he created the Hollywood Indies Little League in 1995. Now in its 21st season, HILL has raised and paid out nearly $500,000, funding nearly 5,000 young players, most of whom would likely have never played organized baseball if not for HILL’s free-for-the-user policy. 

Bats, balls, uniforms and other expenses are paid for by HILL’s sponsors and, more recently, by the Los Angeles Dodgers, which recently became a partner and donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to renovate the baseball fields at Jesse Owens Park. Donors have the opportunity to sponsor an entire team for $975, and Brooks himself, aside from creating and organizing the league, has put thousands of dollars of his own money into HILL (including extending loans when there’s a budget deficit), and has given thousands of hours of his own time. 

More important than baseball, though, HILL offers respite in a neighborhood where youths with too much free time can be easy targets for gang recruitment. The fields at Jesse Owens Park, on the corner of Western Avenue and Century Boulevard, a few miles east of Los Angeles International Airport, are filled throughout the spring and summer with HILL’s young boys and girls, who are kept busy by the league’s two game days and two practice days every week, and who are given the opportunity to be part of something bigger — to be part of a team.

And although it’s certainly a secondary, or tertiary goal of HILL, maybe one day the league will even produce another Ozzie Smith.

Baseball vs. the streets of South L.A.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon at Jesse Owens Park, Brooks stood next to a chain-link fence adjacent to a dugout as he watched a game between 8-, 9- and 10-year-old boys and girls on the Rockies and Orioles teams. 

Despite his busy work schedule, every month or two, whenever he’s in town, Brooks makes it down to a HILL game.

This particular game was vintage youth baseball — some kids would stop on first base when they should have either made a turn toward second or overrun the base. Some would huff and puff after a strikeout or an errant throw; routine grounders would turn from outs into singles into doubles after successive bad throws; fielders would forget to tag the runner on a steal and instead just stand on the base, not yet understanding the difference between a force-out and a tag-out; and, of course, accurate pitches would be few and far between. It’s all par for the course for baseball novices, and also a heartwarming source of entertainment for parents in the bleachers.

“All we could do is put the pieces together and hope that baseball could be played here,” Brooks said, looking on as the Rockies led, 2-1, in the bottom of the second inning. “Everything after that was the community, and they really embraced it.”

As Brooks and league commissioner Michael Flowers — a volunteer who runs HILL’s day-to-day operations — discussed potential new sponsors, players in the dugout ribbed the pitcher (“Rally, rally, the pitcher’s name is Sally!”), and the coaches on the field (all of them volunteers) made sure their players stayed in line. 

“It’s only a game, OK? None of that,” one coach called out after one of his players had an angry outburst after a base-running mistake.

Standing next to the bleachers, Eric Garmendez, a father of four, watched as his 8-year-old daughter, Amanda, stepped into the batter’s box. 

“The main thing is to keep my kids, keep anybody, just in the rank with everything — keep them off the streets,” Garmendez said.

Garmendez is in his first year as an assistant coach on his twin boys’ HILL coach-pitch team, and is a construction worker in South L.A., where he was born and raised. Notwithstanding the brand-new Oakland Athletics tattoo he was sporting on his muscular neck, he pointed to the Dodgers tattoo on his arm when asked who he roots for.

“Growing up in South Central, you hear the hype, and a lot of it is true,” Garmendez said. “It would’ve helped out a little bit more if there was something like this as I was growing up.”

The Mariners sit in the dugout during a June 17 game. Photo by Aaron Pellish

One of HILL’s biggest goals is to get parents involved and keep them involved in the league as much as possible, something Garmendez said he himself was hesitant to do until he was asked to help coach his sons’ team.

“I’m cutting straight out of work just to make it to practice, because once you’re in, it’s a commitment,” he said. “But you know what? It’s a sacrifice — whatever it takes for my kids.”

Two weeks later, at an adjacent field, as Harper, one of several baseball moms in the stands, kept an eye on her youngest child, Brenden, who was throwing a tennis ball against a nearby wall, she explained why it’s so important to make sure her kids are always doing something, whether it’s baseball, swimming, basketball or spending time at the California Science Center.

“If they get bored, they can do mischievous things,” she said. “Just being bored — wrong place at the wrong time. Just being bored, one little bad choice can get them in trouble. My boys don’t have time for that. I keep them busy. By the time they get home, they’re tired, sleepy and hungry.”

Harper said Dillen joined the league in early June, but, unfortunately, too many kids had signed up in the youngest age group, which meant Brenden didn’t get a spot.

“It’s free, and that’s a blessing to me because I’m a single mom,” Harper said. Asked if she’d otherwise be able to afford the $100 or so per player that HILL covers, Harper said she’d find a way. But, of course, it would come at a cost.

“If I gotta collect cans, bottles, whatever I have to do for my babies, I’ll do it,” Harper said. “It would be tough, but I’m very resourceful. I would’ve figured it out.”

She would’ve done so because she knows idle time in South L.A. can be a dangerous thing.

Jesse Owens Park is in the Gramercy Park section of South L.A., which is bordered by the neighborhoods of Westmont, Manchester Square and Vermont Knolls. Those four areas, which make up only about five square miles, have seen in the last six months 706 violent crimes and 1,162 property crimes (including robbery and grand theft auto), according to LAPD crime statistics. Most households earn less than $20,000 per year, and graduating from high school, let alone college, is not a given.

Kenneth Broussard Jr. is 17. His father is a longtime HILL coach who grew up playing ball in the ’70s just three miles away at Helen Keller Park. On a recent game day, Broussard sat in HILL’s huge equipment trailer as he talked about how baseball helped keep him out of “gangbanging and stuff like that” during high school.

“I started seeing the separate ways all my friends was going,” Broussard said. “Some of them was going down the wrong path and stuff.

“Over here, it’s not the best of neighborhoods. Even if you’re not doing anything wrong, you could be standing outside, and somebody can rob you; the police might harass you,” he said. “There are just a lot of things that are naturally avoided when you’re at practice or at the game.”

Broussard wore gray sweatpants and a muscle-tight camo shirt, and he was at the park to help Flowers (Mr. Flowers as the players, parents and coaches call him) with run-of-the-mill administrative and organizational tasks, for which he’s been paid about $50 per week since he was 12.

Broussard is currently studying electrical construction and maintenance at Los Angeles Trade Technical College, but he still helps Flowers with league paperwork, equipment organization, watering the fields and other routine tasks. “When I was young, my dad wanted me to start working,” Broussard said, recalling his father’s words: “If you get that $50 a week, maybe Mom can afford to get you new shoes, or maybe you want to get something for Mom and make Mom feel better.”

A few minutes before Broussard had arrived, Mariners head coach Kenneth McCoy Jr. was sitting in the same trailer, smiling and talking about the young HILL player everyone calls J.J. He’s 12 and one of HILL’s star players. He’s also on the team McCoy’s squad was about to face — one coached by McCoy’s father. 

J.J. plays shortstop and pitcher. He can already throw the ball 65 miles per hour — accurately — a promising sign of what’s to come. “He reminds me a little bit of me,” McCoy said, smiling. “But we’re not gonna get into all that.”

McCoy, 24, is studying kinesiology at Los Angeles Southwest College, which is a mile south of the park. He wants to coach baseball and football as a career.  McCoy played in HILL from the age of 4, when the league was in its second year, until he aged out at 16. Sadly, but not surprisingly, he had a quick answer to why the league is so important for the neighborhood.

“I had a friend who wanted to come out and play [in HILL] but he couldn’t get the chance, because he got killed, because he was out on the streets,” McCoy said. The friend, gunned down at 14, was in a gang, McCoy said, and was mistakenly identified as a target by an armed member of another gang. “[He was] hanging around with the wrong people at the wrong time.”

In his early years at HILL, McCoy said, he was a “hot-head” who would get angry when he lost video games and baseball games.

“Out here, coaches told me, ‘It’s nothing; it’s just a game. You’ve gotta build yourself back up so you can look forward to your next game,’ ” McCoy said. “If you stay angry, then all you’re thinking of is the negative instead of the positive. I instill that upon my kids now.

“The type of coach I am, I will teach you everything there is to know,” he said, proudly. “I will teach you how to win; I will teach you how to lose.”

During the interview, McCoy responded to questions with a level of respect that was the norm in numerous conversations with kids and parents associated with HILL, responding with a “Yes, sir” or “No, sir,” and not acting rushed, even though the interview was clearly taking time away from pre-game preparations.

A little later in the afternoon, while McCoy was on the field coaching, another HILL coach, who identified himself only as Sherman (but said people call him “Lee”), stood next to the bleachers and talked about baseball as a “thinking game,” more so than other sports. 

“What if the ball comes to me? What am I going to do? At any moment, any time, the ball may come to you,” Sherman said. “What are you going to do? What am I going to do when it’s time for me to stand out? You’ve got to have a plan.”

Standing behind Sherman was HILL alumnus Matthew Salazar, 18, who was at the park just hanging out — smiling and listening to his former coaches Sherman and Kenneth Broussard chat about their days playing at Helen Keller Park. Salazar said he wants to coach, too, and said Broussard was “the best coach I ever had.” Broussard, like Sherman, talked about youth baseball as more training for life than training for baseball later in life. 

“I never talk baseball so you can grow up and be a pro. I’m just talking baseball so we can learn to compete, because that’s what life is gonna be,” Broussard said, interrupting himself at one point to whistle at one of his players walking by. 

“Johnny! Tuck your shirt in! Tuck your shirt in! Get your head right! Remember what I told you.”

How Stan Brooks makes a pitch

Stan Brooks used to be clueless about the art of pitching. 

Not the baseball type of pitching — he’s known all about that since he began playing baseball as a child.

The movie and television type. 

Before he launched his first production company, Once Upon a Time Films, in 1989, but after he had broken into the industry thanks to a mailroom job at Filmways Pictures, Brooks was in a meeting in 1980 with the chairman of Orion Pictures, Mike Medavoy, who asked him what he was trying to pitch.

Despite having recently graduated from the American Film Institute, Brooks had never learned the art of pitching and thus could conjure up only an image of pitcher Sandy Koufax when Orion’s chairman put him on the spot.

Pitching is no longer a problem for Brooks. Now the owner of Stan & Deliver Films, Brooks has produced more than 65 movies for film and television over the course of his more than 30 years in Hollywood, winning a Primetime Emmy Award in 2007 for outstanding miniseries for “Broken Trail,” which aired on AMC and collected three more Emmy awards, 12 Emmy nominations, and three Golden Globe nominations.

In 1987 and 1988, as president of the Guber-Peters Television Co., Brooks was the guy on the receiving end of Barry Morrow’s pitch for “Rain Man,” which won Oscars for picture and screenplay in 1988. 

In Brooks’ modest three-room Santa Monica office, a big “Rain Man” movie poster sits behind his desk inscribed by Morrow with the words, “The Man Who Heard It First.”

Producer and director Stan Brooks created Hollywood Indies in 1995 after country budget cuts nearly shuttered youth baseball in South L.A. Photo courtesy of HILL

More recently, Brooks is the executive producer of “Hollywood Scandals,” which is going into its third season on Reelz, and he’s the executive producer for Lifetime’s “The Lizzie Borden Chronicles,” a miniseries with Christina Ricci that follows the title character after she’s acquitted of the 1892 murders of her father and stepmother. It’s a production that has taken Brooks to Canada for weeks at a time.

His office is packed to the brim with Dodgers merchandise and paraphernalia, dummies and bobble heads, as well as movie awards and posters, pictures of his wife, three children, and various entertainment stars with whom Brooks has worked closely. 

In another of his office’s three rooms, just to the right of the entrance, is where Brooks displays Hollywood Indies trophies and photos. His team, the Red Sox, hasn’t won a championship since the late ’90s, and they finished 6-6 last year.  His Red Sox’s championship drought is not quite as bad as the 86-year slog suffered by the MLB team, but Brooks has heard the comparison many times. Like Brooks, many of HILL’s donors support their own individual teams. Fitness guru Jake Steinfeld’s Rockies had a miserable 2014, going 0-12, while producer Howard Braunstein’s Astros went a respectable 6-4.

Brooks is a huge Groucho Marx and W.C. Fields fan, and loves to talk about how those two actors spurred his love for film and TV when, as a young kid, he’d go to matinees at a movie theater — now gone — on the corner of Pico and Fairfax. He described his work as a producer, and his sale of Once Upon a Time Films five years ago to Braunstein, as well as his recent transition to becoming a director with the productions of “Perfect Sisters” and the TV movie “The Grim Sleeper,” which was nominated for a 2015 PRISM Award for its accurate depiction of substance abuse.

When Brooks talked about Marx or the Dodgers or about his favorite baseball film, “Field of Dreams” (which, he said with a smile, made him sob to the point that his wife, Lifetime executive Tanya Lopez, had to hold him), Brooks’ voice sounded like a young kid’s — a little higher-pitched and a little louder than an inside voice.

“What I love about baseball is that it teaches lessons that the other sports don’t teach,” Brooks said. “For one, it asks you to sacrifice. It’s actually a word that’s in the game. You lay down a sacrifice bunt or you hit a sacrifice fly.” 

Brooks said when he calls up his Hollywood buddies and pitches them on supporting HILL, he’s in “full-on producer mode.” Those pitches, Brooks said, go something like this:

“I tell them what it’s like to be down there. I tell them about the mom who came up to me and said, ‘I don’t know where my son would be if it wasn’t for you.’ It’s not just baseball; it’s reviving a community. It’s not just pitching and catching; it’s parents getting to go someplace on Saturday to see their kid; it’s the kid that gets up at 4 a.m. and folds and unfolds his uniform and looks at it on his bed because it’s the first uniform he’s ever put on, and how special that is to him, how important that is to him because he’s part of a team — the first thing he’s ever been a part of in his whole life; the only time he’s been asked to be part of something instead of a gang.”

That pitch, evidently, works wonders. HILL costs about $25,000 a year to run, and its many supporters have included 3 Arts Entertainment’s Michael Rotenberg, who’s the executive producer of HBO’s “Silicon Valley” and FX’s “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”; manager Connie Tavel, whose clients include actors Jon Hamm and Craig T. Nelson; the massive Creative Artists Agency; Braunstein; and actors Hank Azaria and Chris Bauer, who has appeared in “The Wire” and “True Blood.”

Not just a photo op

In 1995, after Brooks had raised his first few thousand dollars for HILL, he met with residents and community organizers in South L.A. to pitch his dream of free baseball. Initially, his idea was met with some skepticism. One woman who helped run Helen Keller Park told Brooks that people in South L.A. were tired of “Hollywood types coming down for the photo-op charity, the kind of charity where you write a check, you come down, have your picture taken with some African-Americans, and then we never see you again.” 

Hill's Mustang division players (ages 8-10) wear their game faces in the dugout during a June 3 game. Photo by Jared Sichel

Brooks said he was told to not expect much love from the neighborhood early on.

“You’ve got to prove to us that this thing’s for real,” Brooks recalls hearing. “Then you’ll see it.”

John Wicker, chief deputy director for L.A. Parks and Rec, was running the department’s operations in South L.A. in 1995 when he first met Brooks, whom he now calls a “hero” for the department.

“He reached out to us and said he really wanted to do something to keep baseball alive in the inner city,” Wicker said. Parks and Rec was charging anywhere from $75 to $145 for its baseball leagues, more than many of the families near Helen Keller Park and Jesse Owens Park could afford. “If it’s a choice between dinner and playing baseball, they’re going to have dinner,” Wicker said. “Stan said, ‘No, I don’t want anybody paying.’ I think it’s the only [league] that I can think of where it’s free.” 

Free participation has helped turn HILL into one of L.A. County’s largest youth baseball leagues, with about 250 kids signed up every season. And one that, as Brooks pointed out, does not limit membership according to geographic boundaries, as many youth baseball leagues do. Kids who live many miles away, but still inside the sprawl of South L.A., can enter HILL’s sign-up lottery, which, because of high demand, cannot give a spot to every kid who wants to play.

In addition to Hollywood, Brooks’ biggest and most recent donor catch has been the Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation, which two years ago, as part of its participation in the MLB’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program, partnered with HILL and gave $300,000 toward creating two state-of-the-art “Dodger Dream Fields” at Jesse Owens Park, foundation Executive Director Nichol Whiteman said. The Dodgers’ support of HILL was spurred by Brooks’ relationship to one of the Dodgers’ minority owners and Brooks’ former boss, Peter Guber, who also co-owns the Golden State Warriors and is CEO of Mandalay Entertainment.

The Dream Field upgrades, which were unveiled at the start of HILL’s 2014 season, include huge scoreboards, new grass and dirt, and improved irrigation. The Dodgers Foundation also pays for the league’s equipment and its hundreds of uniforms, all of which, somewhat comically, are Dodgers uniforms, which makes every HILL game look like a confusing faceoff between the Dodgers and their bitter crosstown rival, the Dodgers. 

‘We are the village’

As Michael and Rosalyn Flowers sat together in the equipment trailer, which rests just outside one of the Dream Field’s outfield fences, every few minutes a coach or a player would pop in to run a question by the couple, who have run HILL since 1996, its second season.

Michael and Rosalyn, both in their 50s, met in their hometown of Memphis and moved to L.A. in 1981. They raised two kids, Ebony and Marcus — both now adults — in Gardena, a few miles south of Jesse Owens Park. Michael recently retired from Boeing, where he was an engineer. Rosalyn is an analyst for Southern California Edison. She’s quiet and reserved but has a tough-love side. As she firmly said, “When the kids come, they belong to me.” 

The league, Michael said, is there to help parents raise their kids, but the parents have to let go when their kids are on the field.

“We tell the parents, ‘Hey, when your kid is on the field, they belong to us. We will take care of them; we will cherish them; we will love them; we will protect them as if they are our own.’”

Flowers said sometimes when he and Rosalyn are out shopping, they will be approached by former HILL players, now adults, who remember the couple and thank them for their guidance. One man even approached them at a hardware store and credited Michael and Rosalyn for helping him get to a point in life where he has a good job and a wife and kids. Flowers said he and Rosalyn didn’t even recognize the man but were deeply moved.

“We fill in a lot of the gaps they may have at home,” Flowers said, his voice trembling lightly with emotion. “Some of them are single-parent homes, and sometimes they have trouble makings ends meet. A lot of kids come, they may not eat unless we have them eat.” Although HILL doesn’t budget for meals, throughout the season its volunteers look after at-risk children. Flowers and Brooks said coaches and parent volunteers ensure that kids who are hungry will get food. And when one of HILL’s players was tragically killed in the early 2000s, the league’s leadership helped the family cover the boy’s funeral expenses.

Flowers’ eyes filled with tears as he talked about the teenage boys and girls he hires and pays, such as Broussard, to help organize equipment and manage the scoreboard. Training them to become self-reliant, and giving them a few extra bucks, “means a lot to the families,” Flowers said, pausing to gather his composure.

“I’m sorry,” he said, wiping his eyes. “We have coaches that have been here for 19 years! You don’t see that kind of dedication from coaches that are volunteers anywhere else. When their kids stop playing, the coaches disappear. Our coaches stay because they know they are part of something bigger than just baseball. We have coaches that were ex-gang members. They know that if somebody didn’t pull them in … where they would be today. They’re trying to pull these kids to keep them in here so they don’t go through what they had to go through.”

Flowers plans to transition in the next couple of years from commissioner to spectator and fan, and will entrust the leadership of Hollywood Indies to someone else.

“Stan and his friends and associates provide a vehicle, through his fundraising, to allow us to do what we do,” Flowers said. 

“They talk about needing a village to raise a child — we are the village.”

To learn more about Hollywood Indies, go to

Time for a kosher hot dog and a beer and Dodger baseball


Spring is upon us. The seders are over, the Iran problem endures. Romance is in the air and, with romance, some men’s and women’s hearts turn to baseball. 

I dutifully bought my season-ticket package of 40 games to Dodger Stadium — 40, not 81, because I don’t attend on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. Yet again I will feel ignored by the Dodgers, perhaps even scorned. 

It has been three years since the team changed management, and the McCourts are thankfully gone. We have a better team, more exciting players — even if you need a scorecard to know who they are — and given all that, one can hope that yet another world championship banner will soon fly over Dodger Stadium. 

But frankly, there is no excuse for why, after three years, Dodger management can’t accommodate the religious dietary needs of its Jewish and Muslim fans. 

If you think kosher hot dogs should be available at Dodger Stadium, click here.

Despite the tension in Jewish-Muslim relations internationally, Muslims will eat meat that has been slaughtered according to Jewish law, and through this, we both remember again what we are too often prone to forget — we are all children of Abraham. We can be united in rooting for the Dodgers, and are united in our deep disappointment that we are both taken for granted by the Dodgers, who have failed for so many years to offer kosher food at the stadium.

The New York Yankees offer kosher food. So too their cross-borough rivals, the New York Mets.

The Baltimore Orioles offer kosher food.

The Boston Red Sox offer kosher food in a ballpark that is now more than 100 years old.

The Chicago White Sox offer kosher food, and so too their crosstown rivals, the Chicago Cubs in vaunted Wrigley Field.

The Cleveland Indians offer kosher food.

The San Diego Padres offer kosher food. Los Angeles has six times as many Jews as that city to the south.

The Washington Nationals offer kosher food; our Jewish community is three times larger.

The Kansas City Royals offer kosher food; their Jewish community is less than one-tenth our size.

Even the hated San Francisco Giants offer kosher food at AT&T Park.

The Seattle Mariners offer kosher food; even the Milwaukee Brewers offer kosher food.

The Dodgers make Chinese food and Italian food and even “healthy food” available for sale, but only once a year, when a special appeal is made to the Jewish community, are kosher hot dogs available.

So, one has to wonder why the Los Angeles Dodgers — whose city’s Jewish community is the second largest in the United States, 600,000 strong, and whose Muslim community is also growing — can’t accommodate the religious needs of their fans.

I’ve heard the excuses:  Farmer John has an exclusive. Dodger Dogs are special, so I am told. There is a simple solution — let Farmer John develop a kosher line or license a kosher line to be carried in kosher and halal stores, or make a religious exception to their exclusive contract as they permit once a year.

There has to be a way — three years is a long time to wait. The O’Malleys should have done it. Fox should have done it. The McCourts should have done it. We’ve waited long enough. Solve the problem.


Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. Find his A Jew blog here.

Al Rosen, who hit homers and battled anti-Semitism, dies at 91


Al Rosen, a slugging Jewish third baseman for the Cleveland Indians and winner of the American League's Most Valuable Player award in 1953, died Saturday at age 91. He was an outstanding player whose career was cut short by injuries, who battled anti-Semitism among players and fans, and who returned to baseball as a top executive with several teams.

Since Lipman Pike donned a uniform for the Troy Haymakers in 1871, more than 160 Jews have played major league baseball. Although there have been more than enough outstanding Jewish big leaguers to fill an All-Star team, Rosen is probably the third greatest Jewish player of all time, after Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax.

In 1947, Rosen's rookie season with the Indians, there were only six other Jews in the majors and America was still a deeply anti-Semitic country. Last year, 15 Jews wore major league uniforms and anti-Semitism is much less overt or threatening to American Jews.

Born in Spartanburg, South Carolina in 1924, Rosen was an adolescent and a teenager during the Depression and served in the military during World War II, periods when anti-Semitism was virulent and widespread. A 1938 poll found that about 60 percent of Americans held a low opinion of Jews, labeling them “greedy,” “dishonest,” and “pushy.” In 1939, a Roper poll found that only 39 percent of Americans felt that Jews should be treated like other people. Fifty-three percent believed that “Jews are different and should be restricted” and 10 percent believed that Jews should be deported. Although Jews constituted only 0.6 percent of the nation's 93,000 commercial bankers in 1939, the stereotype that Jews controlled the banking system persisted. In 1938, 41 percent of those surveyed agreed that Jews had “too much power in the United States,” and this figure rose to 58 percent by 1945, at time when the U.S. was still fighting the Nazis but few Americans knew much about the anti-Jewish atrocities that came be called the Holocaust. At the time, many Americans believed that Jews were a greater threat to the welfare of the United States than any other national, religious or racial group. A 1945 survey discovered that 23 percent of Americans would vote for a congressional candidate if the candidate declared “himself as being against the Jews” and 35 percent said that it would not affect their vote.

Even after World War 2, there were still anti-Jewish quotas and other forms of anti-Semitism in business and in admissions to college and professional schools, housing, country clubs, fraternities, and other aspects of American life. Anti-Semitism was so prevalent that it was the subject of a major Hollywood movie — Elia Kazan's 1947 film Gentleman's Agreement — in which Gregory Peck plays Philip Green, a WASPy journalist who decides to spend six months posing as a Jew in order to expose anti-Jewish bigotry, which he routinely encounters among friends, colleagues, editors, secretaries, hotel managers, and others. In 1948, many of President Harry Truman's advisors urged him not to recognize the newly-created state of Israel, fearing that it would trigger a backlash against him and fellow Democrats among many Americans with anti-Jewish prejudices.

After his father abandoned his family, Rosen's mother (who worked in a dress shop) moved Al and his brother to Miami, where they lived with his immigrant grandmother. The Rosens were the only Jewish family in a tough Little Havana neighborhood. In addition to having to deal with severe asthma throughout his childhood, Rosen confronted anti-Semitism from local bullies and wound up in many fights. “I wasn't starting trouble in those days, but when it came to me, I wanted to end it, and damn quick,” he told Roger Kahn in How the Weather Was. Although Rosen was a burly and muscular 5 foot 10 inch teenager, his high school football coach questioned him why a Jew was going out for the football team.  These incidents spurred him to learn to box and he later became a champion amateur pugilist at the University of Florida and then the University of Miami.

Rosen joined the Indians the same year that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The recent film 42showed the kind of outrageous racism that Robinson faced from players and fans alike, including — at first — some of his own teammates. Nothing that Rosen faced could compare with what Robinson had to deal with, but that doesn't mean that Rosen had it easy, on and off the field, as one of the handful of Jews in the majors.

Robinson and Rosen shared a hot temper when it came to prejudice. Dodgers president Branch Rickey made Robinson promise that in his first two years with the team he would not to retaliate against racist taunts, but Rosen was under no such constraint. “I was a tough kid and I was willing to fight at the drop of a hat,” Rosen recalled in an interview with Peter Ephross for his book, Jewish Major Leagues in Their Own Words.

When he was playing for the Indians, someone on the Chicago White Sox called Rosen a “Jew bastard.” Rosen walked over to the Sox dugout and calmly asked whoever called him that name to step forward. No one did.

Years later, in an interview with Larry Ruttman, author of American Jews and America's Game, Rosen revealed that White Sox pitcher Sol Rogovin, a fellow Jew, knew which of his teammates had called Rosen a “Jew bastard.” “He fought a terrible battle with himself, as he told me in later years,” Rosen recalled, “whether he should tell me or he should be quiet because he was on this squad of 25 men. I applauded him for that — I think it would have been a mistake for him to reveal it.”

Another time, when Boston Red Sox catcher Matt Batts was taunting him from the bench, Rosen called time and challenged Batts, who was sitting in the dugout. Fortunately for Batts, two of his teammates rushed Batts away before Rosen could grab him.

Unlike Robinson, Rosen was not a crusader, but he was proud of being Jewish. “When I was in the majors,” Rosen recalled after he retried, “I always knew how I wanted it to be about me …. Here comes one Jewish kid that every Jew in the world can be proud of.”

An outstanding athlete in high school, Rosen quit college in 1942 to try to make it as a professional baseball player. A team in Thomasville, North Carolina in the lowest level of the minor leagues signed Rosen to a $90 a month contract. But later that year he joined the Navy and saw action in the South Pacific, which included navigating an assault boat in the initial landing on Okinawa. He spent almost four years in the military before restarting his baseball career. He spent the 1946 season playing for an Indians farm team, the Pittsfield Electrics in Massachusetts, where he batted .323 with 16 homers and 86 runs batted in and was voted the league's outstanding rookie. The following year he was promoted to the Oklahoma City Indians in the Texas League, where hit .349, had 186 hits, 141 RBIs and a .619 slugging percentage, and was voted the league's Most Valuable Player. During this minor league days, Rosen constantly faced anti-Semitic taunts, especially when playing in Southern towns.

The Indians brought Rosen up to the majors at the end of the 1947 season, but the next year sent him back to their Kansas City minor league franchise (where he batted .327 and won the league's Rookie of the Year award). The Indians recalled him to Cleveland at the end of the 1948 season, but he didn't hit his stride until 1950. That year, he hit 37 home runs, leading the American League and setting the record for a rookie. He batted .287, drove in 116 runs, scored another 100 runs, and led the league's third basemen in assists. In 1951, his numbers slipped (.265, 24 homers, 102 RBIs), but he managed to hit four grand-slam homers to tie a major league season record. Rosen was back in the groove in 1952 with a .302 batting average, 101 runs scored, and a league-leading 105 RBIs.

The next season was Rosen's best, one of the greatest single years any player has ever had. He played in every game, led the league in homers (43) and RBIs (145), and batted .336. He missed winning the almost impossible-to-achieve Triple Crown — tops in homers, RBIs, and batting average — in his last at bat of the season. Many observers believe that he beat out a slow grounder to third base that, if scored as a hit, would have given him the league batting average and the Triple Crown. But umpire Hank Soar called Rosen out. Rosen told his manager, Al Lopez, not to protest the call. “I was out, Al,” he said. “I missed the bag.” As a result, the Washington Senators' Mickey Vernon narrowly won the batting title was a .337 average. Rosen's was voted unanimously the American League's Most Valuable Player, the first player to receive all first-place MVP votes since Detroit Tiger Hank Greenberg accomplished that feat in 1935.

Greenberg — one of the greatest sluggers of all time and the best Jewish major leaguer in the 1930s and 1940s — had been Rosen's hero when he was growing up. During the Depression and the Holocaust, Greenberg had become a symbol of Jewish pride. On September 18, 1934, when Greenberg was leading the league in RBIs and his Detroit Tigers were in a close battle for first place, he elected to attend Yom Kippur services rather than play. When he arrived at the synagogue, the congregation gave him a standing ovation. During his playing career, the 6-foot-4-inch Greenberg–who once hit 58 home runs in a season, second only to Babe Ruth at the time–also faced anti-Semitic slurs and assaults. Playing at a time when most American Jews were immigrants or the children of immigrants, and when there was widespread anti-Semitism in the United States and around the world, including Nazi Germany, Greenberg understood his symbolic importance to American Jews.

Like Greenberg, Rosen refused to play on the Jewish high holidays during his playing career. Like Greenberg, Rosen lost several years of his baseball life to military service. Like Greenberg, Rosen was nicknamed the “Hebrew Hammer.” And like Greenberg, Rosen later became a baseball team executive.

But another irony is that it was his conflict with Greenberg that contributed to Rosen's decision to hang up his uniform after the 1956 season, only his tenth in the majors, at age 32.

Hampered by injuries, Rosen, played in only 137 games in 1954. He still hit .300, slammed 24 homers, drove in 102 runs, and won the MVP award in the All-Star game that year after hitting two homers. (That year, the Indians won the AL pennant with a then-record 111 victories but lost the World Series to the New York Giants in four games). Rosen's injuries — a broken finger and a chronic back injury suffered when his car was rear-ended during the off-season — worsened in 1955. He played in only 139 games, his batting average fell to .244, he hit only 21 homers, and drove in only 81 runs. These were respectable accomplishments but far below what fans had come to expect. This 1956 season was also a disappointment — a .267 batting average, 15 homers and 61 RBIs.

Greenberg, by then the Indians' general manager, had cut Rosen's salary from $42,500 to $37,500 after the 1955 season. Following the 1956 season, Greenberg told Rosen that he was going to slash his salary by another $5,000. That edict — coming from Rosen's one-time idol — compounded Rosen's frustrations with his declining performance, so he chose to retire.

Rosen returned to college and for the next 17 years worked as a stockbroker in Cleveland and got more involved in that city's Jewish community. But he missed baseball. He served on the Indians' board of directors and worked as a batting instructor during spring training, but it wasn't sufficient. After five years working for a Las Vegas casino, Rosen accepted New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner's offer to become the team's president in 1978. That year the Yankees won the AL pennant and the World Series, but many observers say that Rosen spent much of the season mediating battles between the arrogant Steinbrenner and hot-tempered manager Billy Martin, who was either fired or resigned in mid-season, depending on what source you believe. Rosen replaced him with his old Indians teammate, Bob Lemon.

Steinbrenner rehired Martin for the following year and limited Rosen's role in the day-to-day baseball operations, so Rosen quit on July 19, 1979. He later became general manager of the Houston Astros but had his greatest executive success after 1985, when he was hired as president and general manager of the San Francisco Giants. He helped rebuild a team that had finished in last-place team in 1985 to one that won the NL West title two years later. Rosen was chosen Major League Executive of the Year — the only person ever to earn that title along with the Most Valuable Player award. After the Giants won the NL championship in 1989 (but lost the World Series to the Oakland A's), Rosen retired to a home in Rancho Mirage, California.

In his 10 seasons, all with the Indians, Rosen played in 1,044 games, banged 192 homers, drive in 717 runs and hit .285. He played in every the All-Star Game between 1952 and 1955. Along with the Pirates' Ralph Kiner, the Dodgers' Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, and Duke Snider, and the Cardinals' Stan Musial, he was one of baseball's top sluggers during the first half of the 1950s.

Although Rosen was inducted into the Cleveland Hall of Fame, the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, and the Texas League Hall of Fame, his limited career in the major leagues (only seven full seasons) has kept him out of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

As a result, there are only two Jewish players – Greenberg and Koufax – in the Cooperstown shrine. Greenberg was the best Jewish player in the 1930s and 1940s. Koufax, whose own career was hampered by wildness as a young pitcher and injuries as he reached his prime, was the greatest Jewish player of the 1960s — and, to many baseball observers, the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time. Rosen, whose career was sandwiched in between these two iconic figures, took great pride in both his Jewishness and in his athletic accomplishments, but he is understandably not as well known as either Greenberg or Koufax.

It is doubtful that most of the new cohort of Jewish major leaguers — Ryan Braun, Craig Beslow, Ike Davis, Scott Feldman, Nate Freiman, Sam Fuld, Ryan Kalish, Ian Kinsler, Ryan Lavarnway, Joc Pederson, Kevin Pillar, Aaron Poreda, Josh Satin, Danny Valencia, and Josh Zeid — would recognize Rosen's name, much less know what a great player and trailblazer he was.

Even so, he was an outstanding player and a source of pride for many Jewish baby-boomers enthralled by our national pastime at a time when Jews faced many barriers in most aspects of American society.

For further reading:

Peter Horvitz and Joachim Horvitz. The Big Book of Jewish Baseball. New York: S.P.I. Books, 2001.

Peter Ephross with Martin Abramowitz, Jewish Major Leaguers in Their Own Words, Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 2012

David Margolick, “Al Rosen,” in Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy, editors, Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame, New York: Hachette Book Group, 2012

Larry Ruttman, American Jews and America's Game, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013

Ralph Berger, “Al Rosen,” Society for American Baseball Research Biography Project,

Richard Goldstein, “Al Rosen, Who Missed Triple Crown by a Step, Dies at 91,” New York Times, March 14, 2015

Cliff Corcoran, “Al Rosen, who may have had the best season ever by a 3B, dies at 91,” Sports Illustrated, March 14, 2015

Peter Dreier, “All-Star Jewish Baseball Team,” Jewish Journal, October 3, 2012

Peter Dreier, “Thank You, Shawn Green,” Jewish Daily Forward, October 8, 2004

Peter Dreier, “The Real Story of Baseball's Integration That You Won't See in 42,” The Atlantic, April 11 2013

“Al Rosen,” BaseballReference.Com  http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/r/rosenal01.shtml

Jewish Baseball News   http://www.jewishbaseballnews.com

For a Jewish baseball purist, Cuba beckons


To the dismay of baseball fan Kit Krieger, future travels to Cuba will no longer include get-togethers with ex-Washington Senators pitcher Connie Marrero.

Marrero, who played for Washington from 1950 to 1954, died in Havana last April at age 102, a few months after Krieger’s last visit and three years after Krieger helped arrange for Marrero a $10,000 annual pension from Major League Baseball.

Theirs was a special friendship, one of many forged by Krieger, a Vancouver resident who will return to Cuba in late February — his 30th visit there beginning with a 1997 trip related to his job with the British Columbia teachers federation. That trip spawned a love affair with the country and its baseball scene.

Krieger, 65, would go on to found Cuba Ball, a company bringing baseball-mad tourists to the island nation — a venture begun really to enable himself to visit affordably with groups.

With President Obama’s Dec. 17 announcement on renewing diplomatic relations broken off by the United States in 1961, Krieger sees a double-edged sword: Cuba will emerge from U.S.-imposed isolation, but the country’s professional baseball scene could ultimately disappear, like America’s Negro Leagues following the integration of Major League Baseball.

In the near term, he figures, Cuban baseball will remain unchanged, since the country can hardly be expected to allow foreign teams to poach its premier talent — at least not without hefty payments, as in Japan. Individual players, Krieger adds, are unlikely to risk defecting while knowing that renewed diplomacy could prompt Washington’s lifting of an economic blockade, enabling them to legally sign lucrative contracts abroad.

Following Obama’s announcement, MLB released a statement saying that it will monitor whether the policy shift affects “the manner in which [teams] conduct business on issues related to Cuba.”

Krieger says he sees Cuba as “the largest pool of untapped baseball talent in the world, and no one knows if [the news] will open this pool.” But he fears “the beginning of the end” of a Cuban baseball reality caught in a sweet time warp evoking America of the 1890s. Eventually, Krieger says, Cuban baseball “will become integrated into the international baseball community, which it isn’t now.”

His love for Cuban baseball led him more than a decade ago to join the Society for American Baseball Research, where he recruited like-minded fans for the trips. He’s similarly passionate about family history, frequently conducting research on Jewish genealogy websites. Thanks largely to meticulous records kept by his ancestors, Krieger (his given first name is Ernest) can trace several branches in Poland and Germany back to 1700.

“I can even tell you the name of my grandfather’s mohel,” he quips.

Krieger’s baseball and genealogy interests at times have coincided: His late mother, Ann Kohlberg, grew up in an apartment building at 320 Riverside Drive in Manhattan, across the hall from New York Giants star Mel Ott. Kohlberg’s cousin, Don Taussig, went on to play outfield with the franchise after its move to San Francisco.

While Krieger doesn’t usually seek out Jewish residents or sites while in Cuba, another Jewish traveler, retired professor Oscar Soule, does.

Soule, of Olympia, Wash., who will be traveling with Krieger to Cuba in February, has been to the Caribbean nation five times and makes a point of going to a Havana synagogue on each visit. The draws for him are the baseball games and meetings with government officials, as well as such diamond legends as Omar Linares and Victor Mesa that wouldn’t happen without Krieger.

Marrero, a 5-foot-5 right-hander who posted a 39-40 record in the majors and made the American League’s All-Star team in 1951 at age 40, benefited from Krieger’s attention in his final years as he lost his eyesight and hearing. Krieger solicited notes of appreciation from the aging pitcher’s American contemporaries, all of whom Marrero fondly remembered. More than 90 letters arrived, and scores more for Marrero’s 100th birthday, including from Hall of Famers Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Tommy Lasorda, George Kell and Harmon Killebrew.

“Kit is a darned nice guy who’s helpful and doesn’t expect anything in return,” says Eddie Robinson, a former official with the MLB Players Alumni Association and a Senators teammate of Marrero who played a key role in securing the pension, to which Marrero had not been entitled previously because he wasn’t vested.

Two or three of the four pension payments were delivered by former major leaguer Stan Javier, a resident of the nearby Dominican Republic, Krieger says.

Of Krieger, ex-pitcher Steve Rogers, who works for the Major League Baseball Players Association, says he “was always available to do everything he could to help” in the Marrero case.

With Marrero gone, Krieger is seeking to raise $69,000 for new plaques honoring the members of Cuba’s Hall of Fame. Upon hearing Obama’s announcement last week, Krieger asked Cuba Ball clients to make a Marrero plaque the first priority. During the February visit, Krieger plans to begin working to identify a proper building for the Hall, which is now housed in Havana’s Estadio Latinoamerican.

There will be games to attend, too. Cuban baseball games have far more character than the typical corporate stadium American game. Scorecards and souvenirs are not sold, but makeshift bands entertain the fans.

“I went to a game in San Cristobal, in western Cuba,” Krieger recalls. “A guy hits a homer to win the game, gets on his bike to go home and gets stopped by a fan who gives him a live chicken.

“They’d played on a chain-link-fence field. The seats were concrete slabs, and everyone else watched from the beds of pickup trucks. It was not even a sandlot — it was a farm game.

“For the baseball purists,” he says, “those who love to go to Cuba, it’s a unique baseball culture.”

 

Tyler Barbee shares his sports passion with special-needs kids


As a little boy growing up in Mill Valley, Calif., playing baseball meant the world to Tyler Barbee.

“When I was a kid, baseball was my life,” said Barbee, now a 17-year-old high school senior at Tamalpais High School.

But he also knew that his love of the sport couldn’t be shared easily by his brother, Conner, who is four years older and has autism.

“I wanted him to be able to participate, but there wasn’t an environment for him to succeed,” Barbee recalled.

Six years ago he helped start Challenger Baseball & Basketball, a sports league for children with special needs.

Each special-needs player is matched with a buddy, typically a high school student without disabilities, to help learn not only the rules and skills necessary for the sport but also to give them a chance to socialize, gain confidence and develop friendships. The games are non-competitive, Barbee said, and mostly focus on having fun.

Another benefit of the program, he said, was the support network that emerged for the parents of the special-needs children.

“It wasn’t part of the initial plan, but was a really fantastic added benefit,” Barbee said.

Barbee, who serves as his school’s student body president, was recently awarded the DillerTeen Tikkun Olam Award. He plans to use some of the $36,000 award to expand the program to include tennis and soccer, as well as to purchase team jerseys and new sports equipment.

The program is also in the process of applying for 501(c)(3) status and has changed its name to Project Awareness and Special Sports.

“Sports were my community, and I wanted to create this for my brother and other children with special needs,” said Barbee. “I loved baseball and I wanted him to have the opportunity to feel this love, too.”

JTA spoke with Barbee about the hero who most impresses him, what connects him to Judaism and which California baseball teams he hopes to see in the World Series.

JTA: Who is your hero and why?

Barbee: I’ve been really very impressed with Martin Luther King Jr. Everything that I’ve learned about his protests and [acts of] nonviolence is impressive and inspiring to me.

What is meaningful to you about being Jewish?

How connected and strong the community is, and I am very proud to be a part of it.

What advice would you give to other teens interested in starting a tikkun olam project?

I’ve learned that things can go in other ways than what you expect and still work out. There are different ways to get things done and not one set way.

What do you think you want to be when you grow up?

I’m not quite sure, but I am interested in business and having a business or nonprofit that has a positive impact on society.

What kind of things do you like to do for fun?

I like mountain biking, hiking, camping with my friends and playing baseball recreationally.

Who would you like to see in the World Series this year?

I’m actually an [Oakland] A’s fan, so I am hoping that they make it and beat the [Los Angeles] Angels! It would be nice to see the [San Francisco] Giants play the A’s.

For Dodgers’ Joc Pederson, there is no joy in debut


It was a scenario straight out of “Casey at the Bat”: a screaming crowd, ninth inning, two outs, two men on base, the home team down by two runs, the slugger striding to the plate with a chance to win the game.

The slugger on Monday night in Dodger Stadium was Joc Pederson, a hotshot prospect for Los Angeles recalled that day from the minor leagues.

Pederson, who is Jewish, was about to bat for the first time in the major leagues. He had enjoyed a stellar campaign for the AAA Albuquerque Isotopes, garnering the Most Valuable Player award in the Pacific Coast League on the strength of his 33 home runs, 78 runs batted in, a .303 batting average and 30 stolen bases.

His Dodgers were trailing the Washington Nationals, 6-4, in a battle between the two best teams in the National League as he came up to pinch-hit. The 22-year-old outfielder squared off against the Nats’ veteran closer, Rafael Soriano, trying to extend a two-out rally – and win the game with one swat.

It nearly happened. On a 2-0 pitch, the air was “shattered,” as Ernest Thayer penned in his 1887 poem about the excitement of a pitcher-batter showdown, “by the force of Casey’s blow” – make that Pederson’s blow. Fans leapt to their feet as the pulled ball headed on a line to right field. But it was clearly foul.

Pederson fouled off another one. Soriano then bounced a slider to run the count full.

Soriano’s 3-2 pitch came in high. Pederson dropped his bat, turning toward first base, figuring he had walked to load the bases.

Except the breaking pitch had dropped into the high-outside portion of the strike zone, as the umpire saw it. Game over. The Nationals celebrated at the mound and Pederson walked slowly to the dugout.

There was no joy in Chavez Ravine; the mighty Joc had struck out.

Here’s a Moneyball maven striking it rich for Athletics


As director of professional scouting and baseball development for the Oakland Athletics, Dan Feinstein scouts amateur players, evaluates the organization’s talent, is involved in contract negotiations and arbitration cases, ponders trades and analyzes potential free agent signees.

His varied portfolio is news to at least one of the team’s players.

“I don’t doubt that he does a lot, and has done a lot, for the organization, but I don’t know to what extent,” catcher Derek Norris said of Feinstein during a recent A’s visit here.

For the past three years, Feinstein, 42, has been one of the prominent executives powering the Oakland approach to diamond success known as Moneyball under its guru, general manager Billy Beane.

There’s been plenty of success this season for the American League West-leading Athletics, who boast one of the best records in baseball and stand near the top of the league in team pitching and hitting. And they’ve been doing it with an assortment of players excelling in both the traditional and Moneyball statistical categories.

Beane employed the Moneyball strategy to enable his low-revenue Athletics to compete against richer clubs. Popularized by the Michael Lewis book “Moneyball” in 2003 and the 2011 film of the same name starring Brad Pitt, the plan has spread throughout the major leagues.

Moneyball aims to identify and acquire undervalued players by placing a premium on what were then newly minted statistics such as OPS (on-base-plus-slugging percentage), as well as walks, caught stealing, pitches taken and other measures.

Feinstein returned to Oakland in 2011 after spending six seasons as director of baseball operations for the Tampa Bay Rays and a year with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He had spent the better part of a decade splicing game videotapes for the Athletics after starting as an intern in 1994.

Other than his year with the Dodgers, making do on a shoestring budget is the only professional reality Feinstein has experienced. It’s one he embraces.

“We’re always trying to think outside the box and acquire or sign players that maybe have some hickeys to them, and I enjoy trying to find players that are maybe undervalued with other teams,” he said. “It’s really the only way I know.

“While it’d be nice to work with a payroll of some of the other clubs, I very much enjoy the challenge of staying within a constrained budget.”

Moneyball has found success in Oakland, with the Athletics on target to capture their seventh A.L. West title since 2000. They’ve been leading the division most of this season.

Josh Donaldson is second in the league in WAR (wins above replacement) and in the more mainstream category of runs scored. Teammate Coco Crisp is 10th in on-base percentage. No A’s base stealer has been thrown out more than twice.

On the mound, left-hander Scott Kazmir is among league leaders in WHIP (fewest walks and hits allowed per innings pitched), as well as the more traditional statistics of wins and earned run average.

In fact, the A’s lead the A.L. in runs scored and are second in fewest runs allowed – all on a $74.8 million payroll, ranking them 27th in Major League Baseball. In comparison, the Dodgers and New York Yankees are over $200 million.

“Obviously, we’re all thrilled,” Feinstein said of Oakland’s 2014 strength.

Feinstein is ecstatic to be working in baseball.

At 15, he already knew the game was where he wanted to make his career. Feinstein, a catcher who could not make the team at the University of California, Davis, said he “explored every avenue to get my foot in the door” after college.

With the Athletics, who play just down the road from his hometown of Lafayette, Calif., where he still lives, Feinstein started out doing the things interns do — making photocopies and fetching coffee. That’s when he wasn’t lobbying Beane, then the assistant general manager, for additional responsibilities.

In 1995, he jumped at Beane’s offer to add videotaping to his chores. The following season it became his full-time job.

“I’ve been very lucky. I’ve been in the right place at the right time,” Feinstein said. “I don’t think there’s anyone in baseball who would tell you they look at their job as a job.”

Like anyone employed in a baseball team’s front office, Feinstein said, he aspires to “bigger and better things” professionally, including being a general manager. He added, however, “I’m extremely comfortable and thankful in the role I currently have.”

A key aspect of that role is the Major League Baseball draft, which was held last month. Eighteen of Oakland’s 40 selections were pitchers.

“That was by design,” Feinstein explained. “The only way that we’re going to have success at the major-league level is if we have pitching, and you can never have enough of it. It’s the single biggest asset we need to compete.”

Planning for the three-day draft is “a yearlong, exhaustive process that has already started” for 2015, he said.

“It’s one of those things that we all are fascinated with: not only the process, but being in that war room in the week prior to the draft,” Feinstein said.

He’s hopeful the A’s can make a run to the World Series this season – it would be the team’s first appearance in the Fall Classic since 1990.

“There’s a lot of season left to go, and anything can happen,” Feinstein said, “but so far it’s been a perfect storm of a group of guys who’ve come together and played their best.”

 

Echoes of Greenberg: Tigers roaring with Jewish duo Ausmus and Kinsler


The rarity arose in the initial meeting of first-year Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus and his second baseman Ian Kinsler, newly traded from the Texas Rangers: a Jewish player reporting to a Jewish manager.

Ausmus was “raised the same way I was,” Kinsler learned, with one Jewish parent and an upbringing in which Judaism “wasn’t something that was completely ingrained in our lives,” the 31-year-old Arizona native said in his pronounced Texas twang.

The chat also covered Ausmus’ experiences piloting Israel’s World Baseball Classic entry in 2012, his only previous managerial job.

Both have settled in quickly in Detroit, helping to lift the Tigers to the best record in Major League Baseball as of last weekend. Batting leadoff, Kinsler carries a .300 average and stands among the American League leaders in runs and hits.

Tigers fan Morris Amitay, AIPAC’s former executive director who came to watch Detroit sweep the three-game series here, said he can’t help but kvell over the combination of Jewish manager and player.

“Here’s a team that had Hank Greenberg, and now it’s gone back to its Jewish roots,” he said.

Kinsler wears uniform no. 3; the 5 he wore for Texas had been retired by Detroit to honor Greenberg, its Hall of Fame first baseman from 1930 to 1946.

A uniform-always-dirty player, Kinsler draws ire from opponents and admiration from teammates. He’s a welcome spark plug for a team that has ridden power hitting and dominant starting pitching to three consecutive A.L. Championship Series and the 2012 World Series.

In eight seasons with the Rangers, Kinsler was a three-time All-Star who helped the Western Division club reach the World Series in 2010 and 2011. In postseason play, his average is .311.

His Nov. 20 trade for first baseman Prince Fielder “was a little bit shocking,” he acknowledged while dressing for a recent game here. But playing for Detroit “is awesome,” he added.

Ausmus was hired two weeks before the trade.

Sitting in his Camden Yards office, Ausmus said his experience with the Israeli team provided “a little bit of a glimpse” into how managers build rapport with players and cultivate clubhouse camaraderie.

“In terms of preparation, I don’t know that there’s a ton of parallel because there’s so much more information [available] on major league players than there is on WBC players – in fact, sometimes even no information on WBC players,” he said. “I guess that in some regards you learn to make decisions you don’t really want to make [to cut players].”

The experience didn’t necessarily place him on the major league managing track, Ausmus said.

“There are only 30 managerial jobs. There’s no guarantee you’re going to get one of those,” he said. “I’d thought of it, but I never assumed it.”

A priority heading into 2014 was getting to know his Tigers as people and players. Six weeks into the season, Ausmus said, nothing has surprised him.

That could be because of his playing experience toiling for four teams, including the Tigers, in 18 years and winning three Gold Gloves at catcher, the thinking man’s position.

Those parallels are more apparent, Ausmus said.

“As a catcher, you’re planning ahead, you’re strategizing, you’re dealing with a pitching staff. You also know what it’s like to be an everyday player,” he said.

“As a catcher, it gives you a pretty good feel for what you would come across as a manager, for what the players are thinking, what’s going through their minds, what emotions they’re feeling.”

Given his short time with Team Israel, Ausmus figured he “certainly didn’t have any impact” on several players subsequently reaching the majors, but added, “I’m happy for them.”

That’s a sentiment the Tigers echo about working alongside Kinsler and Ausmus, at 45 a generation younger than his retired predecessor, the crusty Jim Leyland.

Pitching coach Jeff Jones said Ausmus is “very low-key, doesn’t panic, doesn’t get excited when things don’t go right,” and extremely prepared. All-Star pitcher Justin Verlander said his new manager is “more relaxed on the bench” and “totally different” than Leyland, with whom he remains close.

Kinsler, he said, brought a new dimension to the Tigers: speed. (Kinsler’s 177 steals set a Rangers record.)

“It’s been a lot of fun to watch. I love the way he plays the game,” Verlander said. “I hated the way he played the game when he was with the Rangers and we had to play against him. That’s a sign of respect.”

Told of Verlander’s description, Kinsler was pleased.

“That’s the kind of player I want to be,” he said. “I like to cause problems. If you’re not noticed, then you’re not doing something right.”

Off the field, a synagogue in suburban Bloomfield Hills, Mich., has invited Kinsler to enroll his two children in its summer program. In Texas, Kinsler said, his daughter Rian attended a JCC of Dallas program.

Judaism is “definitely something I want to teach them about,” he said, adding that his wife, a Catholic, is supportive. “To have that knowledge is important.”

Jews and baseball: An American news media love story


For those of us who follow the careers of Jewish ballplayers — a small, eccentric niche of fandom — checking the ” target=”_blank”>jewishsportsreview.com), edited by Ephraim Moxson, who lives in Pico-Robertson, and Shel Wallman of Manhattan’s West Side. 

Moxson and Wallman collect the names of Jewish athletes in sports ranging from football, basketball and baseball to table tennis. It is the national go-to spot for information on Jewish athletes, and Wallman and Moxson were willing to share with Jewish Baseball News. “They are the gold standard,” Barancik said.  

I called Moxson. “We go through the rosters of all major sports,” he told me. “We review every roster of every college, men’s and women’s, including small Christian schools in the South. You never know.”

Tips come from many places. A woman called Moxson and complained that her major league ballplayer son, Jason Marquis, hadn’t been mentioned in the Jewish Sports Review. “He’s not Jewish,” Moxson said. The woman replied that he was. “Our name was Marcus,” she said.

As he began Jewish Baseball News, Barancik had to struggle with a question that has long troubled our religion and probably never will be settled: Who is Jewish? Rather than consulting the rabbis, he accepted the criteria established by Moxson and Wallman in the Jewish Sports Review several years before: An athlete needs one Jewish parent, is not practicing any other religion and is willing to be identified as Jewish in public. Interestingly, their broad definition was not much different than that of the Pew Research Center in its recent public opinion survey of Jews: Those who “say their religion is Jewish (and who do not profess any other religion)” or “people who describe themselves … as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular, but who have a Jewish parent or were raised Jewish and who still consider themselves Jewish in some way.”

As I pursued this column, I felt I was learning something important about Jewish life in the United States.

I wondered why the number of Jewish ballplayers in the major and minor leagues is increasing. “In the ’50s and ’60s, there were five or six [in the majors]; now there are 15,” professor Peter Dreier of Occidental College, an intense scholar of the game, told me. “All but three [of the major leaguers] came from mixed marriages. To the extent there is a Jewish gene in baseball, it’s an intermarriage gene.”

Barancik and Dreier also attribute the growing number of Jewish baseball players to Jews becoming part of suburban life and being affluent enough to afford the expenses of youth sports — the expensive equipment, private coaching and travel.  

In addition, Dreier said, the major leagues are increasingly looking to colleges for players, and the schools with the best programs happen to be in areas with large Jewish populations — Florida and California.

We fanatics focus on numbers, but actually what we are witnessing is how Jewish life is changing.


Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for the Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

Tigers summon the tribe, swap Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler


Detroit is bringing in the Jews.

A couple of weeks after hiring Brad Ausmus as manager, the Tigers on Wednesday traded for Ian Kinsler, previously of the Texas Rangers, to play second base. The cost for the Jewish infielder, a three-time American League All-Star: mega-salaried first baseman Prince Fielder and a cool $30 million. Lucky the bankrupt city doesn’t have to ante up.

Kinsler, 31, brings a sound bat and glove to help Ausmus, who managed the Israeli squad that came up short in its bid for the World Baseball Classic, in his MLB debut. The eight-year veteran averages 24 home runs and 82 runs batted in a season and has a lifetime batting average of .273. Last season he batted .277 with 13 homers and 72 RBIs.

Ausmus and now Kinsler are part of an organization that had probably the greatest Jewish hitter in history (take that Ryan Braun): Hank Greenberg, a one-time MVP who famously skipped a Yom Kippur game in 1934 despite the pennant implications for the Tigers.

And you thought the Cleveland Indians were the Tribe.