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(MiLB.com)

(MiLB.com)

By Zev Ben AvigdorCorrespondent

The son of a choreographer and a crime-scene cleanup specialist, 21-year-old centerfielder Rhett Wiseman grew up in Mansfield, Mass. Drafted out of high school by the Chicago Cubs, he postponed pro ball for the chance to attend Vanderbilt University, where he helped deliver a College World Series championship.

Wiseman may be best known among some Commodores fans as the player who got drilled in the neck—hard—when he squared to bunt in the first inning of a 2015 college playoff game but went on to single and homer in his next at-bats [see article). A huge fan of Vandy coach Tom Corbin and the team culture he has built there, Wiseman hit .415 with 15 home runs in 2015 and was equally accomplished off the field, twice making the SEC’s Academic Honor Roll.

The Washington Nationals drafted Wiseman in the 3rd round of the 2015 draft and assigned him to the short season Auburn Doubledays, where he performed well enough to be ranked the Nats’ 23rd-best preseason 2016 prospect by MLB.com. I spoke at length with Wiseman before a Doubledays home game on Sept. 3, 2015. In the edited transcript that follows, you’ll see why Coach Corbin called him a “very positive kid who enjoys the team element.”

JBN: Where are you from?

Wiseman: I grew up in Massachusetts, right by the Cape. Spent all my summers on the Cape, down at Falmouth. There’s nothing like it.

JBN: And you played in the Cape Cod League?

Wiseman: Played in the Cape Cod League for two seasons, yeah, under Coach Mike Roberts with the Cotuit Kettleers—two of the best summers of my life for sure. It’s kind of surreal. My father actually played for Cotuit in the 80’s. [Editor’s note: see related article.] I think ‘88. That was cool—that was the first thing. But just going down there and obviously living so close, being able to play in front of my family every night and friends who didn’t get to see me play a lot, and then just the prestige of the Cape Cod League and everything that it brings to the table as far as that goes.

The first couple of weeks I’m [at Vanderbilt] a kid comes up to me and says “Man, I’ve never met a Jewish kid before,” and it’s like “Wow!” You know what I mean? Holy cow, where am I? I was like, “Well, what do you think?”

JBN: Who’s Jewish, your dad or your mom?

Wiseman: My father.

JBN: So he was a Jewish baseball player back in the day?

Wiseman: Oh, yeah.

JBN: Is he the one who got you started?

Wiseman: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. And he was good too, obviously, playing in the Cape League.

JBN: Where did he play college ball?

Wiseman: He went to Brandeis.

JBN: Very Jewish.

Wiseman: Very Jewish. Back when Brandeis was good. That’s what he tells me, anyway. He was an outfielder. [Editor’s note: Mike Wiseman is ranked second all-time at Brandeis with a .915 stolen base percentage, third all-time in total stolen bases (54) and hits (194), and sixth all-time in total bases (267).] So he’s been there for me, obviously, throughout all of baseball, but he’s definitely been my number one as far as going to the field. I mean, there was a time where I was playing little league that we would break the locks to get into the little league fields early. He would come home from work, we’d take a lock cutter and—

JBN: No!

Wiseman: Oh, yeah. He would leave work every day early, come pick me up three or four hours before the game and hit, so they ended up putting a lock on the gate so we couldn’t do it because it wasn’t fair to everyone else. So we would go down there every day with a pair of bolt cutters, break the locks, and go in there and hit for a couple of hours. He’s got a lot of throws in that arm. We didn’t have an L-screen because I was in little league and not a lot of people needed them. So what he would do is, he would take three trash barrels, stack two up on one side, and put one up on the other side and throw behind that. A lot of close calls, but very fortunate.

JBN: What does he do?

Wiseman: He owns a company that cleans up crime scenes. Crazy work, and he can sit down with anybody and talk to them for days—some of the stories that he has.

JBN: You ever go with him?

Wiseman: Oh, yeah. As a kid I would go with him all the time. I’m very fortunate for those experiences. Obviously I get to see a part of life and obviously the end of life that people never see. It’s so interesting always listening to him and how he goes about death as a part of life. To him it’s a lot different.  It’s something that happens. He’s been in that business for so long that he cherishes every single day so much more than most people do, you know?

JBN: So your dad was an outfielder and you’re an outfielder.

Wiseman: Yep.

JBN: Your dad cleans up crime scenes, you studied criminal justice.

Wiseman: Yeah. You finding a trend there? We’re super close. He’s one of my best friends.

I would love to play for Israel in the World Baseball Classic too. Oh my goodness. I would love that. That would be a dream.

JBN: Has he been to Auburn (NY) to see you play for the Doubledays?

Wiseman: Oh, yeah. All the time, because it’s not bad. It’s a 45-minute plane ride, and if they drive it’s like four-and-a-half hours. So it’s not that bad. They will actually be here tomorrow. I think my sister is coming. She is still in school. She goes to Wheeler Academy, in Rhode Island—Providence. She’s a senior this year.

JBN: Does she play baseball?

Wiseman: No, she doesn’t. She’s a dancer. She’s applying for schools and that whole deal right now.

JBN: Did she ever get you to try to take up dancing?

Wiseman: My mom? No.

JBN: Your mom was a dancer, too?

Wiseman: Yeah. [Editor’s note: Stephanie Wiseman owns a dance studio and is a professional choreographer.] My sister would love to go to college where she can excel in that. She’s looked a lot at NYU. She went to Michigan last week. She’s looking for big art schools to get into.

JBN: Cold.

Wiseman: Cold, yeah. I went down south, she’s going to end up going north. It’s just not my thing.

JBN: You said once that one of your favorite people is the equipment manager for Vanderbilt.

Wiseman: Yes. Absolutely. [Garrett Walker] is unlike anyone I’ve ever met in my life. This is a guy who spends his life serving other people. That’s what he does. He’s a full-time staff member. I believe this is his fourth year in the program. He is a guy who — you hear about people who walk into a room and light it up? This is the guy. This is a guy who, no matter what is happening in his personal life, comes to work every single day looking to make other people smile. And obviously you don’t [often] come across people like that. He’s such an incredible guy. He’s just all about making other people smile and being there for other people. I could talk about him for hours. He’s a very inspirational person. It’s funny that you find inspiration in people and places you never expect, you know?

Rhett Wiseman celebrates after hitting a walk-off home run for Vanderbilt in 2015

Rhett Wiseman celebrates after hitting a walk-off home run for Vanderbilt in 2015

JBN: I also read that your college coach not only embraced but celebrated diversity.

Wiseman: Oh my goodness. You look at what we just said about the equipment manager. It’s Coach [Tim] Corbin at Vanderbilt who brings in people like this. What Coach Corbin has done at Vanderbilt— you obviously look at the success that we have had over the past couple of years, but I mean you get to a point where talent kind of evens itself out—it levels itself out. The factors that separate people are the type of people they are and what they are like inside of a culture, and Coach Corbin has really created a culture at that school that embraces all types of people. And you can go down that roster and, like you said, cultural diversity, but it’s so much more than that. Everyone is different.

JBN: In what ways?

Wiseman: In different ways. I mean, for example, we have two student managers at Vanderbilt. You may have heard of one of them—[Josh Ruchotzke is a] quadruple amputee. He’s incredible. He’s amazing. This kid’s out there shagging balls every single day with a glove on that was custom made by Wilson for one of his hands. He’s got prosthetic limbs, and he’s out there catching balls. Throwing balls. Feeding machines. He’s out there hitting balls. It’s amazing. [See article.]

We have another student manager who I’m actually living with when I go back to Nashville, Michael Portu, who has had multiple open-heart surgeries. He gets back there and he catches every single day. And he’s catching both hands. I mean, he’s taking hundred-mile-an-hour fast balls—boom, boom, boom, boom. This is also a kid who runs the conditioning with us in the fall. Now, keep in mind that conditioning in the fall— we have a lot of freshmen on the team with egos, and part of the point of fall conditioning is to break you down and bring you together as a team, get rid of those egos that you have from high school. And this kid gets on the line with every single whistle and runs it with us just to be a part of that team. [See article.]

And they are part of the team. There are no titles. There are no ages. There’s nothing like that. Everyone is so different but everyone is our brother and that’s just the way it is.

JBN: It’s not just the conditioning drills together, right?

Wiseman: It’s Corbin. It’s Coach Corbin. It’s the culture. He’s incredible, and we’re all his sons when we go there. He’s a father figure to everybody that goes there, and his biggest thing is we are together. He’s established a set of standards. There are no rules, there’s no such thing as rules, there are only standards. The standards are standards that he believes that you should live by and absolutely you should live by. It’s things as simple as keep your locker pristine to things on a larger life scale such as respecting women. It’s things that keep you focused but keep you well rounded, too. I mean, you look at Corbs, and when we’re all there we’re together from the second we wake up until the second we go to sleep. We aren’t allowed to live off campus, we have to live with each other. I say we “have” to—they’re my best friends in the world. Everything we do is together. We eat together. We go to the field together. We go to class together. We do everything together. And what that does is it makes everyone so close, and there are no secrets really. We have sessions where we just talk about our lives with each other and it’s unlike any other program. Because Coach Corbin always says that if we focus on the things that are important, the scoreboard will take care of itself. [Winning] is the last thing that we are concerned with. If we focus on our chemistry and getting better and working on our training every day and on our practice every day, then the scoreboard will take care of itself. It’s so much more than winning. Communication’s huge.

JBN: And you have people who speak different languages on the team.

Wiseman: Oh yeah. For the most part obviously you have to be pretty fluent in English to get into Vanderbilt. The beautiful part of that is that it’s Vanderbilt. It’s a two-way street there and we have guys who are very good at other languages, too. I think that’s helped me tremendously being here [in Auburn]. I mean, I speak Spanish more than I do English here. I’m not proficient. I’m okay, but by the standards that I learned it there, I’m pretty good here. But for the most part, going back to bridging gaps, it’s such an open environment. It’s open to failure, it’s open to being emotionally charged and having emotional outbursts. It’s really open to confrontation. It’s open to everything.

JBN: How do you handle that? Most Americans don’t handle confrontation well. They take it personally.

Wiseman: Well that’s the biggest thing. Coach Corbin talked about how confrontation isn’t a personal attack, it’s really a criticism. If someone is going to confront you, especially on a baseball field, it’s because they want to invest in your future. They want you to be better. You know if you are doing something wrong, and someone gets onto you about it, it’s because they want you to be better. We’re only as strong as our weakest link there, so we really embrace confrontation, and obviously confrontation doesn’t happen every day because then it would just be all over the place. It’s not a well-oiled machine if there’s confrontation every day.

JBN: But if there’s the right kind?

Wiseman: Exactly. And there is. Everybody holds each other to the highest standard possible. And that’s so refreshing, because we don’t have to worry about a Friday night or a Saturday night, because we know that there are guys who are going to be protecting our culture and not going to do something stupid that will jeopardize everything that we’ve worked for.

JBN: What are some more of the standards that you mentioned?

Wiseman: I would say that the biggest standard is—and really this standard covers all the other ones, because I could write you a list of standards for days—the biggest thing that we try to live by is don’t embarrass yourself. If you don’t embarrass yourself, then you’re fine. And you just have to know [that] the biggest thing in that is that every action that we do has a consequence. And every action that we do affects not just the 34 other people on the team but all the coaches, everyone—the equipment managers, our baseball operations people. Coach Corbin talks about it as a drop in water. You take a drop of water and you drop it in, and it hits the water and you have that initial kind of burst right there. And then you get all these patterns coming off that. Now if that initial action is that drop of water that hits, you see it causes a ripple effect. The ripples affect everything else.

JBN: What role did religion play when you were at Vanderbilt?

Wiseman: It’s really different. And this is one of my favorite things to talk about, because, obviously [being] from Boston, [where] it’s pretty much as diverse as it’s gonna get, from a cultural, ethnic, religious standpoint. The high school that I went to, Buckingham, Browne and Nichols—we had a very large Jewish population, we had an Islamic population, we had a Catholic population. We had everything you could imagine there. And then all of the sudden I go to Tennessee, which is— a little bit different. So, you go from a place where everyone knows Jewish people, Islamic people—everything. And you go down South and it’s Christianity, and it’s Baptist. The first couple of weeks I’m there a kid comes up to me and says “Man, I’ve never met a Jewish kid before,” and it’s like “wow!” You know what I mean? Holy cow, where am I? I was like, “Well, what do you think?” (laughs). But religion down there, it’s just like anything else. There aren’t as many Jewish people, obviously, but at Vanderbilt I know there is a decently large Jewish population.

JBN: And on the team there were Jewish kids?

Wiseman: There were, yes. There were a couple while I was there. But the biggest thing I would say culturally is seeing guys from all different walks of life, and you can include religion in that, but more so economic situations, guys coming from— I look at Ro Coleman who is one of my favorite people I’ve ever met in my life. Are you familiar with Ro Coleman? Inner city, Chicago, South Side.

JBN: And there was a player from Sandusky, Ohio…

Wiseman: Sandusky, Xavier Turner, yep. Those two guys who come from totally different situations than a lot of other people would. The beautiful thing is these guys come from these places and they come to this thing that is totally different to them. But in reality, no matter where you come from, there’s nothing like this. So it’s everyone that comes in here, whether you come from royalty, whether you come from nothing. Whether you come from east, west, it doesn’t matter. When you come here it’s a wash. Everything. You have a blank sheet. You have not done anything. You start from scratch. Which is beautiful. It’s a great thing really. There are no prejudices. It’s such an open forum, everything is so pure, it’s about the only way I can describe it. It’s real. It all goes back to Coach Corbin. It’s the environment that he creates. It’s so welcoming. It’s never that you’re uncomfortable. You’re just you. It’s a situation that he creates that allows you to be comfortable in your own skin and keep your innocence in being yourself.

JBN: Tell me more about that environment—thats fascinating.

Wiseman: It is, it really is. If you listen to him talk, it’s incredible. What he does is—and he’s only been there thirteen seasons—he’s created this culture when first of all there wasn’t a culture there. There was not any culture. There was a team that finished below five hundred every year, and he came there, and the first thing he did was he recruited guys who would buy in to what he was selling, which is obviously the most important part. Because if you have guys that aren’t buying in, you have nothing. So he recruited the right guys and he had some talented guys in there who had the talent but had it more importantly between the ears. And it’s the only school really in the country where the pros go back there and work out in the off-season, myself included. I will be going down there as soon as I’m done with instructs, and I will live down there all off-season, and I will be down there with 35 other guys who are playing pro ball who live down there too because they want to be around it. It creates this atmosphere where you are always a part of that team, and you’re always there, and you get these freshman guys and all of a sudden they are sitting next to major league All Stars. And they’re saying, “Wow, this place really is special” and “Wow, we will get back to this.” This is what is being created now, and it’s a snowball effect. Everyone who’s in it thrives.

JBN: Think about what those major leaguers are getting out of it by coming back into that environment.

Wiseman: Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s great for them as well obviously.

JBN: What do you think it’s going to be like for you, going back there as a pro?

Wiseman: You know, it’s definitely going to be different. I definitely miss being there every day. I miss it now. And no one understands that. The only people who understand that are people that were in that culture. But instead of being a direct family member, now I’ll be a cousin, which is how we talk about it. When everyone is there, we’re brothers. It’s a family. You have your cousins that come back and that’s what I’ll be now, but everyone gets something so special out of it and it really is another family for everybody. I always talk to the guys out here [in Auburn], when we’re just messing around, kind of BS-ing, and [I asked], “Hey, you gonna go back to your school?”, and it’s like “Pffft..no way!” It’s like, “Why would I want to go back there? I was miserable. I hated the coach, I hated the way it was run,” and I was like, “Wow!” It’s amazing. I can’t even fathom and I can’t imagine being in a place for three or four years of my life where I was miserable all the time. And everyone has fun, and honestly, the best thing I got out of it—and there are so many things. I could write a seven-hundred page book of the things I got out of that place but the number one thing is the joy that the guys got out of seeing other people succeed, and that was something that doesn’t happen overnight.

JBN: And yet you’re actually in competition with one another, right?

Wiseman: Oh, yeah. You could be a three-year starter there, be an All-American, and you could come back and be beaten by a freshman. That’s just the way it is. And like I said earlier, there’s no grade, there’s no age, there’s no anything. All that’s completely out the window.

JBN: So why isn’t that kid bitter? Why isn’t that senior not resenting you as a freshman, why is he supporting you and even helping you get better?

Wiseman: That’s the miracle of Coach Corbin. It’s what he creates. It’s the brotherhood that we buy into and that we feel for each other, and the strongest emotions I’ve had there over the past three years were definitely seeing guys go in and succeed in huge moments and watching the whole team come around those guys. I could list a bunch of different examples, but for one you got the 2014 College World Series where we won the whole thing. Xavier Turner is our starting third baseman for over a hundred straight games—he had played almost every game his freshman year, almost every game his sophomore year—and then—bang!—the College World Series comes, and he gets deemed ineligible by the NCAA. He’s done. He can’t play. Starting third baseman. All-American. Hitting .300. Gold Glove. Stud. Done.  Just done. Done, out. College World Series. So we have other guys, obviously, that we can go to, and Coach Corbin sits down with our team leaders and kind of discusses everything. And they make a decision on who they want to go in, and it’s this sophomore Tyler Campbell who has had 21 at-bats before that, who has also been my roommate for two years, who is one of the greatest kids I’ve ever met in my whole life, who goes out every single day, and you would think he was trying out for the team every day, with the way he goes about his business. And through the way that he practiced every day, everyone trusts him. He probably started three games in his entire career, and it’s the College World Series, and we’re sending a guy out there who has never played in front of this many people, never mind played in his career, and no one bats an eye, because of what he has shown us, just in practice. Just the confidence that we have in him. He goes out, first game, has two hits, we end up losing that first game. Made some plays. Next game, a couple of hits. Couple of huge plays at third and comes up in the bottom of the tenth inning and hits a walk-off single to win it. College World Series, thirty-five thousand people screaming. The emotion, there was so much emotion that it was overwhelming. You find yourself in this cocoon of something you can’t explain. Everyone was so happy for him.

JBN: Including you.

Wiseman: Oh my God, and living with him for two years, knowing he was going to get that opportunity sometime, but just not knowing when. And that’s just the biggest thing. You’ve always just got to be ready because you never know when it’s going to be. I mean, that’s a kid who sat on the bench for 70 games and then came in and did his thing. Never mind, you know, game one of the College World Series having three hits and five RBI in our first game — and we won the whole thing — and to end up being elected to the College World Series All-Tournament Team as a starting third baseman. Incredible. And that’s a guy who just bought in. I mean, he’s out there every single day busting his ass, and everyone gains confidence in him. He goes into a situation where it’s probably the most stressful that you could put a college baseball player in. There’s nothing more stressful than that situation right there, especially not having any experience. He goes in, doesn’t bat an eye because he’s prepared to play. Because that’s our preparation that is second to none. Goes in and succeeds. That’s what it is. We don’t have captains, there’s none of that. It’s a leadership group. Everyone is a leader. Everyone is a director, as we put it. You have directors and you have actors. And obviously, the actors are told what to do, and the directors tell others what to do and are involved themselves.

JBN: So you are doing both?

Wiseman: You are. Everybody’s a director. And that’s a huge thing for us. Our leadership group is a group chosen by the team. Age does not matter, grade does not matter. We make the decisions. It was something that Coach Corbin decided on. No one has a C on his jersey. You have this leadership group and these are the guys that Coach Corbin goes to with the tough questions, and he always says, “This is your team. This is not my team. You guys are driving this bus.” And it’s so true.

JBN: Let’s change gears for just a second, because I know we are running out of time. What do you like best about being Jewish?

Wiseman: I like being different. It’s awesome. I mean different culturally—that kind of got highlighted going down South. I definitely embraced it, because you go down there, and you’re with a bunch of guys who have never really been around someone who is Jewish before, so from a cultural standpoint—celebrating holidays and that whole deal. It was pretty cool, honestly, going with some of the guys from the team to Menorah lightings during Hannukah and [other] cool stuff.

JBN: The guys were interested?

Wiseman: Oh yeah. Absolutely. At school, I got pretty close to the [Hillel] Rabbi, and we would have some lunches together. They do a great job of really embracing all different cultural backgrounds there, so there are a lot of events we can go to. Everyone just [asked] questions and stuff like that. It was cool being an ambassador for the religion there.

JBN: What kinds of questions did they ask you?

Wiseman: Oh, goodness. “What do Jews believe?” or, “What is this holiday?” or, “What does Kosher mean?” or, “What does all this stuff mean?” It was really cool. It was a cool experience, being a guy that other guys would come to ask questions and be interested in that.

JBN: What was your favorite part to talk about?

Wiseman: I think my favorite part would be learning about the Jewish culture and kind of comparing that. Not really comparing and contrasting, but my mom’s side being Christian and my father’s side being Jewish, growing up, I would get pieces of both, and I would be able to see inside of both cultures growing up, and I think that was the most interesting thing to talk about—seeing the differences between the two, but more so just being fortunate enough to experience that.

JBN: And people were receptive?

Wiseman: Oh goodness, yeah, of course.

JBN: So how did you celebrate holidays there?

Wiseman: I would light the Menorah with the Rabbi when I could, and they would do such a good job. He would actually stand in my dorm, he would have a Menorah set up, and we would come in at all different hours and he would be there for six, seven hours and people who wanted to celebrate would go over and light a candle with him, say a prayer with him. It was really cool. I might have been on campus for Yom Kippur. I don’t think Rosh Hashanah that we were there.

JBN: What is your favorite holiday?

Wiseman: I really like Hannukah. I love being around my family. I think that’s the biggest thing for me, obviously, the family aspect of that, just because everyone gets together and it’s family time and that whole deal.

JBN: What did you do when Hannukah was early and you were in school?

Wiseman: Well, that was obviously different. That was kind of the first time that that had happened, when the schedule was a little off and it didn’t overlap with Christmas vacation, and that was different, not being around my family at home, but I was with my family at school. It all comes together. Sometimes when I couldn’t access my family at home for certain things that I would need them for, I had my family at school. So it’s like I have these two families, and at this point in my life everyone has just overlapped and intertwined and I have this monster of a family, you know?

JBN: When you celebrated holidays, how was Coach Corbin involved?

Wiseman: Coach Corbin is so open to anything. There is nothing you would be able to catch him off guard with. I mean I could say to him, “Hey, I’m switching to this religion and how would you feel if you had to come with me to do it?” and he’d be like, “Great, I’ll be there.”

JBN: Did he ever go to holiday celebrations with you?

Wiseman: No. There weren’t a lot of celebrations like that where we could go together. It was always, I’d be coming back from practice, go to this quick, and then come back to the room. But, I mean, if I asked him to, he’d be there in a heartbeat. We had instances where guys on our team were baptized, and a couple of guys would go there. Or we’d have a Hanukkah celebration and a couple of guys would go there. And we’d all go with each other to these different things, and it’s just the way that we do stuff. Everyone does things together, everyone’s accepting, and everyone learns from it.

JBN: Bar Mitzvah?

Wiseman: No, no Bar Mitzvah.

JBN: Israel?

Wiseman: No. I would love to go to Israel. I would love to play for Israel in the World Baseball Classic too. Oh my goodness. I would love that. That would be a dream. That would be incredible.

JBN: Back to Vanderbilt and the shared experiences you talked about, whether it’s holiday celebrations or team practices. How do you get people not just to do the things that you do, but to feel the things that you feel?

Wiseman: I’d say the biggest thing is the buy-in. You gotta have people buy in. We were with each other on worst days. When you are with each other, when you are with people for years you go through a lot with those people. You are there for deaths in families, you’re there through struggles and illness, you’re there through people dealing with things that no one else is there to deal with them with at that time in their life which is such an emotionally filled [time], and things are changing, things are happening, and that’s such an important three or four years for your brain and development—when you can go through that with somebody and Coach Corbin. We bust our butts. We get crushed in conditioning and the things that we do there and we are the most in-shape team of any team in the country, and I think that being out there and bleeding and sweating and being to the point that you don’t think you are going to live and you’re with each other through these things—that’s when you get this layer of trust and that’s when the trust comes in each other. Then you build on that. And then everyone buys into being the best person you can be. Everyone gains confidence in you, in the way you prepare every day. And then you see how someone acts off the field. And then you respect them even more. And then you see how they interact with other people. And you see the kindness that they show to other people who can give them nothing. You see how people treat others that can’t do anything for them. You put someone in a room with a billionaire who can invest in them and then you put them in a room with someone who has nothing, and you see how they interact, and you see how everyone on the team interacts with people like that. Coach Corbin does a lot with us, putting us in a position where we are around other people who gain so much from us being there, and we see the pleasure that they gain in being around us. We’ll do events where we’re with underprivileged people, or we will go to fundraisers, or we will host camps, or we will go to hospitals. We’re very lucky we have a children’s hospital on campus, the biggest hospital in the Southeast, Vanderbilt Hospital.

JBN: What’s it feel like to go there?

Wiseman: Oh God, it’s tough. Honestly, it’s tough. You wonder why you were so lucky. It’s the same reason that we’ve had managers who have been through a lot. You have a bad day on the field, you miss a couple of bunts, you don’t play as well as you should, and then you see these guys who are out there every day like nothing has happened, with a huge smile on their face, and you’re like, “Wow, what kind of day did I just have? I got to play baseball. I got to run around on my legs.” It’s incredible. And we’re always put into situations where we can see—and at the end of the day, we’re like, “Oh wow, I’m so lucky. I’m so blessed.”

And we have a baseball classroom. How many teams have a baseball classroom? We have class every day. We learn more in that baseball class…

JBN: And it’s not just how to execute a squeeze play.

Wiseman: Oh, no, no, no, no, no. No, granted that’s part of it. Every major holiday is discussed in that classroom. Of faiths on the team. Every day in history. Everything. They talk about it so that everyone understands. Every day in history. Whether it’s 9/11 or whether it’s Veteran’s Day or whatever it is, it’s an appreciation for what that day means. It’s hours of this. We leave an hour window for class. I’ve been in classroom meetings that have gone four, five hours without even knowing. Because we’d get in there and get on one topic and it leads to something else which leads to something else which leads to something else. We have no books. Everyone takes notes. You write down everything that means something to you. Your notebook is your own.

JBN: Who’s speaking?

Wiseman: Coach Corbin. But it’s an open floor. If someone else has something to say, go ahead. I have learned more in that room than I have learned in fifteen years of school, than I’ll ever learn in school. Nothing is off limits. It’s incredibly open. It’s fun to be there. It’s not just baseball. It’s about you. You know you’re learning about the guy next to you, you’re learning about people who have gone through things in their lives that no one else knows. You learn so much in there, and that’s where you grow. That’s what Coach Corbin is trying to do. Because not everyone is going to play baseball. Not everyone is going to have 15-year major league careers. But the success of the guys who play in that program will be high, whether they play fifteen years in the big leagues or not. Because of what they learned in the classroom and the strengthening of the muscle between their ears. That’s what it’s about for Coach Corbin. Like I said, it’s not about the wins. It’s the process of getting there, and it’s being good people first because everything else will take care of itself—big believer in Karma and big believer in treating people the right way. You know it comes back around. It does. Coach will show us the good ones and the bad ones. Not every meeting in there is joyful.

JBN: You mean he talks about mistakes?

Wiseman: Oh, yeah, we learn first hand. People are made an example of a lot in this class. And it’s only for the benefit of the guys in that room. As Coach Corbin said, it’s a tough room to get into. It’s a very, very tough room to get into. Sometimes we’ll take guys who are less talented but are better people, who end up becoming better players because of that. [People] who are mentally stronger to begin with and leave there just so much more mentally enhanced. Like I said—it’s different.

# # #

“Zev Ben Avigdor” is the pen name of a university scholar who writes for Jewish Baseball News. Click here to see more of his interviews.

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Casey Haerther of the Winnipeg Goldeyes (2015; MyToba.ca)

By Zev Ben Avigdor, Correspondent

January 18, 2016

Like many men playing in baseball’s independent leagues, 28-year-old Casey Logan Haerther began his professional career with a Major League franchise.

Casey was drafted out of Chaminade College Preparatory School in West Hills, California, by the San Diego Padres, in the 35th round of the 2006 draft. Electing instead to attend UCLA, he was selected again after his junior year, this time in the 5th round of the 2009 draft by the local Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

By 2012, he was playing at the Double-A level with the Arkansas Travelers, where he finished second on the teafm in hits (132), home runs (10), total bases (185), and RBI (56). At the end of the season, Casey played for Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic qualifiers.

Six months later, however, the kid brother of former St. Louis Cardinals prospect Cody Haerther was released by the Angels organization.

That is when he made his way to the Winnipeg Goldeyes of the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball Leagues. In three years with Winnipeg, Casey has batted .326 with an OPS of .836. He has averaged more than 72 RBI each year in 98 games per season. A multiple award winner — player of the week, player of the month — Casey was voted by league managers and media members to the league’s postseason All-Star team in 2014 after posting a .360 batting average and .535 slugging percentage. He was a postseason All-Star again in 2015 with a career-high 79 RBI.

The 6’2″ first baseman is versatile, playing third base on occasion and even doubling as an emergency pitcher. In 2015, he faced 10 batters, striking out three, and while he gave up four hits, he did not surrender a walk or a run.

On July 21, 2015, JBN correspondent Zev Ben Avigdor met with Casey during batting practice at St. Paul’s CHS Field and talked about playing the game, Team Israel, and what makes a good fan. Following is an edited transcript.

Haerther: I’ve been playing ball since I was seven years old, just trying to follow in my brother’s footsteps. He’s a few years older than I am. My parents aren’t really athletes at all, so I don’t know how my brother and I did it, but we did it. I was fortunate enough to get drafted out of high school, but I had a scholarship to UCLA, so I didn’t go with the San Diego Padres out of high school, and I went to college. I was there for three years and had a great time, and I was fortunate enough to get drafted in the fifth round by the Angels, and I played with them for five years and got released. I made it up to Double-A and played with a lot of big leaguers who are around today, like Mike Trout and Garrett Richards and Randal Grichuk. Those are just a few of the bigger names.

I got released in 2013, and came to Winnipeg to play baseball, and I’ve enjoyed it. It’s not the same as affiliated ball, but it’s still good baseball. I got picked up by the Orioles after the 2014 year. I went to spring training with them and got released. Here I am today. It’s been a lot of baseball. It’s been fun. You get to meet a lot of people, travel the world—it’s better than sitting behind a desk.

This past winter I played in Nicaragua, in Chinandega [see article]. That was fun. I’ve played in Mexico a little bit. You get to see the country. You see how baseball is in different parts of the world. It’s fun.

JBN: Along the way, you’ve had Jewish teammates. At UCLA you played with Cody Decker, and then you played for Team Israel. Who are you in touch with these days?

Haerther: I would say Cody Decker probably the most. I’ve talked, and other forms of communication, with Joc Pederson. I’ve congratulated him on the All-Star Game and all of his success. Who else have I kept in contact with? That’s the thing with baseball. You all kind of go your separate ways once it’s done. It was a lot of fun playing for [Israel]. It’s just, Decker I’ve known him since I was 18 years old, in college. We’ve sort of grown up together. He’s had a pretty good career so far. He’s just looking for that one break.

The WBC was definitely a highlight of my career. Really fun to be a part of that.

JBN: What did you like the best about playing for Team Israel? 

Haerther: I think just being around the guys. Being around Brad Ausmus before he got the Detroit [Tigers] job. Shawn Green, Gabe Kapler, [Mark] Loretta. All those guys. You definitely feel like you’re in a big-league environment. It was definitely a lot of fun.

JBN: Are you still in touch with Shawn?

Haerther: No, I haven’t talked to Shawn [recently]. I talked to him during the WBC. The year I got released I talked to Shawn a little bit, in 2013… I’m not really the type of guy to bother people when it comes to myself. It was just a privilege to be able to play with him, to be honest with you. It’s funny, Reggie Abercrombie was just telling a story about his first big league camp, and he was with the Dodgers, and Shawn Green was around, and just how quiet and humble Shawn was, and I just reiterated how I felt about him, too. He’s just quiet, humble. You would never know what an amazing career the guy had. Wrote a good book a while ago [The Way of Baseball: Finding Stillness at 95 mph]. It’s a real good book.

JBN: And now Kapler is with the Dodgers.

Haerther: Yeah, he’s their farm director, minor league farm guy. He’s moved up.

JBN: Did you have a chance to interact with him? 

Haerther: A little bit, nothing too much. He’s definitely moving up in the baseball operations department. He runs it differently. Casio Grider, he’s on the team [Winnipeg]. He had the privilege of being released by Gabe Kapler. But having said that, it’s a different side of him. He’s trying to bring a lot of different aspects of baseball to the Dodgers. New Age baseball is all statistics-based, so the game is definitely changing.

I’m trying to think of more [Team Israel] guys I’m in touch with. Charlie Cutler. I’ve talked with Cutler a little bit. He’s a good guy. One of my buddies I used to play with in the Angels organization a long time, Matt Long, is in Triple-A with Milwaukee. He’s playing with Ben Guez. They’re in Colorado Springs. Nate Freiman. I saw him a little bit. Jack Marder. He had to retire because of concussions. He had to retire about two years ago. They wouldn’t clear him to play anymore because of concussions. He played with the Mariners [franchise]. He was good, too.

There’s a bunch of guys who were on [Team Israel] who have a real chance to play in the big leagues. But obviously Joc is going to have the best and the longest career of anyone from there. He’s just an amazing talent. What he can do on the field is hard to accomplish. It was fun to watch the [2015] Home Run Derby. Pretty impressive. What is he, 22? 23? He’s not that old. Pretty cool. When I played with him, how old was he, 19? 20?

JBN: When you were drafted out of high school, did you consider signing?

Haerther: Yeah, it’s everyone’s dream. Because my brother signed out of high school, that was always my dream. But when it came down to it, and the money wasn’t what I wanted it to be, I guess I reluctantly went to UCLA, but obviously looking back at it, I would’ve wanted to go to UCLA the whole time. It was just an amazing experience, baseball-wise and academically. You meet friends that you still have, in college. Baseball friends, they come and they go. You’re on one team, you’re on the next team, but college friends you have relationships with them, and it’s fun.

I’m still a little short of my degree. I’m slowly getting it. I took a few classes in the off-season. I haven’t had the chance to go back full-time during the winter, just because I’ve had instructs a few years, winter ball, things like that. Obviously, it’s every kid’s dream to play professional baseball as soon as you can. [But] I really think college is a great thing for kids. More and more college kids are getting drafted higher. It’s a lot quicker way to the big leagues than coming out of high school.

JBN: After the WBC, the fact that you are Jewish became more well-known. Did fans approach you more?

Haerther: Yeah, you would get more fan mail from Jewish people looking for autographs and things like that, or at the field. They would start saying, “Hey, I’m Jewish, you played on Team Israel,” that sort of thing. You’re definitely more well-known in the community. Most of the time autograph seekers or people in general don’t really talk about things like that. They just want your autograph and say thank you and goodbye, but you definitely get more people saying you’re Jewish, maybe asking a few more questions.

JBN: What’s it like in Winnipeg? You have a Jewish owner who was born in Israel. 

Haerther: Yeah, Sam Katz. He was the mayor [of Winnipeg] forever. This is the first year he wasn’t the mayor. This year, I gave him one of my Team Israel jerseys, because we had two of them. I gave him one of those. He was really appreciative, and he liked it. He takes really good care of me and the team as a whole. It was just one of those gestures that I thought would be nice.

Winnipeg’s awesome. You get 5,000, 6,000 [fans] a game. Obviously, Canada’s a hockey country, but when we’re in town, the community loves it. They come out in support. We have a beautiful ballpark [Shaw Park]. I’m sitting at a 70-million dollar ballpark right now [St. Paul’s CHS Field], so it’s hard to compare, but it’s beautiful, and everyone has always said for a long time that if you’re going to play independent baseball, there are only three or four places you would go, and they always say Winnipeg is one of them, so I’m happy to be there. Obviously, when I got picked up by the Orioles I had other plans for the season, but things didn’t happen the way I thought, so I’m back here. 

JBN: Winnipeg has a somewhat sizable Jewish community. Have you had any contact?

Haerther: Yeah, there’s one guy I talk to. He’s kind of become one of my friends there. He’s Jewish. Sam’s talked with me about [the Winnipeg Jewish community] a little bit, but we haven’t gone into much detail about it.

JBN: No rabbis coming by and trying to get you to lay tefillin? 

Haerther: Nothing. They don’t have baseball temple, they only have ‘baseball chapel.’ They do baseball chapel here [in the American Association]. I think it’s run by the same organization that does it for [affiliated] minor-league baseball. 

JBN: What else would you like the readers of Jewish Baseball News to know?

CH: I think people should know that if you’re not in the big leagues, baseball’s not as glamorous as people think it is. We’re not flying first-class on private planes with first-class service and food. We’re not playing in front of 50,000 people every night on beautiful, manicured fields and eating lobster and steak. We’re not making millions. We’re traveling on buses for anywhere from seven to 12 hours, staying in three-star hotels. We’re making 20 dollars a day meal money. Big leaguers make 100 dollars a day meal money.

Obviously people have to realize when you’re in the minor leagues—definitely if you’re in independent baseball—you’re doing it out of love for the game. You just love the game so much. You don’t want to give it up, and you’re not ready to. I think that’s important for people to know, that just because you’re playing professional baseball doesn’t mean you’re a millionaire. It doesn’t mean anything. There are 17-year-olds playing professional baseball these days out of high school. They’re not millionaires. They’re just going out and playing a game.

I also think for young Jewish kids, you have to have fun playing it or else it’s going to be a long, long season and a short career. Because if you’re not having fun playing the game, there’s no reason to be playing it. There’s way too much pressure and anxiety that goes into the game to begin with, because it’s pretty much a game built on failure, so you’re going to have to learn to control your emotions, control your mindset. Those are more important tools to the game than your actual physical ability to play the game. Millions of people have the physical tools to play the game of baseball. If you don’t have the mental approach to the game—that’s the big separator from a big leaguer to a minor-leaguer. The ability to make adjustments quicker. The ability to make the game slow down. To forget if you go 0-for-4 with four strikeouts and make two errors. Things like that. Tomorrow’s a new day. Every day. You just have to realize that. 

JBN: How do you do it? How do you block out the bad stuff?

Haerther: You just have to go through it enough that you learn to. You’re going to have more bad days than good days in baseball. That’s just how it is, or else everyone’s going to be in the big leagues, and everyone’s going to be in the Hall of Fame. Obviously at a younger age it’s harder, but the earlier you figure out what your mechanism is to forget about yesterday, is the best. Confidence is probably the biggest asset you can have in baseball. You gotta fake it till you make it, too. You have to act like you have confidence all the time, or else you’re just not going to feel right in the batter’s box or out on the field, if you don’t have the confidence.

For me personally, once I’m out of the stadium, once I’m out of the clubhouse, baseball is done for the night. I’ll watch TV, watch Netflix, talk with other people, consume myself with other things rather than just lying in bed and dwelling on the game the night before, the game that night. There’s nothing you can really do about it. I’m sure there are people in the big leagues who don’t read the paper, don’t do things like that, because most press is bad press. Unless you’re doing really well, they’re going to be saying something, especially in today’s big leagues, where people are making 20, 30 million dollars a year. I’m a big Dodgers fan. I love reading about Clayton Kershaw. He struggled a little bit to begin the year. This guy’s coming off three Cy Youngs, an MVP, and they’re bashing him. His last 10 starts he’s been unhittable again. Now everyone fell in love with him again. You never know what you’re going to get.

JBN: Is that one of the lessons that fans should remember? To take a longer range view?

Haerther: I believe that. Baseball’s a marathon. It’s not a sprint. You ask any coach, any minor-league director. It’s how you finish, not how you started. Anyone can get off to a hot start your first 20 games, but you have 140 more games. Just because you’re hitting .400 after 20 games doesn’t mean anything. It’s what you can sustain throughout the whole year, and that’s the hardest part, because when you get into August, September, you’re tired. Your body’s tired, your mind’s tired. What are you going to do to push yourself to that next level, to keep going, to sustain your batting average, your body, all that? I definitely think if you’re a true fan of baseball and a true supporter, you look at the season as a whole. What the player did from the beginning to the end, all the failures, all the strengths, all the winning streaks, losing streaks, all that. They all mean something. That’s really important.

JBN: Last question, because you have to go hit. What would you like from fans? What is a good fan?

Haerther: A good fan to me is someone who supports their home team, whether they win or they lose. I don’t understand booing your home team. Even in indie ball. We play 100 games, so 50 games are at home. They see us enough that they know our personalities, they know who we are. They’ll know if we have a good team that year or a bad team, really fast. Last year we had an incredible team, and they cheered for us for 50 games. This year, we’re not winning as much, so you’ll hear more boos. I just never understand why you’re going to go pay money to go see someone play a game and boo your own players. And the thing is, it’s not like any of us want to do badly. We don’t go out to the field and go, ‘Hey, we want to lose 20-2 tonight and go 0-for-4.’ No one wants to do that. That’s just the game of baseball. Sometimes good things happen, and sometimes bad things happen.

A good fan will support you through the good and the bad. Look at the Cubs fans. They’ve gone a hundred and whatever years without winning a World Series. Now this year they’re playing well, and you see all the support, but they [always] fill up that stadium every day. They love their Cubbies. That’s a good fan base. I don’t like the bandwagoners. It’s like Los Angeles people saying all of a sudden they all like the L.A. Kings because they’ve won back-to-back Stanley Cups. Who in California watches hockey? Don’t be a bandwagoner just because your team is doing well. You should just go out, support them. I think they should get to know their players. If you’re at a smaller venue like the minor leagues or independent ball, you have the ability to get to know the players. It’s more intimate than the big leagues. You’ll find out we’re human beings. We have emotions and feelings.

JBN: Is that okay for fans to come up and ask you questions and say hello?

Haerther: Yeah. It depends on the player’s personality. I have no problem saying ‘Hi’ to a fan and talking with them for a few minutes before the game, but I guess you’ll never know unless you try.

# # #

“Zev Ben Avigdor” is the pen name of a university scholar who writes for Jewish Baseball News. Click here to see more of his interviews.

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Three Jews on the Fort Worth Cats, 2014: Adam Kam, Ben Ruff, Ryan Lashley (L-R)

Three Jews on the Fort Worth Cats, 2014: Adam Kam, Ben Ruff, Ryan Lashley (L-R)

By Zev Ben Avigdor, Correspondent

Ryan Lashley has seen his share of independent minor leagues, where the teams are unaffiliated with MLB franchises. Three years into his pro career, the 25-year-old infielder already has traveled through four separate leagues: Frontier, United, Can-Am, and American Association.

2015 did not begin well. Injuries plagued Ryan’s debut with the Lincoln Saltdogs. Although the Saint Paul Saints signed the Florida native in July to “provide infield depth,” Ryan’s bat gave the team little choice but to make him an everyday player, and he rewarded them with a .295 batting average and a .470 slugging percentage.

Jewish Baseball News correspondent Zev Ben Avigdor caught up with Ryan before a Saints game earlier this year. Following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

JBN: Was baseball a big part of your childhood? 

Lashley: I started playing from the time I could pick up a bat. I still have a picture at my house from about three years old, at the baseball field, swinging a bat that was a little too big for me.

My dad played one year at UF. My brother is a senior now at FAU. Right now he is playing summer ball in New Hampshire. He started off strong this year at Florida Atlantic University. [Note: In addition to being a talented infielder, Brett Lashley was named to the 2015 Conference USA All-Academic team.]

I have twin brothers who are 10 years old, and they have a shot. They’ve been playing [baseball] for a while—seven years already. Switch hitting. They’ll be good. My dad knows what to do now that he’s experimented with the two of us. He’s perfected it now. We have a cage in our back yard, so even during the winter, all we do is hit every day. Every day, all day. Off a tee, front toss—my dad has probably pitched over a billion balls to all the brothers.

JBN: Do you have an L-screen? [Note: An L-screen is used to protect a batting-practice pitcher from being hit by a struck ball.]

Lashley: Oh yeah, we have an L-screen. He’d die if we didn’t. Sometimes I’ll throw to the twins. We give lessons back there in the off-season. It serves a lot of purposes. It’s easy. Right in the back yard.

JBN: Did your sister play baseball?

Lashley: No, she didn’t. She did gymnastics growing up. Now she’s 5’7”, so she’s a little too tall for gymnastics. In high school she started diving. She just graduated [from the University of Florida], and she’s going to [physician’s assistant] school. She’s doing internships back home.

JBN: Did baseball ever conflict with being Jewish, or vice-versa?

Lashley: When I was 13, and I became bar mitzvah, and each of my friends was becoming bar mitzvah, I got teased a little bit, because I had to miss a bunch of games during that year. They just poked a little fun at me, just because, “Oh, he’s never here anymore,” because I didn’t show up to a lot of the games, because I had a lot of people that I was going to bar mitzvahs for. They were joking around because I was never at the games. They all came to [my bar mitzvah]. They all had a blast, too. They still talk about it to this day.

[The twins’ bar mitzvah is] still a little far away, but I’m assuming they’ll probably go together. They’re going to Hebrew School now.

JBN: What’s your favorite Jewish holiday?

Lashley: [smiling broadly] Chanukah, of course. It’s just that time of year when everyone’s happy—and family. Usually we go up to New York or they come down to Florida, so a lot of family get-togethers. Both my parents are from New York. They’re both the youngest of three, and they both moved down to Florida, and everyone else is up there.

JBN: Have you had many Jewish teammates?

Lashley: There was at least one other [Jewish] kid on [each of] my [Little League] teams, for sure. I was at Stetson [University] for three years, and then I went to Lynn [University] for my senior year. I graduated with a degree in business.

JBN: And when you were at Stetson, you had at least one Jewish teammate, right?

Lashley: Two: Sean Emory and Nick Rickles. Sean has a job down in Miami, now, in finance. [Note: Sean Emory earned his B.A. in Finance from Stetson in 2011 and is now AVP and Senior Investment Analyst at GFG Capital. He played in the infield at Stetson, finishing with a career average of .326 and an OPS of .815. Nick Rickles caught for Team Israel in the 2012 World Baseball Classic Qualifiers and finished the 2015 season with the Triple-A Nashville Sounds of the Oakland A’s organization.] The higher you go, the fewer you notice, but there’ve been a few. Not a lot, but a few.

JBN: How do you know they’re Jewish?

Lashley: We just talk a lot, when one of us just says, “I’m Jewish.” It just kind of happens—and then, “Oh yeah, I am, too.” It’s cool because I know not many Jews play pro baseball, or any professional sports, so it’s cool to know that they’ve made it this far. It’s hard. There were actually three Jews playing in Fort Worth: Me, Adam Kam and Ben Ruff.

Ben’s a pitcher, from Seattle. Adam Kam is from our area, from Fort Lauderdale, around where Anthony Rizzo, from the Cubs, is from. I was surprised last year. We jelled. We hung out together. I have a picture together on my phone. Ben and I saw that we were both mentioned in a Jewish journal last year. That was pretty cool.

JBN: What about fans? Do fans know?

Lashley: Not that I know of. I’ve never had a fan come up to me and say that.

JBN: Do other players know you’re Jewish?

Lashley: Just my teammates, I would assume. Stuff comes up and—”Oh yeah.”

JBN: Do they ask questions?

Lashley: A little bit. They know a lot about the Jewish religion for the most part. A lot of guys do. I actually had a good conversation with Vinny DiFazio on our team. [Note: DiFazio, a New Jersey native, is St. Paul’s starting catcher.] He’s not Jewish, but he knows a lot about it. We went to Appleby’s the other day at the mall and he actually knew a lot about it.

JBN: Where did you begin your professional career?

Lashley: I started in the Frontier League, in Normal, Illinois. The Normal CornBelters.

JBN: Then your second year you were in the—?

Lashley: United League, in Fort Worth, Texas. United was all Texas teams. Fort Worth, San Angelo, Rio Grande, and then there was a travel team that didn’t have a home. I came a month late, so they all had a couple more at bats than I did. I was tied for the RBI lead going into the last game of the season, and we made the playoffs, and the guy who was tied with me didn’t make the playoffs, so he played that last game, and my coach sat me to rest the last game, and we were tied neck and neck going into that last game, and he had [three] RBI that game, and I didn’t play.

[Note: In 2014, with the Fort Worth Cats, Ryan led the league with a .369 batting average and a .556 slugging percentage, finishing second in RBIs and total bases, despite only playing in 53 games, 17 fewer than the league leader.]

I had a great year last year. I guess word got around. Coaches say, “Look at this guy.” And actually, I was signed for about six months in the off-season to go to Ottawa, in the Can-Am League. And then about a month before I was supposed to report there, I got a call from the manager, and he said I had been traded to Lincoln, Nebraska. And then I got injured in Lincoln after the first month-and-a-half. I had pulled a hammy, so I had to rehab everything. They released me, and the Saint Paul Saints picked me up.

JBN: What’s the level of play like here?

Lashley: I haven’t played in affiliated, but it’s equivalent to high-A or double-A competition. There are a lot of guys here who are really good. There are some guys, like Reggie Abercrombie, we’re playing him. He’s been in the big leagues; he played with the Marlins. A couple of former Triple-A guys. [The level] is very good. We have a lot of guys who were Double-A; some Triple-A on our team. They’re good, and they’re fun to be around.

JBN: What’s it like joining a team in the middle of the season?

Lashley: It’s always a little difficult coming into a group of guys who’ve been jelling—and obviously they are jelling when they’ve lost only 13 games all year—but after a while they get to know you and then gradually, slowly but surely, you get accepted into the group. We all stay in apartments—some three-, some four-player apartments—so it’s good, you get to know a lot of guys, hang out. That makes it easier.

JBN: You seem very versatile on defense.

Lashley: In college, freshman year was short, sophomore and junior year was third and first, and then my senior year at Lynn I played second. In the United League I played a little bit of second, a little bit of short, and a little bit of third. And the same in Normal. [Note: In 2015, Ryan played 21 games at 3B, 15 games at 2B, 8 games in LF, 1 game at SS, and 10 games as DH.]

JBN: What do you like best about being Jewish?

Lashley: The history of knowing what we’ve been through. The Holocaust and then getting past that and going from there to where we are now. That’s pretty amazing.

JBN: Have you been to Israel?

Lashley: I haven’t. I need to go on Birthright. My sister’s done it. I need to do it.

JBN: Last question. What would you ask if you were interviewing Jewish baseball players? What would you want to know?

Lashley: That’s a good question. I would want to know how does it feel to be a Jewish athlete, one of the few Jewish athletes playing at such a high level of competition. Not many people can say they have done that.

JBN: How’s it feel to you?

Lashley: Pretty amazing.

# # #

“Zev Ben Avigdor” is the pen name of a university scholar who writes for Jewish Baseball News. Click here to see more of his interviews.

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By Zev Ben Avigdor, correspondent

Many Jewish baseball fans follow Jewish players’ journeys from college, through the affiliated minor leagues, up to a Major League Baseball team. Not as many fans keep track of players in independent baseball, such as the Can-Am League, the Atlantic League, or the Frontier League.

One of the top independent leagues is the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball, where a number of Jewish players can be found among its 13 teams.

Zach Penprase is one of them. Born Zachary William Penprase, the 30-year-old shortstop from Moorpark, CA, played college ball at Mississippi Valley State University in Itta Bena, MS, before being selected by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 13th round of the 2006 draft. After two summers playing in the Phillies’ organization, Zach joined the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks. (Now a member of the American Association, in 2008 the RedHawks were part of the Northern League.) During his first season with the RedHawks, Zach was signed by the Boston Red Sox. After a month with the franchise’s Low-A team, the Greenville Drive, Zach returned to Fargo. He’s been there ever since and now is the all-time franchise leader in games played and a variety of other statistical categories. Zach also played one winter, in 2012, with the Sydney Blue Sox of the Australian Baseball League.

Zach Penprase (center)

A consistently solid and disciplined hitter, Zach combines speed and power. He batted .303 for the Redhawks in 2015. Playing in 97 games at shortstop, he collected 122 hits, including 28 doubles and 172 total bases, while driving in 56 runs, all career highs. He also stole 30 bases in 34 attempts.

In a recent interview, Zach talked with Jewish Baseball News correspondent Zev Ben Avigdor about his connection to Jewish traditions and Jewish fans, the role of religion in his personal and professional lives, and his family. Following is an edited version of the interview.

Penprase: My dad’s Christian, my mom’s Jewish, and we tried to hold both traditions. We’d celebrate Christmas, and we’d also celebrate Chanukah every year. We’d do Passover every year. We recognized all the holidays. My mom went to temple her whole life. I almost went through with my bar mitzvah, but I think I just didn’t fully commit to it, so I just didn’t go through with it. That’s pretty much where it began. I grew up with my mom wanting to keep the traditions, but my dad grew up in a really Christian family. Both his parents were really big in the church. I got to experience both Christianity and Judaism, and my parents gave me the choice, to choose whatever I wanted to be.

JBN: What was your favorite holiday?

Penprase: My favorite holiday to this day is Chanukah. It was just my brother and I, and I was the one who said the prayer every night, and that just kind of hit me in the heart. I was the kid who said the prayer and lit the candles. I think the tradition of Chanukah is amazing, the history behind it is awesome, and it’s not like Christmas where you’re celebrating something but it’s just a one day thing. Chanukah is a full eight days, and it’s always been appealing to me, the history behind Chanukah and what went down there, many years ago. So Chanukah, to me, is definitely the most appealing holiday that we celebrate.

I also enjoy Passover. I like the traditions where you know that stuff means stuff [laughs]. I actually said, “stuff means stuff.” But really, the seder is cool, where you learn everything you’re doing and everything you’re eating means something from history. Getting to learn all that stuff is definitely appealing to me.

JBN: What did you study in college?

Penprase: I studied art in college. I could draw, I was creative. I went there for three years, got drafted [by the Phillies], and then actually I went back [to school] in 2010 for two more years and ended up finishing my degree. I went from Fargo. I played, we ended in September, and I drove straight back down to Mississippi. I missed the first three weeks of school, but I kept up with my work, and I contacted my teachers. I went back to school and when the year was over, I went straight back up to Fargo. I did that for two years in a row. I was lucky enough to be close to my teachers, and my school is not really that big, so they were really giving me a little bit of leniency to go back there and finish up, even though I was a couple weeks late.

JBN: Have other professional baseball players come from your program?

Penprase: The year before I got to school, [Mississippi Valley’s] shortstop got drafted. His name was Tee Thomas. He was drafted by the Cardinals. He played a couple of years professionally. The year after me, a guy by the name of Jeff Squier was drafted by the Colorado Rockies, and he played a couple years as well. It’s a place where you think there’s not a lot of opportunity, but there is. Our coach had a lot of connections. We were able to play big-time schools, like Mississippi State, Missouri, Georgia Tech, big-time DI [Division I] schools. My last year, we played five or six Top 25 teams, even though we were ranked 260-something. We were able to play teams like that and get exposure to scouts. Great opportunity. I wasn’t highly recruited out of high school, so that was the best opportunity I had.

JBN: Were there many Jewish students there?

Penprase: No.

I’d never been to temple, didn’t have a bar mitzvah, but at the same time I was still part of a community that was reaching out to me and just so interested in finding every Jewish player who plays professional baseball. That’s amazing to me.

JBN: Was there a local Jewish community?

Penprase: No, not really. It’s the Bible Belt, so it’s a lot of Baptist churches. I still like to stay in the religious community, whether it’s Christianity, Judaism. I just like the feel of community, being able to connect to people, and learning about other people’s beliefs. One of the most appealing things to me is the Jewish community itself and how closely knit it is.

I’m big into trying to learn. I’ve been learning a lot myself. My grandparents taught me a lot about the bible and about church, but I’m still learning. I think everyone is. I think I need to take it on myself to just read the bible from front to back and just learn a lot more about [religion], and not just that—the book itself is history. I got back into touch with trying to learn more about different religions, especially lately because religion is a big question among people right now. I’ve been getting back into learning more about both Judaism and Christianity. Learning about the Muslim faith and Buddhists. My dad’s best friend became a Buddhist. So everything pretty much interests me about religion. We have plenty of time to read. My dad encourages me to read a lot of books, and I try. I try to do as much reading as I can. It’s tough to read on the bus—a lot of noises and a lot of movement. I try to do as much as I can in the hotel room or any time I get in my apartment. Are there any books or reading material that you suggest for me to read, to learn more about Jewish faith?

JBN: I’d be happy to send you some. When did people start to seek you out, as a Jewish ballplayer?

Penprase: Right away in Batavia [the Phillies’ rookie-league team], I started getting these letters from collectors. Everybody had gotten ahold of cards, my first baseball card. They were even just sending me little index cards to sign and saying, “I’m a collector of Jewish baseball players’ memorabilia.” I didn’t even know anybody knew I was Jewish. I was more of a Christian growing up. I went to a Christian church. I had never been to temple. I almost had a bar mitzvah, but I think I stuck with the Christianity side and Christian beliefs—until lately, where I’ve been trying to learn more about other religions. I found it really surprising but really interesting that people could find me the way that they did. Every time we came back from the road I had multiple letters in my locker, from collectors trying to get autographs and memorabilia from Jewish players, which is cool. I love that. That just makes me feel so part of the community.  Like I said, I’d never been to temple, didn’t have a bar mitzvah, but at the same time I was still part of a community that was reaching out to me and just so interested in finding every Jewish player who plays professional baseball. That’s amazing to me.

JBN: What is it about Jews and baseball?

Penprase: I don’t know. I think it’s Jews and life. To me it’s the most interesting religion. There are not very many of us, especially in baseball. I can’t even keep track of who’s Jewish or not myself. That’s why it was amazing to me to get all these letters from collectors and from lots of fans. There were here and there some writers, but it was mostly fans. I would say 95 percent of all the letters I got were fans and collectors trying to collect every single Jewish professional baseball player’s autograph, and that’s interesting to me. Some of them, that’s all they collected. I would get letters that said, “I only collect Jewish baseball players.” That’s amazing to me as well.

JBN: What was your favorite letter?

Penprase: I couldn’t pinpoint one. Honestly, I tried to get every single letter back that I could. I think I did get every single letter back to everybody. I even found one, a couple years ago, in my desk back home. I found the letter with the index cards and everything, and I ended up sending it off just a couple years ago, and it was from one of my first couple of years. I think that might have been the only one that I didn’t send back, but I ended up sending it out better late than never. I try to do my part. Fans are what make the game go round. That’s a huge part of my daily routine. I try not to skip any autographs.

JBN: Aside from the letters, do Jewish fans ever come up to you at a game?

Penprase: Not really. Nobody’s ever come up to me and said, “I’m Jewish as well.” Mostly just letters, cards sent to me so I can send them back, but nobody’s really ever come up to me to talk to me. Even when I played in Lakewood [New Jersey], which has a big Orthodox community, nobody really came up to me and talked to me about it, which I wish they would’ve. Maybe I don’t look like I’m an approachable guy, but I like when people come up to me to talk with me about the game or just about anything, really.

JBN: Do you know any other Jewish players in this league?

Penprase: I do not. I bet if I put my mind to it and looked, I could find a few. There have got to be a few. I noticed in the World Baseball Classic a couple of years ago, the Israel team was a lot of guys I had played against, that I had no idea were even Jewish. I had played with them in my same organization or played against them, and just knew them as professional baseball players.

When you guys are looking for Jewish players [for the WBC], is it only if their moms are Jewish, or is it any kind of blood relation? If my kids became professional baseball players, you guys would be searching for them, too? It would’ve been cool [to play for Team Israel]. That would’ve been definitely fun. I mean, I know I’m not one of the top 25 Jewish players in the minor leagues and the major leagues, but that would’ve definitely been cool. That would’ve been an honor for me just to have been invited to play on that team.

JBN: You obviously think a lot and feel deeply about religion. How does that affect you as a baseball player?

Penprase: I don’t think it has any effect on me as a baseball player as far as the game goes. I don’t look at people any differently, I don’t play differently because of my religious orientation. I think the thing it affects is locker room conversation. People are aware that I’m Jewish. Religion is a topic of conversation, definitely, in the locker room, but it also makes people feel uncomfortable, as well, so you have to find those certain guys you can have a conversation with. It makes you a little bit closer to your team if you can talk to a guy about any religion or about anything that anybody is passionate about. I find that religion is a really passionate conversation, sexual orientation is a really passionate conversation, and the third one is sports. People are really passionate about their sports. College football and their fantasy football teams.

I like to get involved with people who have really studied the bible a lot. We have a thing called “Baseball Chapel” every Sunday. I go, but not every Sunday. I go maybe two or three times a year. There’s always a group of guys who are really religious. They have bible study on their own, whether it’s in their rooms, in the lobby, whatever. I like to ask them questions and get their side on pretty much anything that has to do with life.

As far as affecting baseball, it has no effect on baseball.

JBN: You said it affects your cohesiveness as a team.

Penprase: It definitely affects that. Whether it’s negative or positive, it has an effect on that.

JBN: Have there been any negative things that people have said or asked?

Penprase: There may be one or two negative comments said, but people realize that when the religion conversation starts getting heated, it can really cause too much turmoil, so it kinda just gets squashed. There may be a few comments, but after that, somebody who may not even be involved in the conversation will step in and say, “Alright, guys, let’s not talk about religion anymore.” Once you start talking about something passionate that’s really in your heart, people can take it personally and start a fight or maybe even just not talk to you for the rest of the year. So you can definitely lose friends—or you can make friends, either way.

There have definitely been good things. I’ve learned a lot from my teammates who are really religious, who really take the bible to heart. There are a lot of guys on the bus reading the bible on a daily basis. I’ve learned a lot from them. I’ve learned a lot from the guys who go to bible study every Sunday. They’re a great group of guys. I’ve learned a lot, as far as their beliefs and how they approach their life through their beliefs. It’s gotten me closer to some guys on the team, for sure.

JBN: What kinds of things do people ask you about Judaism?

Penprase: They ask me if I’ve ever been to temple, if I had a bar mitzvah. They ask me if I’m really Jewish or if that’s just kind of in my blood. I give them the answer I gave to you. I celebrate both. I celebrate Christian holidays, I celebrate Jewish holidays. I would lean more toward the Christian beliefs, but right now in my life I am really on the fence about religion in general, so I’m trying to lean one way or the other, but right now I’m just trying to learn. It’s been a struggle for me lately to believe one way or the other.

JBN: When they ask you if you’re “really Jewish,” what do you think they mean by that?

Penprase: I think they mean my beliefs. I think they just want to know exactly what my beliefs are. I think it’s a really deep question. I just take it as, “Do you really believe in the Jewish beliefs, or do you believe in the Christian beliefs?” because I tell them, when they say something [about being] Jewish, “You know, my mom’s Jewish.” And they ask me, “Well, what’s your dad?” And I tell them, “He’s Christian.” And they ask me, “Well what are you then?”

JBN: Have you been to Israel?

Penprase: No, I haven’t. My brother and I talked about it. For the last ten years, we’ve been talking about going. We heard about Birthright. He’s a high school baseball coach back in California. He actually was national coach of the year two years ago, and then just this past year he was California coach of the year. My brother is actually a coach at a Christian school, which is kind of funny. It’s called Oaks Christian. It’s a private school. It’s in Westlake, in L.A. County. Big time names go there. Will Smith’s kids went there. Wayne Gretsky’s kids went there. He’s been really successful there. [Note: Tim Penprase was named the National Christian School Athletic Association’s National Coach of the Year in 2013 and the California Coaches Association’s Baseball Coach of the Year in 2015.]

He’s really smart. He’s totally the opposite of me, really business-oriented and really organized, and I think that’s what helps him in the high school baseball scene. He’s got it all down pat, and I think he’s bound for more than just being a baseball coach, but that’s what he likes to do, and he really thrives in it. He’s really good at it. He knows the game, more than I do.

So we’ve always talked about going to Israel. I would love to go. I would definitely love to go. I have some friends who have been. My dad has been a few times. My dad had a good friend who was living down the street from us, one of our family friends. He was from Israel, and my dad ended up going back with him and spending a couple of weeks there. It was cool. He brought us back a couple yarmulkes with our names on them. He had a good time.

JBN: There are opportunities. You could get in touch with the Israel Association of Baseball, and they might want you to come teach a clinic.

JBN: Like an ambassador? That would be awesome. I definitely would have to get in touch with somebody.

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“Zev Ben Avigdor” is the pen name of a university scholar who writes for Jewish Baseball News. Click here to see more of his interviews.

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Guy Stevens
(Photo by Sarah Gopher-Stevens)

By Stuart M. Katz, correspondent

Every baseball player dreams of going to the World Series. Guy Stevens, a right-handed reliever who has pitched for Israel’s national team and Pomona College, got there through a side door last season when he landed an analytics internship with the Kansas City Royals. (The Royals took the 2014 Series to seven games before yielding to the San Francisco Giants.)

It was no fluke. Stevens, 23, was a math and economics major at Pomona when he helped develop a new methodology for predicting how minor leaguers might perform against Major League pitching. The report he co-authored on the research was interesting enough to earn coverage in Wired magazine.

In December 2014, Jewish Baseball News talked with Stevens about baseball, being Jewish, and having dual American and Israeli citizenship. Following is an edited version.

JBN: Where did you grow up?

Stevens: I grew up in Lafayette, California, near San Francisco in the East Bay Area.

JBN: In what ways was your family religiously observant?

Stevens: We attended services for the High Holidays every year and tried to have a family Shabbat dinner as often as possible. I went to Hebrew school for many years when I was growing up, which kept me connected to other Jewish kids and with Jewish traditions and the Jewish community as a whole.

JBN: How did you decide where to attend college?

Stevens: I wanted to attend a smaller, liberal-arts school, so most of my search was focused on the East Coast. I was trying to balance my desire for strong academics with the opportunity to continue playing baseball. There were a few schools that seemed like good fits, but I was really impressed with the baseball program at Pomona. The school definitely fit what I was looking for academically, and as a California kid, the warm weather of Southern California was way too good to pass up.

JBN: What sports did you play before college, other than baseball?

Stevens: I also played soccer and basketball growing up, before high school. Baseball was definitely my favorite sport and also where I had the most success, so that was the only one I really stuck with. But I remained a huge soccer fan despite not continuing my career as a player and still enjoy playing in pickup games and that sort of thing.

JBN: How would you describe your college baseball career?

Stevens: I see my career as a success on all fronts. We won a conference championship and made two NCAA Regionals, and I had an awesome group of teammates that played a huge role in my overall college experience. I had the most personal success after taking over the closer’s role during my Junior year, but I am proud of everything we accomplished as a group.

JBN: Describe your personal connection to Israel.

Stevens: As a dual citizen of the US and Israel, I have been to Israel many times. Most visits have been to visit family; my mom grew up in Israel and didn’t move to the U.S. until graduate school, and much of her family still lives there. Recently, my visits have been more baseball-oriented.

JBN: Describe the experience playing for Team Israel.

Stevens: I spent a few weeks in Israel in 2007 watching Israel Baseball League games, which was the first time I had ever really associated baseball with Israel. After that, my family had developed some connections to Israel baseball, and we reached out to see if I might be able to participate with the National team. I went out for a couple weeks during my summer vacation and practiced with the team, then got the chance to play in two tournaments: a Czech tournament called Prague Baseball Week, and then the European Championship Qualifiers hosted in Israel. It was a lot of fun. We played some good teams in Prague but played competitively and with a lot of energy. The team welcomed me right off the bat, and even without knowing any Hebrew, it was easy to get along with everyone. We came up just a bit short against Great Britain, but we pushed them to a very close final game, and I’m excited for the possibility of getting another shot at qualification next year.

JBN: How did you end up working for the Royals?

Stevens: After an internship in the Mets front office in the summer after my Junior year of college, I knew I wanted to find an opportunity with a Major League team. The Royals were a great fit for me, and I really couldn’t be happier with where I am. I work in the Baseball Analytics department. I have some day-to-day responsibilities, such as providing our coaching staff with the information they need, but I also spend plenty of time on more research-and-development-focused projects. I did not travel with the team at all to the World Series, but I attend all of our home games. The atmosphere at those games was absolutely incredible.

JBN: Which ballplayers did you admire growing up?

Stevens: I grew up as an A’s fan and always loved pitching, so I was a big fan of the Big Three: Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito. I was also a big fan of Marco Scutaro in high school; I was at the Coliseum for his walk-off home run off of Mariano Rivera in 2007, which was one of my best baseball memories as a kid.

JBN: Would you play on the high holidays?

Stevens: I think it would be very tough to play on the high holidays. I don’t know if I would feel differently playing in the Majors, but I still don’t think I would do it, especially on Yom Kippur.

JBN: What are your plans for the future?

Stevens: Right now, my primary focus is helping the Royals win a World Series. We came close this year (2014), so hopefully we can finish the job in the near future. I’m also eager to return to the mound for Team Israel at some point and would really love to help the team win a European Championship.

# # #

Stuart M. Katz is a die-hard Yankees fan. An attorney at Cohen and Wolf in Bridgeport, Conn., he chairs the firm’s Litigation Group, practicing mainly employment law, and represents employers as well as executives.

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