By Zev Ben Avigdor/Jewish Baseball News

You don’t hear many Jewish athletes talk about their bar mitzvah, or how it helped them develop the discipline necessary to master their sport. But Ben Guez (pronounced ‘Gezz’), whose father hails from Tunisia and Paris, is no ordinary ballplayer.

An outfielder in the Sam Fuld mode — strong arm, great plate discipline, good baserunner — the 25-year-old Detroit Tigers prospect was playing Triple-A ball by his third minor-league season. In 2012, the bulk of which he’s spent with the Toledo Mud Hens (AAA), Guez is batting a combined .289 with 9 HRs, 6 triples, 24 doubles, 48 RBIs, 15 stolen bases, and a .403 on-base percentage in 370 at-bats.

The Houston, Tex., native has always excelled. At age 7, he promised to hit a grand slam for his mother’s birthday, and he delivered. At 13, he helped his local Maccabi baseball team win a gold medal. Guez was a Colonial Athletic Association All-Star at the College of William and Mary, where he hit .312 with an .874 OPS, and he was a standout in the prestigious Cape Cod Summer League.

JBN contributor Zev Ben Avigdor chatted with Guez before a recent doubleheader in Syracuse. An edited transcription of that interview follows.


Tell us a little about your Jewish background.

I was raised Jewish. I wasn’t born to a Jewish mother, but a Jewish father, whose family was Jewish, of course. He was born in Tunisia, Africa, in 1945. His family moved to Paris—most of his family moved to Paris. They live in a Jewish neighborhood there. He still does have a sister and a couple of other relatives who live in Israel, in Tel Aviv and in [Mazkeret] Batya, I think. And so I was converted at birth, and my siblings and I were raised Jewish—we had bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs—and it’s just been with me as I’ve grown up. So my dad is very involved and very much practiced in Judaism, and when I told him about being able to play for Israel, if that worked out, he was ecstatic. But either way, he’s ecstatic that I play.

And you’ve been to Israel?

I have. I was there when I was maybe 8 or 10. I was young. I went with my brother and my dad. We went to Paris and saw his family, and saw his family in Israel, too.

At some point, did you find yourself having to cut back on some of the Jewish things just because baseball can become so consuming?

Definitely. Baseball has always been it for me. I’ve always put all my time into it. Judaism, I guess, has taken a back seat to that, but I wouldn’t be where I was if I didn’t focus so much on this.

Is it safe to say that it’s not really because Judaism became less important, it just was a question of how much time you had?

Yeah, you could say that.

When you said in an interview a couple of years ago that your bar mitzvah and your Jewish upbringing helped to make you a better baseball player, what did you mean?

I believe it was just another vehicle my father used to show me that there is no substitution for hard work in life. It did not have to be my bar mitzvah per se, but that I was actively working at something that was rewarding and had meaning—it’s not what you are getting from the work you put into something, but what you are becoming. In other words, it made me better because it was just more practice at the process of accomplishing something through time, hard work, and discipline. I believe that if you give everything you have at the struggle of making a dream a reality, then you are a success no matter the outcome.

Does anything reconnect you to being Jewish again as you’ve moved up through the minor leagues?

My dad. That never leaves him, and it’ll never leave us and every chance he gets, he’s still instilling that, not only in me, but his family and his friends. So having him there is what keeps me so close to it.

What’s you favorite Jewish holiday?

Well, I mean, I remember as a kid—I guess I wouldn’t say it was my favorite, because I spent so many hours in the synagogue when I was a kid and I wanted to play baseball—but the High Holidays, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Just that I got to spend time with my family and that it was so important to my dad, I think, is what made it important to me.

You picked the High Holidays, and that’s a very spiritual time of the year. Is that part of it?

Again, I think maybe it’s just how my dad felt. I don’t know if there’s that [spiritual element], or what there is or what there isn’t. I just know how important it is to my dad, and seeing how important it would be for me, to him. And maybe with my kids, I could see. Now that I have a daughter of my own, I know why my dad is the way he is, and so it’s a circle.

A fan wanted me to ask you if you ever feel different, playing baseball, because you’re Jewish.

Yes and no. I’d say yes, because sure I guess maybe there aren’t that many Jewish players, but no, because I don’t want to feel different. I’m not afraid of who I am, though, and I’m not scared to be who I am, so if that’s how it is, then that’s how it is. I have no willingness to change.

Here’s another question from a fan: What do you like best about being Jewish?

What do I like best about being Jewish? I guess I never really thought about what I liked best about it. I guess if I had to say what I liked the best it’d be that the Jewish culture really sticks together. I mean you’re here because, I imagine, some Jewish fans really like the way I play. I think the fact that the Jewish culture really sticks behind you, really wants their own to succeed, is pretty cool, and that’s what I like best, because so often people don’t want you to succeed. I’m not saying that other cultures do or don’t, I can’t speak for those—but that’s pretty cool.

You’re the kind of player who goes all out, every play.

I try. I try to.

The way you play makes you, in a lot of people’s minds, a hero. Players like you are the reason people love to watch baseball.

Well I don’t know what to say.

Jewish Baseball News talks about having Jewish baseball heroes. How does it feel to be a hero to lots of people?

I guess I never thought of myself as being a hero for playing a game that I loved. That’s just how I grew up playing, and how I grew up watching other players play. And if that makes me a hero— I mean, there are far greater heroes out there than me. But if I can be a small hero or a hero to some, then I think that’s incredible.

Who are your heroes?

Growing up, I guess it was baseball players, too. Which is kind of odd, because now that I’m a baseball player I don’t think of myself as a hero. There are far greater heroes out there who do it every day, and not just in sports, but I guess sports is kind of on a platform. I grew up watching Craig Biggio play. I was an Astros fan, so I watched those guys growing up. Craig Biggio gave it everything he had; he’s from New York, by the way. And [I grew up] hearing my dad talk about Hank Greenberg and guys like that, in terms of heroes. Every day, there’s somebody new.

Not just fans like the way you play. Other baseball players do, too. How does it feel to know that other Jewish baseball players want you to succeed?

I never would’ve thought that people would say that about me, but that’s awesome. Because I want everybody who works hard for their goals [to succeed]. That’s something that my parents instilled in me as a kid. If you have a dream, and you work hard enough, and you perform enough, you can make it happen, whatever that dream is. That’s incredible that other players want me to succeed, because I wouldn’t want anything other than success for those players behind me—if I made it—and for those in front of me. [In baseball] and in life it’s about giving it everything you have and not holding anything back, and for those who do that, I think they should be rewarded.

Do you have any advice for young Jewish kids who want to play baseball?

It’s exactly what I just said. Whatever it is you choose in life, there are no guarantees. You don’t know if you will make it or not, so the decision should never be about whether or not it’s guaranteed. What’s more or less likely to happen shouldn’t be why you choose something. You should choose something because you love it. And if you love it, you’ll give everything you have for it, and you’ll be far more likely to succeed. And if you give everything you have at the thing you love, then you’ll never work a day in your life, and you’ll enjoy it, too, and you’ll probably give back, too. Then when those people are in my position, they’ll be able to look back and say the same thing to the people coming after them.

Speaking of giving back, are there any causes or charities that you’d like the readers to know about, that you’d like them to support, that are dear to your heart?

There are a bunch. Lately, I’ve been focused on food, actually, on global health. I don’t really have a specific cause, but just that it could be better. Hunger and nutrition—even the foods that we eat aren’t the best. That’s just one cause, one of many.

Anything else you would like to tell the readers of Jewish Baseball News about who you are?

Just thanks for following me. And it’s been a hell of a ride and I hope it keeps going. And I hope they keep following.

(Editor’s note: “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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