By Zev Ben Avigdor/Jewish Baseball News
Jeff Urlaub was in no rush to turn pro. The lanky pitcher from Scottsdale, Ariz., turned down draft offers in 2005 (right out of high school) and 2008 before finally accepting a contract in 2010 with the Oakland A’s.
Since then, the 25-year-old reliever has been a model of consistency. He produced a 2.39 ERA for the A’s rookie-league team in 2010, had a combined 2.41 ERA with the franchise’s short-season and Class A affiliates in 2011, and finished 2012 with a combined 3.18 ERA for Oakland’s Class A and A-advanced teams.
Urlaub produced some eye-popping stats along the way. In 147 and 1/3 innings across three minor-league seasons, the 6’2″, 160-pounder has struck out 156 batters, walked a mere 22 — that’s a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 7-to-1 — and given up just 8 HRs. In 2012, he held opposing teams to a combined .197 batting average.
Jewish Baseball News contributor Zev Ben Avigdor had a chance to talk with Urlaub in August 2012, shortly before the affable southpaw learned he would be playing for Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic. An edited transcript of that interview follows.
Tell the readers of Jewish Baseball News about your background.
I grew up Jewish. My mother’s Jewish. Both grandparents are Jewish. It was a little different, as far as religious beliefs go, and all that, but ultimately just a normal family. I was not bar mitzvahed; I chose to play baseball instead. I guess in the end that worked out for me. I observe the holidays, and we go to temple every now and then as a family, and I enjoy it.
What about now? Do you have time for Jewish stuff, when you’re so busy with baseball?
I really don’t. It’s pretty tough, especially when we’re going from city to city, but the good thing about minor-league baseball is they have chapel services and stuff like that, where it’s not necessarily for a speciﬁc religion, but it’s basically for everybody, and they try to keep it pretty generic. So I try to go to those on Sundays when I can, time permitting. It gives me a chance to kind of get away for a little bit. It gets me as close to temple as I can. It’s good to kind of listen in, with everything being pretty similar. It doesn’t matter what religion you are with the services that minor-league baseball provides. It’s for everyone, so it’s good.
So it’s pretty non-denominational?
Yeah, which helps. It makes you feel a little bit more comfortable when you go in there and listen that it’s not one particular religion or belief. They encourage all of us to come and listen in.
What’s your favorite Jewish holiday?
I would have to say Chanukah, just because we get eight nights, which is a lot longer than Christmas or anything like that. The eight nights is good because you get to be with family to celebrate.
How many holidays do you get to be with your family?
That’s a good question. Chanukah for sure, and that might be it. I don’t know if I get anything else. Everything else is during the season. Everything else is doing it on the road, and the only way to celebrate is to make a couple of phone calls.
Who got you started in baseball?
Growing up my dad played baseball in high school, played a little bit recreationally in college, and then semi-pro. I would just go with him to games. I really developed the love for the game at such a young age, so that really the only thing I wanted to do was to play catch, swing a bat, and just be around the game, whether it was in the dugout, when I was four or ﬁve years old watching my dad play semi-pro, or watching on TV. It just basically consumed my life.
So were those the guys you modeled yourself after, the guys you saw playing with your dad?
Yeah, mainly it was my dad. And then when I was really young I met two guys who played professional baseball with the A’s. I met them when I was about two years old. They used to come over and hang out at the house and talk baseball with me and throw a ball around. So it was really my dad and the two guys that my family knows who played pro ball in the big leagues. I really just tried to learn, especially from my dad at such a young age, but then to watch two family friends who are playing in the major leagues every day and just to watch how they play the game. And the older you get, the more you pick up and the more you talk about it.
You were drafted by the A’s, and you grew up as an A’s fan?
I did. I grew up as an A’s fan, and in the Coliseum.
What’s that like, to be able to play in the organization you grew up watching?
It was surreal…When I found out I got selected by Oakland, I was out with my mom, and one of our family friends called me and said, “You’ll never believe what just happened.” I didn’t know what to say. It was almost too good to be true. Talking with our friends, and having them tell me just exactly how the A’s minor-league system works, and the cities you play in—it seemed too perfect, almost. But when I got drafted, we had a party that night for family and friends, and my mom brought out an old photo—I was probably ﬁve years old, in an A’s jersey, with my name on the back. I couldn’t believe it. It was perfect. I really don’t have a better word to describe it.
When you were in Vermont last season and in Burlington this season, you had another Jewish teammate.
Yeah, Nick [Rickles].
What’s that like?
It was fun. We didn’t really talk about it a whole lot, but just knowing that there’s another guy in the clubhouse that shares the same beliefs that you do makes you feel a little bit more comfortable. And just being able to talk about it—it’s not necessarily awkward with other guys, but you actually have beliefs in common. It’s comforting.
How does that affect you, as a player, to feel a little more comfortable?
Minor-league baseball is such a diverse community. You almost feel a little bit more pressure, going out and playing and trying to do well, because you’re considered a minority in the game. It’s all about being able to handle that pressure, or what you might consider pressure, and to be able to talk about it. People watch you a little bit closer just because you are technically a minority in the game, and you don’t want to let those people down. At the same time, you’re just like everybody else on the ﬁeld: we’re all trying to accomplish our dream and make it to the big leagues.
How important is the psychological part to your ability to make it to the big leagues?
I would say the mental part is a lot harder than the physical part. This game is such a grind. It will bring you up and it will make you feel great, like you’re where you belong, and then at times, when you’re not doing well, it will absolutely just tear you down, and you will feel lower than the ground and start questioning if this is what you’re supposed to do and if you want to continue playing. Mentally you just have to stay focused. It’s a grind—you don’t get many off days. If you can stay focused mentally and still believe in yourself, even when things aren’t going well, then you’ll have success. The game is so tough on you mentally that it’s not the physical part that causes guys to walk away from the game, it’s the mental part.
So feeling more secure in your culture—can that be a part of giving you mental strength?
It does. It deﬁnitely does. If you’re in your place and comfortable, it helps out on the ﬁeld.
What’s the coolest part about being a Jewish baseball player?
The coolest part probably is the recognition. You kind of stand out a little bit more than most of the other players because of your religious beliefs. I would say you’re in an elite class of your own, and it’s fun. You get a wide variety of interaction with fans. A guy asked me for an autograph. He had an all-time Jewish baseball book with all Jewish players in it, and I actually got to look through it before I signed it. I looked at all the different players, not knowing that certain players were Jewish, and assuming that they weren’t. Guys come up to me and say, “You’re a Jewish baseball player,” and I say,“Yeah,” and they say, “Oh, there’s not many of you guys in the game,” and I say, “You know, there’s more than you think,” but with the stereotype the way it is, people don’t think about that right away. Everyone says, “Aren’t you supposed to be a banker, a doctor?” but I say, “We play baseball, too. Not all of us are the stereotype.” It just is what it is. People get stereotyped all the time. I don’t mind it.
Do you get a sense that there are a lot of baseball fans out there, young and not-so-young, for whom you are becoming kind of a hero, because you are Jewish?
It feels good to know that people look up to you. I wouldn’t use the term “hero” just yet, but to be a good role model for younger kids, especially younger Jewish kids. You can be anything you want to be, as long as you put your mind to it. Just because some people say, ‘You’re Jewish, you can’t be athletic’—prove those people wrong…You go out there and prove those people wrong, and most of the time you just have to have fun with it. You hear things on the outside, some positives and a lot of negatives. You don’t pay attention to those negatives, and you really try to focus on those positives.
Speaking of positives, what would happen if you had an opportunity to play for Israel in the World Baseball Classic?
That would be great. When I found out they had a team, it was something that I became interested in right away, and without a doubt it would be a honor to play for Team Israel and really meet and get to know other Jewish baseball players who are going through the minor leagues, just like I am, and to represent who you are, and to show people that Jewish people are not just who you think they are. There are a lot of great Jewish athletes, not just in baseball but in other sports as well. It’s something that would be a tremendous honor and a privilege to be a part of.
I ﬁrst met you in short-season, single-A, and it seems to me that the more you move through baseball, the prouder you seem to be not just a successful baseball player, but a successful Jewish baseball player. Is that true?
That is. When you start out in the lower ranks, you’re just another guy, but the more you progress and move up, you do get a little bit more sense of self-accomplishment and a little bit more pride in what you’re doing and knowing that not a lot of people get this opportunity, and you really just have to soak it in and enjoy the moments, because the game doesn’t last forever, and eventually when time’s up, time’s up, so going out and enjoying every day is the one thing that I really try to focus on, and I’m honored to be able to put a uniform on every day, I’m honored to be able to go out on the mound and pitch in front of a crowd, because it’s what I love to do. It’s been my dream to continue to move up and eventually make it to the big leagues.
(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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