Garrett Wittels

Corey Baker

By Zev Ben Avigdor/Jewish Baseball News

For the second season in a row, Jewish ballplayers Garrett Wittels and Corey Baker are playing together on the Batavia Muckdogs (A-short season), a New York-based affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals.

Though having a Jewish teammate is rare in baseball (in fact, last year they even had a third Jewish teammate, Venezuelan catcher Kevin Moscatel), the two have more in common than heritage: Success in college is turning into success at the professional level.

Each had an attention-getting collegiate career. Wittels, an infielder from Miami, made international news in 2010 when he hit safely in all 56 games at Florida International University, just short of an NCAA record. Baker, a native of New City, N.Y., became the University of Pittsburgh’s all-time wins leader in 2011 with 24 career victories.

Both are putting up solid numbers in Batavia. Baker is 2-2 with a 2.41 ERA, 24 strikeouts and just 5 walks as a middle reliever this season. Wittels—who also had an extended stay with the Cardinals’ Low-A team this season and brief stints in AA and AAA—is showing more power this year in Batavia, where half of his hits have been for extra bases.

In late July, Jewish Baseball News contributor Zev Ben Avigdor had a pre-game chat with the two men about baseball and Judaism, and then watched them help beat the Auburn Doubledays, 3-0. (Baker threw three perfect innings, while Wittels singled and walked.) Following is an edited transcript of their interview.


What’s it like having another Jewish guy on the team, especially when that person is clearly identified and proud to be a Jew?

CB: It’s pretty awesome. When you first get into pro ball, you don’t really expect—at least for me, I didn’t expect—anyone, because in college I didn’t have any Jewish teammates. Typically the higher up you go, the fewer Jewish baseball players there are, so it was pretty awesome when Garrett showed up last summer and I found out he was Jewish. We actually both just found out—I hadn’t known until last week—that he and I were both bar mitzvah. That was pretty cool to find out. It’s not like you’re uncomfortable if there’s no one Jewish here, but it’s just a comforting feeling knowing that there’s someone else who is.

GW: Like Corey said, you’re not really used to having other Jewish people on your team, people you can talk to and stuff. It’s just reassuring knowing that, no matter what happens, you have someone that has your back. You always have your teammates, but in pro ball you just never know really who’s looking after you. I feel like the Jewish family is so small, you’re always kind of rooting for each other, not necessarily from a business standpoint or even in terms of being friends, but if something happens, if the shit hits the fan, you’ve always got someone in your corner.

Has the shit ever hit the fan? Has anyone ever given you any grief for being Jewish?

GW: No, it has nothing to do with being Jewish. I’m just saying, the clubhouse in minor league ball has a lot of—not discrimination, by any means—it’s just very diverse, a variety of different cultures and different places where people are from, so sometimes people tend to argue and things like that, little things. I’m just saying, it just feels comfortable to have someone else Jewish on your team.

CB: I’ve definitely been fortunate that I’ve never been heckled or anything like that, nothing about being Jewish. I would imagine in the World Baseball Classic there could be, because then they know. If we walk out on the field right now, no one really knows (you’re Jewish). Once you put on [Israel’s uniform], if you’re fortunate enough to play for that team, people will know, so maybe that will be different, but I’ve been fortunate enough never to be discriminated against, never had a problem with anyone saying anything like that. So that’s good that I have no stories about that.

What’s your background?

CB: I went to public school growing up, but then twice a week, after school, I’d go to Hebrew school. There’s a pretty good Jewish population where I’m from, so I grew up with a lot of Jewish friends. I had my bar mitzvah. I’m probably not as religious as I was when I was growing up, being around my parents and being in a Jewish household, because you go off to college and no one else is Jewish, and you get involved—especially with baseball. Baseball takes up so much time. On the weekends, I was traveling to play baseball. Being from up North, I was going down South to play baseball. So it wasn’t like I could go to synagogue on Friday night. I was probably on a plane most Friday nights in high school, in the Fall, to go play teams down South. When you’re trying to get recruited to go to college—sophomore, junior, and senior year—you need to play fall ball, but you can’t really play up in New York, so we went down South. Jupiter, Florida, has a tournament. There are tournaments all over the South. So synagogue wasn’t an option anymore, really, just because there wasn’t as much time. Growing up I followed [Jewish tradition] more and had my bar mitzvah, and I obviously still relate, but I don’t get to temple as much as I used to, that’s for sure.

GW: I went to Lehrman Community Day School [in Miami Beach] until the third grade. It was just a little Jewish community day school by my house. We had to wear a kippah every single day to school. It wasn’t anything crazy religious, but we’d say the prayers before we ate, we had prayers in the morning. I ended up leaving there to go to a different school after the third grade, for baseball purposes. [Lehrman] didn’t have a team or anything, and soon, going into middle school and things like that, it was an adjustment I just kind of had to make. I don’t keep kosher or anything like that, but I do fast on Yom Kippur, and I go to temple on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. I observe Passover, and I’ve had a bar mitzvah, and I’m very fortunate to have a good background and a good family and good Jewish traditions throughout my family that I really expect to keep doing throughout my life.

You mentioned Passover. Have you ever had to deal with keeping Passover during baseball season?

GW: Always. Every year in college there was Passover during baseball season. I never broke it. One time on the road our team had a tough loss. It was, I think, a Tuesday night, and our coach, without telling us or anything, ordered pizzas to our room, and there was nowhere else to eat, so I had my matzo I brought on the road with me, and I just took the cheese off the pizza and put it on the matzo and there was my dinner. It was crazy, but I was a freshman at the time, so I wasn’t going to ask my coach, after a tough loss, “Hey, I can’t eat this. Get me something else.” Then he’d be like, “Why? Why can’t you eat this?” and I didn’t want to explain it, so I was like, “You know what? I have the matzo. I’m just going to take the cheese, put it on the matzo, and go to bed.”

Matzo pizza.

CB: Matzo pizza’s the best.

GW: Yeah, but it was cold cheese on non-toasted matzo.

[ writer] Jonathan Mayo once interviewed you. He told you something interesting—something about Jewish fans?

CB: Yeah, I did that interview with him my senior year in college. He told me that in every community there were going to be Jewish fans. Everywhere you go, there will be a group of Jewish people, and they will know. And he said they stick together and they know when the Jewish athletes come through. And he said Jewish fans are very loyal to Jewish players.

Has that happened, with Jewish fans?

CB: I haven’t had anyone come up to me. Last year, I showed up to my locker one day, and I had fan mail from a kid from 3,000 miles away, all the way across the country, and he said he read one of my interviews and he’s Jewish too, and he sent me one of my baseball cards and asked me if I could sign it for him. You know, first rounders and top prospects get that every day, but I never get that. It was strictly because, he said, he was Jewish and he followed me because I was a Jewish baseball player and wanted my autograph, so that was like the coolest thing that’s ever happened, by far. Other than that, I’ve never had a fan come up to me and say, “Hey, I’m Jewish, too,” or anything like that.

How would that feel?

CB: It would feel cool. I would feel happier almost for them, that they got to experience seeing a Jewish baseball player. I mean, for me, obviously the fans are great, and I love that the fans come, and I appreciate every single fan I have—there’s not many, you know?—but I’d feel awesome for them, that they got to experience seeing a Jewish baseball player being a professional baseball player, because you know there’s not many. For them to be able to see that, it is just a testament that it can happen, and it does happen all the time—even though, not a lot, it does happen—and it’s awesome for them that they get to experience that. Being able to support that is unbelievable.

Garrett, have you had Jewish fans, Jewish kids come up to you?

GW: I actually, last weekend in Aberdeen, there was a Jewish sleep-away camp at the game, and there were literally 50 or 60 Jewish people. They were all religious, wearing yarmulkes, tzitzit, and everything like that, and it was the weirdest thing I’ve ever encountered in my life. I randomly just went up to one of the guys who was asking for a ball and I said, “shalom,” and he tried talking Hebrew with me, and I was like,”I don’t know any more Hebrew.” And he was like, “Oh, you’re not Jewish.” I’m like, “Yeah, my Hebrew name is Naftali.” He goes, “No way.” He had the same exact Hebrew name as me. After the game he made a point to come find me, and he actually gave me his yarmulke; I keep it in my travel backpack.

CB: There were actually groups of Jewish campers in Aberdeen and Hudson Valley. We were on a six-day road trip, and being in Maryland and outside New York—a New York city suburb and a Baltimore suburb—you have those Jewish communities. So they were up there for a sleep-away camp. We were sitting out in the bullpen and a bunch of them came up behind us. The back of the bullpen was against the stands, and a bunch of kids in yarmulkes came up, and all my teammates were like, “Hey, Baker, your cousins!” During the game I couldn’t really talk to them too much, but I know Garrett spoke to that guy and told him he was Jewish, and that was awesome. He told me about the yarmulke thing, and that’s pretty funny; that’s awesome. I’m sure they weren’t expecting that—that definitely made that kid’s day.

GW: Oh, 100%. I signed a ball in Hebrew letters for him, “To Naftali, the same Hebrew name as me, Best wishes, Garrett Wittels.” It was kind of crazy.

What’s it like being someone’s hero, especially to other Jewish kids?

CB: I don’t think that I’m anyone’s hero, so I don’t know.

GW: Not hero. I don’t think “hero” is the right word. It’s just kind of like, to younger Jewish guys in a camp like that, just so they could see that there are actually Jewish professional baseball players, to me is just incredible, because they now believe that they can do that, they can be a professional baseball player, just by seeing someone else who’s Jewish. I know. Growing up, a lot of my family and friends, when we were talking and especially when I was getting ready to go to college, everyone was like, “Why is he still trying to play? No Jewish guy has ever gone to Division I and played sports, and no Jewish guys ever play professional baseball.” Being here just gives you, not exactly satisfaction, but just kind of makes you feel good that you beat the odds and that you’re one of the few Jewish people that are doing it.

CB: [Those kids] don’t believe that they could play professional sports, there’s no way; I don’t think they do. But then seeing a professional athlete who is Jewish…

Well, wait a minute, then how did you know you could play professional sports? You’re a Jewish kid.

CB: I didn’t know. I just liked playing, and I had fun playing, and I just kept playing, and nobody told me I had to stop. People kept letting me play, so I just kept playing.

GW: I remember when I was younger and I always kind of followed baseball, and I remember when Shawn Green hit his four home runs in one day, and someone came up to me and said, “Yeah, did you see that Jewish guy? He hit four home runs in one day in a major league game.” And ever since that, I started to look up some of the Jewish players in the major leagues. I didn’t really know that many others. I knew Gabe Kapler was and Brad Ausmus was and a couple others. But just to see that Shawn Green hit four home runs in one day, made me feel like, “Oh, wow, a Jewish guy just literally hit four home runs in one day; maybe I can make it there one day.”

CB: Yeah, I know. My dad grew up in Brooklyn, a couple of blocks from the Wilpons of the Mets, and they’re Jewish. And my dad grew up a huge Sandy Koufax fan.

So who are your Jewish heroes?

CB: I guess just hearing my dad always talk about Sandy Koufax, I guess that would be who I would recognize the most.

Which one, your dad or Sandy Koufax?

CB: My dad. Definitely my dad.

GW: I don’t really have Jewish heroes. Kind of what Corey said: my parents and my grandparents, for just keeping the Jewish tradition throughout my family, I’ve always respected them for that. I know a lot of my friends who are Jewish don’t really observe some of the holidays that I do. I just feel it brings my family closer together, still having the traditions and still having the bar mitzvahs, and all those little things, and I look forward to continuing that with my own family one day.

(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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