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Browsing Posts tagged Zach Penprase

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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