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Browsing Posts tagged Zev Ben Avigdor

(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.

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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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Ryan Lashley: The Interview

Three Jews on the Fort Worth Cats, 2014: <a href=

Adam Kam, Ben Ruff, Ryan Lashley (L-R)" src="http://www.jewishbaseballnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/ft-worth-cats-group-photo-2014-kam-ruff-lashley.jpg" width="444" height="305" srcset="http://www.jewishbaseballnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/ft-worth-cats-group-photo-2014-kam-ruff-lashley-1024x702.jpg 1024w, http://www.jewishbaseballnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/ft-worth-cats-group-photo-2014-kam-ruff-lashley-900x617.jpg 900w, http://www.jewishbaseballnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/ft-worth-cats-group-photo-2014-kam-ruff-lashley.jpg 1123w" sizes="(max-width: 444px) 100vw, 444px" /> 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.

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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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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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http://www.wichitawingnuts.com/justinklipp.htmlBy Zev Ben Avigdor, correspondent

One reason we love baseball is because baseball players have great stories. Often those tales make us fans of particular players, regardless of their statistical accomplishments or which uniforms they wear.

Here is one of them, a story of setbacks and adversity, of failure and loss of confidence, and ultimately of perseverance and mastering the mental side of baseball.

Justin Klipp has always been a smart, thoughtful guy. His high GPA and SAT scores attracted the attention of Dartmouth and Harvard, and he was recruited to play baseball in the Ivy League. Instead, the California native chose to make himself more visible as a ballplayer by attending a more traditional baseball school. He played first at Cuesta College, where the Texas Rangers noticed and drafted him in 2004. He subsequently transferred to Cal State Fullerton, the national baseball powerhouse made famous by legendary former coach Augie Garrido. After Klipp’s successes at Fullerton, he was drafted in the 22nd round by the Chicago White Sox, in 2007.

Klipp, 30, has yet to play for a Major League organization, however. During spring training in 2008, he broke his back. Although he was assigned to Chicago’s “Single-A” team, he could not make his first start. He broke his back again in January 2009 and underwent surgery. Doctors said he would not be able to pitch again, but Klipp fought back, worked diligently, and returned to baseball. At first he played in an amateur men’s league in Texas. By 2013, he was playing professional baseball as a member of the Edinburg (TX) Roadrunners in the independent United League. After two weeks in Edinburg, he was picked up by the Wichita Wingnuts of the independent American Association. He pitched two seasons in Wichita, compiling records of 8-3 (3.88 ERA) and 7-3 (3.92 ERA).

This August, while he was in his second season with Wichita, Justin Klipp spoke with Jewish Baseball News. Shortly after, Klipp was traded to the Saint Paul Saints, where he finished out the 2014 season. Following is an edited version of the interview.

JBN: Tell me about your Jewish background.

Klipp: I went to a Jewish preschool, which influenced me in a good way from a young age. And we celebrated family holidays, like Passover and Rosh Hashanah. We’d go to friends’ houses. Very community based. Where I grew up in Calabasas — a lot of Jewish people there. And Hanukah. I got to celebrate Hanukah and Christmas growing up.

JBN: What’s your favorite Jewish holiday?

Klipp: I like Hanukah. Just lighting the candles and singing every night, and it lasts eight days. I didn’t like having to fast on Yom Kippur. I never fasted. Passover, I remember eating peanut butter and jelly on matzah. All the kids would have it.

I had some back issues my freshman year in college and always just had poor posture. It eventually caught up with me and ended up stress-fracturing twice in less than a year.

JBN: You said you grew up with a lot of Jewish kids.

Klipp: Definitely. I would say a conservative estimate would be about 50% of the people I went to school with — junior high and high school — were Jewish.

JBN: Did any of them play baseball with you?

Klipp: I’ve known Josh Satin since I was two years old. We grew up going to play groups and stuff like that. We went to the same middle school. Played PONY League Ball, all the way up, and we were close. Still good friends. Aaron Lowenstein, he made it to double-A. He’s actually one of my best friends. I’m going to his wedding in the Fall. Cody Decker was a little younger than me. I think I played against him — when I was a senior, I want to say. He might have been a sophomore. There’s a lot of guys in the area. Jeff Kaplan I played with in college. He went to [Cal State] Fullerton with me. And then last year with Andrew Aizenstadt here on the Wingnuts.

JBN: Did you play with Ryan Braun in high school?

Klipp: No, he was a little bit older. I mean, Derek Kinzler, you probably don’t know him. He was in the Rockies’ organization. He also played in the Can-Am League. He’s actually really good friends with Ryan Braun. They grew up together and so I hung out with Braun a couple of times, but that was all.

photo from <a href=

Justin Klipp" src="http://www.jewishbaseballnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/photo-from-justin-klipp-300x225.jpeg" width="300" height="225" srcset="http://www.jewishbaseballnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/photo-from-justin-klipp-300x225.jpeg 300w, http://www.jewishbaseballnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/photo-from-justin-klipp-900x675.jpeg 900w, http://www.jewishbaseballnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/photo-from-justin-klipp.jpeg 960w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px" /> Justin Klipp pitching for the Wichita Wingnuts

JBN: Was Ryan Lavarnway from Los Angeles?

Klipp: Yeah. So those were really my closest friends that I’ve had that were Jews in baseball.

JBN: What do you like best about being Jewish?

Klipp: Maybe just that it’s different. There’s not as many Jews. And I do like the community, and it’s always nice when I go back home, because I’m still close with a lot of people I grew up with, from high school and that’s just — I love my family. We’re really family-oriented. Jews are really family-oriented, and I like that a lot.

JBN: It must be hard, to have your family back in LA and you’re here.

Klipp: It sucks.

JBN: Israel had a team in the World Baseball Classic. They’re going to have one again in 2016. Your father is Jewish, so you’re eligible. Would you play?

Klipp: Yeah, I would. If I’m still playing professionally, I would love to have the opportunity to go play. Any opportunity to play in the World Baseball Classic, playing with the best guys in the world, would be amazing. I would definitely love to go play for the Jewish — uh, for the Israeli team.

JBN: For “the Jewish team.”

Klipp: For the Jewish team [laughs].

JBN: How did you start playing baseball?

Klipp: Playing tee ball. I was the kind of kid who was athletic growing up, so I tried a bunch of sports. Soccer — the day of tryouts, I told my mom, I’m like, “Mom, I don’t want to do this. Too much running around on the field for no reason.” I was five. So I did tee ball, basketball. I took karate. I did art lessons growing up. I always loved baseball, since I was young. I had a bunch of ups and downs. Baseball is a sport where, obviously, it has a lot to do with confidence, and I had times when I lost confidence playing and it didn’t become fun, but I was always drawn back to it, just because I love playing and I loved the guys growing up.

JBN: Your back has been a problem. What happened?

Klipp: It was a long time coming. I had some back issues my freshman year in college and always just had poor posture. It eventually caught up with me and ended up stress-fracturing twice in less than a year.

JBN: You had surgery in 2009.

Klipp: Yeah, January 2009. It was the Spring of 2011 that I started playing in a men’s league again.

JBN: And then in 2013 you got recruited to play independent league baseball?

Klipp: No, I actually went and tried out for [the independent Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks], I got a spring training invite to Fargo in 2012. Didn’t make the team. I got cut in spring training. I wasn’t quite ready. Actually, to be honest, I don’t think I got a fair shot. They gave me one inning, and I didn’t give up a run. I gave up one infield hit. And a strikeout.

JBN: Sounds like they already had their minds made up.

Klipp: Yeah, they probably had their minds made up. I was just an extra guy — didn’t get a fair shot. It’ll be nice, because tomorrow will my first time pitching against them, since I didn’t get to pitch against them last year and so far not this year. [NOTE: Klipp and the Wichita Wingnuts beat Fargo 7-4 the next day. He scattered 7 hits over five innings, yielding one run and striking out five.]

JBN: Is that in the back of your mind, to say, “I told you so”?

Klipp: Just a little bit, a little bit of shove it in his face. But to be fair, I’m not the same pitcher now as I was two years ago. But, yeah, it’ll kind of be there.

JBN: How did you end up in Austin, Texas?

Klipp: After my back surgery, I was kind of lost, and I just needed a little adventure. I needed to get out of L.A. for a while, and Austin was somewhere I always found intriguing. I always wanted to go to UT.

It’s more about the team in independent ball, it’s more about winning, not as much about developing guys. They don’t really care too much in organized ball if you win or lose; they just want their prospects to get better so they can keep moving them up and getting them ready for the big leagues.

JBN: In your blog, you wrote something about being in Austin and attending classes at UT.

Klipp: I was going to, but I didn’t. That fell through. That was if I was — I thought I was going to be done [with baseball]. At the time I was writing the blog, I thought I was done playing. I had no idea, and that was my plan, to go [to UT]. I was coaching tournament ball. Then I played in a Texas winter league. It’s a league where you pay to play for a month. You pay them, and they help you get picked up…The United League takes a lot of guys out of this winter league. So you go down there — you pay to get on a team. Obviously, you have to be good enough; they’re not going to take everyone. I signed with Edinburg after that, the Roadrunners. Ozzie Canseco was my manager down there. That was interesting, to say the least. Guys would go across the border to play for the cartels. The cartels would put on these men’s league games, and they bet a lot of money on these games, so they would bring ringers from over [the border]. We had a couple guys from the team go over there to play, and after the game, they’d have a trash bag full of money, and they would hand you anywhere from $600 to $1000 for a single game. That was the incentive. It was a month’s pay, right there, in one game, on a Sunday, so you’d have guys shoot across the border and make some money. It was scary. I thought about doing it, but then I left. I pitched really well there, and I got picked up by Wichita three weeks into the season. I had three starts under my belt, and then I came to Wichita. That was how I got here.

JBN: For readers who may not understand the distinction, how would you explain the difference between affiliated ball and independent ball?

Klipp: Not much difference between Minor League double-A and this league. I’d say it’s between high-A and double-A — that would be about the equivalent. Most of the guys here in this league have double-A time and above. There’s not much difference, except it’s more about the team in independent ball, it’s more about winning, not as much about developing guys. They don’t really care too much in organized ball if you win or lose; they just want their prospects to get better so they can keep moving them up and getting them ready for the big leagues. It’s a lot more fun [in independent ball], I would say, especially talking to guys who have been up in the higher levels of organized ball. They love it here, and that’s part of why they’re still playing, too. They can’t let go of that, and it’s that chance to play for love of the game and for that team camaraderie and to win a championship. But as far as difference — there’s not so much difference, [except for] the mentality — it’s about winning. They don’t care if you’re a pitcher and you throw 85, if you’re getting guys out, you’re going to have a job. It doesn’t necessarily work like that if you’re in organized baseball. They don’t care if you throw 95 on our team [Wichita] and walk a bunch of guys and are struggling to find your command. They don’t want anyone like that. They want a guy who comes in, throws strikes, and gets outs — especially our team, very defense-oriented.

JBN: What do you like best about baseball that makes it different from the other sports you played?

Klipp: Baseball has taught me so much over the years. It’s incredible how much influence it’s had on my life and made me the person, the man I am today. I was really influenced, in college especially. Really, it turned me into a man and made me confident, and it taught me a lot of skills that I will take later, once I retire — and if I don’t decide to coach or stay and do something in baseball afterward — and [I] go into in the business world, a lot of skills I learned on the baseball field, such as confidence and taking things one thing at a time and being in the moment and just life lessons that I’ve learned over the years. The biggest thing is confidence, and that’s what I try to instill in all my kids that I teach during the off-season. That’s why their parents really appreciate what I do. Whether little Johnny gets that much better in baseball, they really like the values I instill, and the kids look up to me…It’s always good for a kid to have someone to look up to, other than your parents, outside your family, and that you can talk to and have a relationship with. I think it’s really important.

The big thing that I had to learn was staying in the moment and not thinking about my last at bat that was bad or my last bad outing or that last pitch that I threw that the guy hit 500 feet. 

JBN: You said that those lessons then extend outside baseball.

Klipp: Yeah, I see it. When I grew up, I wasn’t that confident a kid. I had a lot of self-esteem issues growing up, as most kids do. In this game, you have to have confidence. And there’s a fine line between being cocky and having confidence, which I always tell my guys. And that’s what my dad always harped on me, growing up: You never have to tell anyone how good you are, you go and you show them on the field. He always taught me to be humble. That would be the biggest thing, confidence. And also just being in the moment and not letting things that you can’t control affect you. You can’t control what the umpire does, you can’t control if your fielder makes an error. I see a lot of kids — if you’re pitching and your second baseman makes an error, and you turn around and throw your hands up and show bad body language and show up your fielder, which in turn makes them feel even worse than they already feel for making an error. You control what you can control. And it’s the same thing in life. You can’t control what other people do and let that affect you. And the big thing that I had to learn was staying in the moment and not thinking about my last at bat that was bad or my last bad outing or that last pitch that I threw that the guy hit 500 feet. You have to move on, and that’s another great life lesson, that people are so caught up in the past and the future that they’re not going to live in the now and enjoy what’s going on right in front of them. I enjoy working with kids on that, on getting them to lock in, on teaching kids to be able to focus their mind on whatever it is and then be able to space out. You have to have that time, what our sports psychologist called the six seconds of focus: when you step into your circle and you’re ready, because that’s just about the time it takes from the time the pitcher toes the rubber and delivers the pitch — then space out.

JBN:What would you want the readers of Jewish Baseball News to know about you? Something that’s important to you.

Klipp: I’ve started [writing] a book. A working title is “I’m the Man.” It’s from when I had this nine-year-old team, and we had a kid who was a really skilled player. You saw him, and it was like, “Dang, this kid’s really got some talent.” But he didn’t have confidence, he just wasn’t confident — at all.

JBN: Even though he was so much better than the other kids.

Klipp: That’s the thing. He didn’t realize it. And I guess that was the same thing for me growing up. I didn’t realize how — I knew I was better, but I just didn’t have the confidence that I should have had. After one game, when he had a tough game at the plate and just didn’t do well, I called to him, “Matty, come here. What’s going on, bud?” And he was just sitting there, not really giving me an answer, and I told him, “You need to say, ‘I’m the man,’ out loud. You need to tell me, right now, ‘I’m the man.’” Most kids can’t say it. This is a thing I do with a lot of kids to help build their confidence, because they just can’t say it out loud. If you don’t have self-esteem, you can’t say out loud and with conviction, “I’m the man” and “I can do this” or whatever else you want to replace for that. So he started softly, [in a whisper] “I’m the man,” and I said, “No! Say it louder!” I just got in his face. People were around — it was just outside, in a little league facility, and people were watching me and looking at me like I’m crazy. He just said again [still softly] “I’m the man,” and I was, “No, louder.” And he slowly built up, louder, and he kept saying, “I’m the man,” and we keep going back and forth, and all of sudden tears started coming out of his eyes, because he just had so many emotions going on, he didn’t know what to do to deal with them all, he had no idea — and all of a sudden, he just fired off [yelling], “I’m the man,” loud, at the top [of his lungs], with conviction, and he was breathing [hard] and you could just see the transformation right there, just getting him to say that at the top of his lungs. At that point, everyone was looking at us and going, “Oh my God, what is this?” At the next game, which was later that day, because it was a tournament, I had coaches coming up to tell me, “Who’s your catcher? Your catcher is the best catcher I’ve ever seen.” He made a huge transformation. The other parents — and his mom — they thought it was just something special. And then one of the team moms made shirts with “I’m the man” on the back, and our whole team motto was, “I’m the man,” and that just became our thing. And we ended up winning our first tournament a few tournaments after that. It was a special team, special to do that.

I do that a lot with my clients. They can’t say it, they can’t say it like they mean it. I tell them, “You have to go home and look in the mirror and be able to look at yourself and have that confidence to be able to say that.” That’s the one thing I would say is the most important thing that I’ve taken away from this: in life, the ability to be confident and not cocky. Most of the confident kids, it seems like, growing up, are the ones that are bullies. They act — but they’re probably not — confident. Kids are learning how to be confident. That’s part of growing up. Life is tough. It’s tough out there. It’s not easy. You’re very innocent when you grow up. You have no idea what the real world is going to be like when you get out there, and if you don’t have these skills — being confident, staying in the moment, thinking positive…A lot of it is positive thinking, which really affected me. I would always go to the negative, because I’m a perfectionist. Augie Garrido — I read it in his book [Life Is Yours to Win: Lessons Forged from the Purpose, Passion, and Magic of Baseball] — he tells his team, the first day of practice, that he has four rules, and the third rule is that you will strive for perfection, but you will fail. You learn from those failures, you pick yourself back up, basically you get back on the horse, and you keep doing it, again and again: “When you fail, recognize the message that’s in the failure and be motivated to get better. And then to do your best again and again until you find the solution.” You keep striving for perfection, but you have to understand you’re going to fail. Your expectation level has to be realistic. And that’s the thing: I see a lot of kids who are perfectionists, and that’s how I was growing up — I was a perfectionist. But it wasn’t in check. My expectation level was to always be perfect, and when I did fail, everything would just come crashing down. That was the biggest thing, growing up.

JBN: When was the turning point?

Klipp: When I went to [Cal State] Fullerton, they taught me all this stuff. I quit in the middle of my sophomore year, from losing my confidence. I got drafted my freshman year, by the Rangers. Then my sophomore year, I didn’t have a great start, wasn’t throwing quite as hard. I was working out too much, I was trying too hard. I was trying to get better, to be so much better than the season before. It’s a long story. It came crashing down. If you read the blog, a lot of it is in there. I literally quit in the middle of playoffs my sophomore year. I ripped up my jerseys and put them on my coach’s car — that’s how bad it got. I was fortunate enough to go to the Northwoods League and play in Minnesota — Alexandria — and that’s where I fell back in love with the game. And then I was lucky enough to have an agent who gave me the opportunity to throw a bullpen in front of the Fullerton coach, and they invited me to walk on for January workouts. January workouts are intense, 12 hours a day, every day except Sundays for 23 days. I had to earn a spot there, and that was one of my biggest accomplishments. Against all odds, I was going into one of the top programs in the country, in the middle of their toughest time. They made you run two miles in under 14 minutes, and I didn’t make it. I was one of the few guys that didn’t. I was not a good runner then, not a long distance runner. That’s when I broke down. I got shin splints that turned into stress fractures, both my junior and senior years. So you could say I don’t run [long distances] anymore. But I made the team and actually became the right handed set-up guy for a while until I stress fractured my shin and kind of fell off. But they taught me. At first I was like, “What is all this they’re talking about? What is this six seconds of focus and all this psychology?” It took me a little time to buy into it, but once I did — and especially going into my senior year when I really bought into it — I saw the difference of how it transformed me as a person and as a baseball player. I took a class with Ken Ravizza that fall. He teaches at Fullerton. He used to work with Walter Payton, back in the day, and with U.S. Olympians and the Anaheim Angels. Now he gets flown around to different big leaguers to work one-on-one with them. Evan Longoria does one-on-one sessions with him. He’s a great guy. He influenced my life, as well as our whole coaching staff, and in particular Rick Vanderhook. He was the assistant coach at the time. He’s now the head coach. He’s tough. He’s like an army sergeant, and it took me a while, but he really built my confidence, like you wouldn’t believe. His philosophy — the team philosophy — was, if you can deal with the wrath of “Hooky” you can deal with anything out on the field. That’s what they wanted. It took me a while, but once I could accept the ‘wrath of Hooky,’ I had made the transformation.

My senior year, our team had a falling off, and we barely made the playoffs. The whole year I pitched in relief. I had a stress fracture in my left shin, and I couldn’t go more than four innings, or else I would have been the Sunday starter [one of the top three starting pitchers on a college team but not the ace, who is typically the Friday starter]. We didn’t really have a third starter that year, just a bunch of freshmen that kept rotating in and out — there was no set guy — and I didn’t get to pitch in the first two, first-round playoff games out of the bullpen, because I wasn’t needed. At the time, I had an ulcer in my stomach, because of all the pain pills I had to take to pitch, for my shin, and I had a ten-minute tape job — the tape job was like a cast — before each game. I had to walk around in a boot when I wasn’t playing. The next day after I would pitch, I couldn’t even walk, I was limping around — it was that bad.

Guys would go across the border to play for the cartels. The cartels would put on these men’s league games, and they bet a lot of money on these games, so they would bring ringers from over [the border]…After the game, they’d have a trash bag full of money.

JBN: How did you find the strength to pitch?

Klipp: That’s the mentality that they taught me. I fell apart my junior year, and that kind of helped, too, because I had experienced it, so that my senior year I knew how to deal with it. So Hooky got on me on the bus after the game, and I was, at that point, pretty fed up. I was pretty upset, because I didn’t get to pitch those two games, and I felt like, “What was going on?” They hadn’t announced the third starter yet, and Hooky got on my case about going from the bullpen to the dugout to get food. And I just yelled back at him, “Hooky. I got an ulcer because of all the pills that I take to pitch for you, so I have to eat.” I kind of went off on him on the bus, in front of everyone. And he yelled, “Klipper, get off the effing bus right now!” We got there, and he just wore me out, and I wore him out. And he loved it. He loves when you can get to the point where you can [yell back at him]. He’ll break you down, like you won’t believe; he broke me down like I was a wild stallion. And the next morning, I woke up and was all pissed off. I was sitting in my chair, slumped down, and they made an announcement, “Starting pitcher today — Klipper.” I made my first start of the year, and we won. We actually beat Fresno State — half of the guys on that team were on the team that won the College World Series the following year. It was a tough game. That day, while I was sitting there in the stands, getting mentally prepared, I saw Tanner Scheppers, who now plays in the big leagues for the Rangers, get hit in the head by a come-backer. Line drive. And I was in the stands, watching, trying to get ready. It was bad. I was sitting there, watching, waiting for the inning to end. I had my headphones in, listening to music, trying to get ready, mentally ready, and I had to witness this, but I couldn’t think about that. So the first thing, I went out, and I was really nervous. First game ever I’m on national television, and I’m pitching, first start of the year. I walked the first batter of the game, but then settled in. I gave up that run, and I gave up one more hit that inning. I got back to the dugout, and Hooky was, “What the bleep are you doing walking the first batter,” and he got in my face. You have to understand, he’s this short, penguin-looking guy, and he has this voice. I said, “Hooky, get the bleep out of my face. I got this.” I can’t say the rest of it out loud, because obviously it was — but basically I yelled back at him, and he said, “Yeah, alright Klipper,” and he smacked me on the butt, and he said, “You got it.” He knew. And the next four innings, I went out and didn’t give up a run. I gave up two more hits, but that was all. We won the game and went to the next round and ended up going to the College World Series after that. I didn’t get to pitch, though. I was supposed to start the third game, but we went two and out. Heartbreakers. We actually played against [UC] Irvine and [Aaron] Lowenstein in that game, which was a pretty cool experience, playing against my best friend. It was a 13-inning, five hour-and-45-minute game, longest game in College World Series history. If we win, I pitch the next game, and if not, we go home. We ended up losing, and I didn’t get to pitch in the College World Series.

JBN: How did Aaron play?

Klipp: He did well. He’s one of the best defensive catchers I’ve ever seen. [Note: Aaron Lowenstein played from 2008-2011 in the San Francisco Giants’ organization, where he threw out an impressive 42 percent of all attempted base-stealers. Like Klipp, Lowenstein had to deal with setbacks — in his case, multiple concussions that prematurely ended his promising career.] 

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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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Richard Stock (MiLB.com)

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By Zev Ben Avigdor/Jewish Baseball News

We at Jewish Baseball News didn’t know about 22-year-old catcher Richard Stock until recently, when the Cleveland Indians prospect proclaimed his ancient heritage via the most modern of ways: Twitter.

“Best part of being Jewish is macaroons,” he Tweeted. 

Raised with four brothers and sisters in the Seattle suburbs and Westlake Village, Calif., Stock played at three colleges in three years before Cleveland grabbed him in the 23rd round of the 2012 amateur draft. He spent his rookie minor-league season with the Mahoning Valley Scrappers (Class A/short season), where he played in 22 games and hit .295, third-highest on the team. 

Stock needn’t look far for baseball advice. His older brother Robert Stock was a second-round pick of the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2009 draft and played catcher until the franchise moved him onto the pitcher’s mound last year. 

After a brief exchange of Tweets, Richard was kind enough to grant me an interview. An edited transcript follows. But before you forget, please wish him a happy birthday today (Feb. 8). You can find Richard at twitter.com/RichardStock.

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I was born in Issaquah, Washington, a suburb of Seattle, and I went to pre-school at the Jewish Community Center on Mercer Island. Then we moved down to the suburbs of Los Angeles when I was five, and I started going to kindergarten and Hebrew school at Temple Etz Chaim.

You tweeted about macaroons. What’s your favorite Jewish holiday?

Rosh Hashanah—apples and honey. That was my favorite treat as a kid, having the little packets of honey at the temple. I still make that for breakfast a couple times a week.

Keeping the Rosh Hashanah spirit around all year?

Yeah, I don’t know about the spirit. More just taking advantage of the delicious treat.

So which do you like best, then: macaroons, or apples and honey?

Well, I hadn’t had a macaroon in forever, and my friend had some at his house, and I totally forgot about macaroons, and on a whim I sent out that tweet and—I don’t know—there doesn’t have to be one best part of being Jewish.

True. So what else do you like best about being Jewish?

The people. It’s a good culture to identify with. Three thousand years of tradition from Moses to Sandy Koufax. That’s from The Big Lebowski, one of my favorite movies.

Sandy Koufax is going to be at spring training this year not far from you. Are you going to look for him?

I might have to make a little road trip. We were definitely Mariner fans growing up in Seattle, but my grandpa always talks about Hank Greenberg and Koufax and all the old-time Jewish greats.

Tell us about your grandfather.

He has been a Jew his whole life, but he’d never been Bar Mitzvah’d when he was young, so he just recently got Bar Mitzvah’d up in Seattle a couple years ago, well into his 70’s. That was one of his proudest moments. . . he always wears the Star of David and we celebrate Chanukah and Passover, but he had never been Bar Mitzvah’d as a child, and he always wanted to have that happen.

Where did you and your family celebrate Passover?

At a friend’s house in Northridge, Eli Gluck. His family is also Jewish, so we go over there and talk about baseball and have a nice seder. He played with us in high school and when we were young , but he had three arm surgeries, so it didn’t work out for him, but definitely a Jewish baseball player growing up with us.

And you had a Jewish teammate at USC.

Yeah, Adam Landecker. He’s now a senior at USC, great baseball player. He can hit straight up and he’s got a good glove. He’s scrappy—a Dustin Pedroia type.

And you have a brother who plays minor-league baseball in the Cardinals organization.

Yeah, Robert got up to High-A two years ago as a catcher, and then he was just recently converted to a pitcher, so he got sent down to Low-A. [Editor’s note: Robert Stock went 5-2 with a 4.56 ERA for the Quad Cities River Bandits in 2012.] He pitched very well at USC, splitting time between catching and pitching.

Your friend, [Seattle Mariners prospect] Jack Marder, recently played for Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic qualifiers. What would it be like to play for them four years from now in the next WBC?

That’d be a great honor—not to mention a good experience playing against some of the best competition in the world. It would be awesome to put on that jersey. That would be the experience of a lifetime.

Next stop in the Indians’ organization is Lake County. There’s a big Jewish community there, and they do Jewish heritage night every year. What would it be like to be on the field for that?

That would be a blast. Do we get to wear yarmulkes? But seriously, that’s the great part about the minor leagues: all of the fun nights that we get to have.

MahoningValley has the craziest promotions. What was your favorite?

Every Tuesday was dollar beer night, which we don’t get to partake in, but the fans show up in droves, and they’re—um—quite enthusiastic every Tuesday.

Last question: what would you like the readers of Jewish Baseball News to know about you?

Besides that I exist?

That’s a start. What about a favorite story?

This story doesn’t really accentuate my Jewish heritage, but I hit a home run on my first college pitch, at USC. That was probably the highlight of my career. I was just hanging out in the bullpen and got called on to pinch-hit in the 9th with two outs, and on the first pitch of my career I hit a home run and then everyone told me to retire, because it’s only downhill from there. I can’t say they were wrong. My OPS was 5.000, so yeah, my OPS went down a bit.

And other than your OPS, how’s it been so far?

It’s been a dream come true. I love all my teammates in the minors and from all three colleges—yeah, so far it’s been a beautiful ride, and I hope to keep it going.

(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 Zev’s interviews.)

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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.

Though being a Jewish minor leaguer can be lonely, Urlaub has had the good fortune of playing with two other tribe members in the A’s farm system, catcher Nick Rickles and pitcher Max Perlman.

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.

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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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Good news Monday (9/3/2012)

By Scott Barancik and Zev Ben Avigdor/Jewish Baseball News

Your weekly source of pride-inducing updates:

  • Ryan Braun hit his 37th HR on Sunday (9/2/2012), tying a career high. Thanks to the 3-run blast, he needs only 5 more RBIs to pierce the 100-RBI mark for the 5th straight season. So far, the only player to reach 100+ RBIs every season from 2008-2012 is Detroit Tigers 3B Miguel Cabrera. Braun also enjoyed a 4-for-6, 5-RBI performance last Monday (8/27/2012).
  • The good news is that San Diego Padres prospect Cody Decker hit his 28th HR of the season last week (8/26/2012), a solo shot in the 7th inning. The bad news is that he did it off of Corpus Christi Hooks (AA) reliever Josh Zeid. Zeid got the last laugh, however, earning a “hold” in the Hooks’ 2-1 win over Decker’s San Antonio Missions (AA).
  • David Colvin, a 6’3″ reliever selected by the Seattle Mariners in the 27th round of the 2011 draft, was named Midwest League (A) pitcher of the week for July 23-30. The 23-year-old righty, who plays for the Clinton LumberKings, is 5-3 this season with a 3.15 ERA, 61 strikeouts in 68-and-one-third innings, and just 16 walks.
  • Jacob Booden is showing increasing mastery in his first pro season. Totally ignored in the 2012 amateur draft, the 6’7″ reliever signed a free-agent contract with the St. Louis Cardinals afterward and was assigned to the Johnson City Cardinals (rookie). Booden ran up a 6.35 ERA in June, a 4.76 ERA in July, and an 0.79 ERA in August. The 22-year-old is averaging a strikeout per inning.
  • It’s good news all around for Nate Freiman. The San Diego Padres assigned him to play in the prestigious Arizona Fall League once the minor-league season ends. Freiman also has been named a Texas League All-Star. As if to celebrate, the San Antonio Missions (AA) first baseman hit a score-tying HR in the 7th inning of Sunday’s (9/2/2012) game against the Corpus Christi Hooks, and a walk-off single in the bottom of the 9th inning. Freiman is hitting a career-high .301, with 24 HRs and 105 RBIs.
  • Other players picked to play in the AFL are Los Angeles Dodgers prospect Joc Pederson and Tampa Bay Rays prospect Lenny Linsky.
  • Tikkun magazine has published an article titled In Praise of Baseball. In it, author Andrew Kimbrell commends the sport for celebrating nonviolence, collegiality, natural time, agrarianism, diversity of place, sacrifice, the common man, transcendence, failure, and coming home. Thanks to The Izzy Project for sharing it.
  • Maxx Tissenbaum reached base in 10 straight plate appearances last week, including his final two chances on Monday (8/27/2012) and all four appearances both on Tuesday and Wednesday. An MLB.com article about the 21-year-old Toronto native called him a “tough out,” observing that Tissenbaum has walked 27 times this season, nearly twice as often as he has struck out (13 times).
  • Forget ‘People of the book’ —  just call us ‘People of the tweet.’ Twitter feeds authored by Toronto Blue Jays prospect Ian Kadish (Twitter) and San Diego Padres prospect Cody Decker (Twitter) are among minor-league baseball’s 20  best, according to Going 9 Baseball. Another top-ranked tweeter, Michael Schlacht, used to identify as Jewish but now is a practicing Christian.
  • Most of you know the story of Adam Greenberg, a Chicago Cub who was struck in the head by the first pitch of his first and only plate appearance in the major leagues. But you may not know about a new campaign, called One At Bat, to let the 31-year-old return to Wrigley Field later this season and get an official at-bat. Yahoo! Sports writer Kevin Kaduk argues that the Cubs have no roster space to accommodate Greenberg, but that the cellar-dwelling Houston Astros — who will play their final series of the season in Chicago — do. Click here to sign the petition.

Have any good news about Jewish athletes? Send it to sbarancik@jewishbaseballnews.com.

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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.

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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.

[MLB.com 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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By Scott Barancik/Jewish Baseball News

Mondays bite. But you can bite back:

  • Scott Feldman‘s winning streak ended Friday (8/10/2012) with a 6-2 loss to the Detroit Tigers, but what a streak it was. After losing his first six decisions of the season and amassing a 6.50 ERA, the 6-foot-6-inch Texas Ranger won the next six with a 2.81 ERA.
  • Jason Marquis took a no-hitter into the 7th inning Saturday (8/11/2012) in a 5-0 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates (see video). The 33-year-old San Diego Padre ended up with a 2-hit, complete-game shutout and has won five of his last six starts. Interestingly, the resurgent Marquis matched the Pirates’ offensive output by going 2-for-4 at the plate. His .276 batting average is third best this season among MLB pitchers with at least 20 at-bats.
  • Jeremy Schaffer, picked by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 18th round of this year’s amateur draft, already is putting up big numbers. The 22-year-old first baseman out of Tulane University leads the Appalachian rookie league with 41 RBIs in just 179 at-bats.
  • The Kevin Youkilis trade just got a little worse for the Boston Red Sox. Not only has Youk been hitting the ball a ton for the Chicago White Sox — since arriving in late June, he’s hit .252 with 10 HRs, 29 RBIs, a .371 on-base percentage, and an .875 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) in 139 at-bats — but his successor at third base, rookie phenom Will Middlebrooks, just suffered a season-ending wrist injury. Coincidence of the day? Middlebrooks’ temporary replacement is recently-acquired 3B Danny Valencia.
  • On Sunday (8/12/2012), Houston Astros prospect Ben Orloff celebrated his recent promotion to the Corpus Christi Hooks (AA) with a 5-for-5 performance. The 25-year-old shortstop doubled, tripled, and drove in 4 runs en route to a 20-9 thrashing of the Springfield Cardinals.
  • Four in one month? That’s how many Jews the Boston Red Sox recently added to their roster. The quartet included Valencia (see above), reliever Craig Breslow, C Ryan Lavarnway, and LF Ryan Kalish, who has since returned to AAA.
  • Just weeks after putting together a 3-HR game, Joc Pederson powered the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes (A-advanced) to an 11-9 win over the Modesto Nuts. Pederson — ranked the Los Angeles Dodgers’ No.3 prospect by MLB.com — went 3-for-5 with a HR, two doubles, and 5 RBIs.
  • Keep a close eye on Jack Marder. Already ranked the Seattle Mariners’ No. 15 prospect in just his second year of pro ball, the High Desert Mavericks (A-advanced) catcher is batting .363 with 10 HRs, 24 doubles (including three on 7/31/2012), 4 triples, 55 RBIs, 16 stolen bases, and an OPS of 1.019 in only 273 at-bats. Marder is hitting a blistering .413 with runners in scoring position and recently added second base and the outfield to his fielding repertoire. It’s a shame that he may have too few at-bats to qualify for the California League batting crown.
  • As Jewish Baseball News correspondent Zev Ben Avigdor points out on his minor-league Twitter feed, New York Mets prospect Josh Satin is on fire. The 27-year-old first baseman has hit .444 (16-for-36) in the past 10 games, with 2 HRs, six doubles, 4 walks, and 10 RBIs.
  • Next season will mark the 40th anniversary of MLB’s designated hitter rule, and first-ever DH Ron Blomberg already is getting some love for his historic role.
  • Sam Fuld loves going horizontal for fly balls, but the Tampa Bay Ray won’t be leaping tall buildings anytime soon. “Super Sam” told the Tampa Bay Times he’s scared of heights, “mainly bridges, tops of buildings, mountains.” He also revealed his favorite television show (Seinfeld) and said he has a “man crush” on actor Matt Damon — another diminutive but athletic Ivy Leaguer.

Have any good news about Jewish athletes? Send it to sbarancik@jewishbaseballnews.com.

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Zach Kapstein (MiLB.com)

By Zev Ben Avigdor/Jewish Baseball News

In 2010, Zach Kapstein was drafted out of Tiverton (Rhode Island) High School by the team he grew up rooting for, the Boston Red Sox. The young catcher had put together a senior year the Sox simply could not ignore: a .603 batting average with five home runs, 22 RBI, and a perfect 24-for-24 in stolen bases. But it was what he quietly did off the field that makes him a hero in our hearts.

In an interview with Jewish Baseball News, Kapstein, now 20, talked about his own heroes, including his “hard-nosed, no-B.S.” family, U.S. soldiers, the Maccabees, and the mentally and physically challenged kids he helps play baseball.

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What’s your favorite Jewish holiday?

Chanukah. I just like the story behind it, the history behind it. With the Maccabees and the freedom fighters. It has the eight nights. It’s not just a single day, it’s an entire week—plus one. And the eternal light lasting longer than it should have, with the oil running out. I’ve always found that pretty interesting. And how tough the story is behind the holiday. It kind of sums up my personality, my family’s personality, the way I was raised. My grandfather, my dad, and my uncle were just really hard-nosed, no-B.S., straight-to-the-truth, bottom-line type of people, which I think is great. So if I had to pick, it would definitely be Chanukah.

You mentioned that you like that it’s eight days and not just one.

You have a longer amount of time to focus on the holiday. I mean, you can think about a holiday as long as you want. It doesn’t have to be just on the exact date of the holiday. But Christmas you have the one day and then it’s over. Chanukah you have the eight nights you light the candles, eight nights in a row you’re with your family. For me, being a baseball player, it’s when you’re home for the off-season with your family. And it’s pretty good food, which is a bonus.

Family and your family’s history are very important to you.

My great-great-grandfather, Abraham, came from Western Russia, escaped the pogroms, and walked across Europe, by himself. He was lucky enough to escape the pogroms. He survived all by himself. And somehow he managed to get on a boat and cross the ocean to the United States. He landed and started brand new, like a lot of people did in the early 1900s. I’ve always been very proud of that story, that it’s part of my background.

What’s you favorite not-Jewish holiday?

July Fourth and Memorial Day. Memorial Day—my birthday is May 28th, so every couple of years Memorial Day falls on my birthday, and that’s kind of neat. But really it’s because of how we honor the veterans, the servicemen and -women, on that day. I certainly don’t honor them for just that one day. I do it every single day, every year. And then July Fourth, because it is a holiday in America we all celebrate together—it’s Independence Day for the United States.

You’re wearing a Marines t-shirt. Is that a personal connection?

Personally I’ve never had anyone in my family in the Marine Corps. I’ve had a lot of close friends [in the Corps]. My uncle was in the service for four years. My grandfather was in the Army before World War II. And then he enlisted right after Pearl Harbor in the Navy. He was in the Navy from ‘41 until the summer of ’45. I think he saw his wife—my grandmother—maybe three times at the most. He was actually in both theaters of war. He was on a troop transport ship. He went to Europe first. Then he came through the Panama Canal, stopped in San Francisco, and then went out to the Pacific. He was going to be on the invasion force, if we had to invade Japan. I know most of my grandfather’s brothers were in the army—I know my Uncle Eddie, my grandfather’s brother, served in World War I and World War II. So I’ve been lucky enough to have a rich military background.

So you have all these fighting Jews in your family. No wonder you like Chanukah. It’s like your family’s personal story.

Yes. Pretty much.

I can see that family and history are important to you. What is another way that family has been important to you?

Starting in ’08, my brother Jacob, and my dad, Dan, and I—we got involved in the Portsmouth Little League Challenger Division team, which I think they started in ’06 or ’07. It was started by Bob Dyl—he has a son named Caleb, who is a a little challenged and a very good player in the league—and Chris Patsos, who helps run the Portsmouth Challenger Division with Bob Dyl and also helps run the Newport Gulls, which is a team in the New England Collegiate Baseball League.

We got involved in ’08—my father, my brother, and myself. And it was every Sunday, I’d say from the end of March until the end of June. Every Sunday from about 1:00 till about 3:30, 4:00. I think in ’08 we started off with one group and about 15 kids. My dad would pitch. My brother or I would catch for him. We’d help out with the kids’ swings, run the bases with them, that type of thing, every year—I was there for ’08, ’09, ’10. Every year, it has increased an average of, I would say, five or six kids, so every year it’s grown and grown and grown. And then in 2010 they made two groups, and I’d say, total, the ages range from about 6 to maybe 17 or 18 years old. I had to leave after 2010, when I got drafted. I missed 2011 and 2012, because I was in Florida, playing baseball, but I was lucky enough to fly home for their big Challenger Jamboree in Portsmouth. I was lucky enough that the schedule worked out that way.

You took the only free time you had between extended and short-season, the only free time you had for the entire summer, and you spent it with these kids.

I loved it. It was the least I could do. Absolutely the least I could do. I love the kids. The coaches are great, a great group of guys. They’re actually going down to Williamsport this summer. My Dad is going to bus down with them. They’re playing in the Challenger Little League World Series. I’m not too sure about the details, but I know they’re going down in August.

If readers want to help out, is there some way that they can contribute?

They might be looking for donations for their trip to Williamsport in August. I’m 100% sure there’s a place [to donate]; I know you can find it online. [Author’s note: I did. Click here for details.]

I’d like to be able to share that, if I can.

That would be great. Personally. Thank you. That would definitely be a huge help. Thank you.

What about Israel? What would it be like to play for Israel in the World Baseball Classic?

That’d be awesome. That’d be quite an experience. It’s definitely something I’m looking into, talking to a few people about it right now. But, yeah, very exciting. I’d be very proud to represent the country, my heritage, my culture, my background, my family. And to play baseball while doing it would be quite a thrill. It would be the perfect combination of both [Jewish heritage and baseball].

What is it about the combination of Jewish heritage and baseball?

I love the background and the history of the Jewish people—my family—and I’m playing baseball right now, my favorite sport. I love football; I played football in high school. I played hockey from the time I was seven. I started skating from the time I was five or six, played hockey from the time I was seven up until my freshman year. My high school never had a hockey team, but I always played around New England—Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, all over New England.

Hockey up there is like football is down in Florida and Texas: huge up there. I stopped playing my freshman year, because my freshman year was the very first time my high school started a hockey team. They joined with another local hockey team, but the practices were always at 10:00, 11:00 at night, and the closest rink was 40 minutes away. I was focused on getting ready for baseball. Those are a few reasons I didn’t play in high school. My brother played three years in high school, and he loved it. He was on a very good team and had a pretty good career.

Your brother Jacob was just drafted by the Tigers.

Yeah, they took him in the 35th round. He’s bigger than I am. He’s about 6’2”, 214, switch hits. He can run, too, which is a bonus. [Author’s note: Here is a link to a local news video about Jacob and the Little League Challenger Division.]

Is there anything else you’d like the readers of Jewish Baseball News to know about you that they don’t know?

I wear the number 18. I wear it on the Spinners right now. I wore it all growing up. I wore it in high school, because of what it means in Jewish [numerology]. My dad wore it growing up, too. It is kind of like the family number, if you will. [Author’s note: Jacob Kapstein wore number 18 in high school and wears 18 now with the GCL Tigers.] But if I couldn’t wear 18, I’d wear 40, for Pat Tillman. My biggest role model, the person I look up to the most is Pat Tillman. I know 40 is also significant in history and the Jewish religion—Noah’s ark, 40 days and nights; wandering in the desert, 40 years. You can go on and on with the number 40. So those two numbers really stand out to me.

Well, hopefully now we’ll get some JBN readers in Western Massachusetts to come and cheer for you. What’s it like when a Jewish fan comes up to you?

It’s nice. I’ve had a few who’ve come down to Florida for spring training and asked me to sign something. You get a little sense of a connection with them. It’s something that both of you can relate to. So it’s nice to hear that or to see someone that’s asking you for a ball to sign who says something like “Welcome to the Tribe,” or some little remark like that. It puts a little smile on your face and reminds you that people are paying attention and following you, and that there are people out there who are also Jewish and who really love baseball, the same as I do.

(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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Robbie Widlansky (MiLB.com)

By Zev Ben Avigdor/Jewish Baseball News

Baltimore Orioles prospect Robbie Widlansky is getting a lot of attention lately.

A first baseman, outfielder, and DH with the Bowie Bowsox (AA), the 27-year-old will play in next week’s Eastern League All-Star game. In June he was named the league’s Player of the Month after hitting .407 with 10 doubles, 2 HRs, 21 RBIs, and an OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging) of 1.116.

It didn’t happen overnight for the Plantation, Fla., native. Picked by the Yankees out of high school in 2003, he deferred his entry into professional baseball and attended Florida Atlantic University instead. But since the Baltimore Orioles drafted him in the 11th round of the 2007 amateur draft, he’s played consistently well. Widlansky led all Orioles minor leaguers in 2009 with a .340 batting average for the Frederick Keys (A-advanced). He rose to AA in 2010, and midway through the 2011 season he was promoted to AAA, where he batted .283 in 127 at-bats.

It’s not clear why the 6’2″, 210-pounder is back with the Bowie Baysox (AA) this season, but as his recent accolades attest, Widlansky continues to give it his all. Jewish Baseball News contributor Zev Ben Avigdor recently caught up with the Orioles prospect. Following is an edited transcript of their chat.

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How did you get started in baseball?

I started playing at age 5, 6, 7. Tee ball, the whole thing: little league, high school, college, pro. I have two older brothers. They both played when they were younger. One of them played in college. So we were always around sports. I grew up with sports. That’s basically how things started off.

When you were starting, who influenced you?

My dad. He was into sports, and he’s always been a part of my career. So he’s definitely been a big part of things. I grew up in Florida. Growing up I was a Marlins fan, and I was a Yankees fan because of my family: Connecticut on my dad’s side, New Jersey on my mom’s side. I always liked a lot of the Yankees — [especially] Jeter.

What about now? Are there players that you try to be like?

Not really. I try to be the best guy that I can be. Sounds kind of…But that’s the truth. Just to play hard.

As you were growing up, were you involved in synagogue, Hebrew school, bar mitzvah?

Yeah, I became bar mitzvah. I went to Hebrew school growing up.

What about now? What kind of contact do you have with Jewish fans?

Sometimes they write to me, but not a ton come up to me. Sometimes you get the letters in the mail from Jewish people, and from others, also. [The Jewish fans say] that they like autographs from Jewish ballplayers. Just stuff like that. Same stuff that other guys will say.

Just Jewisher.

Yeah, exactly.

What’s cool about being a Jewish ballplayer?

I don’t know if this is cool, but just the numbers. There’s not a lot of people. It’s more different. It shows you work hard. Maybe you have gotten to a place so far that other people haven’t, where you’re still trying to move on even further in your career. You just have to keep working. It puts you on a small little pedestal, not a big one, certainly.

What’s the best part of being Jewish in general?

There’s a lot of good things. That’s a tough one.

So what do you like best about being a baseball player?

Just to be competitive. It’s fun. The competition. Especially when you get to the pro ranks, you’re obviously trying to get to the top. And it’s just one of those things that everyone wants to — “Oh, man, a baseball player, that’s amazing!” — stuff like that. It’s a pretty fun time. I’m sure it’s a lot more fun in the big leagues, but it’s pretty good in the minor leagues.

Do people understand what it’s like being a minor league baseball player?

Maybe some. I’m sure a lot don’t. Maybe depending on how much people are into the game, or know people that are into the game that they can ask questions. Obviously coming up through the minors it’s not all glamour like up top. That’s why you have to keep working.

What would you want people to know about the life of a baseball player, so they can better appreciate what you go through?

It’s games every day, 142 games a season in the minors, long bus rides, sometimes you’re forced to eat fast food and things you don’t want. You’re in a hotel for 70-plus nights a year. You don’t always have the comforts of home-cooked meals. You’re around 25, 30 guys. You’re probably not going to get along with all of them. So it’s just little things. A grind. Get your body going each day. It’s hard work.

What would you like people who read Jewish Baseball News to know about you? If they could know what it was like for you, what should they know?

To get here, where I am right now, baseball-wise, you put in hours upon hours training and working. Especially the game of baseball. There’s so much failure that you go through a lot mentally — ups and downs. Obviously you hope for as many ups as possible, but it’s a roller coaster ride, and you just have to put in time, a lot of time, hours, hard work, training.

How do you handle the emotional roller coaster?

Sometimes it’s tough. Some guys are better at it than others. I feel like I’m pretty good at it. It’s just that everyone has a different personality. Everyone experiences different ups and downs.

Do you have a way of coping that you would be willing to share?

I don’t have like a big [way of coping]. I’m not set in my ways in a lot of ways. I am just kind of a pretty relaxed type of guy. I’m just kind of going to mind my own things. When things are going well, great. When things aren’t good, just try to fix them as quickly as possible.

What would it be like if you were asked to play for Israel in the World Baseball Classic?

I guess that would be pretty cool. You’re representing — I guess it would be more like a group of people, not a country. I’m not from Israel, obviously. It’s an honor. Like any other person representing a country, a nation — it would be a nice honor.

If you were asking the questions, what would you ask if you wanted to know what it’s like to be a Jewish minor league baseball player?

I would ask — because there have been not as many — do you feel it’s tougher to get to the top? Just because, numbers-wise, there haven’t been too many in the history of the game, do you feel like you’re fighting an uphill battle? But that’s not the case. I mean, you have just as big a chance as anyone else. I’m just saying it might seem like, if you’re Jewish, you can’t make it, but obviously that’s not the case. There’s great players out there, and in the past, obviously, too. Just not a lot of them.

(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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Jeff Kaplan (MiLB.com)

By Zev Ben Avigdor/Jewish Baseball News

New York Mets prospect Jeff Kaplan doesn’t have a blazing fastball or any other lights-out pitch. The 26-year-old San Diego native with the 2.98 career E.R.A. just seems to get people out with focus and control.

An 11th-round pick out of Cal State Fullerton in 2008, Kaplan was a starting pitcher before the Mets organization converted him. Now, he relishes the chance to pitch on any given day.

Prior to going on the disabled list last month with an arm injury, Kaplan tossed 21 and 2/3 innings this season and put together a combined 3-0 record and 3.32 ERA for the St. Lucie Mets (High-A) and Binghamton Mets (AA). His ERA in Binghamton has been a solid 2.31.

In a recent interview, Kaplan discussed his love of baseball, his pride in being Jewish, his eagerness to chat with fans, and his determination to play in the Majors. An edited transcript follows.

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What do you like best about being Jewish?

I think the best thing is being a part of baseball. With the limited amount of Jewish people who play baseball, it’s a great feeling to be representing the Jewish community that way. I think that’s probably the best: baseball and being Jewish, when I can bring them together. Any time I get to meet people who are Jewish or experience something with the Jewish community through baseball is when I really feel the most [Jewish]. That is the most important, especially when I get to reach out to the Jewish community because of who I am. It’s a great feeling.

How does that happen?

Sometimes people will come up and talk to me in the stands, or doing interviews like this. It’s a great feeling. I appreciate the support that I get, and I love representing the Jewish community.

Would you be willing to talk to young Jewish fans, if it’s before the game?

Yeah, I’m not the best public speaker. I don’t like giving speeches.

Not to give a speech, but just to meet the kids?

Absolutely, absolutely. I would definitely do that: hang out. And if I can say a few words, then to say a few words. Yeah, I would definitely do that.

Favorite holiday?

I’d have to say Hanukah would have to be the one I enjoy the most. Especially because of the time of year: It’s when I get to be home with my family. That’s the best part about it, is that I’m home.

Favorite Jewish baseball player?

Well, I’d have to go with Sandy Koufax. My dad grew up in Los Angeles, and Sandy Koufax was the biggest thing to him — and still is. So I’ll answer that for my dad: Sandy Koufax is who I look up to because of him. The things he tells me are what I’ve learned about him.

What is the hardest part about being a Jewish baseball player?

I think any time you’re not the majority, and you’re in the minority, you feel a little more responsibility, a little more pressure to represent the community. You feel like you don’t want to let people down, so you have to try to perform not just for yourself and your family but for the people you represent. That’s the toughest part, but it’s also the most fun that I have.

I feel like in the Jewish community, for people who excel in something, we take a lot of pride in those people. It’s a big deal for us…especially in sports. There’s not that many Jewish athletes, so when we have those Jewish athletes, it’s spotlighted and it’s a big deal.

What would you like the readers of Jewish Baseball News to know about you?

That I am proud to be Jewish and I’m excited to represent everything about the Jewish community, and I’m doing my best to get to the big leagues, because I want to be there as a Jewish person and I’m trying to make them proud.

What about the World Baseball Classic?

I would love to play in it. If I get the invite, great; if I don’t, I’ll be rooting for them, but yeah, I would love to play for Team Israel.

What would you like the Jewish community of Binghamton to know about you? Have you had contact with them?

No, and if anybody can just find me and reach out to me and just talk to me at the game, I’m always open to talk to people if I’m available. If you see me around, just come and talk to me. I might seem like a stand-offish, quiet guy, but I’m not. I like to talk to people.

Are you shy?

I’m a little shy.

What’s the best time to come and say hello?

If you can find me before the game starts. Once the game starts, my hands are tied, I can’t really do much. But before the game, if you see me around, that’s the best time.

Brad Ausmus was quoted in the New York Times as saying he felt the most connected to his Jewish heritage when he was playing baseball. What do you think he meant?

Well, I think he felt that he represented us in a sport where people really connect with the players, and the Jewish community looks at them and says, “There’s one of our own playing baseball.” So he probably felt a lot of love from the Jewish community because of what he did. I felt that, especially when I was in Brooklyn. The Jewish community was really big. You could really feel how people felt about you as an athlete. I’m thinking that’s what he meant — his connection with the [Jewish] people was through baseball.

Why do we Jews love baseball so much?

I don’t know if it’s baseball. I think it’s just the fact that you’re proud and you want to see people who are like you succeed at something. That’s the thing that you love, is to see people who you relate to do well. I think that’s the key. That’s the big deal. And the number of Jewish people in sports is growing, but it’s not a lot, so anytime that [a Jewish person succeeds in sports], it becomes a big deal.

(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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Danny Rosenbaum (MiLB.com)

By Zev Ben Avigdor/Jewish Baseball News

More than 50 Jews currently play Major- or minor-league ball, but few are generating more raves this season than award-winning Washington Nationals prospect Danny Rosenbaum.

The 24-year-old hurler is putting up ridiculous numbers for the Harrisburg Senators (AA), compiling a 5-0 record, league-leading 0.71 ERA, 33 strikeouts, and just 4 walks. There’s talk the Nats may call him up during their September roster expansion, pending a solid performance with the Syracuse Chiefs (AAA).

Not bad for a guy from Loveland, OH, who was the 652nd pick in the 2009 draft — a mere 651 places behind fellow Nationals draftee Stephen Strasburg — and began the 2012 season ranked #23 on Baseball America’s list of Nationals prospects.

Rosenbaum is poised off-field as well as on. During a visit earlier this month to Binghamton, N.Y., home of the New York Mets’ AA franchise, the 6’1″ left-hander juggled attention from out-of-town family members, questions from an 8-year-old Jewish fan — including the first three you’ll see below — and still more queries from Jewish Baseball News contributor Zev Ben Avigdor. An edited transcript follows.

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What do you like about being Jewish?

I get asked that a lot. I like the traditions that everyone holds and that we get to celebrate with our families. It’s a very family-oriented religion, and it’s always great to see family like that come in, come watch me play, and just get to be together. I’d say that’s the biggest thing. And also it’s a small group of guys that are playing, and getting to be a role model for little leaguers and young kids. It’s a blessing to feel like that.

What is your favorite holiday?

It used to be Chanukah, when I appreciated presents a lot. But now? I always liked Passover. All the food you get to eat. We always had our family over for Passover every year, and my parents make pretty good food — pretty good matzoh ball soup — and my grandma cooks real well, too. So probably Passover. [During Pesach] I try to watch the yeast stuff and just try not to eat a lot of bread. And I call my family and wish I could be there. It’s tough not being back with them, celebrating it with them.

And who is your favorite baseball player?

I’d have to say, I guess, Sandy Koufax is my favorite Jewish baseball player. He’s always been a role model for me and for a lot of Jewish kids out of Cincinnati. [Note: Rosenbaum grew up in a Cincinnati suburb and played two seasons at Cincinnati’s Xavier University. Koufax went to the University of Cincinnati on a basketball scholarship.] He’s just that huge public figure…Everyone wants to [emulate] what he did and what he did for the game of baseball. My favorite player growing up—like everyone else—was Ken Griffey, Jr.

What would you like the readers of Jewish Baseball News to know about you?

I guess to say I’m getting married this fall, back in Cincinnati. I actually knew her in middle school, but we didn’t start dating until my senior year in high school. My freshman year I went to Indiana, and she went to Morehead State, which is in Kentucky, and I transferred after my freshman year [to Xavier University]. We did the whole long distance thing for five years, six years, and now we’re [still] doing long distance. She’s working back home. It’s tough. It’s a tough lifestyle, but we made a commitment, and we’re ready to be together forever.

You mentioned Jewish kids. Do you get much chance to work with them directly?

Not during the season. During the off-season I did. I went to help out the JCC. I gave lessons out of there. While I was there we volunteered to help out the Orthodox Jewish kids there and made them a little bit better. There’s not a whole lot of them, but it was fun to be a part of it and to learn what their lifestyle is like, because I’ve never really been associated with Orthodox Jews before. So it was pretty cool. It was fun.

Has anywhere you’ve ever played done a Jewish Heritage Night?

I don’t think so. Just that one time we had the Jewish camp that came to our game in Hagerstown. That’s probably the closest we came to that. It’s pretty exciting knowing that you have a whole group of kids that are behind you the whole way. Even though I’m not playing, they’re still cheering for me, so it’s just a good feeling to have.

And finally a baseball question: How do you do it? You don’t have an overpowering 98 mph fastball, but you just seem to get people out.

I just try to stay even-keeled the whole way. It’s like my parents said, ‘Don’t make the highs too high and the lows too low.’ Just go out and battle. Be a competitor. That’s what our manager wants to see and our pitching coach and our organization. That’s all I try to do, is just give my team a chance to win.

(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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By Zev Ben Avigdor/Jewish Baseball News

Like most professional athletes, Cleveland Indians prospect Eric Berger can be described as the sum of his stats.

In four minor-league seasons, the 25-year-old reliever has amassed a 19-16 record, a trim 3.49 ERA, and two stints with the Tribe’s AAA team. His 1.22-per-inning strikeout ratio last year was a career best. He throws an accurate fastball, a cutter and change, and a nasty 12-6 curve.

But Jewish Baseball News correspondent Zev Ben Avigdor recently unearthed some other things you should know about the University of Arizona alum. In an interview this month at the Indians’ player-development complex, Berger talked about Twitter, Team Israel, Sandy Koufax, a Bar Mitzvah surprise, and his signature handlebar mustache.

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Fact #1: Eric Berger thinks it’s cool to be a Jewish baseball player.

I’m just a passionate baseball player and athlete, and I think it’s cool and fun to be a minority in the sport when it comes to being Jewish. In the back of my head, I’m definitely trying the represent for our folks. It’s fun, and it’s fun to have that fan base, as well, and to come across other Jewish players, believing in the same things, who went through the same things growing up.

Have you come across other Jewish players?

I have. In the Arizona Fall League I played with the catcher for the Red Sox who’s coming up, Ryan Lavarnway, and I’ve heard about other players: [Ryan] Braun and [Kevin] Youkilis, as well as other players.

Do you ever say anything to them when you see them?

There are some guys I haven’t brushed shoulders with yet, but I’m sure when I do, definitely, I’ll give them a little ‘Shalom’ here and there. [laughs]

Fact #2: Berger would love to play for Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic.

I played winter ball in Venezuela, and another guy who happened not to be Jewish found out I was, and he asked me, “Hey, have you heard they’re putting a team together?” I hadn’t, so I shot my agent an email and said I had heard about this and asked him if he can get the word out there and find out if it’s true or not. He got back to me really quickly saying it’s true, that they’re interested. I just found out that the qualifier is in September, and he emailed me about a week ago saying the guy is trying to get in contact with me, so I told my agent to give him my number.

Fact #3: The former Woodcreek High School (Roseville, Calif.) standout appreciates his fans.

Do you know that on Jewish Baseball News they post your tweets, for fans to read?

Really? They post all of them? Some of them?

Well, here is the most recent tweet they posted. It’s about coffee.

[laughs] That’s pretty cool. I am actually following Jewish Baseball News on Twitter, so I guess that’s why they post them. Very cool.

Do you want fans to tweet you?

As much as they want. I think I’m pretty good at getting back at people. I can only imagine people who have tens of thousands of followers; that would probably be tough. I’m not there yet, obviously, but definitely, when I get on, I try to shoot a message back. I think it’s cool to kind of have that contact with fans. You can relate on a personal level. I enjoy that.

Retired Oakland A's reliever Rollie Fingers

Fact #4: Berger recently shaved off his Rollie Fingers ‘stache.

When you talked to me last year, I had really long hair, and I ended up cutting it. I had ten inches to donate, so I donated it to Locks of Love. My dad is stationed in Tucson – he’s in the military – and I just went to a place out there, and they cut it, and I sent it in.

Did you donate the mustache, too?

[laughs] I could have. People have asked me. It could have been long enough, I guess. Actually, I’m going to be posting a tweet in a couple of days to see if anyone is interested in growing a mustache with me. I’m about to start it up again. Everybody loved it. The fans loved it.

Same style? Rollie Fingers?

Probably, yeah. I’ll start with that and go from there. It’s fun.

People were impressed.

[laughs] They were. Everybody thinks it’s fake, especially when I’m out around town in my normal clothes, walking around the mall. It’s so thick that it kinda looks fake. I get a kick out of it.

Fact #5: Berger and younger brother Lucas share a special bar mitzvah connection.

My little brother is going to become bar mitzvah this off-season, in Northern California, in mid-December. He’s been studying. It’s been fun. It’ll be cool: Because of baseball, I’ve never really been able to attend [services], but now I will be able to, and it’ll be fun. The funny thing is, when I became bar mitzvah my mom was pregnant with him, and she announced to everybody that she was having a boy. I found out at my service I was going to have a brother. Pretty interesting. It was pretty cool. And he’s a ballplayer, too. He’s a lefty. He’s going to be good. He’s going to be a pitcher and outfielder. Speedy guy. Big, lean, tall. On the healthy diet. And he’s got some good hands on him, too. And my stepdad took me to all of my pitching and hitting lessons, and he sat down and he read a lot about baseball. He’s a genius. So now he passes that on to my brother, Lucas [Gather].

Fact #6: A minor-league pitching coach once told Berger that he throws like Koufax.

Favorite Jewish baseball player?

Probably [Sandy] Koufax.

Anybody ever say you pitch like Koufax?

Yes, actually. A guy in our organization named Kenny Rowe, who has been involved with baseball for over 55 years, said I kind of resemble [Koufax]. This was right when I signed from college, so that was pretty cool. [Reporter’s note: Ken Rowe is currently the pitching advisor for the Cleveland Indians’ minor-league system. When Eric met him, Ken was the pitching coach for the Mahoning Valley Scrappers (A-short season). Incidentally, Ken should know about Koufax: he made his Major-League debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1963, going 1-1 with a 2.93 ERA. Koufax went 25-5 that same year, and the Dodgers were world champs.]

Fact #7: Berger hopes to start the 2012 season with the Columbus Clippers (AAA).

It’s so tough, because [the Indians] have all the free-agent guys that they’ve signed to try to ensure [that there are enough arms for] the big league club. I should be in triple-A [to start the year]. That’s where I need to be to develop and then go from there, but if I’m not, then hopefully I’ll get there quickly, because that’s where I need to put in some work.

Anything else you would like the readers to know?

Just to understand that it’s a process to go through the system. Some things happen your way and some things don’t. I’m going to keep working my way up, so please keep wishing me luck and follow me, and I’ll keep doing the best that I can. I’ll have good days and bad days, so I’ll just take each day with a grain of salt and get better. I guess the average big-league age is around 26. I’ll be there next month, 26. I want to play till I’m at least 45. [laughs] I feel good. I’m staying in shape.

(Editor’s note: “Zev Ben Avigdor” is the pen name of a university scholar who writes for Jewish Baseball News.)

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By Zev Ben Avigdor/Jewish Baseball News

In January, a group of college students traveled to Israel on a special Birthright Israel trip designed for baseball players and fans. Allison Hellman, a 20-year-old baseball fan and communications major at Cornell University, shared some of her thoughts about the trip with Jewish Baseball News. Her interview is the first in a series by correspondent Zev Ben Avigdor — the nom de plume of a university scholar — that will explore the connections between Jews and baseball.

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What was the Birthright trip like?

Hellman: A life-changing experience. I think that’s the easiest way to put it. I’ve never heard of someone coming back from a Birthright trip and not having an amazing experience, but there were just…it blew me away: the landscapes, the culture, the food. Just what we got to experience in ten days, and how much we got to experience was absolutely incredible, and I cannot wait to go back.

Birthright Israel's baseball trip visits Safed (Photo: Allison Hellman)

What did baseball add to that, and what kinds of baseball things did you do?

When I was signing up for the trip, I was looking into some of the more specialized trips, and I thought I could do something a little different, and I came across this baseball-themed trip, and I didn’t look at anything else. That was exactly what I wanted to do.

I’m a life-long baseball fan, I played softball for years and years, and it just seemed like a really, really great way to experience two things —  one thing I’ve always wanted to do, and one thing I’ve always loved — together. It was particularly interesting to me because I have a mother from Brooklyn who grew up as a Mets fan, and (I) still remember hearing about Sandy Koufax playing for the Dodgers and what that meant to her growing up. So I knew it would be a unique experience, something that none of my friends would do when they went on Birthright.

When we got there, the first thing we all had in common was that we signed up for a particular trip. In fact, when we got to the airport and we got to the gate, we were all supposed to sit in a circle and introduce ourselves, (but) a few of us told our trip leader: ‘Can you give us five minutes? There’s two minutes left in the Broncos game and we’d really like to watch it.’ And everybody just went over to the TV to see what was going on. So we sort of immediately bonded over our love for and interest in sports.

And we had a lot of college-level players there, which was nice, because it’s not just fans. It’s guys who are playing, day in and day out, as well. And really there was only one day that was truly baseball themed. When we got to Israel we spoke with (Israel Association of Baseball board member) David Leishman. He told us a bit about the history of the (Association), but we really didn’t do anything baseball-involved until the day we went to Ofakim to teach these kids how to play baseball. (Reporter’s note: Ofakim is a small development town just west of Beer Sheva, in the south of Israel. Originally founded by Jewish immigrants from North Africa, Iran, Romania, and India in the 1950s, Ofakim is an eclectic mix of cultures that now includes families of the original settlers as well as newer immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union and a growing ultra-Orthodox community. While Ofakim houses one of Israel’s national tennis centers as well as a soccer stadium, the community has not had a baseball culture. Like a number of small Negev towns, Ofakim has faced economic challenges. In addition, residents of Ofakim live under the threat of rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.)

We played on an old soccer field, because there are no baseball fields. Every morning before that day, the trip leader, David Klein . . . would teach us a couple words in Hebrew to help us teach them: ‘two hands’, ‘like this’, ‘bat, ball, glove’, things like that, ‘run’ and ‘good job.’ We went down there early in the morning and spent a good few hours teaching about 200 fourth- and fifth-graders how to play baseball, and most of them had never seen a baseball in their life. Then later that afternoon we went into Tel Aviv to play a pick-up softball game with some members of the national team. So that was the only day of baseball, but there was something really special about bringing a uniquely American sport to Israel, and not just to Israel, but to a particular part of the country that really doesn’t have as much exposure to American culture.

They loved it right away, and that was something so amazing for us, especially those of us who love baseball with a passion: to see their eyes light up when they catch the ball for the first time or hit it correctly or they beat their friend to first base, that kind of thing. It wasn’t just about teaching, which was an amazing part of it. It was about something American that we could give to them.

What do you think baseball does for Israel, and what does Israel do for baseball?

You know, I think Israel can have a special connection with baseball, because Israel has a very, very deeply rooted history, in so many different ways, and so does baseball. Baseball prides itself on its history, I think, more than any other sport, with records and statistics and stories of old-timers and quotes that never die. Baseball is its history, and I think Israel is very much the same: It’s a modern state that is always about the future of Israel, but it’s based on its past.

And so I think in that way, baseball and Israel can get along very well. I think it’s just a new thing, it’s another way to get on the world stage, as they’re getting ready for the World Baseball Classic. That’s what baseball’s giving them, it’s another chance to show that Israel is a strong country that can compete with the best of them. But more than that, Americans love baseball for a reason. Why shouldn’t Israelis love it for the same thing? It’s just a great sport; it’s a good game.

Allison Hellman (center) and Birthright Israel friends with Israeli kids

Beyond the historical aspect of it, what makes it such a great sport? What do you love about it?

After last night’s game [Super Bowl XLVI], one aspect I particularly love about baseball is that you can’t run out a clock, which is endlessly frustrating to me in every other sport I watch or have played at some point. It just doesn’t seem fair to me, but that’s another story. It’s more cerebral than other sports, I think. You really have to think about what you’re doing. There’s something to me that’s particularly special about baseball, and it’s an oft-quoted aspect of baseball, and it’s sort of cliched, but it’s the fresh-cut grass and the smell of the leather glove and the crack of the bat that are so different than other games.

In football it’s just a constant roar of the stadium, and in basketball it’s just too quick to take in everything, but baseball, it’s something that…you really appreciate every aspect of it. And things are very rare in baseball. There are some really special moments. And there’s something about the fact that even a routine play has the potential to be game altering. You look at last summer — nobody expected that Armando Galarrago would not get that call at first base. It’s a routine play at first base. You pick up the ball, you throw to first base, and that’s it. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred he’s going to be out, but it’s that chance — every time the ball leaves a player’s hand, that something different can happen — that’s really special. In football you throw the ball, it’s pretty likely that you’re not going to complete a pass, because it happens so often, but when you throw to first and something doesn’t happen that should, it’s very different than any other sport.”

So much of what you’ve said are things that baseball players have told me: the feeling of time, the cerebral or mental aspect of the game, dealing with frustration and failure.

There’s something to be said as well that baseball is a summer sport, that spring training is the awakening of the baseball season, and as you get to go enjoy the warm weather you go outside, and you have a cold drink, and you hang out with friends. You don’t really get the same thing when you’re huddled up in jackets in the winter or you have to layer up six times to go to a game. There’s something particularly special about its being a game of summer. It, in a sense, reminds you that it’s still a game, that it’s more than a sport and a league and a money-making machine. The fact that it’s during summer, it’s more relaxed.

And more suited to Israel’s climate.

Yes, that is very true as well. The trip to Israel – you don’t have to be a baseball fan to enjoy that trip. If you enjoy teaching, if you enjoy seeing cultures mix together, if you enjoy sports in general, you will love that moment of baseball in Israel. It was everyone’s favorite part, because there was so much pride we took in bringing an American thing that they could enjoy, and there was so much pride we took in seeing the smiles on their faces when they enjoyed the game and when they succeeded, and you don’t get that on many other Birthright trips. It’s something that baseball and America brought to Israel.

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