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.
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.
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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