2010 Yeshiva Maccabees

By Scott Barancik, Editor

Students rarely choose Yeshiva University for its athletics program. The school’s home page doesn’t even mention sports.

But sport has long played a role at the New York-based institution, which combines Jewish learning with secular studies. Yeshiva’s basketball team — which has won two of its past 4 games — has been around since the 1930s.

Baseball took a little longer to develop. But four years ago, the school finally debuted the Maccabees, the NCAA’s only Jewish representative.

Winning hasn’t come easily, or often, for the Division III Maccabees.

In 2010, the team had one win and 28 losses, a team ERA of 12.94 (versus 1.81 for opposing teams), and a team batting average of .172 (the opposition hit .419). The Macs gave up 15 or more runs in 10 of their losses, including a 33-1 drubbing by the Purchase College Panthers. They mustered just one home run during the season, and a single sacrifice fly.

It’s not that Jews can’t play baseball, of course. Last year, 15 Jews played for Major League Baseball teams, and more than 50 others played in the Minors.

But for Jews who are serious about observing the Sabbath and other traditions, intercollegiate sports is a tall order.

Take Maccabees co-captain David Kesselman. A 23-year-old senior, his Orthodox high school didn’t even have a baseball team. When the West Hempstead, N.Y., native showed up for tryouts at Yeshiva a couple years ago, he hadn’t played organized hardball since elementary school.

For such athletes, Yeshiva and its Sabbath-free playing schedule offer a unique opportunity. And despite their struggles, the Maccabees are having fun. The team had a number of bright spots in 2010, from Kesselman’s team-leading E.R.A. (5.40) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (33/14) to catcher Jeremy Schwartz’s 12 RBIs and 9 stolen bases. Early signs suggest the Mac’s 2011 rookie class may be the best yet.

David Kesselman, 2010

In an interview with Jewish Baseball News, Kesselman talks about the intersection of Judaism and sport, life on the Maccabees, and his own baseball arc.


Tell us about Yeshiva University. Are most students there planning careers in Jewish life, or secular ones?

It’s definitely more of a general education school…That’s the whole lifestyle at Yeshiva University. You have Torah, which is a Jewish lifestyle, and what we call “madda,” which is like the Hebrew way of saying secular intelligence in any field you want to get into to. So you have to have both in order to get a degree.

I understand the school created its baseball team in 2006.

Yeah, in 2005, they started a club team, basically a bunch of guys that really wanted to play baseball…We didn’t have an NCAA team until 2006…We’re playing in division III of the NCAA. We play in the Skyline Conference. We play teams like, I don’t know, you’ve probably never heard of them, but Farmingdale State College, Baruch College…”

I took a quick look at your schedule and, not surprisingly, you don’t play on the Sabbath. How difficult was it to arrange that type of schedule?

We’re the only university where you’re going to be able to not play on the Sabbath and even keep kosher. Other colleges are very accommodating for us, which is very nice…They get the schedule, and then our athletics department calls each college and says, ‘Hey, can you play Friday at 9:00am, or Sunday at 12pm?’ So that’s generally how it’s worked out.

Did you and most of your teammates play ball in high school?

It’s funny, that’s something that’s getting a little more solidified now. The high school I went to didn’t have a baseball team at all. We had a (slow-pitch) softball team that was more of a recreational kind of team than anything.

Was it an Orthodox school?

Yeah, it was an Orthodox school. But now, it’s starting to be that most of the high schools that we get kids from at Yeshiva University have baseball teams. So it’s kind of like our skill level has grown from the bottom up, which is good.

Is anyone on the team aiming to be drafted by a Major-League team?

I think most people that are on the team right now see a career in baseball as kind of a hard thing to do.

Is it fair to say that living an Orthodox life is incompatible with playing professional baseball?

It would be pretty tough…I think most teams in any sport don’t like speed bumps and don’t like people being too different. So I’m guessing unless they’re really, really good, they’re not going to get so many adjustments.

Jewish baseball fans often make a big deal about whether a Jewish player agrees to play on Yom Kippur. I kind of find it funny that that’s the litmus test of your commitment to Judaism, when every week you have a litmus test, which is the Sabbath.

Yes, it’s definitely true. Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg were like the ideal Jews that didn’t play on Yom Kippur, the way I remember it. For each person on their own level, that’s an amazing feat for someone to pull off. To decide not to play for any Jewish reason, on that level, is unbelievable.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in West Hempstead, which is a suburb in Long Island. I went to a high school called Hebrew Academy of Long Beach.

They did not have baseball, right?

They did not, and to my knowledge, I don’t think they have baseball still, which is kind of disappointing…I played little league when I was younger. I was lucky enough to have my Dad as my coach…Whenever I wanted to go have a catch or hit, my Dad was always there to coach me through it, and play with me.

So when was the last time you played organized ball, before Y.U.?

The last time I played organized ball was probably in 6th grade.

So you played softball in high school?

Right…It’s not fast pitch, either. It’s more like old people’s softball than like fast-pitch baseball, but what can you do?

Are you a lefty? Righty?

I’m a righty. I started off pitching, and then I moved to outfield, played a little outfield as well, but I’m mainly a starting pitcher on the team.

What are your strengths, and what kind of pitches can you throw?

I’m more of a power pitcher. I definitely started out with nothing but a fastball. I kind of worked in the curve ball…and I think last year I really got a good change-up going. So I generally have two types of fastballs, usually a two-seamer, and then a four-seamer if I want to get a couple extra miles per hour on it. And I will throw a change-up if I need to get a batter off his toes.

Any idea what speed your fastball is maxxing out at?

Our college doesn’t use a radar gun, because a radar gun is generally used for scouting…I know that when I was a senior in high school, I went to a minor-league game and used their gun, that you pay for, and I threw 76 (MPH), so I’m guessing I throw about in the low 80s, maybe.

That’s pretty good for a guy who hadn’t pitched since 6th grade. Now, there’s no way to say this painlessly, but you guys got beat up pretty badly last season, didn’t you?

Yeah, this last year and my first year were two tough years.

In 2009, you had four wins, including three towards the end of the season. So what happened in 2010?

I don’t even know…In 2009, we had some good hitting and kind of pieced together some good pitching as well. The problem last year is that we had zero hitting.

Do you see Yeshiva’s baseball program improving in the future, or will it always be near the bottom, given its players’ unique circumstances?

When I started, our relief pitcher threw more up than straight…But I think the crop of guys that we have this year is definitely the deepest bunch of rookies that we’ve had, which is pretty promising for this coming season.

Who’s your coach?

Our head coach is Phil Kahn. He started the baseball program at Vassar College…And we have two assistant coaches, Logan Mauzy and Nick Canzano.

Has Yeshiva’s faculty been supportive?

Yeah, I think so. It’s funny, because…a lot of times when we have games on weekends, we’ll have to miss at least one class or two even…The next time I’m in class, they kind of make a point of asking me how the game was. It’s been embarrassing a couple times, trying to tell them my box score in front of the whole class…But they’re definitely encouraging.

The Yeshiva Maccabee’s 2011 season opens March 2 with a game against Baruch College.


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