There have been Jews in the major leagues since Lipman Pike starred for the Troy Haymakers, Baltimore Canaries, and later the Cincinnati Reds. Pike led the nascent majors in home runs a scant six years after the Civil War, his feats reported over Alexander Graham Bell’s new invention. For most years after that, Jewish players were often as lonely as Jackie Robinson. But never, from then till now, did a Jewish player dare razz the opposition, in the name of the Jewish people, no less, taking “bench jockeying” to the heights that Team Israel’s Cody Decker took it in the recent World Baseball Classic when he bellowed from the dugout, “Nobody… and I mean NOBODY! … no-hits the JEWS!” It is doubtful whether the 20,000 fans in Tokyo, let alone the pitcher for Team Cuba knew what hit ’em, aside from Ryan Lavarnway’s double down the line.
This is the Golden Age of Jewish baseball, proud, defiant, with our share of screwballs and “Hammers,” men with character, and “characters.” We take for granted that we can smell, walking into a stadium, what we never could in the Polo Grounds or Shibe Park: kosher hot dogs sizzling on a grill; or if you prefer, sausage, onions, and peppers, a fine aroma-therapy. The Great Pike never knew kosher ballpark food, and he surely never knew Jewish ballplayers named Ian, Cody, Rowdy or Kelly. But surely Jewish fans will know their names and stories by the time the bees of autumn visit your sukkah. This summer you can root for All-Stars, like the Brewers’ Ryan Braun or Detroit’s Ian Kinsler; future stars like Alan Bregman of the Astros, and Joc Pederson of the Dodgers — worth cheering for, if only for his immense kindness to his brother who has Down Syndrome.
Another Jew who’s easy to root for is “Suitcase” Danny Valencia, playing first base for the Mariners. He’s 32 and on his seventh team in eight seasons. The modern Jewish journeyman.
If you open a pack of baseball cards and find Kevin Pillar of the Toronto Blue Jays, keep the card. Keep your eyes on Scott Feldman, the Reds’ Opening Day pitcher. Craig Breslow, 36, the ex-Red Sox and Yale reliever who pitched for Team Israel in the WBC Qualifying Round, is the oldest Jew in the majors, now working out of the Minnesota bullpen.
Aside from Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, who managed Team Israel’s 2013 edition, Breslow is only Team Israel veteran in the majors. Ty Kelly, an infielder for Israel, (he has a Jewish mother with whom he visited Israel), played briefly for the Mets this April but was waived. He is now playing third for the Buffalo Bisons (Blue Jays), throwing across the diamond to first baseman Rowdy Tellez, a 6-foot-4-inch, 220 lb. Jewish slugger. (The gentle reader will forgive us if, for ethnic pride alone, we follow the ancient yeshiva leniency of assuming that every ballplayer is Jewish who is rumored to be.)
It is a rite of spring for Jewish newspapers to note the Jewish ballplayers who “came north” with a major league team, but let’s keep an eye on the Jews of summer who will be playing for their careers in minor league ballparks from New England mill towns to California’s valley. Several may be called up to majors, but all can be followed on the Internet, or by taking a nice summer’s drive.
Nate Freiman — a 6-foot-8-inch slugging first baseman — wrote in The Player’s Tribune, “there’s something interesting about Decker’s choice of words. Yes, we were Team Israel, but there’s a reason why he didn’t say anything about no-hitting the Israelis … . We represented the worldwide Jewish community.” Freiman, owner of Duke University’s home run records, played in the majors with Oakland, and last summer led the Portland Sea Dogs (Red Sox) in RBIs. This summer he’ll be playing for the Long Island Ducks (Central Islip) in the independent Atlantic League.
Team Israel’s manager was Jerry Weinstein who did a masterful job blending and inspiring a team of has-beens and never-weres into the darlings of the WBC. When Casey Stengel was fired by the Yankees for being old, he said, “I’ll never make the mistake of being 70 again.” Weinstein is 73, a baseball lifer, older than any major league manager. He has coached the U.S. Olympic team, coached a gold medal team in Maccabi Games, and coached one year for the Colorado Rockies. He’s managed Sacramento City College; the Geneva Cubs (in the New York-Penn League), and the Modesto Nuts in the California League. This summer, he’ll be managing Connecticut’s Hartford Yard Goats, a Rockies affiliate in the Eastern League. (“Yard Goats” is railroad slang for those who move train cars from one locomotive to another.)
Maybe if the Goats do well, Weinstein can get a last hurrah, of some kind, in the majors. A sweet Jewish soul, he encouraged the Yiddishkeit on Team Israel, from reading the Megillah in the dugout on Purim, to allowing the Mench on the Bench stuffed mascot – complete with tallis, beard and black hat — in the dugout during games, bringing unity and spirit to what had been an assimilated, disparate bunch. A manager to root for, worth the drive to Hartford to cheer him on.
Ryan Lavarnway, 29, along with reliever Breslow, played for Israel, Yale and the Red Sox champions in the 2013 World Series. Lavarnway, a catcher, went from Team Israel to the Nashville Sounds, an Oakland Athletics farm. Lavarnway was selected Most Valuable Player of Israel’s qualifying round in Brooklyn, and in the six WBC games Israel played in March, Lavarnway hit .565 with two doubles, a homer and six RBI. Lavarnway told reporters, playing for Israel was a “a life-changing experience. … It changed how proud I am about being Jewish.” He told the San Jose Mercury News that the spirit on Team Israel was unlike anything he ever experienced, even on a World Series team.
Cody Decker, 30, for all his screaming about nobody no-hitting Jews, had no hits in 11 at-bats for the Padres in 2015, his entire major league career, but he has 173 minor league homers, the most of any active minor leaguer. He is the “real” Crash Davis (Kevin Costner’s minor league character in “Bull Durham”). If there’s ever a Cody Decker movie, he could play himself, being the only Jewish ballplayer with a Screen Actors Guild card, and the only one who can seriously discuss Stanislavsky, the 19th-century Russian director. And yet he is also a Stengelesque shmoozer, or a 1960s-style Catskills tummler. Decker was the player who made Mensch on the Bench the mascot for Team Israel. During the WBC qualifying round, talking to the media at the Brooklyn Cyclone’s park last September, there wasn’t a reporter who didn’t smile during Decker’s interviews. After Team Israel dispersed, Decker was cut by the Milwaukee Brewers, but signed by the Mets. A corner infielder, who has also made himself into a catcher and corner outfielder, Decker now plays for the Mets’ Binghamton team. With so many Jewish Mets fans, and with a shallow situation at third base, imagine if Decker gets called as a backup infielder; literally a Mensch on the Bench, indeed.
Other notable Team Israel veterans in the minors with a chance to be called up are Ike Davis with the Dodgers, and Josh Zeid with the Cardinals.
Israel (the country) and Jewish heritage will be honored in several stadiums, including by the Mets on May 24. On April 30, the Detroit Tigers’ Jewish Heritage game will feature the first yarmulke give-away day, a kipa in Detroit’s navy blue with their famous “olde English D.” Major League Baseball’s website is selling Team Israel’s sky blue yarmulke, with the team’s stylized Magen David logo, worn during anthems when the team doffed their baseball caps.
And on May 7, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, the grand old man of Modern Orthodoxy, will surely wear a yarmulke when he throws out the first pitch at the Mets-Marlins game. After all, it seems everyone’s wearing yarmulkes these days, in ballparks from Brooklyn to Detroit to Tokyo.