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Friday, December 26, 2014

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These diamonds will sparkle on the field

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Ryan Braun

WINNIPEG — Perhaps it took the perfect storm to add a Jewish flavour that might finally allow the Blue Jays to fly high after a 20-year absence from post-season play. First, you call up the Miami Marlins, take the elastic off your ample bankroll and talk business.

Owned by Jeffrey Loria, 73, the Marlins finished last in the National League east division with a record of 69-93 last season, putting him in a salary-dumping mood. The Jays’ owners were more than enthusiastic to try and prove what Loria couldn’t – that you can buy a winner.

The Manhattan-raised Loria is a well-known art dealer and a member of the board of directors of the Benjamin N Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University in New York. He was in the market to sell a pair of pitchers, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson, and an all-star shortstop Jose Reyes.

Then, with spring training nicely underway, the Jays decided on Feb. 23 to add Phillies’ right-handed pitcher Michael Schwimer, 27. At six-foot-eight and 246 pounds, he might at least intimidate a few hopefuls who get too comfortable at the plate.

In his rookie season, the Virginia-born athlete, who attended Hebrew school for a couple of years and had a bar mitzvah, came out of the bullpen 47 times and fashioned a 2-1 record with a 4.46 ERA, and he throws strikes with regularity. In 34.1 innings, he fanned 36.

Elsewhere, Kevin Youkilis celebrated his 34th birthday on March 15, yet he’s still in demand because he’s an old school kind of player who gives his all – so much so that the Yankees decided to sign the free agent to a one-year deal for $12 million (all figures US) to replace third sacker Alex Rodriguez, who is expected to be out for a least half the season.

Youkilis, an eighth-round draftee of the Red Sox in 2001, was a fan favourite, a three-time all star in Boston and twice a World Series champion who plays both third and first. The six-foot-one and 220-pounder was traded away last June to the White Sox and signed with the Yankees in mid-December.

Last season, his combined totals between Boston and Chicago were 122 games played, 438 at bats, a .235 average and 60 RBIs. But those numbers don’t convey his true value. Long known as “The Greek god of Walks,” he has an on-base percentage of .336, which accounts for his 72-runs scored.

The intense and gritty Youkilis is well-respected by opposition players and managers. His career numbers are more than respectable, too: the Cincinnati-born player boasts a .286 average, 133 homers, and 563 RBIs lifetime.

Another Jewish player who is always in demand is left-handed relief pitcher Craig Breslow – a real wandering Jew. This past winter, the 32-year-old hurler inked a two-year pact with the Red Sox for $6.25 million. Last season between Arizona and Boston, he had a 3-0 record and a sparkling 2.70 ERA.

The strikeout artist, who fanned 61 in 63 innings, has also spent bullpen time in Minnesota, Oakland, Cleveland, and San Diego. Not bad for a 26th-round draft pick, by Milwaukee in 2002.

Danny Valencia, 28, a former Twins draftee, is still hanging on in the majors. His lack of consistency at third base and the plate has seen him move from Minnesota to Boston, and this year, he’ll try to become a regular Oriole in Baltimore.

Last season, between Minnesota and Boston, the six-foot-two and 220-pound Miami-born infielder got into 44 games and had 154 at bats, which resulted in a .188 average.

With a shortage of decent third-sackers in the majors this year, he’s still viewed as a prospect. For example, in 2011 with the Twins, the son of a Cuban father and a Jewish mother, who was raised Jewish, played in 154 games, driving in 72 runs with 15 home runs and a .246 batting average.

Outfielder Ryan Braun’s numbers speak for themselves. Last season, the son of an Israeli-born Jewish father and Catholic mother stroked 191 hits, which included 36 doubles and 41 homers. He had 112 RBIs and a .319 average in 154 games. He can run, too, having 30 stolen bases.  

Ian Kinsler, 30, the longtime Rangers’ second baseman, may be on the move. Well, not too far. There is a better than 50-50 chance this year that he might shift to first base to make room for a few standouts in Texas’s minor league teams. He still puts up the numbers, however, and can create havoc on the bases. In 655 at-bats last season, the son of a Jewish dad whacked 42 doubles, five triples, and 19 homers to go with 21 stolen bases.

Versatile right-handed pitcher Scott Feldman has left the Rangers, the only major league team he has ever played with, and was signed three months ago by the Chicago Cubs.

The Kailua, Hawaii-born 30-year-old, who started 29 games last season, fashioned the type of numbers that perhaps indicate starting pitchers are in short supply. The six-foot-six and 230-pounder won six and lost 11 and had an ERA of 5.09, which explains why Texas declined its option. So Feldman goes from the heat of Texas to Wrigley Field, where the winds often blow out and create a different kind of heat for hurlers – from frustrated fans.

Jason Marquis, who split last season between the Twins and Padres, the sixth and seventh teams the right-hander has played for is much like the aforementioned Feldman. In 2012 the Jewish innings-eater won eight and lost 11, and had a bloated 5.22 ERA.

The 34-year-old first-round selection by the Braves in 1996 is always pitching on the edge, because he is constantly putting out fires. Nonetheless, he’s a much sought-after player and a battler with a career won-lost record of 112-109.

Boston Red Sox catcher Rod Lavarnay, who is Jewish on his mom’s side, is reputed to be a sure-fire major leaguer. In his rookie season last year, he only came to the plate 153 times and batted .157 along with eight doubles and two homers.

In the minors, however, he sparkled. The Yale grad, who won the NCAA batting title in 2007 with a .467 average, has also made the All-Star teams in both class A and in AAA Pawtucket, where he spent part of 2012 hitting .295 in 319 at bats along with 22 doubles, eight homers and 40 runs batted in.

Diminutive reserve outfielder Sam Fuld, 31, a crowd favourite, is back with Tampa Bay. Injury prone as a result of his aggressive style of play, he batted .255 last season in 98 at bats, mostly as the team’s lead-off batter. The son of a Jewish dad and Catholic mom, he also has some speed, having stolen seven bases in 2012. He can distract and annoy entire opposition infields, be a pinch runner or substitute outfielder who will run through a wall to catch a ball.

New York Mets’ first baseman Ike Davis, the son of former major-league pitcher Ron Davis and a Jewish mother from Lithuania, Millie, had his best season to date last year. Coming off an injury-riddled campaign in 2011, he bounced back by hitting only .227, but at six-foot-four and 230 pounds, his specialty at cleanup in the batting order is the long ball. Davis hit 32 homers and drove in 90 runs for the moribund Mets, who won only 74 games last year.

There are many more Jewish players in the minor leagues, of course, just waiting to make it in the majors. Coming soon, as they say on the marquees.

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