WINNIPEG — “The spring is a time of rebirth. It is the season when flowers bloom and the buds of trees begin to open, and a time when many birds return home from their warm southern climates. It is also a time for baseball.”
The words are those of Rabbi James Gordon in his book Pray Ball! The Spiritual Insights of a Jewish Sports Fan. The rabbi of Congregation B’nai Shalom of Buffalo Grove, Ill., uses sporting events and athletes as his analogies to illustrate how the games they play tend to reinforce important traditional Jewish values.
For example, he explains: “Many parallels exist between a minyan and baseball. According to the American League, which follows the designated hitter’s rule, 10 players are needed to start the game and each is of equal importance.
As for the upcoming season, there’s a good chance there will be a minyan.
The Milwaukee Brewers just completed their first winning season in 15 years at 83-79, thanks in no small part to third baseman Ryan Braun. The son of an Israeli father, who was the fifth overall player taken in the 2005 Major League baseball draft, took the National League by storm last year when he arrived on May 25 from AAA Nashville and slugged his way to a .334 average, 34 homers, plus 97 RBIs in just 113 games. The 24-year-old University of Miami grad was subsequently named the National League rookie of the year.
If the six-foot-two, 200-pound Braun is to add more to his arsenal in ’08, he’ll have to sharpen his fielding skills. The second-highest drafted Jew (next to Ron Blomberg) had a Major League worst 26 errors at the hot corner and was often yanked in the late innings. In spring training, the 24-year-old Mission Hills, Californian was working out in left field and chances are better than 50-50 the outfield will soon be his calling card.
Boston’s Kevin Youkilis, 29, enjoyed a banner season and was a major contributor to the Red Sox World Series title in ’07. The six-foot-one, 220-pound Cincinnatian, a first baseman, hit a solid .288, smacked 16 taters and drove in 83 runs. He is batting second in the lineup, and few are better at drawing walks and setting the table for the big boppers who follow. His main drawback is a lack of speed, stealing only four bases last season.
Seven-year veteran right-hander Jason Marquis of the Cubs went 12-9 as a starter last year, but Chicago’s swirling winds helped to inflate his ERA to an unflattering 4.60. He’s a workhorse, though, starting 33 games and going 192 innings. The former Brave and Cardinal starter, who will turn 30 this summer, is projected as the team’s number 4 or 5 starter. The Cub’s Jewish pitching coach Larry Rothschild is working with Marquis on the mental part of his game. He seems to falter in the second half of the season due to a lack of focus that appears to sap his confidence.
John Grabow, 29, bypassed arbitration in mid-January and was signed to a one-year contract with the Pirates. In 63 games and 51.2 innings last season, the left-handed reliever compiled a 3 and 2 record and ERA of 4.53. What he needs now, and it’ll be difficult in Pittsburgh, which finished last at 68-94, is a solid season in 2008 that might earn him a more secure pact.
Colorado’s right-handed starter Jason Hirsh is being counted upon to be the club’s number 5 starter in ’08. Last year, the 26-year-old pitched in 112 innings and compiled a record of 5-7 and an ERA of 4.81. An imposing figure on the mound at six-foot-eight and 250 pounds, his season ended last year in early August when he fractured his right fibula. Prior to that a sprained ankle hampered his development.
Ian Kinsler, 25, of the Texas Rangers is about to begin his third season enjoying the security of a five-year extension at $22 million, signed in late February. The six-foot, 200-pound second sacker who hails from Tucson, Ariz., showed some pop in his bat last year with 20 homers, along with a .263 average and 62 RBIs. The golf enthusiast also played well defensively and scored 96 runs.
Another 25-year-old Ranger is relief pitcher Scott Feldman who spent part of last season in AAA Oklahoma and got into 29 games with Texas, sporting a 1-2 record and somewhat inflated ERA of 5.77. The right-hander out of San Mateo College, who was born in Kailua, Hawaii, stands six-foot-six and weighs 225. According to his manager, Ron Washington, Scott was working on a slightly different delivery during the off-season that has given his ball more movement.
After giving managing in the low minors a try in 2007, outfielder Gabe Kapler, 32, wants back into the fun room. The former Red Sox muscle man has been signed to a one-year contract with Milwaukee and hopes to make it as a bat off the bench and a backup outfielder. The nine-year veteran from Hollywood, with a lifetime BA of .270, plays the game with flare and will be a welcome addition to the Brewers.
There comes a time, both in and out of the sports world, when youth must be served. Houston Catcher Brad Ausmus, who has caught more than 1,800 games in the majors, is pushing 39 and has finally been designated as the backup receiver with the Astros. A fine defensive catcher with a lifetime BA of .252, he is known as one of the best ever as a handler of pitchers. Few will disagree that the Dartmouth grad is managerial material or at least a coach-in-waiting. He will this year help tutor his replacement, J.R.Towles.
Mike Lieberthal, 36, a 13-year catcher with Philadelphia who played 38 games with the Dodgers in ’07, is retiring; Los Angeles failed to pick up his option. The two-time All-Star hit .274 in his career and whacked 150 homers.
So far in early March, no team has, surprisingly, shown any interest in free agent Mets’ outfielder Shawn Green. In 2007, he batted .282, hit 10 homers and had 71 RBIs in 446 at bats. It’s entirely possible that the final chapter of the now 35-year-old’s career has been written. From the Blue Jays to the Dodgers, the Diamondbacks and the Mets, the 1991 first-round pick had a career average of .283, walloped 328 home runs and drove home 1,070 runs. Not hall of fame numbers, certainly, but few Jewish players were better and carried themselves with more dignity and class.
Also looking for work in the majors, are right-handed reliever Craig Breslow, 27, in Boston and left-hander Mike Koplove, 31, in Cleveland.