By Bill Simons
The 2020 Major League Baseball season was the most unique in the game’s venerable history. Like medical care, education, shopping, political campaigns and almost everything else, baseball was dramatically impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Still, despite myriad vicissitudes, the truncated 60-game baseball season proceeded, and World Series drama provided the game’s aging fan base with a temporary oasis of normalcy. A distinct Jewish presence animated baseball’s 2020 season.
A Jewish sports guru, Andrew Friedman, is the Los Angeles Dodgers president of baseball operations, and he constructed the team that won the 2020 World Series. As ESPN’s Jeff Passan aptly stated, Friedman’s Dodgers were “leviathan in payroll and talent.” Melding together players developed from within the Los Angeles farm system, including Jewish outfielder Joc Pederson, with those acquired through transactions, notably Mookie Betts, Friedman built a powerhouse Dodgers team.
Besides Friedman, other notable Jewish baseball executives at the helm in 2020 merit comment. Chaim Bloom, chief baseball officer of the Boston Red Sox, is a Friedman protégé. The Red Sox had a disastrous 2020 season, and Bloom will initiate a major rebuilding program over the winter. As Cubs president of baseball operations, the redoubtable Theo Epstein, who in previous seasons broke long-standing World Series championship famines in both Chicago and Boston, fashioned a Cubs team that had the best record in the National League Central Division in 2020. Once more, the long-suffering New York Mets stumbled under Chief Operating Officer Jeff Wilpon. As majority owners of the Mets, Jeff Wilpon and his father, Fred, lacked the resources and acumen to compete successfully, and their reputation suffered by association with disgraced financier Bernie Madoff. Mets fans look to another Jewish businessman, Steve Cohen, to reverse the franchise’s fortunes. Cohen’s purchase of the Mets from the Wilpon family is in its final stages.
San Francisco manager Gabe Kapler, a former player noted for his muscular physique, maneuvered his weak-roster team to a 29-31 won-loss record. Kapler “took the knee,” kneeling at the opening of a televised exhibition game as the national anthem played, providing support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The example of Kapler’s parents, Jewish liberals and 1960s participants in the Civil Rights movement, influenced his decision.
The 2020 season probably marked the last campaign of the most accomplished Jewish player of the last generation, Ryan Braun, a five-tool star back in the day. Braun’s 352 career home runs are the most by a Jewish ballplayer or by a Milwaukee Brewer. Burnished by a lifetime .296 batting average, 1154 RBIs, 408 doubles and 216 stolen bases, as well as Rookie of the Year (2007) and Most Valuable Player (2011) awards, the left fielder is a borderline candidate for the Hall of Fame, a prospect dimmed by his mid-career suspension after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. The 36-year-old Braun hit a disappointing .233 in 2020. Now injury-prone and vulnerable to back pain, Braun appears poised to depart from the playing field.
Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman also underperformed in 2020. A year ago, Bregman, then 25 years old, was the superstar of a team that came within one game of winning a second World Series championship within a three-season span. Boasting a .296 batting average, 41 home runs and 119 RBIs, Bregman finished second in voting for the 2019 AL MVP award. Then, revelations came that Bregman’s Astros stole opposing catcher signs and conveyed that information to Houston hitters by banging on trash cans. Impacted by the bizarre trash-can scandal, the Astros lost (31) more games than they won (29), while Bregman’s batting average plummeted to .242 in 2020. However, Bregman and the Astros remain young and talented: look for Houston and their cocky cleanup hitter to come back strong in 2021.
Other 2020 MLB Jewish players to note include Miami Marlins relief pitcher Dick Bleier, who posted a 2.63 earned run average over 19 games. St. Louis Cardinal relief pitcher Rob Kaminsky showed potential, recording a 1.93 ERA during his five rookie season appearances.
Splitting the 2020 season between the Red Sox and the Colorado Rockies, outfielder Kevin Pillar hit a solid .288. Garrett Stubbs, Bregman’s Astros teammate, demonstrated defensive versatility as both a catcher and outfielder, although his 2020 average (.125) underlines that he is still a work in progress at the plate. Toronto Blue Jays’ Rowdy Tellez, a robust 6’4”, 255 pounds, was an offensive presence in 2020 with a .283 batting average, .540 slugging percentage and eight HRs in only 113 at bats. During the World Series, Ryan Sheriff, a veteran of Team Israel and the grandson of Holocaust survivors, took the mound for the Tampa Bay Rays.
In 2020, for the first time, an Israeli citizen, Dean Kremer, appeared in an MLB game. Kremer is actually a dual Israeli-U.S. citizen, who was born, raised and attended college in the U.S. However, his sabra parents are both veterans of the Israeli army, and Kremer grew up speaking Hebrew at home. The right-handed, 24-year old, 6’3” starting pitcher made his debut for the Baltimore Orioles on September 6. Finishing his limited season with one win, one loss and inflated 4.82 ERA, Kremer will hopefully find his stride on the mound next year.
Max Fried, who wore #32 in high school in homage to Sandy Koufax, emerged as one of baseball’s pre-eminent pitchers in 2020 and had the best season of any Jewish player. Although he registered a stellar 17-6 won-lost record in 2019, his 4.02 ERA was less impressive. In 2020, however, the 6’4”, Atlanta Braves lefty was dominant. Despite lumbar muscle spasms that limited Fried’s September play, he finished the abbreviated campaign with seven wins, no losses and a spectacular 2.25 ERA. Complimenting his mid-90s four-seam fastball, Fried’s pitching repertoire also includes a change-up, sinker, curveball and slider. Moreover, opposition runners take leads at their own peril; Fried has a deadly pick-off motion.
Assisted by its Jewish contingent, the 2020 baseball season, albeit idiosyncratic, made its distinctive mark.
Bill Simons is a professor of history at SUNY Oneonta, whose course offerings include sport and ethnic history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.