By Bills Simons
For Jewish baseball fans and players, Israel framed the 2023 baseball season. Jewish baseball began on March 12 when Team Israel and Team Nicaragua met in the first round of the World Baseball Classic in LoanDepot Park, home of MLB’s Miami Marlins, before a crowd of nearly 20,000. When Team Israel finally put runs on the scoreboard, staging an eighth inning rally and going on to win their debut game 3-1, ecstatic Jewish fans across America envisioned the impossible dream, a WBC title. Alas, Team Israel was trounced in its next three games and eliminated from WBC competition. However, the 2023 WBC was a significant and positive experience for Jewish ballplayers and fans, transcending the won-loss tally. And manager Ian Kinsler, a former four-time MLB All-Star second baseman, and longtime coach and promoter Nate Fish committed to growing Team Israel.
Often the only Jew on their professional teams, Team Israel players formed strong bonds with each other. Many of them are the American children of interfaith marriages, and they reported a heightening of Jewish identity and their connection to Israel. And for Jewish fans, pride in Team Israel countered conflicted feelings about the movement away from democracy in the Jewish homeland under the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Moreover, many of the Team Israel players resumed pro baseball careers with a keener sense of purpose. Most had good seasons in the major, minor and independent leagues during 2023. Outfielder Joc Pederson, the biggest name in the Team Israel lineup, returned to the San Francisco Giants, ratcheting up his career MLB home run total to 186. The starting and winning pitcher in Team Israel’s WBC victory, Dean Kremer, the son of sabra parents, went on to win 13 games against only five losses for the Baltimore Orioles. Matt Mervis, Team Israel’s 225-pound first baseman and a phenom in the minors, received his first, brief taste of MLB, hitting a few home runs for the Chicago Cubs.
Several other Team Israel stalwarts left their 2023 MLB mark. Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Spencer Horwitz debuted on June 18, singling on his first at bat. Colorado Rockies pitcher Jake Bird appeared in 70 games, all but three of those in relief. Slugging a decisive home run in Team Israel’s game one WBC victory, backup catcher Garrett Stubbs returned to Philadelphia to provide a good glove behind the plate for the Phillies. Debuting on July 14, Oakland Athletics rookie Zack Gelof connected for 14 home runs in only 270 at bats while displaying finesse at the keystone; his younger brother Jake is a hot minor league prospect. Before a late season trade to the Cincinnati Reds, Harrison Bader provided the New York Yankees with stellar defense in centerfield.
Playing part-time, Atlanta Braves outfielder Kevin Pillar delivered solid defense and some timely hits. Injuries limited Pillar’s more celebrated teammate, pitching ace Max Fried, to 77 innings. When he did take the mound, however, Fried was superb, winning eight games and losing only one, for a .889 winning percentage, a 2.55 ERA and 80 strikeouts in 77 innings.
This columnist designates Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman the 2023 Jewish MVP. Although not matching his 2019 peak (.296 batting average, 41 home runs, 112 RBIs), Bregman, an outstanding defensive third baseman, clutch hitter and team leader, drilled 25 home runs, scored 103 runs and notched 98 RBIs despite a .262 batting average. Although the Astros fell a win short of returning to the World Series, Bregman, with four home runs in the 2023 post-season, now has 19 playoff home runs, tied for number six amongst all-time post-season career home run leaders.
By mid-season, a record 18 Jewish players had appeared on MLB rosters. In addition to Bader, Bird, Bregman, Fried, Gelof, Horwitz, Kremer, Mervis, Pederson, Pillar and Stubbs, first baseman Rowdy Tellez, outfielder Dalton Guthrie and pitchers Jake Bird, Richard Bleier, Eli Morgan, Ryan Sherriff, Jared Shuster and Zack Weiss added to the MLB minyan.
Playing for the Tri-City ValleyCats in the independent Frontier League, Jakob Goldfarb, another Team Israel alum, displayed an uncommon combination of speed and power, versatility and erudition. Comfortable at first base, catching and any outfield position, he hit 18 home runs and stole 26 bases in only 88 games while recording a .293 batting average. For good measure, Goldfarb expects to finish his legal studies in December.
General manager Sam Fuld, a former Team Israel and MLB outfielder, helped build a Philadelphia Phillies squad that went deep into the post-season.
The 2023 baseball season also inflicted major disappointments upon the Jewish contingent. Despite owner Steve Cohen’s lavish spending, pushing the Mets payroll to a record $353,046,854, The Amazin’s, a juggernaut on paper, deconstructed, losing 87 games with merely 75 wins, a reminder that great teams are built not bought. Only two years after leading his Giants to an MLB best 107 victories and earning NL Manager of the Year honors, Gabe Kapler was fired as San Francisco tanked; his replacement is another Jewish player turned manager, Bob Melvin. Proving he is no Theo Epstein, Boston Red Sox Chief Baseball Officer Chaim Bloom endured an AL East last place finish, prompting his unceremonious ouster on the cusp of Rosh Hashanah. Another Jew, former pitcher Craig Breslow, succeeded Bloom as Red Sox chief baseball officer.
The best thing about baseball is its past and 2023 resonated with the game’s Jewish legacy. When Jewish pitchers Fried and Kremer, who ended the season with a combined record of 21 victories and six losses, faced off on May 5, in a contest won by Kremer, it evoked memories of the epic September 25, 1966, duel between the two winningest Jewish hurlers in the annals of the game, Los Angeles Dodger Sandy Koufax and Chicago Cub Ken Holtzman, in which the latter chalked up the victory. The 2023 season also marked the 50th anniversary of New York Yankee Ron Blomberg, a .293 career hitter and self-proclaimed designated Hebrew, making history on April 5, 1973, by drawing a walk as baseball’s first designated hitter.
The Jewish 2023 MLB season ended as it began with Israel – a benchmark that will get a close and hard look in part II of the Jewish baseball roundup 2023.