By Bill Simons
With its ups and downs, baseball 2021 proved interesting and significant for Jewish fans. Team Israel, staffed mainly by American Jews, made a valiant medal run in the Tokyo Summer Olympics that fell heartbreakingly short. Then, rebounding under new manager Nate Fish and an infusion of sabras, the Israel National Team upended expectations in September by taking the second spot in the European Baseball Championship.
In 2021, the late Marvin Miller, longtime executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, was formally inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The opposition of anti-union owners and their operatives stalled Miller’s election for a generation – and it was then postponed another year by COVID. To the consternation of Jewish fans, the Miller induction ceremony took place on September 8, the second day of Rosh Hashanah.
After 14 MLB seasons, all with the Milwaukee Brewers, former All-Star and NL Most Valuable Player Ryan Braun, who walloped more career home runs (348) than any Brewer or Jewish player in history, announced his retirement. Braun’s exit elicited debate about a legacy tarnished by drug use, falsehood and suspension.
Crafting strategies to speed up play, Theo Epstein remains an MLB consultant, but his visibility is more muted than in his front-office wunderkind years with the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs. Former MLB and Team Israel outfielder Sam Fuld showed promise in his 2021 debut as Philadelphia Phillies general manager. Chief Baseball Officer Chaim Bloom took the heat for the frustratingly inconsistent, but ultimately overperforming, Boston Red Sox.
Two teenage Orthodox pitching phenoms, Elie Kligman and Jacob Steinmetz, both committed to Sabbath observance, were drafted, respectively, by the Washington Nationals and Arizona Diamondbacks. Queens fans found some satisfaction in the September 2021 surge of Jewish outfielder fielder Kevin Pillar, but new New York Mets owner Steve Cohen, despite an infusion of money into the franchise, endured unseemly personnel revelations, player injuries and poor performance, making a debacle of the Mets’ season.
Injuries limited third baseman Alex Bregman, a perennial All-Star, to 348 at bats, but he returned to the lineup and helped the Houston Astros finish atop the American League West in 2021 before faltering in the post season. The Astros roster also included catcher Garrett Stubbs. Traded to the Atlanta Braves, outfielder Joc Pederson earned the sobriquet Joctober by slugging two dramatic pinch-hit home runs in the National League playoffs. During the second half of the season, Max Fried, Pederson’s teammate, emerged as the NL’s most dominant pitcher (eight wins-two losses, 1.74 ERA after the All-Star break). Fried pitched the Braves to a World Series title with a spectacular game six outing. And Gabe Kapler, the Jewish manager of the Giants, brought San Francisco to the cusp of baseball glory in 2021.
Kapler is not the first Jew to manage in the major leagues. That distinction belongs to Lip Pike, better known as an outfielder, who was at the helm of National Association and NL teams back in the 1870s. Other Jewish managers followed. The winningest Jewish manager of all-time, Bob Melvin, thrice Manager of the Year, moved from the Oakland Athletics to the San Diego Padres following the 2021 season. Kapler looks ready to ascend into the elite group of managers.
American Jews are sometimes too eager to appropriate as landsman athletes whose religious and ethnic connections are dubious. In Kapler’s case, the connections to Judaism and Israel are strong. Both social activist parents are Jewish. Kapler’s father, a pianist/composer, shared his love of music. And Kapler’s mother taught at a Jewish preschool.
Kapler was bar mitzvahed. The Star of David is tattooed on his left leg and the post-Holocaust dictum “Never Again” on the right calf. Seeking to “provide an example that the Jewish community can be proud of,” Kapler asserts a visceral connection to the Holocaust: “The way we have been persecuted, and our drive and our survival, is mind-boggling.”
Intellectual, culturally sophisticated and politically liberal, Kapler was a body builder and ballplayer before managing. Ripped and shirtless, the 6’2”, 190-pound Kapler, a weightlifting and diet maven – nicknamed The Body – has appeared, with muscles glistening, on the cover of several fitness magazines.
Over the course of Kapler’s 12 major league seasons (1998-2006, 2008-10), with six teams (Boston, Texas, Tampa Bay, Colorado, Detroit, Milwaukee), the journeyman outfielder accumulated solid career stats (1,104 games, .268 batting average, 82 home runs, 176 doubles, .420 slugging percentage, .983 fielding average). Playing for Detroit, Kapler had his best season in 2000, averaging .302 and connecting for 47 extra-base hits.
Kapler interrupted his MLB playing career in 2007 to begin his managerial apprenticeship with the Single-A Greenville Grasshoppers, suffering a 58-81 won-loss record. In 2012, Kapler coached Team Israel in the World Baseball qualifying round. Making his debut as an MLB manager, he guided the 2018-19 Phillies to a mediocre 161-163 record. During his first season at the Giants’ helm, the 2020 pandemic-shortened season, San Francisco finished under .500 with a 29-31 record.
Predicted to finish last with 75 victories, the 2021 Giants, despite too many roster spots filled by aging veterans and reclamation acquisitions, stunned the baseball world by winning an MLB high 107 games and taking the National League West divisional championship. A teacher and motivator, informed by analytics and even more by understanding players as people, Kapler, coming of age as a manager, assembled an outstanding group of coaches, modeled candid communication, created a clubhouse ethos that put the team above individual stats, and inspired constant hustle.
MLB’s two best teams, Kapler’s Giants and the Dodgers, the latter beneficiaries of a bloated payroll, met in the 2021 NL Division Series. Legend engulfs their fierce rivalry, a legacy of the last century when Brooklyn and New York, rather than Los Angeles and San Francisco, provided homes to the Dodgers and Giants respectively. The Dodgers game five victory in the 2021 Division Series advanced Los Angeles to the NL Championship Series – and ended a Cinderella season for Kapler’s Giants.
Given Kapler’s age (46), acumen and remarkable conditioning, however, more pennant and World Series opportunities beckon.
Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta where he continues to teach courses in American 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.