Jewish Baseball Players: Rounding the bases to Israel: Ian Kinsler’s aliyah

Bill Simons

July 12, 2021, was a terrible night for a baseball game in Pomona, NY. Despite a two-hour rain delay, flood warnings and a soggy field, the exhibition game between the New York Boulders of the independent Frontier League and the Olympic-bound Team Israel finally proceeded. A rag-tag squad, composed of former minor and major league journeymen augmented by those who had played at lesser levels, Team Israel, uniformed in blue shirts with “Israel” emblazoned on their fronts in white letters, defeated the Boulders 7-1 before departing for a nocturnal bus ride to another pre-Olympic exhibition game. Team Israel’s second baseman appeared beset by physical discomfort, frequently stretching and employing a jerking motion to straighten his body. What had led a physically challenged Ian Kinsler, at age 39, two years after ending his stellar Major League Baseball career, to don a Team Israel uniform on this rainy night in Pomona?

Possibly a future Hall of Fame inductee, Kinsler is one of the best MLB second basemen of the past generation. Appearing in three World Series, he earned a coveted championship ring with the 2018 Red Sox. Only Buddy Myer – who led the American League with a .349 batting average batting average in 1935 and recorded a .303 BA across 17 seasons (Washington Senators 1925-27 and 1929-41; and Boston Red Sox 1927-18) – challenges Kinsler for the all-time Jewish all-star second baseman designation. Both men were superb defensive second basemen. Although Myer consistently registered a higher batting average, Kinsler trumps Myer, who connected for only 38 home runs in 7038 at bats, as a slugger. 

Over 14 seasons (Texas Rangers 2006-13; Detroit Tigers 2014-17; Los Angeles Angels 2018; Boston Red Sox 2018; and San Diego Padres 2019), Kinsler belted 257 home runs, an impressive total for a middle infielder. Late career declension brought his lifetime batting average down to .269. Kinsler’s 1999 base hits included 416 doubles. With baggy pants pulled up to his knees, he scored 1243 runs, notched 909 RBIs and accumulated 243 stolen bases. Possessing power and speed, the 6-foot, 200-pound Kinsler numbers among the 13 players in MLB history to have both 30 or more home runs and stolen bases in the same season more than once. 

A four-time All-Star selection, Kinser won two Gold Gloves for his outstanding defensive play. Deft on double plays, he had outstanding range in the field. Ending his career with a .981 fielding average, Kinsler accounted for 3397 putouts and 5219 assists. 

Ian’s parents, Kathy and Howard, loom large in his consciousness. Their support – embracing Ian’s wife Tess and children Rian and Jack – have provided a constant through the years. As a little boy in Arizona, Ian suffered from severe asthma: “That was tough when I was younger. I woke up a lot and couldn’t breathe and had to go to the hospital in the middle of the night.” With the assistance of an atomizer and inhaler, Ian learned to live fully and confidently. 

Baseball provided ballast nearly from the beginning. A photograph shows Ian as a toddler, attired only in diaper and sneakers, swinging a plastic bat at an incoming pitch with Kathy behind him in catcher’s crouch. In contrast to his easy-going mother, Ian’s father, a tough Jew, was intense. From Ian’s preschool days through college years, Howard pitched and hit endless ground balls to him. Frequently Ian’s coach on youth teams, Howard, a prison warden, expected his son to do things the right way. “One time,” Ian remembers, “[my father] pulled me off the field because he thought I was rolling my eyes at him.” Ian learned that hard work was the way to silence the doubters. Calling Howard his role model, Ian asserts, “No one has impacted my life the way my dad has.” 

An interfaith couple, neither the Catholic Kathy and nor the Jewish Howard exposed Ian or his younger sister Tori to much formal religious observance save for a few holidays. Ian did not have a bar mitzvah. Nonetheless, over time Ian’s Jewish consciousness deepened: “[M]y father identifies himself as Jewish. And I do, too.”

Kinsler played for the gold medal Team USA in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. Increasingly, however, he reflected on the voices of young fans calling out, “Hey, Ian! I’m Jewish, too!” He decided to join Team Israel for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, which due to COVID was delayed until 2021. 

To play for Team Israel, Kinsler needed to go through the demanding process of obtaining dual U.S.-Israel citizenship, requiring research, documentation and on-site presence. He reported “diving into my family tree” with Howard’s assistance, a process that yielded discoveries for father and son. Benjamin and Rose Kunstlich, Ian’s paternal great-grandparents, fled Jewish persecution in Nazi Germany, finding refuge in the United States. In January 2020, Ian found his visit to Yad Vashem-The World Holocaust Remembrance Center Jerusalem “very emotional.”

With Kinsler at second base, Team Israel finished a disappointing fifth out of the six national baseball teams competing for Olympic medals in 2021. However, that ranking doesn’t capture the pride that Team Israel felt and generated – or its future potential. 

The 2021 Olympic competition ended Kinsler’s playing career. Despite cervical spinal fusion, back and leg pain continued. Disadvantaged by physical maladies, Kinsler hit only .222 in the Olympics. However, his connection to Team Israel is just beginning. Named Team Israel manager in June 2022, Kinsler was a torch bearer at the opening ceremonies of the Summer 2022 Maccabiah Games, the Jewish Olympics. 

Kinsler faces challenges. His previous managerial experience is limited to the last game of the Detroit Tigers’ 2017 season. With Team Israel comprised primarily of American Jews who obtained dual citizenship, Kinsler needs to grow Israeli baseball. 

However, under Kinsler, Team Israel looks strong for the March 2023 World Baseball Classic. Twelve active major leaguers have signaled their commitment play for Team Israel. Carrying Howard’s legacy, Ian remains focused and determined. With a combination of puckish humor and resolve, Kinsler assumed his batting stance on a Jerusalem street, employing an oversize shofar as a bat. 

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.