Can Ryan Braun Do Teshuvah (Repentance)?

An interview with the Detroit Tigers’ new manager Brad Ausmus about his Jewish heritage spread out over a half page in yesterday’s Detroit Free Press. The interview was an excerpt from the new book by Larry Ruttman, “American Jews and America’s Game: Voices of a Growing Legacy in Baseball”. Ruttman’s interview concludes with a prediction that Ausmus will one day become a manager of a Major League Baseball team and of course that prediction came true earlier this month when the Detroit Tigers announced his hiring.

In the two weeks since that announcement many people in Detroit — and outside of Detroit — have asked my opinion about the Jewishness of Brad Ausmus. That’s an easy answer, I explain, because his mother is Jewish and therefore he’s Jewish. However, that doesn’t seem to be enough for many people. They seem to be troubled by the fact that Ausmus isn’t the ideal Jewish character for Jewish baseball fans to be excited about. Growing up with a Protestant father, having a Christmas tree in the house each year, and never becoming a bar mitzvah bothers many who want to be excited about this new Jewish manager (it should be noted that Ausmus isn’t the only Jewish manager currently in Major League Baseball since Bob Melvin, the manager of the Oakland A’s, also has a Jewish mother and coincidentally was also a catcher at one point for the Detroit Tigers).

Brad Ausmus - Israel

Ausmus has been very candid about his Jewish background and like Ryan Braun he acknowledges that Judaism didn’t feature very prominently in his upbringing. In fact, both Ausmus and Braun fall very neatly into the category of Jewish American that many were surprised about in the recent Pew Research Center study. I have cynically explained to people that having Jewish baseball players in the Major Leagues and Jewish managers are statistical anomalies. After all, make up a very small percent of the U.S. population and when you factor in that many professional baseball players aren’t from the U.S., the chances of a Jewish professional player are very small. Therefore, we don’t have the luxury of choosing the type of Jewish player.

Yes, it would be easier to feel Jewish pride over a Jewish baseball player who plays like Hank Greenberg, refuses to play on Yom Kippur, attends a synagogue, practices a virtuous life off the field, and donates a portion of his salary to Israel and local Jewish causes. However, we have to take what we get. And that is why we should feel proud that Ausmus (and Bob Melvin) is a manager. He’s honest about who he is as it relates to his Jewish heritage, explaining, “I was not brought up in any religion, I wasn’t bar mitzvahed. I married a Catholic girl and have two daughters. Other than the holidays we spent with my grandparents, there really wasn’t much Jewish religion or Catholic-based religion in the household. I think my mom enjoyed Christmas more than anyone, because she didn’t have it as a kid growing up.”

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Detroit Tigers Hire Brad Ausmus, a Jewish Manager

I’m a big Detroit Tigers fan and have always been interested in Jewish baseball players in the Major Leagues. Therefore, the soon-to-be made announcement that the Detroit Tigers will hire Brad Ausmus to be their next manager is exciting news. Ausmus, who is Jewish and once played for the Detroit Tigers, is currently the manager for Israel’s World Baseball Classic team.
Brad Ausmus played for the Detroit Tigers in 1996 and 1999-2000.

The hiring of Brad Ausmus marks the first time the Detroit Tigers will have a Jewish manager*. As soon as Jim Leyland made his resignation public last month, Brad Ausmus’ name immediately was mentioned on the short list of potential replacements for Leyland, who took the Tigers to the World Series twice during his eight years with the team. Last year, Ausmus interviewed with the Red Sox for their manager position and turned down an opportunity to interview with the Astros for their manager position.

Brad Ausmus wearing a yarmulke and tefillin at the Kotel in Jerusalem while manager of Israel’s World Baseball Classic team.

Ausmus spent 18 seasons in Major League Baseball as a catcher for the Padres, Tigers, Astros and Dodgers. He won the Gold Glove Award three times and made the All Star team in 1999. In 2007 Ausmus won the Darryl Kile Award “for integrity and courage.” Ausmus was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2004. Now that he’ll be back in Detroit, I will be certain to bring up his name as a candidate for the Michigan Jewish Sports Foundation’s Hall of Fame, of which I’m a voting member.

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Case of Mistaken Identity for Good

In the past decade Google’s email application Gmail has grown in popularity. With around half a billion active Gmail email accounts, it has become the free email provider of choice for most people. However, with such a popular email application like Gmail, one of the inherent problems is that of mistaken identity. That is, it is very easy to send an email to the wrong person and that can often have interesting results.

Such was the case recently with an invitation for a retreat for Jewish leaders. In 2005 Gary Rosenblatt, the editor and publisher of The Jewish Week, created an annual conference called The Conversation. Each year Gary invites some 50 participants (a cross-section of artists, rabbis, entrepreneurs, educators, philanthropists, activists and communal leaders) who converge on the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center outside of Baltimore, to discuss the issues of day in an Open Space forum.

Rabbi David Ingber of Romemu

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The Jewish Sports Journalist – Mitch Albom’s Play About Ernie Harwell

I finally got around to seeing the play “Ernie” last week. The play focuses on the life of the late Detroit Tigers radio broadcaster Ernie Harwell, who in Detroit is just as legendary a figure as the greats who actually played the game like Greenberg and Kaline. The play was as good as the reviews, but as I exited the theater my mind focused less on the life of Ernie Harwell and more on the life of the writer of the play, Mitch Albom.

It has often been said that a Jewish boy has a better chance of owning a professional sports team than playing on one. And with the dearth of Jewish pro athletes and the disproportionate amount of Jewish owned teams, that might be true. But, lately I’ve been thinking about all the Jewish guys who at some point in their lives determined that they’d rather write and talk about their favorite sports than play them.

I first started reading Mitch Albom’s sports columns when he arrived in Detroit in 1985 to write for the Detroit Free Press. As a young boy I found his columns masterful. Albom didn’t just cover my beloved local Detroit sports teams and their athletes; his prose told the hidden stories of the athletes and what made watching these games such a magical experience.

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Jewish History Through Baseball

I was recently asked to review Irwin Cohen’s new book, Jewish History in the Time of Baseball’s Jews: Life On Both Sides of the Ocean, for the Michigan Jewish Historical Society’s upcoming annual journal. Cohen, who writes for the Jewish Press, is a baseball maven and a history buff who has chronicled Detroit’s Jewish history and also worked for a time in the front office of the Detroit Tigers organization. I immediately agreed to write the review and an inscribed copy of the book arrived at my office a few days later.
Holocaust Memorial Center director Stephen Goldman addresses members of the Detroit Tigers organization

As I sat down to read Cohen’s book, which focuses on both baseball history and modern Jewish history with a special emphasis on the Holocaust, I thought back to this past winter when members of the Detroit Tigers coaching staff and front office were invited to the Holocaust Memorial Center here in Detroit, the country’s first free-standing Holocaust memorial museum. The HMC was included for a site visit on the Detroit Tigers Winter Caravan, a week-long publicity tour to get local fans in Michigan excited for the upcoming season. 
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The Jewish Infatuation with Jewish Baseball Players

About a month ago, just before Opening Day of the 2013 Major League Baseball season, I received an email from a newspaper reporter who asked if I had time available to discuss Jewish baseball players. I had recently read a fascinating review of John Rosengren’s new Hank Greenberg book in the Wall Street Journal and the relationship between baseball and Judaism was very much on my mind. So naturally I agreed to talk with the reporter. In his email, Charley Honey (love that name!) of the Grand Rapids Press wrote:

I’m working on a column about Hank Greenberg, a boyhood hero of my late father, who grew up in Detroit. A new bio of Hank, by John Rosengren, deals a lot with the challenges he faced as the first Jewish baseball star in the Bigs. I would like to talk with you about your perspective on Greenberg’s impact on sports and culture, and how baseball has served as an entree into American life for racial and religious minorities.

Always being on the lookout for tie-ins between the greatest game and the world of faith, I thought Opening Day and this new bio seemed like a good opportunity. I realize rabbis like you are very busy this Passover week, but if you could carve out half an hour or so to talk to me within the next few days I’d love the chance. My column is due Tuesday morning. Of course, I will not be available after 4 p.m. Monday. 🙂

Charley and I had a great conversation that lasted well over an hour. I explained that there is a certain fetish we Jews have with Jewish baseball players. As Joseph Epstein wrote in his WSJ review of Rosengren’s book, it’s difficult for most baseball fans to come up with a list of Methodist, Baptist or Catholic Major League ballplayers, but for some reason we can all create our lineup of the best Jewish ballplayers who ever played the game. There’s a certain pride that we Jews feel for our heroes like Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax.

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Wishing Delmon Young Well in Philly

When the news first broke last April that Detroit Tigers outfielder Delmon Young had been arrested in New York City for making an anti-Jewish slur following a night of drinking, I wrote about my disappointment in him on this blog. I explained that, after hearing this news, it would be difficult for me to cheer for him even though he would continue to play for my beloved, hometown Detroit Tigers. In an op-ed for the Huffington Post, I wrote, “My oldest son is 8. In the past year he has become a die-hard Detroit Tigers fan… How am I supposed to explain to my son that Delmon Young was drunk, got into a street fight, yelled an anti-Semitic slur and got arrested?”

Delmon Young signs with Phillies - Rabbi Jason Miller

After reading my words in the Huffington Post, Delmon Young’s agent Joel Wolfe sent me an email explaining that “Del is a special kid, and nothing like the animal that the NY media portrayed him to be.” About a month later I was at the same dinner as Delmon’s other agent, Arn Tellem of Wasserman Media Group. We spoke for a while about Delmon, and again I was told that he’s a special kid who just needs the right mentoring to stay on the path to success. I took those words to heart and decided to try and give Delmon the benefit of the doubt for the rest of the season, but it wasn’t easy. Whenever he came up to bat I felt a little uneasy and would picture the scene on the sidewalk in front of his NYC hotel. I didn’t really think he was an anti-Semite and I wanted to just forget about the whole incident, but it was difficult.

Everyone in Detroit knew that Delmon would be released by the Tigers organization at the end of the season, regardless of his postseason performance. That would prove to be accurate. Even though Delmon, as the designated hitter, batted better than his teammates in the American League Championship Series against the Yankees and won the ALCS MVP award (he was called a “class act” during the award presentation by Jackie Autry), he was still sent packing. I was happy to see him go, but I was also ready to forgive.

In Judaism, we prioritize the concept of teshuva — repentance. Delmon Young made a costly mistake back in April, but he is not an avowed anti-Semite. He was drinking too much and let his emotions get the better of him. At the end of the day, I’m sure he’s the good kid that his agents (both Jewish) say he is. And now, he’s found a new home with the Philadelphia Phillies and I wish him well (unless the Tigers are facing the Phillies in the World Series of course!).

Delmon’s ultimate punishment was not the suspension or the ten days of community service he was forced to perform, but the permanent reminder of the incident. Like Jean Valjean, the protagonist of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, Delmon Young will carry a negative label with him for the rest of his career and likely for the rest of his life. His signing with the Phillies this week was proof of that. The acquisition of a player like Delmon Young should have warranted a mere mention in sports articles about recent off-season transactions, not entire commentaries.

CBS Sports broke the story that the General Manager of the Phillies, Ruben Amaro, is Jewish and was unsure about signing Delmon at first. According to the article, before Amaro agreed to the $750,000 guaranteed deal (down from the $6.75 million he made with the Tigers last year), he contacted one of my colleagues (Rabbi Josh Bennett), who had several conversations with Delmon last year following the incident. Amaro also spoke with local Philly rabbis and with someone at the Philadelphia Anti Defamation League. I’m quite certain that would mark the first time a baseball GM felt the need to run a potential player contract by the Jewish community before agreeing to the deal. Amaro spoke with CBS Sports’ John Heyman by phone:

“I certainly feel comfortable with the due diligence we put together. But it’s really up to Delmon to prove us right. I’m part Jewish, so it’s a concern to me,” said Amaro, whose mother is Jewish.
Ultimately, Amaro concluded that Young shouldn’t be kept from employment with them based on one incident, no matter how ugly. “He’s not an anti-Semite. He made a mistake,” Amaro said. “Hopefully, he can move on from that.”

So, in recognition of the importance of repentance and judging others with the benefit of the doubt, I wish Delmon Young the best in Philadelphia. I don’t suspect he will find himself getting in trouble again since I wholeheartedly believe he learned his lesson well. I have my doubts about how well he’ll perform in right-field for the Phillies (his defensive skills were inadequate in Detroit), but I think he will mature into the good person that those close to him say he is. And while the Detroit chapter of the Delmon Young saga is now closed, I will continue to follow his career and pray that he does whatever he needs to do in order to stay on the right moral path during his playing years and beyond. Good luck Delmon!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

White Sox Move Yom Kippur Game for Fans, Youkilis

As an avid Detroit Tigers fan it’s difficult to root for Kevin Youkilis and the Chicago White Sox. However, the team’s recent decision to reschedule an upcoming night game to earlier that afternoon out of respect for Yom Kippur is worthy of praise.

I’ve written numerous times on this blog about Jewish Major League Baseball players whose decisions of whether or not to play on Yom Kippur (known as “the Sandy Koufax question”) become fodder for debate and discussion. Kevin Youkilis explained his feelings on playing on the Jewish day of atonement in a recent article in Yahoo! Sports after his team rearranged its schedule to accommodate Jewish fans as well as their star third baseman.

“You have to stick with your beliefs,” Youkilis said. “You can’t worry about people who aren’t influential in your life who say things or tell you you’re wrong. I know Shawn Green had a tough time with it. It just depends upon the community. In Boston they probably don’t even care. They’d want you to play.”

The White Sox did something earlier this week that many baseball teams had previously claimed was impossible based on the rigidity of Major League Baseball over its schedule. (The Yankees and Red Sox moved a game from evening to afternoon to accommodate the Jewish fans of both teams in 2009.) The White Sox changed the start time for its game on Tuesday, September 25 game against the Cleveland Indians from 7:10 to 1:10, citing courtesy for the team’s Jewish fans who will observe Yom Kippur beginning at nightfall. Even if the stated reason was for the fans, the team’s decision was a relief to Youkilis who no longer had to make the difficult decision on whether he would play that night. Last year, Youkilis responded to “the Sandy Koufax question” in the Jewish Journal by saying that there are “plenty of people with strong feelings on each side. It wouldn’t be an easy choice.”

It seems like Jewish baseball players face the Yom Kippur dilemma each year, but it’s only the more popular players in predominantly Jewish cities who are discussed. In recent years in addition to Youkilis, Ryan Braun (who’s father is Jewish and is known as the “Hebrew Hammer”), Gabe Kapler and Shawn Green have responded to the Yom Kippur question by sitting out games in some years and playing in other years. Yom Kippur doesn’t pose the same dilemma to Jewish pitchers like Scott Feldman of the Texas Rangers or Jason Marquis of the San Diego Padres who can be rescheduled in the starting rotation or simply not used in relief during that particular game.

Interestingly, this dilemma for baseball players has been named “The Sandy Koufax question” after Koufax sat the first game of the World Series in 1965. However, Koufax pitched in the second game instead so it wasn’t the same sacrifice as Hank Greenberg who refused to play baseball on Yom Kippur in 1934, even though the Detroit Tigers were in the middle of a pennant race.

A funny story is often told about that Dodgers World Series game which had Don Drysdale pitching in Game 1 in place of Koufax. Drysdale gave up seven runs in 2 2/3 innings and when the manager came to pull him from the game, Drysdale deadpanned, “I bet right now you wish I was Jewish, too!” Koufax went on to lose Game 2.

Some baseball players view the decision to play or not on Yom Kippur to be a personal choice, but not everyone agrees. In an article in the Forward a couple years ago Hank Greenberg’s granddaughter Melanie (Former MLB Deputy Commissioner Steve Greenberg’s daughter) wrote, “Heavy though the burden may be, I believe that Jewish players share the same obligation as my grandfather — to serve as representatives for their people. Admittedly, he lived in different times. Jewish athletes, however, still have the ability to affect their communities.”

At least this year the White Sox helped their star out and he didn’t have to make a decision. Youkilis has said that he will fast and attend synagogue this Yom Kippur.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Rabbi Autographs on Sports Balls

While I was in rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, I decided that I wanted a keepsake to remember the esteemed faculty. If it were high school, I suppose I could have asked my teachers to sign my yearbook. Since there were no year books around, I searched the house for something else to get autographed. A brand-new football caught my eye and with a white marker I began making my way around the Seminary in search of faculty members to put their John Hancock on my football. They were trilled to comply.

Prominent JTS faculty members like Chancellor Ismar Schorsch, Neil Gillman, Bill Lebeau, Burt Visotzky, Anne Lerner, Michael Greenbaum, Barry Holtz,  Aryeh Davidson, Stephen Geller, Robbie Harris, Raymond Scheindlin, Joe Lukinsky (of blessed memory), and Eduardo Rauch (of blessed memory). I placed the autographed football in a glass display case. When Purim rolled around I put it on display at the annual Purim Seudah with a note challenging, “Guess which professional team autographed this football.”

Little did I know that I didn’t have an original idea there. It turns out that a guy named Daniel Harris has been collecting autographs from famous rabbis for many decades. A recent article in Tablet, introduces us to Harris, who is the associate principal of Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Chicago. Harris explains that over time he outgrew his childhood role models and “realized he had exchanged players of physical brilliance for legends of spiritual grandeur—and that those were the heroes he wanted to recognize.” He goes so far as to claim that he’d take a baseball signed by a great rabbinic leader over one autographed by the great Babe Ruth.

Harris’s collection of rabbinicly autographed baseballs has grown recently and now includes ten baseballs from the leading Orthodox rabbis of our time including Rav Gedaliah Schwartz and Rabbi Berel Wein. Harris traded his signed Kenny Holtzman baseball to Rabbi Wein for his signature.

Autographed baseballs by prominent rabbis from Daniel Harris’s collection

Harris explained why he uses baseballs to collect these esteemed rabbis’ autographs. “Both baseball and, in a greater sense, Talmud, are full of nuance and great detail. Every time you enjoy learning a piece of Talmud you can come away with something new, as in baseball, where there is always some new play or game situation that you have never seen.”

I’m not looking to begin a collection of autographed baseballs from respected Seminary luminaries and well-known Conservative rabbis any time soon. However, I might just begin to collect personalized autographed baseballs from rock stars. Here’s my first in the collection from Vincent Damon Furnier, better known as Alice Cooper:

Alice Cooper autographed baseball


(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

D’var Torah: Prince Fielder, Inheritance & Fatherhood

I was emotionally moved as I watched Detroit Tigers’ slugger Prince Fielder accept the 2012 Home Run Derby award on Monday night in Kansas City with his two adorable sons proudly standing next to him. But it also struck me as sad that Prince’s father Cecil Fielder wasn’t in that photo op as well.

I still remember back in 1990 when Cecil Fielder (a Detroit Tigers All-Star 1st baseman like his son is today) was the favorite to win the All-Star Game Home Run Derby. Competing against the likes of Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey, Jr., Cecil failed to hit even one homer in the contest that night. This week, Prince Fielder became the first player ever to win the Home Run Derby in both leagues (he won in 2009 as a Milwaukee Brewer too).

There’s no question that Prince Fielder inherited the gift of hitting the long ball from his father. This week’s Torah Portion, Parshat Pinchas, is all about inheritance and succession. Moses was an impressive leader of the Jewish people in the desert as they made their journey to Israel. This week, however, we learn that Moses will not lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. Although he has worked tirelessly to be a great leader and inspirational figure, his career will end before the reward of entering the land with his people.

Cecil Fielder led the Detroit Tigers in the early 1990s, but didn’t succeed in taking his team all the way to the “Promised Land” of Major League Baseball — the World Series. Cecil Fielder’s numbers with the Tigers are impressive. On the last day of the Tigers’ season in 1990, Cecil hit his 50th and 51st home runs to become the 11th player in ML history to hit 50 homers in a season. But baseball is a team sport and while individual achievement is recorded into the annals of baseball history and celebrated, the ultimate reward is winning the World Series.

And that’s where inheritance and succession factor in. Moses wasn’t permitted the merit of taking his team, the Israelites, into the Promised Land. However, his inheritance was bequeathed to Joshua who would succeed Moses as the leader of the people. Joshua understood his role and he gave honor and respect to his predecessor. Without Moses there is no Joshua. That is how inheritance and succession work. Moses laid the groundwork and Joshua was able to complete the task.

I thought of the Moses-Joshua relationship and the Torah’s concept of inheritance and succession as I watched Prince Fielder hoist his Home Run Derby trophy high above his head. His sons flanked him on either side. His father was no where in sight. It is from his father that Prince has acquired the awesome ability to use a wooden bat and hit a small ball to distances surpassing 450 feet. Cecil wasn’t able to take his team into the Promised Land, but his progeny might be the leader to do it. Prince has that inheritance. He succeeds his father as the home run slugging first baseman who can lead his people to victory.

With Prince Fielder at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Phoenix in 2007.

Seeing Cecil Fielder proudly standing next to his son and two grandsons Tuesday night would have made that photo even better. But there’s a fractured relationship between the father and the son. No one knows for certain why Prince and Cecil don’t talk, but the dynamics of a father-son relationship can be complicated. Perhaps the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship are better documented, but they are no more challenging.

For Prince, it might have been difficult growing up as the son of the local baseball hero. For Cecil, it might be difficult watching his son succeed where he came up short in his own career. The strained relationship between Prince Fielder and his dad is rumored to be about money. After Cecil declared bankruptcy following a failed marriage, gambling debts, and poor real estate investment deals, there’s word that he took part of his son’s signing bonus with the Milwaukee Brewers. Whatever the case, life is too short to harp on such things. Reports indicate that Cecil might have taken $200,000 of his son’s $2.4 million signing bonus back in 2002. Prince Fielder’s current contract with the Detroit Tigers is for nine-years and a total of $214 million. That $200,000 a decade ago is meaningless today.

Earlier this year Cecil had some critical words to say about his son. “As a father, of course you’re proud of what your son’s been able to accomplish on the field, but as a father also you worry about how he is growing as a man, how — I want to say this correctly –how he is communicating with everybody that had something to do with how he got to where he is. And that part of my son, I think we’re all a little disappointed.”

After Prince signed with the Tigers this year, both Cecil and Prince have been quoted as saying the relationship has gotten a little better. And that’s good. As Mitch Albom wrote after Opening Day this past April:

Cecil Fielder always will be a part of Detroit sports history, just as his son now will make his own name in it. It does seem sad that the father watched the game alone in Atlanta, while the son played in Detroit. But that is between them. “I’ll get up there to see a game,” Cecil said before hanging up. “It’ll all work out. Just needs time.”

Indeed, it is between them. The father and the son. The succession of leadership and the inheritance of that big swing. I remain hopeful that both men will let bygones be bygones and move forward. Cecil’s pride should come from watching his son do what he was not able to in a Tigers’ uniform. And Prince’s respect and admiration for his father should come from an appreciation for the legacy that Cecil left as a Detroit Tiger and for the talent his father has bequeathed to him as his inheritance.

At the end of a McDonald’s commercial (below) featuring Cecil and Prince Fielder that aired in Detroit back in the 1990s, Prince looks up at his dad and apologizes for striking him out. Cecil looks down at his son with pride and says, “Oh, that’s okay son.” Maybe the two men will exchange similar words in the near future. So, while I wish Cecil was part of that awesome photo op on Tuesday night at the Home Run Derby, I’m willing to hold out to see the father celebrate with his son at a future trophy presentation. They deserve each other.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller