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Elli Wohlgelernter

The legend of Jacob Steinmetz

Jacob Steinmetz, three hours after striking out Manny Machado. (elli wohlgelernter)
Jacob Steinmetz, three hours after striking out Manny Machado. (elli wohlgelernter)

When a 19-year-old Modern Orthodox pitcher from a Long Island yeshiva struck out Manny Machado at the World Baseball Classic, a childhood dream was fulfilled. Mine.

MIAMI (March 14, 2023) – Team Israel pitcher Jacob Steinmetz stands on the mound at loanDepot Park in downtown Miami, staring in at the batter in the bottom of the first inning of Game Three of the World Baseball Classic.

His focus is 30-year-old Manny Machado, third baseman for the San Diego Padres, who is playing here at the WBC for Team Dominican Republic. Machado is the fifth-ranked player in all of baseball on MLB Network’s Top 100 list, No. 5 on Yahoo Sports, and No. 4 on ESPN – an absolute stud.

Jacob is 19 years old, the baby by three years on Team Israel’s roster. Two batters earlier, he became the fourth-youngest pitcher ever to start a game at the WBC. He, too, is a stud, except nobody knows it.

Jacob is not supposed to be here. When he was named to the roster in February, he was considered an add-on, filling out the list and just along for the ride. He was not expected to see any action, as was the case with Major Leaguer Dean Kremer on the 2017 WBC team. The young ones are brought along when they are starting their careers to give them a taste of the bright lights, to see the elite on display. Show them what Broadway is like.

But when Manager Ian Kinsler decided to pitch Jacob four days prior in an exhibition match against the Washington Nationals during spring training, Jacob did great, which is how he suddenly finds himself staring down Manny Machado, with 27,813 at the ballpark and millions across Planet Baseball staring in as well.

Machado was a phenom from the beginning of his career, debuting in the majors 34 days after turning 20. It has been a nonstop celebrity ride ever since, as a six-time All-Star and five times in the top 10 voting for MVP.

And here he is standing in against a pisher, a kid so young he was born after 9/11 – and you cannot get much younger than that in the adult world. All Jacob has played professionally so far is 12 games of rookie ball in the Arizona Complex League, the lowest rung on the minor-league ladder. His numbers weren’t great, but pitching lines in rookie ball don’t mean much after only 12 games.

Jacob stays in the moment, and it is incomprehensible: how does a raw 19-year-old have the moxie, the chops, the steady nerves to try to shut down an 11-year veteran at the peak of his practically guaranteed Hall of Fame career?

Not that the task is impossible; young pitchers sometimes perform majestically on the biggest stage their first time out. For the record, the youngest pitcher ever to win a World Series game is Jim Palmer, who was nine days short of his 21st birthday when he won Game 2 of the 1966 World Series against Sandy (Do we need to say his last name?), in what would be the final game of the now 87-year-old’s Hall of Fame career.

Yes, this is not the Word Series. But the World Baseball Classic – the World Cup of baseball – has become the international version of the Fall Classic, played by the best baseball countries in the world at the highest level. It is one country’s All-Star team against another country’s All-Star team, the rosters of the 10 best countries filled out with top-ranked Major Leaguers.

Twenty countries competed at the Classic last month, including Israel. By any metric, it was the most successful of the five WBCs: a record average audience of 5.2 million viewers in the U.S. watched the final, while 42.4% of households in Japan tuned in – at 8:00 o’clock on a Wednesday morning. It ended with a historic baseball highlight: Shohei Ohtani, playing for his native Japan, striking out his L.A. Angels teammate Mike Trout to defeat Team USA, 3-2, for the right to be called “Baseball World Champions.”

The week earlier was the opening of pool play. In addition to Jacob’s story, the newsworthy episode for Israel was the day before, Game 2, in which Israel was no-hit, indeed, had a perfect game thrown against it.

* * * *

Looking to wash out the bad taste, Jacob starts Game Three facing Juan Soto, another child-prodigy superstar who debuted in 2018 at age 19. He leads off with a double on a 3-2 pitch.

Julio Rodriguez – who came up last season at age 21 and promptly became an All-Star, then won Rookie of the Year, and finished seventh in MVP voting – grounds out to first.

Up steps Manny, 11 years and 13 days Jacob’s senior.

The first pitch is a 94.8 mph four-seam fastball. Manny has seen faster. He fouls it off. The second pitch is a 94.7 mph four-seam fastball. Manny fouls it off.

“The kid is trying to blow his heat by me, is he now,” Manny must be thinking. “OK, son, come on, bring it one more time.”

Only Jacob does not bite. He has Manny perfectly set up to think that, to expect the sizzler a third time. But Jacob throws the next pitch as an 85.3 mph cutter. Manny swings from the heels, rotating his rock-solid 6’-3”, 218-pound hulk of a body. He whiffs. Machado has struck out. On three pitches. Cue Casey at the Bat.

Jacob is not done.

The Dominican lineup is stacked with stars – the D.R. was ranked no lower than third on almost every pre-tournament betting site – but Jacob does not flinch. Taking the signs from catcher C.J. Stubbs – though not unquestionably; twice he shakes him off – Jacob goes through the lineup once on 38 pitches over an inning and two-thirds. He gives up two hits and two walks and induces four swings and misses. Three of the five outs are strikeouts: Mr. Manny, reigning World Series MVP Jeremy Peña, and two-time All-Star Gary Sanchez. Looking.

The next time Manny comes to bat, in the third inning against a different pitcher, he hits a home run 437 feet at 110.8 mph. Ferocious.

After the game, Israel’s clubhouse manager brought a game ball to the Dominican locker room to ask if Machado would sign it for Jacob. Back comes not just the autograph but an inscription: “Great pitch. Keep working. The sky’s the limit.”

Class, thy name is Manny Machado.

Jacob gets tagged with the loss, but his dandy pitching line reads:

IP H R ER BB K HR PC-ST ERA
1.2 2 1 1 2 3 0 38-19 5.40

But how? How does Yaakov Meir Steinmetz, an Orthodox Jewish yeshiva kid from Woodmere, Long Island, less than two years removed from the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns & Rockaway high school (graduating with a 3.80 GPA), have the composure, the calm, the self-assuredness to maintain his center of gravity and to stare down a generational talent?

“I don’t know,” he tells me six days later. “I don’t really try to think about it much, I guess. I mean, I don’t listen much to outside noise.

“I just always have been calm and been able to keep my cool, not getting nervous in big moments, which I think is a lucky thing to have going forward. For me, I was more excited that I was able to get that opportunity.”

Jacob said he did not feel edgy facing Soto or Machado.

“I wasn’t nervous for either – I’d say I was more nervous for Soto, maybe, just because it was the first one. I don’t know if it was necessarily because of the person up there.”

Is that the answer? He remains calm because he can keep his cool, concentrate on the work, throw strikes, ignore the hoopla?

The moment is not lost on his teammates and coaches.

“On a stage like that, I think there’s a little ‘fight or flight’ going in, and he’s got the fight,” says third base coach Blake Gailen, who played on Israel’s 2017 WBC and 2021 Olympic teams. “Pretty impressive to watch. I think he definitely has a future. Poise like that can’t be taught.”

For pitcher Jake Fishman, also a veteran of Israel’s 2017 WBC and Olympic teams who last season threw his first 11 innings in the Major Leagues, the memory of precisely what he was thinking watching strike three was still fresh in his mind the following afternoon.

“‘That’s nassssty’,” he said, rolling out a couple of extra s’s while shaking his head, remembering the disbelief he felt watching it live. “He threw him a cutter that started middle, kind of finished just off at the edge of the plate – and just the swing [Manny] took on it! I said to myself, ‘That’s nasty.’ Yeah.”

In his final news conference of the tournament, Manager Kinsler was asked for the highlight of his WBC.

“Jacob Steinmetz,” he said without pause. I asked him why. “For a young player, an inexperienced player, to come into this environment and control his emotions, control himself, and fill up the strike zone, was pretty impressive.”

Dan Rootenberg, longtime Team Israel trainer whose association with baseball and Israel goes back to the Israel Baseball League in 2007, could not say what makes Steinmetz confident, “but he clearly has it. He clearly has something special at a young age. You can see it. Well beyond his years. He went through that lineup as if he’d been there before. Just super impressive.”

Brad Ausmus, an 18-year Major League veteran who was Team Israel’s manager in 2012, said poise like that is inborn.

“Sometimes it’s built into your DNA, and sometimes you have to learn it,” said the team’s bench coach. “It seems like it might be built into his DNA a little bit.”

Alex Jacobs, a longtime scout for major league teams and Team Israel, for which he is a veteran staff member, offered the highest praise.

“Balls of steel,” Jacobs said. “Goes out there, 19 years old, competes against a Dominican lineup – half of whom are future Hall of Famers – and executes his pitches. Made them look bad.”

Jacob had been working toward this for a long time, years dedicated to getting bigger and throwing faster, and the good fortune of being locked down during corona when he used the time to work out and bulk up.

Nate Fish, Israel’s bullpen coach, a baseball lifer, and a veteran of everything Israel and baseball, including the IBL, knows how long Jacob’s journey has been. In 2013, Fish managed the USA Juniors boys’ baseball team at the Macabbiah Games. Elliot Steinmetz, Jacob’s father – the celebrated basketball coach of Yeshiva University – was on the coaching staff of the USA basketball team. The two coaches got friendly.

“After the Maccabiah, Elliot occasionally would update me about his son Jacob, who at that point was 10-11 years old,” Fish said. “I went and saw Jacob pitch at a youth tournament; he was probably 12 by then. Or maybe even 13 – and he was not the best guy on the team! There was this other kid…

“Jacob was sort of this white kid on a mostly Spanish-speaking travel youth baseball team. But his dad would just keep sending me videos: ‘Hey, he’s 5’-10” now.’ ‘He’s six feet now.’ ‘He’s throwing 83 now.’ ‘Here’s a video from the cage – he’s throwing 88 now.’ ‘Hey, he’s 6’2” now.’ ‘Hey, he’s 6’5”; he’s throwing 95 now.’ And then he gets drafted in the third round by the Diamondbacks.”

It was July 13, 2021, and the Arizona Diamondbacks selected 17-year-old Jacob with the 77th pick of the amateur draft, a month after he graduated from high school. It was a watershed pick: Jacob became the *first practicing Orthodox Jew drafted to play organized baseball, dating back to the first draft in 1965.

*NOTE: Some media sites describe Steinmetz as “the first known Orthodox Jewish baseball player to get drafted.” Uhhhhh… no. There is no qualifier in that sentence because there is no “unknown” Orthodox Jew in the history of Jews in baseball. Any ballplayer who eats strictly kosher every meal, walks to the stadium on Shabbat (Jacob once hiked five miles to a ballpark in New Jersey – on the day he was pitching), doesn’t turn on lights, doesn’t check his cellphone for 25 hours, never rides a train, plane, car, bus, or bicycle, stays at the stadium on Saturday until after Shabbos and then rides back to his hotel – anyone doing all that would have been known, whether he played in 2022 or 1922 (except for checking his phone). It would have been written about by the general media and by the Jewish media and mentioned in every book ever written about Jews in baseball (of which more books have been written than there have been Jewish players, goes the old saw). He’s not the first “known.” There was none before him. Jacob is the first, not just drafted, but ever to play.

If we’re already talking about firsts, there is also the question of Israeli firsts to get out of the way. Dean Kremer, US-born son of Sabras, was the first Israeli to be drafted by an MLB club (L.A. Dodgers in 2016, 14th round, No. 431), but he was not the first Israeli to play in the majors. That distinction goes to just-retired veteran catcher Ryan Lavarnway, a passport-carrying Israeli who became a citizen to play in the Olympics. Alon Leichman is the first native Israeli to appear on a Major League roster, as a first-year assistant pitching coach for the Cincinnati Reds this season. And there is Jacob Steinmetz, the first professional player to keep the baseline mitzvot of halachic (ritual law) Judaism.

The tricky part is the broad and specific definition of “halachic,” the legal basis for Orthodox Jewry. There are those who are stricter and those who are more lenient in the observance and practice of Halacha, with shades of gray across the religious spectrum. But there is an accepted baseline.

Of course, Haredi Orthodox Jews universally condemn it, but then, that community doesn’t play baseball (except for Danny Saunders in The Chosen).

The Modern Orthodox brand of Judaism, which does play ball, tries to fulfill the daily obligations of praying, putting on tefillin (phylacteries), reciting blessings before eating anything, washing hands before eating bread, saying grace after meals afterward, etc., etc., etc. Few do everything. But every Jew, of any stripe, has his g’vul, his border, his red line.

Some pray once a day. The more religious will pray three times a day, the more religious than that will pray three times a day with a minyan, a quorum of 10. Some will wear tzitzit daily. Some from time to time. Most will put on tefillin every day. We all try our best but also know we fall short of perfection.

Most Jews who follow halachic Judaism will say there is no technical violation of Halacha to pitch on Shabbos. What is called into question is whether pitching violates what is considered within “the spirit of Shabbos” – Shabbasdik in Yiddish – which is open to interpretation.

On the issue of Jacob playing baseball, the Steinmetz family long ago reached a modus operandi: Jacob must walk to the field, and once he gets there, he can pitch.

Jacob doesn’t remember the origin of the family decision on when and where the line was drawn.

“I was super young when we started [playing ball], so it was just something that I always did. I guess we were more of the belief that there’s nothing halachically wrong with it.

“People could say that it doesn’t follow in the spirit. Some people are OK with it, some aren’t.”

And to those who are not OK with it?

“To each their own.”

There is an even higher perspective: some look at the struggles and challenges Jacob must go through to pitch on Shabbos – and his teaching, by example, the holiness of the Sabbath Day as declared in the Bible – as a Kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of the [Divine] Name. Acting in such a way honors the Jewish Nation and its relationship with God. Indeed, it is the highest compliment a God-fearing, Halacha-practicing Jew can be given. Sometimes people point out to Jacob that what he is doing is precisely that – which is a heavy trip to lay on a 19-year-old.

“I don’t think about it every day, but when it comes up, I do realize it,” he said quietly.

For Jacob’s teammates, it is less about God than about the practical do’s and don’ts of Orthodox Judaism.

“At the beginning, it was mostly about kosher food and what I can’t use on the Sabbath – and why not,” Jacob said. “The thing that people responded to most was probably no phones and no cars. They would just be like, ‘What?? How you do that?’ But everyone’s super-respectful about it.”

Arizona wasn’t worried about caring for Steinmetz’s religious needs when they drafted him. According to scout Jacobs, the senior vice president and assistant general manager of the Diamondbacks, Amiel Sawdaye, is a practicing Jew – “I believe he’s at least Conservative” – who explained the inside baseball of kosher to the front office on what needed to be done, and assured them that it would not be a problem.

“In fact,” Jacobs said, “they called his agent right before they were going to draft him and said, ‘Listen, we’re going to accommodate everything you could possibly need to make this as comfortable as possible for you so that you can be set up for success.”

And so they have. Whereas once upon a time, Jacob had to pack his mom’s sandwiches in a cooler bag when traveling to tournaments, frozen packages will now be shipped to the team from a catering company once a week to wherever Jacob is playing.

Swell. One long diet of airline food. But not to worry about his health: it is a guarantee that the Jewish community in every city where he plays will bring him food, invite him for Shabbos, and send him pictures of their lovely, marriage-age daughters. That is a tradition going back to the beginning of baseball. And such a catch! A sweet boyish face under a thick shock of auburn hair, with a winsome smile that is disarming and charming. Oh, don’t worry, he’ll get offers.

* * * * *

Sitting in the press box watching Jacob strike out Machado, I am suddenly taken back to my childhood in the 1960s, 12 years old, dreaming about the big leagues.

It is the same fantasy for every kid who’s nuts about sports. Mine was: well, if I’m the third-best seventh grader playing in the schoolyard, and if I keep working at it and improve, believe I can get better, become great – why, the Major Leagues will be begging me to come play, would have to agree that I would not pitch on Shabbos and holidays. That my father could catch my best fastball barehanded didn’t stop me from dreaming.

That’s the way all sports-minded seventh graders think.

Except if you’re an Orthodox Jew.

Then it was… no. There is no path to the Bigs. Sure, if you’re Sandy, you can ask off for Yom Kippur, as he did in 1965, or Hank Greenberg, who did it in 1934. But that’s it. One day a year. Shabbos comes every week, and your job is to pitch regularly in a rotation, which could be any day. No matter how good I got – if I was better than Koufax – I’d still never be good enough to take off Shabbos. It is the very essence of the job description: show up every fourth day (yes, a long time ago) and step up on the mound. You can’t do that? You can’t get the job.

It was a crushing thought. I never felt that my brand of Judaism impeded my success in society. Yes, accommodation and adjustments would have to be made, like leaving early enough on Friday winter afternoons to make it home before sundown. But it could be done.

Except in sports. There are too many impediments. There is always travel to worry about, and food – and weekends! Friday nights and Saturday afternoons were and are the prime time for sports, and Shabbos – and Saturday nights in the summer – would always get in the way.

Back then, Modern Orthodoxy was stricter. It wasn’t considered possible. The only option was to abandon Orthodoxy, as Greenberg and others did. Not possible. For a believing Jewish kid, professional sports were an American dream too far.

Until now.

Here I was watching something different: not only a fellow Jew – I always feel connected to a Jewish athlete, in any sport – but one who grew up just like I did. We speak the same language, of mitzvot and halachic Judaism. I could even ask him a question I’ve never asked in more than 50 years of interviewing:

“So tell me, Jacob, what kind of sandwiches did you bring to Yankee Stadium as a kid during Hol Hamoed Pessach?”

“Matzah and cream cheese.”

We’re the same, Jacob and I, 50 years difference between us but no difference at all. He is me, standing on the mound doing what I always wanted to do, on the big stage, under the bright lights. I’m euphoric. My dream fulfilled.

* * * * *

Who knows where Jacob is headed. We all want to believe he’s going far, but professional sports are always a crapshoot, and drafting high school pitchers is an even bigger crapshoot. We know where we stand now: he is six foot six, has filled out to 230 pounds, and his fastball whispers 97 mph.

“He’s a really, really promising player,” says Jacobs, who was with the Diamondbacks that draft day in 2021 when they picked Steinmetz. If all goes well, the path is clear.

“Can I see him in the majors? Absolutely,” he said. “Legit – absolutely I can see Jacob Steinmetz playing in the Major Leagues. It’s a long process. He’s gonna be in A (league) ball this year, Double AA next year, Triple AAA the year after. So between three and four years, hopefully sooner, depending on how he performs… but Jacob Steinmetz has legitimate big-league tools and has a chance to impact the Major Leagues. Absolutely.”

Should they come to write the legend of Jacob Steinmetz one day, it will start here, at loanDepot Park in Miami, with a strikeout of Manny Machado. How could it not? Nineteen-year-olds don’t strike out superstars with the whole world watching.

“I’m so happy for this kid because he’s gonna remember that for the rest of his life, and Manny Machado won’t,” said coach Gailen.

Pitcher Joey Wagman, another veteran of the 2017 WBC and Olympic Israeli teams, will never forget the moment. “I mean, to see that out of a 19-year-old is unbelievable. I want his autograph before we get out of here.”

Godspeed, Jacob.

About the Author
Elli Wohlgelernter has been a journalist for 50+ years in America and Israel. Originally from New York, he has lived in Israel for over 30 years and is the excited zeidy to three boys.
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