Throwing hard, armed with Jewish values

Move over, Sandy Koufax. You may be revered in the Jewish community for refusing to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series for the Los Angeles Dodgers because it fell on Yom Kippur, but let me tell you about some young athletes who don’t play on Shabbat or Jewish holidays, and not even on the day of the Israel parade. These kids are day school students whose schools compete in the Metropolitan Yeshiva High School Athletic League (MYHSAL). Except for the unaffiliated Abraham Joshua Heschel High School, all the members of the Yeshiva League are Modern Orthodox high schools, each with separate teams for boys and girls in such sports as basketball, volleyball, floor hockey, soccer and tennis. The story I want to tell, however, is about the boys’ baseball competition and two nail-biting games that might find their own place in Jewish athletic lore.

A note to readers: If you are smiling condescendingly now at the notion of yeshiva boys making baseball history, please keep reading.

Twelve high schools, in two divisions, compete in boys’ baseball. One division is composed of New York City and Long Island yeshivot and the other of New Jersey schools, plus Heschel, which, although located in New York, plays its home games at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck. The eight teams with the best win-loss records qualify for playoffs.

One of the first of these matchups, in May, was between Heschel and HAFTR (Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway), or more specifically, the Heschel Heat and the HAFTR Hawks. In what might be a first for Jewish baseball, each team featured a pitcher who will be playing varsity baseball in college. And each pitcher threw fastballs at a speed of over 80 mph, supplemented by sliders, curve balls and other “nasty” pitches bound to ruin a hitter’s day. Heschel had Benji Weinstein, a graduating senior (and, full disclosure, my grandson), and HAFTR had Jacob Steinmetz, an 11th-grade baseball phenomenon. Teammates and spectators went wild as each pitcher struck out one batter after another. In the end, Heschel managed to squeeze out a lone run in the fifth inning. The final score was 1-0.

When it was all over, the two pitchers exchanged uniform jerseys for a photograph. “Both pitchers deserved to win that game,” Benji said. “It’s sad that someone had to lose.” Jacob added, “It was a really well-pitched game and fun to play. That’s what baseball is all about.”

I like to think the kind of respect and camaraderie these boys showed for each other has much to do with the Jewish values they absorbed in their day schools. I also believe — odd as it may sound — that their Talmudic studies have helped enhance their pitching skills. And vice versa. Aside from speed, pitching requires logic and strategic thinking along with an ability to anticipate a batter’s moves — the kind of in-depth reasoning that runs through Talmudic disputations. That same type of thinking, by the way, underlies Benji’s other passion, chess. Also contributing to these pitchers’ success, of course, are their schools’ coaches, who devote endless hours to training their teams. At Heschel, two women coach the boys’ baseball team — how cool is that?

The second exciting game in the Yeshiva League took place on a Friday afternoon in early June. A semifinal matchup between Heschel and Ramaz, it was scheduled for 1 p.m., ostensibly leaving plenty of time for Shabbat preparations. Instead, by the end of the ninth inning, when Benji stopped pitching, the score was still 1-1. Using three pitchers, Ramaz finally prevailed — but not until the 12th inning. By then everybody was nervously worrying that the game would have to be suspended because Shabbat was fast approaching.

In the final game of the series, played on a Tuesday after Shavuot, TABC (Torah Academy of Bergen County) defeated Ramaz by a 5-1 score.

A college baseball coach from Yeshiva University was spotted at some of these games, taking notes on several of the players. If you’ve followed the recent college admissions scandal, you must know that some of the parents involved pretended their kids were skilled at various sports so that top college coaches would recruit them. Indeed, coaches are on the lookout for talented high school athletes, often securing college admission for these students in order to have them on the school team. Jacob Steinmetz, already 6-foot-3 by his junior year, and a powerful pitcher, is being recruited by several premier colleges, including some Ivies. Like Benji, he has worked hard for his success — no pretense surrounds these kids.

A note to Gary Rosenblatt: I’m sorry your baseball team, the Orioles, are such losers (Jewish Week, June 28). How about encouraging their pitching staff to observe the Yeshiva League next season? They might get inspired.

Francine Klagsbrun’s  book, “Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel,” is now available in paperback.

About the Author
Francine Klagsbrun, a Jewish Week columnist, is the author of more than a dozen books, among them Voices of Wisdom: Jewish Ideals and Ethics for Everyday Living. She was the editor of the best-selling Free To Be You and Me, produced by Marlo Thomas and the Ms. Foundation. Her newest work is an in-depth biography of Golda Meir to be published in September 2017 by Schocken Books.