One week ago marked the first time that an Orthodox Jewish player was chosen in the Major League Baseball draft. There were actually two players chosen: Jacob Steinmetz, who went to HAFTR, and Elie Kligman, from Las Vegas. Steinmetz, a pitcher, was picked in the third round by the Arizona Diamondbacks, and Kligman, who is looking to become a catcher, was picked in the twentieth and final round by the Washington Nationals. It is reported that Steinmetz plans to immediately go into professional ball while Kligman will go to college.
I will not address the particular circumstances of the individuals involved. Instead, I address the idea of a person who represents himself as being Orthodox playing professional baseball - and our reaction to it.
This situation is unique, but not because they were the first Orthodox Jews who had the ability to be drafted by a Major League team. The first professional baseball club was formed in 1869. There have been plenty of Orthodox Jews since then in the United States. The reason why this has not happened before is because those who may have had the ability to play professional baseball made the decision that you cannot be a frum Jew and a professional baseball player. It was not an easy decision for them.
There are so many problems with a frum person becoming a professional ball player. For example, there are issues of carrying on Shabbos and traveling on Shabbos and Yom Tov. Theoretically, a starting pitcher who pitches every five days could have none of his starts on Shabbos. This would not work with a position player (non-pitcher) or a relief pitcher, both of whom play more often. Also, what is the person going to do on Shabbos even if they are not playing? Are they going to be allowed to stay away from the ballpark? I find it very hard to expect that no prohibitions will be violated. The best-case scenario is that the player will be violating rabbinic prohibitions.
Although individuals are drafted by professional teams, players start in the minor leagues and most never make it to the major leagues. I will use Arizona as an example, since Steinmetz was drafted by the Diamondbacks. The Arizona minor league teams include those located in Reno, Nevada (Triple-A), Amarillo, Texas (Double-A), Hillsboro, Oregon (High-A), and Visalia, California (Low-A). The teams play their home games in those cities, but they travel to other cities in the league to play games. The typical drafted player starts his professional career at either the High-A or Low-A level.
A frum person in these circumstances will be going to places where kosher food may not be readily available and there are no Orthodox synagogues. This is typical in the minor leagues, especially in the lower levels, where the teams are located in towns or small cities. There is going to be little if any Jewish presence on the team or in the locales. People, even those who come from good frum families, have been negatively influenced by being put in similar situations. Most professional players start as teenagers, an age where they may be more susceptible to negative outside influences.
The reaction that I have read so far has been positive. For example, I saw a full-page ad in another Jewish paper from his yeshiva that “Proudly Wishes Mazel Tov” to one of its graduating students, Jacob Steinmetz. I would have expected such an ad coming from a secular high school, but it is disappointing that it is coming from a yeshiva.
Some may interpret the message that religion is important unless it gets in the way of your dream. Moreover, this excitement is ignoring the significant problems of being a frum player. It may result in people believing that you can engage in behavior that may violate rabbinic edicts because that is what those who identify as Orthodox may end up doing as professional ball players.
This excitement is based on the attitude of some Orthodox Jews that we have not made it unless we can do everything that others can do. The reality is that we cannot, and, in many circumstances, should not. Unlike public schools, yeshivas are supposed to provide a religious education and give guidance on how to live a religious life. Why aren’t certain yeshivas more often acknowledging those who decide to engage in careers based on Torah values instead of trying to show that “we belong”?
For many, the idea of an Orthodox professional player is a home run. To me, it is a strike out.