The Arizona Diamondbacks have until Aug. 1 to sign the first known Orthodox Jewish player to be drafted by Major League Baseball.
The D-backs selected Jacob Steinmetz in the third round of the MLB draft on Monday, July 12.
“It just makes me feel that the amount of work that I put in and sacrifices I made, and even just staying committed to my religion and faith -- just it all really worked out,” Steinmetz told Jewish News.
Local Jewish baseball fans are stoked about the prospect of having Steinmetz as part of the D-backs.
“It’s great for so many young boys and girls in the frum community to see someone like them in the major league,” said local baseball fan Shmiel Gruys. “It’s much more than just representation — I think it’ll give a boost for frum kids playing sports, especially baseball.” Gruys also teaches general studies at Menachem Mendel Academy in Scottsdale.
Congregation Kehillah Rabbi Bonnie Sharfman said she wishes Steinmetz great success, and noted that the team “desperately” needs some pitching.
Steinmetz, 17, is a 6-foot-5-inch, 220-pound pitcher. His fastball has reportedly reached as fast as 97 miles per hour.
“It’s not easy to be an observant Jewish athlete,” Sharfman said, adding she hopes Steinmetz will “continue to be a role model for our children and teens — someone who pursues their passions without compromising their identity.”
Steinmetz said he keeps kosher and observes Shabbat, but he also pitches on Shabbat. To avoid using transportation on Shabbat, he has booked hotels close enough to games that he can walk to them.
Speaking to reporters Monday, Deric Ladnier, Diamondbacks scouting director, said he doesn’t know all of the details of what Steinmetz’ Shabbat observance entails. His understanding is that “he has beliefs on Saturdays through sunset that he’s not allowed to travel or use any type of modern equipment, you know he eats kosher, those type things.” But he said the team is more than willing to make adjustments so that he’s not scheduled to travel on Shabbat.
“It’s going to take some effort on our part to make sure we put him in the best position,” Ladner said. “We respect that. We don’t think that anybody should be penalized because of that. Obviously, we took him because of his ability and we just wanted to make sure that we respect everything that he does.”
Scottsdale resident and baseball fan Andrew Gibbs said he appreciates Steinmetz proudly expressing his Jewish identity.
“As many Jews are feeling conflicted about outwardly expressing their Jewish identity, it’s inspiring to see others embracing it,” Gibbs said. “This is also just another powerful example of how, through hard work, one can overcome barriers — both perceived and real.”
Steinmetz said he hopes his draft pick will inspire the Jewish community at a time when many are feeling uncomfortable due to a rise in antisemitic incidents.
“My message is just that they really can do anything that any other person can do. We’re really all the same while also staying committed to our faith and religion. And, hopefully, younger kids that want to play baseball at the high level will look to me and see that it’s possible.”
Tempe resident Rafi Turner, a self-described baseball fan since birth, said Steinmetz’s draft pick is “the most magnificent thing to happen and we have the Suns in the finals.” He said Steinmetz joining the D-backs is an “incredible opportunity for Phoenix, and baseball.”
Steinmetz’s draft pick comes as Team Israel is preparing to travel to Tokyo for the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games. It is the first Israeli national team to qualify for an Olympic team competition since 1976.
Peter Kurz, the general manager of Team Israel and president of the Israel Association of Baseball, said the IAB is “very happy and proud” that Jacob was drafted so high by the Diamondbacks. “We wish Jacob the best of luck and hope that he can one day play for our WBC team,” he told Jewish News.
Jewish National Fund-USA is providing financial support for Team Israel, covering many of the team’s expenses for the Olympics.
George Weisz, a JNF-USA major donor and active member of Arizona’s Jewish community supporting JNF-USA Project Baseball, said the local Jewish community would be glad to welcome Steinmetz.
“Jacob follows a long heritage of Jews involved in the spirit and industry of baseball, both on and off the field,” Weisz said. “Plus, he has a screaming fast ball, which many of us will be calling his hard matzo ball. I already have a D-backs kippah. Better get a kosher food stand ready in Chase Field.”
Weisz has been co-owner of three minor league baseball teams and said Diamondbacks CEO Derrick Hall and the team “deserve tremendous credit for respecting and appreciating” Steinmetz’s religious and cultural background “as the Diamondbacks leadership and organization does with every member of its team.”
Steinmetz was drafted 77th overall, but MLB.com ranked him the 121st best major league prospect, so he was chosen far earlier than expected.
Steinmetz spent the spring at ELEV8 Baseball Academy in Florida, honing his mound skills while attending The Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway in Long Island via Zoom.
Steinmetz comes from an athletic family — his father, Elliot, played basketball at Yeshiva University and is now the New York school’s basketball coach.
The deadline for Steinmetz to sign with the team is Sunday, Aug. 1 and Steinmetz said he fully intends to do so and move to the Phoenix area shortly after.
He said he’s never been to Arizona, but he’s heard it’s hot.
“I know it’s a lot of desert,” he quipped.
After signing, Steinmetz will go into the minor league system and hopes to make it onto the Diamondback roster.
“AA, AAA, major, I’ll be here to support. Let’s all welcome Jacob into this fabulous community,” Turner said.
The MLB draft became doubly historic Tuesday, July 13, when the Washington Nationals selected Elie Kligman, another Orthodox Jewish player.
According to MLB.com, Kligman, 18, has moved towards becoming a catcher but has also played shortstop and thrown the ball 90 miles an hour as a pitcher.
Unlike Steinmetz, the Las Vegas native does not play on Shabbat.
“That day of Shabbas is for God. I’m not going to change that,” he told The New York Times in March.
The Times reported that Kligman’s recent switch to playing catcher could be in service of his professional goals. Even the best at the sport’s most physically demanding position are often given at least one day a week off — opening up the possibility that Kligman could line up his days off to be during Shabbat.
Despite the excitement of being drafted, Kligman will likely look to play first at a Division I college program before a professional career, Kligman, said.
“Here’s a kid who won’t put God second,” Kligman told the Times. “But he believes that the two can coexist. He’s got six days of the week to do everything he can to be a baseball player, and if colleges and Major League Baseball aren’t inclined to make any changes, then we’ll take what we can get.”
Phoenix resident Yisroel Loeb said two Orthodox players making the MLB draft means a lot to him and his 14-year-old son, who is possibly the only Orthodox Jew playing club baseball in the Phoenix metro area.
“The conversation I had with him when he was little was, you have to make a choice. And if you want to choose this, that means you have to be that much better than everybody else,” Loeb said.
But this historic MLB draft shows that “being an Orthodox Jew in baseball, is definitely not a problem.” JN
Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s reporting contributed to this article.