Ian Kinsler helping Jewish fans conquer Shawn Green withdrawal
Standouts like Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg used to thrill Jewish fans
Along the way the Jewish talent well ran dry and Shawn Green stood alone
Now, with young stars like Ian Kinsler emerging, Jews can latch on again
Ever since the end of the 2007 baseball season, the Manischewitz in the Pearlman household has tasted a tad sour. The matzo ball soup has been mushy and bland, the blintzes moldy, the lox discolored, the gefilte fish unbearably salty.
So life has been without (sigh) Shawn Green.
Ah, Shawnie, Shawnie, Shawnie -- where have you gone? Dating to his debut with Toronto some 16 years ago, Green gave Jewish sports fans a reason to read the box scores every weekday morning and say an extra prayer at shul every Friday night (Baruch attah Adonai, elohaynu melech ha-olam, get-a homer, off-a Jason Christiansen ...). Sure, there have been Jewish ballplayers throughout the years. Nice, decent, skilled men like Brian Bark, Micah Franklin, Keith Glauber and Gabe Kapler (who, notably, sports a Jewish star tattoo on his leg). Green, though, was our modern-day Hank Greenberg; our salvation.
Did he have a Bar Mitzvah? Well, no.
Did he attend services? Well, no.
Did he marry a fellow Jew? Well, uh, no.
But Green was the product of two Jewish parents, proud of his cultural heritage and -- most important -- willing to speak to each and every reporter from the Arizona Jewish Post and Buffalo Jewish Review and Charleston Jewish Journal who tiptoed up to his locker and kvetched about the weather.
Whereas standouts like Sandy Koufax and Greenberg and, uh, Rod Carew (not actually Jewish, but he did wear a Chai pendant around his neck, which was good enough for us) once paved the kosher baseball landscape, by the time Green came along the crop was dry. He became baseball's new unofficial spokesperson for The Chosen (To Generally Stink at All Sports) People, and even if every single one of my relatives boasts the athleticism of a dried prune hamentaschen, we could always point to Green and bellow, "Mazel Tov! The Jews can play, too!"
Now, alas, Shawn Green is long gone -- yet another Jewish retiree (albeit, one who's 36-years-old) basking in the warm days and Bingo nights of Southern California.
Yet much like the Chavurah Beth Chai, my boyhood congregation that recently lost its longtime rabbi, then replaced her with a potentially better one, we Jews have a renewed reason for hope. In Milwaukee, there is Ryan (the Hebrew Hammer) Braun. In Boston, there is Kevin Youkilis. And in Texas, there is Ian Kinsler.
Uh ... Ian Kinsler? Jewish?
Though he will never boast Green's raw power, throwing arm or appetite for chopped liver sandwiches, the Rangers second baseman is, to steal from Adam Sandler, a fine-looking Jew. Among the American League leaders in runs, home runs and RBI, Kinsler is -- up until now, at least -- a stealth landsman, yet to grace the pages of any of America's 100,000 Jewish weeklies, but clearly on the verge of carrying the proverbial Louisville Torah. "I recently got a letter in the mail from a Jewish deli in Philadelphia," Kinsler said recently, standing by his locker. "They want to name a sandwich after me."
Kinsler smiles, happy to add his name to pastrami on rye and even happier to talk about a heritage he calls, "something I'm very, very proud of." The son of a Catholic mother (Kathy) and Bronx-born Jewish father (Howard), young Ian was brought up in Tucson, Ariz., relatively non-religious, but celebrated all of the Jewish and Christian holidays.
"We'd have Christmas, and I'd be excited," he says. "Then we'd have Chanukah and I'd be excited, too. We'd sing the songs, light the candles, play Dreidel. Then every year for Passover we'd have a seder, which I always looked forward to. I'm not a devoutly spiritual person, but I'm very into the cultural identity that comes with being Jewish. If there are Jewish kids out there who look up to me or see me as a role model of what's possible, I embrace that proudly."
Kinsler won't lack for followers. Though I've often found it sort of funny, Jewish fans long for sports heroes the way Humvees crave fuel. For many of us, the family's emphasis has been on academics (Be a doctor! Be a lawyer! Be an accountant!), often at the expense of athletics. Sure, we could play baseball or basketball on weekends. But not after school, and not if it interfered with grades, studying or family.
Hence, we often watched from afar, clinging to the hopes of Dana Rosenblatt and Perry Klein and Danny Schayes.
Now, those hopes rest with a 27-year-old Texas Ranger.
With a man willing to shoulder the burden.
"I'm comfortable with who I am," Kinsler says. "And part of who I am is Jewish."
Jeff Pearlman can be reached at email@example.com.