Matthew Soffer, a 29-year-old rabbinical student from Philadelphia, was the rookie manager of a weak fantasy league baseball team until he turned to his faith and traded for a player of Jewish heritage.
His chosen one was Ryan Braun, the Milwaukee Brewers slugger whose Israeli-born father is Jewish (but whose mother isn’t).
“His bat is an ‘ohr la’goyim,’ a light unto the nations,” Soffer said. “I’m in first place, and have been all year, in no small part thanks to Braun. “
This is a golden age for enthusiasts of fantasy baseball who prefer their players on the Old Testament side. Major League Baseball boasts 14 Jewish players, the most ever in a season, according to Howard Megdal, author of the recently published “The Baseball Talmud.”
Many are stars. Second baseman Ian Kinsler and pitcher Scott Feldman, both of the Texas Rangers, pitcher Jason Marquis of the Colorado Rockies and first baseman Kevin Youkilis of the Boston Red Sox provide the big numbers to compete in fantasy baseball, in which “owners” draft a team and accrue points based on their players’ statistics (say, five points for each home run). Owners then match their totals against those of other teams.
Fantasy baseball, sometimes called rotisserie baseball, has been played for decades. The Internet turned it into an organized mainstay, with Yahoo, ESPN, CBS Sports and Major League Baseball hosting fantasy sites on the Web.
Jews have been following their baseball heroes far longer. Given that the majors have only welcomed 160 Jews since professional baseball began in 1869, this variety of haimish players to select is a once-in-every-140 years opportunity for fantasy owners.
“Generally speaking, you really had to stretch to get that good Jewish baseball player — and now you can do so without sacrificing the quality of the team,” Megdal said.
Megdal, whose “Baseball Talmud” analyzes every Jewish player, figured that readers on his recent promotional tour would want to debate his opinion of the greatest of all time. Instead, he said, he was often asked whom he would draft for a fantasy league team.
As a fantasy participant, he gets it. “It’s been standard operating procedure for Jewish baseball fans to have his or her favorites. Now you can go a step beyond that — in position of ownership,” Megdal said.
For the record, Megdal has a team, including Braun, that tops the standings of one of his leagues, while another squad with Marquis occupies the middle of the pack.
Adam Bernacchio, a 31-year-old sales director in New York, took the fantasy further by including players who are not Jewish, but have Jewish-sounding names, such as shortstop David Eckstein of the San Diego Padres.
Adam Hunter, 27, a writer in New York City, also has had to “cheat a little” by adding the likes of such gentile athletes as Ryan Zimmerman of the Washington Nationals when he attempted an all-Jewish outfit. His biggest stretch, perhaps, was Washington Nationals outfielder Elijah Dukes. “Elijah hasn’t exactly behaved like a prophet on or off the field,” Hunter says of Dukes, whose wife filed a restraining order against him. Hunter dropped Dukes after he started the season poorly.
With about a month left in baseball’s regular season, Hunter’s lineup sports a 5–14 record. He blames the poor showing in part on the backup status of Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Brad Ausmus and Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Gabe Kapler. Both used to be starters.
Hunter remains undeterred. “Drafting just Jewish players alone isn’t a winning strategy, but I told myself as long as I didn’t finish last, I’d be happy,” Hunter said. “So far, every year I’ve succeeded in that. It’s got to be embarrassing for the other guys to lose to a team of mensches.”
Marc Edelman, a law professor at Barry University School of Law in Orlando, Fla., who moonlights as a paid fantasy league arbitrator (www.sportsjudge.com), figures that those who focus on Jewish players ought to adhere to a couple of commandments: Ban players who take the field on the High Holy Days, and omit game playing on the Sabbath.
Should the same rules apply to fantasy owners? Edelman said he has heard of Jewish fantasy league managers shuffling around personnel on the High Holy Days.
“Somebody expected in synagogue is making that 1:30 p.m. move,” he said, sniffing.
Not all fantasy baseball owners are successful. Noam Freedman, 47, owner of the Firestore in New York, said that when he assembled a team with a Jewish nucleus, “there just wasn’t enough depth to make it work. I ended up with a Jew-heavy roster, but not as well rounded a team as I would have liked.”
Owners might get a chance to expand their rosters if the Yankees call up Jason Hirsh from the minors for their stretch run. But Martin Abramowitz, the Boston-based founder of Jewish Major Leaguers, Inc., a group that researches Jews’ contributions to baseball, won’t be a taker. While he grudgingly offered that fantasy takes fans’ engagement “to a new level,” he is not a believer. “The real world is so rich,“ said the retired Jewish Federation executive. “It’s enough for me.”
For many aficionados, however, the pursuit of Jewish players enriches an already serious love of the game. And maybe also allows them to take a few liberties.
Soffer says that since he is a Reform Jew, he accepts people who are Jews of patrilineal descent. Of Braun he said, “Having a Jew on my team, not to mention one known as the Hebrew Hammer, makes the game more fun.”
Contact Ron Dicker at firstname.lastname@example.org