May 30, 2023

How Jacob Steinmetz balances baseball and Orthodox Judaism

The second call was less important, but only slightly.

The first had been historic. Two years ago, the Arizona Diamondbacks made Long Island high-schooler Jacob Steinmetz the first Orthodox Jew ever drafted by an MLB organization. It was a joyous occasion, but it was also scary.

Because Steinmetz was embarking on a career that might be at odds with his religion. Would he be able to keep kosher while making his way through the small towns that populate the minors? Would he be able to properly observe the Sabbath, abstaining from riding in cars and buses and using any kind of electricity? Could professional baseball and Orthodox Judaism coexist?

Those questions percolated in the wake of his third-round selection, but a day later came a second call. Diamondbacks assistant general manager Amiel Sawdaye had grown up in a Jewish community, and as the post-draft anxiety began to set in for the young right-hander, Sawdaye rang with a salve. Don’t worry about it, he’d said. We’ll make sure you have everything you need.

“I saw it in his face after he got off the phone with him,” said Steinmetz’s father, Elliot. “I saw this little relaxing.”

Two years later, Sawdaye’s word is being put to the test. Steinmetz is now 20 and playing for the low Class A Visalia Rawhide in California, his first experience at a full-season affiliate. Such a jump is a challenging rite of passage for any young player, but Steinmetz faces more hurdles than most. The tiny stops in the California League are hardly Jewish enclaves, and being an Orthodox Jew on that circuit can be lonely. It also can be complicated.

During the Sabbath — 25 hours from dusk Friday night to dusk Saturday — Steinmetz will not ride in a motor vehicle or use any electronics. He will walk to the ballpark, often traversing several miles there and back. Before and after games, as his teammates tuck into whatever spread the team has provided, Steinmetz instead consumes rigorously prepared kosher meals. The Diamondbacks schedule his starts for earlier in the week, although he would pitch on the Sabbath if required.

Jerry Brewer: Birmingham’s Rickwood Field is the best kind of monument: A real one

To Steinmetz, little of this is new. He has been balancing baseball and Judaism since he was seven. He was the only Jewish kid on his Little League team, and when he began playing in out-of-town tournaments on the weekends, his family struck upon a solution. For each tournament — in nearby Long Island and New Jersey, and in distant Georgia and Florida — the Steinmetzes would stay in a hotel near the park. Over the Sabbath, they would walk to and from the field, toting a cooler of kosher food.

There were times Steinmetz had to leave a Friday afternoon game early to check out of one hotel and into another so that he would be a walkable distance from the next day’s game. There were times he couldn’t square the logistical circle and his coaches had to choose which day Steinmetz would play. But he and his family made it work.

It turned out to be good training for professional baseball. By the time Steinmetz was a high school senior, he’d sprouted to well above 6 feet tall and his fastball had begun zipping in the low 90s. At the pre-draft combine, he conducted interviews with nearly half the teams in baseball, all of them interested in how to make his religion work with his sport. Steinmetz’s explanation was simple: He’d been doing that for more than half his life.

Every team said they’d accommodate his needs, but in 2021 the Diamondbacks put a third-round pick where their mouth was. In the team’s draft room, Sawdaye began schooling his colleagues on the tenets of Orthodox Judaism. Arizona farm director Josh Barfield was an attentive student and began planning for how to smooth Steinmetz’s transition into the professional ranks. “We couldn’t mess this up,” Sawdaye said.

The first challenge was food. The requirements of a kosher diet are strict, and the Diamondbacks “quickly realized we weren’t going to be able to prepare kosher meals in our kitchen,” Barfield said. Steinmetz spent the first year-plus of his career in the Arizona Complex League and ate just about every meal from kosher Scottsdale eatery Kitchen18. “He’s probably had close to a thousand meals from that kitchen already,” Barfield laughed.

That was relatively easy; Kitchen18 is a 10-minute drive from Arizona’s spring training complex. The California League, though, is a kosher food desert. With the help of a Los Angeles company called Western Kosher, Steinmetz and the Diamondbacks have solved that problem. Once a week, 12 kosher meals packed in dry ice are delivered to wherever Steinmetz and the Rawhide happen to be. The Diamondbacks take care of the bill.

They’ve spent on more than just food. When Steinmetz got to Visalia, Barfield personally bought him a bicycle to ride the four miles from his house to the ballpark. He doesn’t take it on the road, and when the team hotel is not a walkable distance from the field, the club puts Steinmetz up in a different, closer hotel. When that’s not available — or when the team commutes to nearby cities like Fresno — Steinmetz is told to stay back rather than hoof it.

‘Bigger than myself’: Young Black ballplayers feel a sense of mission

That Steinmetz does anything baseball-related on the Sabbath is a choice he and his family made long ago, and not every Orthodox Jew would make such an allowance for sports. Elie Kligman is an Orthodox Jew from Nevada who was drafted after Steinmetz the same year — he didn’t sign and is now playing collegiately — and he will not play on the Sabbath. Steinmetz would, and did as an amateur, although the Diamondbacks do not ask him to.

This occasionally has caused grumbling from some corners of the Orthodox community. It’s a familiar refrain to the elder Steinmetz, who is the head basketball coach at Yeshiva University: Why do all this? It’s not like an Orthodox kid is going to be a professional athlete. “People from our world, there’s always this negative view of what the ceiling is,” Elliot Steinmetz said. Most are in Steinmetz’s corner, according to the family, but some Orthodox Jews quibble with their interpretation of the Sabbath, on which work is not permitted.

“Some people say it’s not in the spirit of the Sabbath,” the younger Steinmetz said, “but it’s to everyone’s interpretation.”

Far more often than he defends that interpretation to other Orthodox Jews, Steinmetz finds himself explaining to non-Jews how his religion works. He does so willingly and patiently. “It’s like when your teacher says, ‘There are no stupid questions,’” Steinmetz said. “There really isn’t.”

If anything, the transition to pro ball has been trickier on the field. Like many young pitchers, Steinmetz has struggled to find consistency. He has raw materials in abundance — a large 6-foot-6 frame, a fastball that can reach the high 90s and a hammer of a curveball — but he strains to command them. Refinement will come with experience, but he is years away from sniffing a major league debut, and from potentially becoming the first practicing Orthodox Jewish big leaguer.

For now, Steinmetz — who has a 1.89 ERA over his last four outings — can sustain himself on the memories of his biggest outing to date. Earlier this year, Steinmetz played in the World Baseball Classic as the only Orthodox member of Team Israel. (In what his father calls “the epitome of irony,” his Orthodox background made it surprisingly hard to prove to MLB that Steinmetz was eligible for Israeli citizenship, a matter settled only after a letter to the league from his rabbi.) Steinmetz started against a loaded Dominican Republic team and more than held his own, retiring megawatt stars such as Manny Machado and Juan Soto. For his talent as a player, it was persuasive proof of concept.

He’s still a long way from making good on the promise he exhibited that day, but another question is being answered. He is an Orthodox Jew and a professional baseball player. He eats kosher and keeps the Sabbath. He also pitches and endures the rigors of the minor leagues. As much as he fits himself into baseball, the Diamondbacks make sure baseball is fitting itself to him.

If they can do it, so can other teams. And if Steinmetz can do it, so can other Orthodox kids.

“Hopefully more kids will see that,” the pitcher said, “and know it’s possible.”