Except for maybe Israel and Arab countries, I think there is no other country in the world beside the US that cares much about the religious beliefs of sports players. That is especially true for players with a Jewish background.
When I did my internet research on today’s random D-Back, I was surprised to find out that there is something like a (digital) Jewish baseball player museum and that you can keep track of your daily dose of Jewish baseball news. People have written on the greatest Jewish baseball team of all time and inform us on the current batch of best Jewish baseball players. Even baseball almanac keeps track of each Jewish baseball and explains how they became Jewish (the mother is Jewish, the father is Jewish, conversion to Judaism).
Wow, a bit overwhelming, to be honest.
I, in my European innocence, hadn’t expected to find that Jewish identity would be that strong in baseball and although I am not sure about the real reason behind it, I thought the following quote probably heads into the right direction:
“Once, when Jews were new to this country, baseball helped them feel more American. [...] Baseball and its memories [...] make Jewish Americans feel more Jewish. Baseball calls us home.” - Jonathan Eig, author, on the link between Jews and baseball on jewishbaseballmuseum.com
In the current Diamondbacks’ organisation we apparently have 2 baseball players with a Jewish background. Prospect Andy Jerzy is one of them, thanks to his father, and also Jacob Steinmetz, a young pitcher struggling in the rookie leagues. The latter is supposedly the first Orthodox Jew to have ever been drafted by a major league team.
Steinmetz once said in an interview that he “keeps the Sabbath and eats only Kosher food”, but does “play on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays”. However, “he rather walks to games during the Sabbath instead of taking transportation”.
Considering his struggles in the rookie leagues I don’t think he will make it very far, but I had to smile thinking about Steinmetz getting a call-up out of AAA to the major leagues on the Sabbath.
Okay, jokes aside, you probably know by now that today’s D-Back, Josh Whitesell, is from a Jewish background. I had no clue about that when I actually picked him randomly, but it makes for a nice intro.
That is not why the Montreal Expos drafted him in 2003 in the 6th round of the amateur draft from Loyola Marymount University, the same university random D-Back Mike Schultz hails from, in Los Angeles. He was a wanted kid before starting his college career, after appearing on the US Team in an exhibition match against Japan in California.
Whitesell was recruited as both pitcher and hitter, but had to give up on the first after tearing his labrum. As a hitter Josh had a terrific season in 2003 with a 1.205 OPS and a .395 ISO. Good base on balls stats with a strikeout percentage below 20%. The appeal was definitely there despite being limited to 1B.
But he wasn’t considered a top prospect, perhaps because of at what minorleagueball would hint at: “some scouts think that Whitesell is too passive, letting hittable pitches go by in a quest for a perfect fastball down the middle to kill.” Add to that his somewhat awkward throwing at first base, an underarm delivery he was forced to use after returning from his torn labrum, that might limit him to DH. That wasn’t the only injury that left him marked, he also suffered a broken back while at Loyola.
During the fall of his freshman year at Loyola Marymount, Whitesell was in a car accident and broke his back. The injury led to spondylolysis, a condition caused by a fractured vertebrae in the lower back. “I had to wear a brace for 10 weeks and rehab that,” Whitesell said. “Ever since then I’ve had to do abs and lower back [exercises] to maintain my flexibility or I’ll feel it. Especially with our long bus rides. I’ll wake up the next morning and feel a little crick in my back.” - Josh Whitesell quoted on the Washington Times in 2005
His 2004 season, the last of the Expos before moving to Washington, is not much more than okay, but in 2005 he tears A+ apart with a .293/.416/.524 slash line, but at the expense of a strikeout % of over 25%. In 2007, after a second and successful season in AA, he is probably ready to debut in AA and the Nationals add him to the 40-man roster in October, ahead of the Rule 5 draft. Still, the slow progress is a head breaker.
“It’s hard to imagine Josh Whitesell was too happy with his snail-like progression through the minors, despite absolutely tearing through pitching at every level. He could have started for them last season, and he could be valuable for them right now, but they just didn’t handle his progression properly. Third round picks who start as 21-year-olds aren’t meant to be handled with kid gloves, especially if they’re performing. They’re meant to be pushed through the system as fast as possible to try to have a major-league impact ASAP.” - Dann Strittmatter on the AZSnakePit in 2009 in an article on Josh Whitesell
I didn’t find what the exact roster crunch was in Washington, but in March 2008 the Nationals try to sneak Whitesell through waivers. That seems a pretty nasty move. The Diamondbacks strike immediately though, probably unexpected.
“He has so much raw power, it is fun watching him hit. He is a talented kid who catches a lot of coaches’ and scouts’ eyes.” - Derrick Hall on Josh Whitesell in 2009
A couple of successful years.
Josh is assigned to AAA and has a terrific season in Tucson in 2008 and wins the minor league player of the year award in the organisation. He becomes a September call-up and is actually rather successful with a 1.159 OPS in just 7 at bats, 6 of them being pinch hit appearances.
Despite the early success, his outlook for 2009 isn’t great. Jim McLennan mentions that “it’s hard to see how he will fit onto the current roster, with Jackson, Tracy and Clark all ahead of him at first-base. It’ll probably take an injury for him to see playing time before September, but no harm in having some backup there.” FanGraphs is a bit more bullish and releases a #FreeJoshWhitesell message: “He deserves a shot, and Arizona could certainly benefit from replacing Clark with the youngster and allowing Whitesell to get his feet wet as a pinch hitter while also playing regularly at first base against right-handed pitching.
Both are right: Clark is soon shown the door, while Tracy and Jackson struggle with injuries/sickness. The Diamondbacks give Josh Whitesell some long looks in 2009, although he is also frequently moved up and down between Phoenix and Reno. He shows a tremendous talent for drawing walks, but the lack of power from a player limited to playing first base is...frustrating at times.
“He’s a supposed three-outcome (K, HR, BB) guy who hasn’t hit homers, limiting his effectiveness to a solid but frustrating on-base guy at a position that is supposed to be one of the highest-producing positions on the diamond.” - Dann Strittmatter on the AZSnakePit in 2009 in an article on Josh Whitesell
Whitesell ends the season with a triple slash of .194/.346/.287 and is considered not be a serious candidate for 1B. He is released after the team is unable to sell his rights to Japan. He returns on a minor league contract to his former team the Nationals. He hits well in AAA for the Nationals, but obviously they will not be calling him up to the major leagues (using the words of Strittmatter in 2009: “Little things like this make Washington a crappy organization.”), but allow the lefty to chase an opportunity to move to Japan.
Whitesell signs a $300k contract with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows and has an awesome .991 OPS in 68 games. The Yakult resign Whitesell for the 2011 season, but he isn’t able to repeat the succesfull 2010 run.
In 2012 he once again bounces back for the Chiba Lotte Marines. He is resigned for the 2013 season but is released early after struggling to a .301 OBP. He keeps himself in shape in the Dominican Winter League and plays with much success in the Mexican League in 2014. After appearing in both the Mexican and Venezuelan winter league in the 2014-15 season he gives up baseball and starts a sales job.
Nowadays Josh Whitesell is a sales representative for several medical devices in the Bay area.
He is also a baseball player forever enshrined in the Jewish baseball museum.