Bonds that Bind
Commitment to common goals, rigorous training and game participation — whether from the field or bench — for the Johns Hopkins University baseball team creates a strong bond among its teammates, say several players and coach Bob Babb.
But when a shared background of Judaism and all that it represents — observances, upbringing, ethics, food — is added to the mix, the bond becomes even stronger for seven members of this year’s team.
Frank Schiff is a senior from San Jose, Calif., and an infielder for the consistently high-ranking Blue Jays. He comes from a close-knit Jewish family and has been playing baseball since he could walk, though when he was younger, he says, his parents “laid down the law” and forbade play on Shabbat mornings. He is still deeply devoted to the game, the process and his team and appreciates the added connection among his Jewish teammates.
“[The bonding] starts right away,” said Schiff. “When I came in as a freshman, you have a team meeting the very first day and after the meeting the Jewish seniors say, ‘OK, all the new Jewish kids stick around. Yom Kippur is coming up, and we do this tradition [breaking fast at a downtown steakhouse].’
“It’s not the most pleasant experience, but it’s a lot of fun,” he added, laughing. “The fact that we have this major holiday right after everyone comes, immediately that bond is formed.”
Jonathan Hettleman, from Pikesville, is a catcher for the Jays and a team captain. He credits Rabbi Debbie Pine and assistant director Jon Falk at Hopkins Hillel for helping facilitate an even stronger bond for Jewish members of the team by encouraging events such as the “November Classic” Shabbat dinner that the team now hosts each fall. Hettleman assumed his stay at Hopkins would be filled to the brim with academics and baseball, leaving little room for Judaism, but now finds himself pleasantly surprised.
“I wasn’t expecting to be a part of the Jewish community in a significant way here,” he explained. “But when I met Jon, he started organizing a Jewish community on the baseball team and related it to Hillel, and it changed my experience here. We wouldn’t have had Shabbat dinners, we wouldn’t have had the Passover Seders, we wouldn’t have gone on Birthright … without Jon’s effort to connect with Jewish students in general [and] us, as members of the baseball team.”
“It’s a perfect way to model Jewish athletes,” said Falk. “It’s a way to balance being an athlete and [observing] Jewish holidays. … This baseball team — they own Shabbat. They’re going to take this with them for the rest of their lives. And doing that as a team is really special.”
Senior Tyler Goldstein is a pitcher and co-captain originally from Highland Park, Ill., who last year was voted onto the Jewish Sports Review’s Jewish All-American team. He says that Babb, who at 59 is in his 37th season as coach and with 1,000 wins is only the ninth coach in Division III to accomplish that feat, has created an environment in which it’s not all about wins and losses.
“Coach Babb puts a big emphasis on giving back to the community,” explained Goldstein. “In fall semester when the team has a little more time, he and his wife, Gilly, have a group of us over to make sandwiches for a homeless shelter, or as a team we’ll go and clean up a park. So not only is he really good at what he does, but in terms of molding his players into citizens and good people, I think that’s equally admirable.”
Sophomore Jake Rogers, 20, plays first base for the Blue Jays. He started playing ball at age 3 with his father and grandfather in Massapequa on New York’s Long Island. Coming to Hopkins, he was surprised at the size of the Jewish community in Baltimore.
“You almost take it for granted how special it is to be a part of the [baseball] program, but also the Jewish group,” said Rogers. “You never feel like you’re alone, and you feel like there’s always someone there for you. I’m going to cherish that when I leave here.”
Though sophomore pitcher Colin Friedman, 20, grew up in Santa Fe, N.M., his father, Gary, is from the Northeast and is a Yankees fan who instilled a love of baseball in his son. Friedman also counts his close relationship with his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, and a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip he took last spring with teammates among crucial elements of his Jewish identity.
It’s “important to me,” he said of being Jewish. “It’s a proud part of who I am as a person.”
This year there are two Jewish freshmen on the 44-player roster: Woodstock, N.Y., pitcher Sam Einhorn, 19, and first baseman/catcher Daniel Albert, 19, of Newport Beach, Calif. Albert grew up participating with his family in community service through Chabad of California, teaching baseball to special-needs children and playing in games.
“It’s definitely nice to have a special bond with the guys,” Albert said of the Hopkins team, “and it’s great to have a lot of Jewish people on the team.”
Einhorn, who has played ball since before he could walk — he has home movies of his father rolling a baseball to him as he sat on the ground — and has played cello since age 3, chose Hopkins “for a perfect mix of high-level [Division III] baseball and high-level academics,” he said. “I’m excited about being in Baltimore too.”
He was the only Jewish player on his high school team, so his experience at Hopkins has been an interesting change, he explained. And of Coach Babb, he says, “He’s a guru; he’s seen everything.”
Even out-of-town team members’ families keep current with their sons’ games, whether in person or via the Hopkins online game tracker. Many families also attend the annual Florida trip the team takes each year, and Hettleman’s family in Pikesville often host players for holidays and dinners.
“Luckily for me when I came out here I met Jon and his family,” said Schiff. “They’ve provided me with that close-knit crew that I can go with to High Holiday services; on Passover his family takes me in, so it’s been nice to find that niche here that I had at home.”
Goldstein, also from out of town, has had a similar experience.
“The Hettlemans have been like a second family to me,” he said. “They have us over for the holidays, they take us to dinner occasionally, they drop off food. It’s really been nice having them. I’m really thankful for the Hettlemans being here; it’s really made my whole transition of coming to a pretty foreign place a lot easier.”
To their coach, the Jewish players’ camaraderie is part and parcel of what it means to play for Hopkins.
“I don’t care if it’s Jewish, Muslim or whatever, I have certain values that we stress,” said Babb, “and one of them is, our team values community service. And they’ve all been very active in that role. And our team is a fraternal kind of group because they spend so much time together and are working toward a common goal.
“They’re just really fine individuals,” added the coach. “I really enjoy being around the type of student athlete that I get here.”