A Tough Split

091313_a_tough_splitFor eight years, Irina Goldsmith has been taking her children, Jaxson, 12, and Payton, 10, to the youth duckpin bowling league at AMF Pikesville Lanes. This year, she said, league members will be traveling to the Westview lanes or dropping out entirely.

No one is more surprised about this change than the league members themselves.

The Pikesville Youth League has a strong history with AMF Pikesville Lanes. It has been playing there for more than 30 years, most recently from 1 to 3 p.m. on Saturday afternoons. At least one of the teams, made up of participants from Owings Mills, Pikesville, Randallstown and Reisterstown, has won the state championship the past four years. However, due to operational changes at AMF and AMF’s recent merger with Bowlmor Lanes, scheduling arrangements have become increasingly complicated.

Last year, Goldsmith said, parents were told that the league could no longer continue with the 1 p.m. slot. Instead, the center wanted to accommodate birthday parties that would begin at that time. According to Goldsmith, the center informed parents that the only way the youth league could continue at Pikesville is if it began at 9 in the morning.

This news split up the league, as the older and more experienced bowlers left to join other leagues. Goldsmith’s children went to AMF Westview Lanes, where they could bowl in the afternoon.

“We tried to do different things to stay at Pikesville because the league at Pikesville is so popular,” said Goldsmith. “We tried to change it to 11 a.m. instead, but to the AMF Center, it was either 9 in the morning or forget it.”

Over time, Pikesville altered that decision, deciding to allow the league to bowl at 10 a.m. during the upcoming 2013-2014 season, as long as it finished by noon.

Many parents were happy to come back, even for an earlier time.

“Those who had left agreed to come back this year,” Eric Ball, a coach on the league, explained. “Even though it wasn’t the best time option, it was better to stay together. After four state wins and traveling together, the families had really bonded.”

With the expectation of reassembling the original league members, parents were startled to find out that AMF backtracked and decided to close out the Saturday youth league entirely.

Just a few weeks before the league was to begin at the end of August, the center’s manager at Pikesville informed AMF volunteer youth coordinator, “Miss Beth” Schlein, about the change via email. Schlein was told that the center would be opening at 11 a.m. and would no longer be able to accommodate the leagues; leagues wouldn’t be finished by noon, the time designated for parties and “open bowling,” which is casual bowling outside of a league. The decision displaced the Pikesville youth league and adult special-needs leagues.

Now, of the 40 bowlers in the original youth league, only about 15 will continue to bowl in other leagues.

“What I would really like is for them to open the center one hour earlier because it’s not just the youth league, but the special-needs leagues that are also getting displaced,” said Goldsmith.

Gregg Nichols, the area’s district manager for AMF Bowling Centers, denied that the league was being shut out but did not return calls.

Chad Waetzig, chief marketing officer of Bowlmore AMF, explained in an email that the merger between the two companies took place as AMF was struggling financially. As a result, certain operational changes had to be made that could not accommodate all the leagues.

“In many locations, we’ve adjusted our operating hours during nonpeak times, which have impacted some leagues,” Waetzig wrote. “In many situations, we have been able to accommodate leagues with our new schedules. Regrettably, some leagues we were not able to accommodate.”

Schlein, who has volunteered for AMF Pikesville for 28 years, understands that there may have been financial motivations for the changes at Pikesville. But she also believes that more open communication from the management might have prevented the scheduling confusion and disappointment.

“It’s just really sad that no one wants to stand up and talk to people face-to-face,” Schlein said. “You aren’t always going to get your way, and things aren’t necessarily going to change, but if the management doesn’t keep the line of communication open, they are going to shoot themselves in the foot.”

For Goldsmith, these changes at Pikesville represent a shift in priorities.

“The corporate bowling philosophy is changing” Goldsmith said. “It’s a shame that Pikesville would lose the chance to instill the love of bowling in dozens of youth and to cultivate their business.”

Ready & Waiting

Danny Valencia says that even though he doesn’t have a starting role with the  Orioles, he wants to  contribute in any way he can. (Todd Olszewski)

Danny Valencia says that even though he doesn’t have a starting role with the Orioles, he wants to
contribute in any way he can. (Todd Olszewski)

Orioles reserve outfielder Steve Pearce calls it the toughest job in sports.

Yet, in a game against the Detroit Tigers earlier this month, fellow reserve Danny Valencia made it look easy.

The job: serve as a bench player on a major league roster. The mission: find a way to rise to the occasion whenever your number is called.

“When you’re not playing every day, you’re not getting your reps, you’re not getting your rhythm, your timing is off,” Pearce said. “You can take [batting practice] to stay warmed up and sharp, but it’s completely different when you get out there in the [batter’s] box.”

In the bottom of the seventh inning with the Orioles trailing 2-1 and two runners on base, the Tigers brought in a notoriously tough pitcher against lefty hitters. The O’s countered by pinch-hitting with Valencia, who, in his three-plus major league seasons, has hit over .320 against lefthanders.

Valencia came through, looping a single into right field to tie the game. Valencia was immediately lifted for a pinch-runner, who would go on to score the winning run.

The game lasted more than three hours. Valencia was a part of it for less than a minute, yet he delivered in arguably the game’s biggest moment.

“Everybody’s goal in the big leagues is to play every day, but with the team we have here, it’s very difficult,” said Valencia, a third baseman who joined the Orioles in the offseason and was called up to the big leagues in May.

Valencia, 28, is a part of a unique baseball fraternity. He’s Jewish. The progeny of a Jewish mother and a Cuban father who converted, Valencia is one of just 10 Jewish players currently in the major leagues.

Growing up in Boca Raton, Fla., Valencia received a Reform Jewish education. He attended Sunday school every week and had a bar mitzvah. His mother, Mindy Valencia, proudly notes that her son read both his Torah and Haftorah portions in Hebrew.

However, once Valencia left for college, and through his time playing professional ball, he said it has been difficult to stay observant.

Part of the challenge is that he’s hardly ever home. From the middle of February when spring training begins to early October when most teams’ seasons come to an end, Valencia is apart from his family. Cornerstone holidays such as Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur all fall within that time, and it’s tough to assemble a minyan when you’re aboard a red-eye flight from Baltimore to Seattle for a four-game weekend series.

“He’s in a world where there are so few [Jews]. Nobody really notices when it’s holiday time for him,” said Mindy Valencia, who was brought up in a Conservative home.

Valencia noted that in the event he was needed to play on a paramount Jewish holiday such as Yom Kippur, he’d play. It’s not that he doesn’t care, but he’s a trusted teammate who is committed to the guys he’s grinding out games with every day.

For Mindy Valencia, her son maintaining his religious identity is something that often enters her mind.

“I remember growing up and hearing how [Hall of Famer] Sandy Koufax refused to pitch on the High Holidays,” she said, “And yet, as a family, we’ve never really said to Danny, ‘Do not play.’ Sometimes I feel bad about that.”

Danny Valencia jokes that he “survived the Jewish mom,” in that she’s always one to ask what he’s doing, when he’s doing it and who he’s doing it with. That loving attachment also extends to baseball. Mindy Valencia will call her son to talk about games and even specific at-bats. She watches practically all of them.

Her assessment?

“I think he will be better from having overcome the adversity of [going to the minors],” Mindy said. “I think right now he’s focused and much more mature, and it makes me super proud that he’s there. I pinch myself every time I see him on TV.”

To Baltimore Through Adversity
Valencia’s career began with the Minnesota Twins, who drafted him out of the University of Miami in 2006. His first two big league seasons were chock-full of positives.

In 2010, he batted .311 — the best average by a Twins rookie in 46 years — and finished third in the American League Rookie of the Year voting. In 2011, Valencia hit 15 home runs and had a club-leading 72 runs batted in.

However, last year, Valencia quickly fell out of favor with the Twins. Part of the problem, he said, was rooted in a disconnect with the coaching staff.

“I got away from who I was last year,” Valencia said. “Some of the coaching I received … they wanted me to do some things differently, and in the long run, I don’t think it was the best thing for the way I hit.”

The rift translated to his performance at the plate, where Valencia batted just .198 in 126 at-bats before the Twins abruptly demoted him to the minors just one month into the season.

Relegation to the minors can often shatter a player’s confidence. Four-star hotels and chartered flights are replaced by crusty motels and overnight bus rides.

Yet, Valencia used the experience to fuel his fire. It humbled him. It made him hungry. He had tasted the majors and was hellbent on getting back.

“It was, ‘Hey, get back to what made you successful in the big leagues,’” Valencia recalled. “It definitely drives you because once you’re [in the majors] and you go back down, you realize how good it is up here.”

The Twins traded Valencia to Boston in July, and after just a handful of at-bats, the Red Sox sent him down to their Class AAA affiliate in Pawtucket, Mass.

In November, just days after getting married to his high school sweetheart (and while on his honeymoon), the Red Sox traded Valencia to the Orioles. It was a fresh start.

Valencia began the year at the Orioles’ Class AAA affiliate in Norfolk, Va. There, he tore the cover off the ball, bashing 11 homers in just 40 games before being called up to the Orioles on May 18. Since then, in limited at-bats, he has hit four home runs and driven in eight runs. Valencia’s ability to step up in key spots is respected by his teammates.

“The best part about him is he does his job without any fuss,” centerfielder Adam Jones said. “He doesn’t complain about how many at-bats he’s getting. When he arrives at the ballpark, he knows, somehow, someway, he’s going to help this team.”

A League Of His Own
In college, Valencia played with another well-known Jewish player, Ryan Braun.

Braun, who was named National League Most Valuable Player in 2011, has been dubbed “The Hebrew Hammer.”

What’s Valencia’s nickname?

“We just call him Jew-boy,” joked outfielder Chris Dickerson during a recent talk in the Orioles club house.

In baseball clubhouses everybody gets teased for something. It’s how 25 players endure a 162-game season together.

Valencia gets it. Being Jewish, much like if he had big ears, a receding hairline or a baby face, is what sets him apart. And in the Orioles’ clubhouse, which — with a Ping-Pong and a pool table and blaring music — resembles a teenage hangout as much as it does a place of business, amusement is placed at a premium.

“Baseball players have to have fun,” Valencia said. “We don’t really grow up until we’re done playing baseball.”

Luckily for Valencia, a light-hearted attitude comes naturally — on all fronts. Baseball is predicated on failure. Even the sport’s best hitters fail to get a hit two out of three times. Taking yourself too seriously, whether in the clubhouse or on the field, Valencia said, can only work against you.

“If you’re a sensitive person, you’re not going to last in this sport,” he said. “This is a game, and if you’re not having fun playing it, you’re in the wrong sport.”

Valencia has embraced being a role player, a designated hitter and a lefty hitting specialist off the bench. He’s getting to know Baltimore, his teammates and the fans. And, with the Orioles primed for another playoff run, Valencia said he’s thrilled to be a part of it.

Jews In Baseball
According to Jewish Base ballNews.com, in addition to Valencia, there are nine other Jewish baseball players currently on MLB rosters:
Ryan Braun Milwaukee Brewers (LF)
Craig Breslow Boston Red Sox (P)
Scott Feldman Chicago Cubs (P)
Nate Freiman Oakland Athletics (1B)
Sam Fuld Tampa Bay Rays (OF)
Ryan Kalish Boston Red Sox (OF)
Ian Kinsler Texas Rangers (2B)
Jason Marquis San Diego Padres (P)
Kevin Youkilis New York Yankees (1B/3B)

And, in 2012, in a rare assemblage of Jewish talent, Valencia, Breslow, Kalish, Youkilis and catcher Ryan Lavarnway (currently in the minors) all played for the Boston Red Sox.

David Snyder is a JT staff reporter dsnyder@jewishtimes.com