Rookie ‘Rabbi’: Newest Giants player breaks in with a big bangby andy altman-ohr, staff writer
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Baseball has always had great nicknames: the "Splendid Splinter," "Charlie Hustle," "The Sultan of Swat."
Now there's a new name on the list: "the Rabbi."
And no, he is not the new star of the TalMudville Nine.
He's 25-year-old San Francisco Giants rookie Brian Horwitz, who was called up from the minors May 30 when Dan Ortmeier got injured, and in only his sixth at-bat for the team, launched a home run against the New York Mets. After that game, it took him just six more at-bats to hit his second homer, that one against the Colorado Rockies.
Although he called hitting the first home run "an out-of-body experience," Horwitz said he wasn't surprised by his eye-opening start, which included four hits in his first eight at-bats.
"It's been very exciting, but I'm just doing what I normally do," he said. "I've kind of defied some of the odds just getting here in the first place."
More on his amazing path to the major leagues in a bit. But first, what about being known as "the Rabbi," as his teammates have taken to calling him?
"I'm kind of used to it, always being the only Jewish guy on my team and getting noticed for that," he said. "So if that's what makes them happy, I'm not going to be a buzzkill. It's all in good fun. I enjoy my teammates and being in their company. I don't think it's being rude to the religion of Judaism."
Horwitz is the first Jewish player on the Giants since the 1995-96 tenure of Dominican pitcher Jose Bautista. He is the eighth Jewish player on the Giants since they moved to San Francisco 50 years ago, but just the second who hasn't been a pitcher, joining outfielder Don Taussig, an obscure rookie from 1958.
Horwitz is the second player in major league history to be tabbed with a "Rabbi" nickname; the other one was a Giant too. Back in 1923, when the Giants played in New York City, they wanted to offset the publicity being generated by Yankees slugger Babe Ruth, known as "the Sultan of Swat." So they called up big-hitting Moses Solomon and publicized him as "the Rabbi of Swat." But swat he did not, and his major-league career ended after two games.
Since being promoted by the Giants, the right-handed hitting Horwitz has been pinch-hitting and playing some in left field, mostly against left-handed pitchers. The eighth rookie to make his Giants debut this season, he is filling in for the disappointing Ortmeier, batting only .219 with one homer and out with a broken finger for the next few weeks.
"Hopefully I can force them to have to keep me," said Horwitz, who was batting .429 with two homers and four RBIs through his first eight games.
Horwitz was born in Santa Monica in 1982; his parents are Jewish, and while he was raised Reform, he credited one set of grandparents, who were Conservative, for "instilling a lot of Jewish traits in our family."
Horwitz attended religious school and had his bar mitzvah at Temple Judea in Tarzana. He also played in the JCC Maccabi Games as a 15- and 16-year-old, leading his L.A.-area team to national titles in 1996 in New Jersey and in 1997 in Seattle. For high school, he went to Crespi Carmelite, an all-male Catholic prep school in Encino.
From then until now, his attention was on school and baseball. "I still love my religion and I'm 100 percent Jewish blood," said the 6-foot-1, 185-pounder. "It's just that I had to focus on other things."
At U.C. Berkeley, Horwitz earned a bachelor's degree in American history and was a star on Cal's baseball team, especially when he hit .347 with a team-leading 47 runs batted in as a junior in 2003. After that fine season, the Oakland A's drafted him in the 26th round, but he didn't sign; when his stats dipped in his senior year, he went undrafted.
Considering there are 50 rounds in the draft, and that 1,498 players were selected in 2004, this was quite a blow. In fact, Horwitz was on the verge of enrolling in a chiropractic college.
But the Giants offered him $1,000 and a chance to play pro ball in Oregon, so he signed as a free agent.
"I was pretty close to hanging it up, but not because I don't love the game," he said. "It's just not the easiest thing financially to be playing in the minor leagues."
All he's done since then is hit — .347 for the team in Oregon, .349 in Georgia, .324 for Single-A San Jose, and this year, .309 in Double-A and then .326 after being promoted to Triple-A Fresno. He collected two batting titles and other honors along the way.
During that time, an MLB.com columnist wrote about the best Jewish players in the minors, giving big kudos to Horwitz. After that, Horwitz said much of the mail he started receiving was from Jewish fans.
"I'd say now, of my fan mail, about one-third to one-half of it is from Jewish fans," said Horwitz, who lives in the Phoenix area with his wife of a year and a half, Krysti. "They've been following my career, and they're really proud to see me up in the big leagues, or just to see the success I'm having."
Depending on the source, 145 to 190 Jews have played in the major leagues; currently there are 10 or 11. Now that Shawn Green and Mike Lieberthal are retired, Milwaukee's Ryan Braun and Boston's Kevin Youkilis are the biggest Jewish stars.
Braun even has a nickname to go with his success: "The Hebrew Hammer." It's a moniker he shares with the greatest Jewish slugger ever, Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg, who began his rookie season with the Detroit Tigers 75 years ago this month.
Sure, it's a coincidence, but how fitting for "the Rabbi" to break into the big leagues almost 75 years to the day after the great Greenberg.
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