This certainly won’t be the first time baseball’s opening day coincides with the first Passover seder, but the confluence seems particularly appropriate this year.
Or, why is this spring training different from all other spring trainings?
It turns out that this winter saw the greatest exodus of Jewish major leaguers in the history of the sport. Six of last year’s record-tying 13 big-league Jews will begin the 2007 season wearing different uniforms, including three who rank among the Top 10 Jewish players in career stats..
After fading as a starter for St. Louis in the second half of last season — and being left off the postseason roster that eventually took the Cardinals to a World Series title — Jason Marquis made the best of his free agent status to sign a three-year, $21 million contract with the Chicago Cubs.
If Marquis wins as few as four games this year, it will vault him past Barry Latman into seventh place on the all-time victory list for Jewish pitchers, with 60.
If Marquis (career record: 56-52) has three solid years as a starter with the Cubs, he could become just the fifth Jewish pitcher with 100 victories — and he’d still be only 32 years old. The other four 100-game winners are former Oakland Athletic Ken Holtzman (174), Sandy Koufax (165), former San Francisco Giant Steve Stone (107) and Dave Roberts (103 — but he lost 125, including two for San Francisco in 1979).
Mike Lieberthal, a catcher who had spent the entirety of his 13-year career with the Philadelphia Phillies, signed a one-year, $1.15 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers to serve as a backup. Incidentally, Lieberthal’s first career hit and home run both came in Los Angeles.
Apparently in the twilight of his career, Lieberthal is fifth among Jewish home-run hitters with 150, and seventh in runs batted in (609) and hits (1,137).
Scott Schoeneweis struggled in the Toronto bullpen during the first half of 2006 and was traded to Cincinnati, where he went 2-0 with a 0.63 earned run average and three saves in 16 appearances. The second-half success with the Reds helped the lefty earn a three-year, $10.8 million contract from the New York Mets, the fifth franchise of his career.
Schoeneweis is particularly effective against left-handed hitters, whom he has held to a .231 average over his eight years in the majors. He has 466 career strikeouts, 10th overall in the history of Jewish pitchers.
If he makes 41 relief appearances this year, Schoeneweis will pass Larry Sherry and former Giant Al Levine to move into third place on the all-time appearance list for Jewish relievers.
Late-season call-up Jason Hirsch was traded from the Houston Astros — where he went 3-4 with a 6.04 ERA — to the Colorado Rockies.
Pitching to Astros backstop Brad Ausmus last year, Hirsch was half of one of the few Jewish batteries since the days of Koufax and the Sherry brothers (pitcher Jose Bautista and catcher Bob Melvin also formed a Jewish combo on the 1989-91 Baltimore Orioles).
The Boston Red Sox will open with at least two fewer big-league Jews than their 2006 complement of four. Outfielder Adam Stern was the “player to be named later” in the deal with Baltimore for catcher Javy Lopez, and outfielder Gabe Kapler retired to begin a managing career at the helm of the Boston’s Single-A Greenville franchise in the South Atlantic League.
If Kapler works his way back to the major leagues as a manager, he could join Melvin, who manages the Arizona Diamondbacks, as the only Jewish skipper in the bigs.
The seven big-league Jews who return to their 2006 teams are Mets outfielder Shawn Green; Ausmus, first baseman Kevin Youkilis and lefty pitcher Craig Breslow of the Red Sox; second baseman Ian Kinsler and right-handed reliever Scott Feldman of the Rangers; and lefty reliever John Grabow of the Pittsburgh Pirates.