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MLB has more Jewish players than ever; none has Yom Kippur dilemma

JTA — For Jews and baseball fans, this is one of the most important weekends of the year.

Yom Kippur, Judaism’s holiest day, begins Sunday evening. That day will also kick off the final week of the MLB regular season, when the fight to make the playoffs comes down to the wire.

For some Jewish players, the overlap between these two events brings conflict. In a few famous examples, players have put their faith first. Sandy Koufax is still celebrated for declining to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur, but he’s not the only one to make that choice. Hank Greenberg, Ken Holtzman and Shawn Green — to name a few — have also sat out on the Jewish High Holidays. On September 26, 2001, Green ended a streak of 415 consecutive games played — the longest active streak at the time — by sitting on Yom Kippur.

This year, the decision was made easy for two of the game’s best Jewish players, Max Fried and Dean Kremer — each of whom has struggled with how to deal with the High Holidays in the past. Fried pitched Thursday night for the Atlanta Braves, while Kremer took to the mound Saturday for the Baltimore Orioles, meaning neither will be asked to play on Yom Kippur this year.

In 2019, Fried’s Braves faced the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Division Series, and the decisive Game 5 fell on Yom Kippur. Fried, who grew up in LA and idolized Sandy Koufax, was torn about whether he would pitch that night. Since he was not scheduled to start the game, he decided to fast for the holiday. But when the Braves starting pitcher was quickly pulled from the game, Fried was asked to pitch — and so he did, during a win-or-go-home playoff game, on an empty stomach. The Braves lost 13-1, and Fried surrendered four runs — though he did get fellow Jewish player and St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Harrison Bader to line out.

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Kremer, who has played for Team Israel and spoken about his proud Jewish identity, has not been faced with that kind of decision yet in his young career, though he has previously said he would not pitch on Yom Kippur.

Eighteen Jewish players appeared in MLB games this season, a likely record. But aside from Fried and Kremer, it’s unclear if any would sit out a game on a High Holiday. MLB.com reporter Jonathan Mayo, who himself is Jewish and produced the 2018 “Heading Home” documentary about Team Israel, said he thinks players sitting is “an exception, and far from the rule.” He guessed most, if not all, Jewish players would play on the holiday if faced with the decision. (Not all 18 are currently in the big leagues.)

As it turns out, because most teams play afternoon games on Sundays, only one Jewish player, San Francisco Giants outfielder and Team Israel alum Joc Pederson, is scheduled to play this year during Kol Nidre — the service, starting on Yom Kippur just before sundown, in which many Jews take part.

San Francisco Giants’ Gabe Kapler walks to the dugout prior to a baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds in Cincinnati, May 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)

The Giants, who are managed by another Team Israel alum, Gabe Kapler, play the Los Angeles Dodgers at 4:10 p.m. PT. Sunset in L.A. on Sunday is 6:47 p.m., meaning Jews across the city will be taking their seats in synagogue as the game winds down. Pederson has played on Yom Kippur in the past.

Monday, a common off-day for MLB teams, only features four games, all of which begin around 6:40 p.m. or 7:40 p.m. local time.

The topic of Jewish players choosing whether or not to sit on Yom Kippur has intrigued Jewish fans and writers for years. In 2020, Howard Wasserman published an extensive study on the so-called “Koufax Curse,” seeking to determine once and for all whether Jewish players who do play on the holiday perform worse, possibly because they didn’t follow Koufax’s lead.

Sandy Koufax, pitcher of Los Angeles Dodgers on March 18, 1964 at spring training. (AP Photo)

Wasserman’s conclusion: yes and no. He found that Jewish players who play on Yom Kippur do not necessarily play worse — in fact, some, like Alex Bregman, seem to perform especially well on the holiday — while teams with Jewish players do see a drop in results.

“Perhaps the solution is that no one should play on Yom Kippur, at least not teams with Jewish players…. Jews can recommit to their faith. And everyone can be ready to play the following day,” Wasserman wrote. “I make both suggestions with tongue in cheek, of course. MLB should not stop playing on Yom Kippur, nor should it urge Jewish players not to play. But these numbers might relieve Jewish players of the belief … that they lack the leverage to request the day off.”