May 27, 2009
The New Jew in Dodger Blue
Playing a position in baseball known for its abuse on the body, Brad Ausmus has proven to be one of the most durable Jews in major league history.
Entering this season, his 17th in the majors, the Dodgers’ new reserve catcher was only 10 games from having played in more games than any MOT in MLB history.
A three-time Gold Glove winner who was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame five years ago, Ausmus is 40 now and adjusting to his new role as a backup to one of the best catchers in the game: Russell Martin, who started behind the plate for the National League All-Star team last July. As of press time, Ausmus had only appeared in eight games.
But he’s off to a good start, batting almost .346 in 28 plate appearances as of press time Tuesday, and the Dodgers have opened hotter than any team he’s played for before.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Ausmus told The Journal in an interview last week. “This is a group of young, energetic, very talented players. So it’s been a lot of fun to come to the stadium, even though I am in a new role as a backup. It’s been exciting.”
Ausmus was sitting in front of his locker and opening fan mail as he spoke. It was Jewish Community Night at the ballpark — Ron Carner, the general chairman of the USA 18th Maccabiah Organizing Committee, was throwing out the first pitch. The Dodgers’ only Jewish player, Ausmus wouldn’t make an appearance in the game against the New York Mets. Still, he’s become the marquee Jewish name on a team with a storied historical roster.
Sandy Koufax, the greatest southpaw to every play, was joined on the mound by right-handed pitcher Larry Sherry, the MVP of the 1959 World Series whose brother, Norm, played catcher for the club from 1959 to 1962. The club has also laid claim to Mike Lieberthal, one of the best hitting Jewish catchers in history, and Steve Yeager, who like Ausmus was a defensive standout but unlike the Dodgers’ new backup posed for Playgirl.
And then, of course, there was Shawn Green, who ranks second in career home runs and hits among Jewish players. In 2002, Green set a number of Major League records when he hit four home runs in a game against the Brewers and notched 19 total bases. Though Green retired before last season, Jewish Dodger fans still haven’t recovered from his being traded to Arizona in 2005.
Ausmus isn’t the slugger Green was. (In 1999, he hit a career-high nine home runs.) But he’s also one of the best Jews to ever call a game.
“In a different era, Ausmus might have been considered one of the greats,” Howard Megdal writes in “The Baseball Talmud,” in which he ranks Ausmus the third-best Jewish catcher of all time. “But with base stealing deemphasized and power considered the key, a catcher who prevents thefts and provides little pop is less valuable than ever.”
Ausmus’ childhood was not steeped in Jewish identity, with a Protestant Christian father and a Jewish mother. As a child he celebrated Jewish holidays with his mother’s family, but Ausmus didn’t really identify as a Jew.
“I wasn’t raised with the Jewish religion, so in that sense I don’t really have much feeling toward it,” he said. “But, however, in the last 10 or so years, I have had quite a few young Jewish boys who will tell me that I am their favorite player or they love watching me play or they feel like baseball is a good fit for them because it worked for me or it worked for Shawn Green or other Jewish players at the Major League level.
“It has been a sense of pride. If you can have a positive impact on a kid, I’m all for it.”
While Ausmus is winding down his career, Major League Baseball is experiencing a bit of a Jewish resurgence.
Last year, 13 Jews played in the bigs; this year the number fell to 10, but three of those players are among the best in the game. Brewers’ left fielder Ryan Braun, Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis and Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler each were All-Stars last year and have been essential to their teams’ success this year.
“If you look at the big three of Jewish ballplayers — Youkilis, Braun and Kinsler — you’d have to say it is the golden age of Jews in baseball,” said Martin Abramowitz, “president, CEO and chief file clerk” of the Jewish Major Leaguers baseball card company.
Ausmus wouldn’t say if this stop would be the last of his career. He still feels like he could go out and play every day, but the Dodgers signed him to a one-year, $1 million contract, and at this stage Ausmus, whose family lives near San Diego, really doesn’t want to play anywhere but Southern California. That limits his options.
“I’m not going to worry about it,” he said. “So far I’ve had a lot of fun doing this in L.A.”