The First Religious Jew Drafted to the MLB: An Exclusive Interview with Jacob Steinmetz.
The pitcher spent a few weeks of his off-season learning at Aish in Jerusalem, Israel.
Most young Minor League Baseball draftees spend the off-season training, resting, reuniting with family, and preparing for another intense year of competitive sports. But Jacob Steinmetz, the right-handed pitcher drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks last summer, is not your typical MLB draftee – he’s the first religious Jew drafted to the MLB.
Steinmetz, who adheres to Jewish law, including prohibitions of travel, operating any electrical equipment on Shabbat, an all Kosher diet, and many other unique requirements, spent his off-season in Israel, in the holy Old City of Jerusalem, immersing himself in the Jewish culture and religion. His time in Jerusalem was spent at Aish HaTorah, participating in classes and speaking with world-class rabbis. While his teammates worked out and sharpened their skillsets, Jacob prepared for the next season by enriching and exploring his Jewish identity before facing a year of unique challenges.
I’ve spent much of my life playing baseball, even against Steinmetz a couple of times. I’m spending my gap year in Israel learning at Aish’s Gesher program, and had the chance to sit down with Jacob for an exclusive Aish.com interview and gain a unique perspective on his experience as the first religious Jew in professional baseball, and what it means to him to spend part of the off-season in the Jewish homeland.
Sammy: How does knowing that there are Jews across America who look up to you as proof that Jewish kids can accomplish their dreams that they may have thought were unattainable affect you?
Jacob Steinmetz: Leading up to the draft, I didn't think about it too much. I was kind of just doing my thing, playing baseball. But now that it's been a couple of months since the draft, knowing that Jewish people view me as an inspiration definitely motivates me. I've had people stop me in shul and even on the street in Israel, random people who say that I'm an inspiration to them or their kids. It really pushes me to be as successful as I can be, for them.
Sammy: Before the draft, were you nervous about going to a specific team, being sent to a specific area, or getting picked by a certain round?
Jacob: Not really. Leading up to the draft, I was just trying to play the best baseball that I could. And I just figured that if it was meant to be, then I would get drafted as high as possible and it would all just work out. And if not, I would just go to college and then in a couple of years hopefully get drafted even higher.
Sammy: You played in Florida for most of this past year. Did you encounter any teammates or coaches that treated you differently because of your faith, and how did you react to that?
Jacob: No, I’ve never really felt different. Everyone's been very accommodating, whether it was in Florida or travel teams in past years or even the Diamondbacks now. Everyone's been very accommodating, whether it's finding kosher food for the week or getting Shabbat accommodations at a nearby hotel, they've been very accommodating without making me an exception.
Sammy: In the Diamondbacks organization, when you're wrapping your tefillin, eating your kosher food, saying your prayers, do people ask you what are you doing? Are they curious and want to know more? How do you respond?
Jacob: It definitely comes up. Teammates will ask me why I'm eating different food or why I can't get in the car on Saturdays, they're all just curious. They've all been very helpful with it, some even carry my stuff to the field on a Saturday. I've even given some of them my food to try. They've all seemed to enjoy it.
Sammy: With so many eyes are on you and being such an inspiration to so many, what do you hope to accomplish for the Jewish community via the special position you're in?
Jacob: My goal is the same as it's always been. To try to get to the majors as fast as I can and to stay there for as long as I can. The longer I can play baseball at a high level, the longer Jewish kids across American can see someone like them living the dream. And hopefully, a few kids that watched me will be inspired to go for their dreams one day.
Sammy: There have been other Jewish baseball players. Players like Ian Kinsler, Dean Kremer, Max Fried, Alex Bregman. Players that have had Bar Mitzvahs and some Jewish upbringing. When you were on your journey, were these people an inspiration to you?
Jacob: It’s definitely cool seeing other Jews in sports. But honestly, for me, I didn't really think about playing professionally until a couple of years ago, so I never really looked into it that much. Now that I'm in the position that I am, it's definitely amazing to see.
Sammy: You thought it was really important to come to yeshiva in Israel during the off-season. What are some specific reasons you decided it was so important to spend some of the little time you have off here? And what have you gained from this experience so far?
Jacob: This year is usually a year that my friends and I would take a gap year in Israel, so I missed out on that. When I had the chance in the off-season, I figured I might as well come and get a shortened experience for the three and a half weeks I have, to spend some time with my friends who took this journey with me and to grow as a Jew and as a person. And I thought Israel and Aish would be a great spot for me.
Sammy: To go through the journey you’ve gone through requires having such a strong Jewish inner core and instilled Jewish values that you can always depend on. Where did you get such a strong Jewish identity that gives you the confidence that you can weather any challenge?
Jacob: Definitely from my parents. My mom and my dad have been so supportive of me throughout my whole journey. I started playing travel baseball when I was seven years old. They traveled with me to the middle of nowhere, stayed at a hotel near the field with me, and walked to the games with me. This always just reminded me that no matter what, I just have to remember that I'm Jewish and that's just who I am and who I'll always be. But at the same time, they showed me that the life I was pursuing was not impossible and like everything, there could be a healthy balance.
Sammy: While you are out in Arizona, what helps you keep grounded and reminds you who you are and what your religion means to you?
Jacob: I think praying every day and putting on tefillin every morning. It's definitely something that is a daily reminder of who I am, who I'll always be, and what my journey's been like up until this point. I've always put on tefillin every morning and it’s powerful to see that that hasn’t and isn’t going to change.
Sammy: What does a day out in Arizona playing baseball for the Diamondbacks look like for you?
Jacob: We have pretty busy days. We'll get to the field in the afternoon. I had a shortened season over the summer, so I haven't seen what a full season looks like yet. But we would get to the field in the afternoon, work out, do our throwing for the day, and then there would be games at night. So if you're pitching in those, you'd go pitch, work out after. And if not, you'd do your throwing first, work out and then go support your teammates.
Sammy: In Arizona where you're the only religious Jew in the organization, how do you spend Shabbat, your day of rest, after such a crazy week playing baseball?
Jacob: I stay at a hotel near the field. The team has been very supportive. They've been trying to avoid me pitching on Saturdays at this point. But we usually have practices on Saturdays. I'll walk to the field, practice, and then spend a little bit of time there hanging out with a bunch of the guys. Some of the guys will even stay a little longer with me just because they know I have nothing else to do later in the day. Then I'll walk back to the hotel and I'll just spend my Shabbat how everyone spends their Shabbat – reading, eating and sleeping.
Sammy: What has it meant to you that you're now a hero to a lot of kids? And how has the tight Jewish community helped you?
Jacob: It's just nice to see all the support I've been getting, whether it's people in Arizona, or people while I'm in Israel here, or even just at home just offering me words of encouragement. When I'm in Arizona, people even invite me to their homes for Shabbat and holidays. Everyone's been very supportive and it's definitely helped me along the way.