Here in Charm City, the Orioles are more than simply a local baseball team – they’re mishpachah. And for Jewish fans, that familial relationship runs especially deep, most visibly at Oriole Park’s kosher stand, the first and longest-running of its kind in Major League Baseball.
And while not immune to the frustrations of the team’s painfully slow start this season (“Gimme an Oy!”), it takes more than a few rough weeks to shake the faith of a community that spent more than three millennia working on a comeback.
Birdland’s Hebraic faithful have two extra reasons to cheer this season — infielder Danny Valencia and pitcher Richard Bleier. These landsmen are only the third pair of Jewish teammates in Orioles history to play for the Birds simultaneously (the first being outfielder Cal Abrams and pitcher Saul Rogovin, way back in ’55, and Valencia and hurler Scott Feldman in ’13).
Before a recent game, Bleier and Valencia were happy to grab a few minutes to schmooze with Jmore.
Jmore: So, nu, tell us what being Jewish means to you?
Valencia: I’m a very family-oriented person. Being Jewish is all about the big times my family spent together. My mom always got us together during the High Holidays. It was very important to her, and still is to me. [Valencia and Bleier] practice as much as we can during the season, but it’s not easy.
Bleier: Family is the biggest part for me, too. When I’m home [in Florida], my wife and I like to go to my cousin’s house for Shabbat on Friday nights. And then on the holidays, we’ll go and celebrate with her and her family. She’s Orthodox, so it’s different and special. But just growing up with the general faith and the values make for a lot of good memories.
Jmore: Is being a Jewish player in Major League Baseball particularly unique?
Bleier: Definitely. It seems once people find out I’m Jewish in the area I am, wherever it is, people tend to reach out. In Baltimore especially, more than a few people have invited me over for the holidays, but you know it’s tough with the games every night to go out for anything personal. But it’s definitely nice to know that the community is there for us.
Valencia: Judging by my last name, you’d have to dig a little bit to know I’m Jewish. But everywhere I go, it happens. Everywhere I go, Jews know other Jews in baseball, because there’s not many of us, and we’re embraced pretty much everywhere we find each other. I love that.
Bleier: My Dad always points out all the Jewish players [laughing]. The first thing he said when we got Valencia was, “There’s another Jewish player! Make sure you talk to him!” And I said, “Of course I’m going to talk to him, Dad. He’s on my team.”
Jmore: Any Jewish players you looked up to growing up?
Bleier: Shawn Green was such a big deal for me. My dad always talked about him so I knew he was Jewish, and when I got to play with him in the World Baseball Classic it was really cool because he was just as good a person as I imagined. That was pretty cool.
Valencia: Yeah. Shawn Green was obviously a big name. But growing up, I still heard more about the legend of Sandy Koufax than I heard about anyone else. He was idolized by my uncle, and we used to talk about him all the time. He was before my time, but [Koufax] still stands out.
Jmore: Richard, what was it like to play for Team Israel in 2012 at the World Baseball Classic?
Bleier: It was a really nice moment for me. The bond we had as players was something other than baseball. You’re in the clubhouse with people from all different backgrounds, but at the same time we all shared similar beliefs that really brought us together. I think it really helped us on the field. If they’d made it past the first round this year, it would have been tough not to get on a plane to try and help.
Jmore: Switching gears, any favorite Jewish foods?
Bleier: Challah bread — can’t get enough challah. And there’s a local Jewish restaurant back home in Florida that does shawarma and falafel. They’re all Israeli and just so extremely delicious. I can’t get enough of that either.
Valencia: You know our teammates joke with us. Like it’s all fun, but some of the stereotypes are true! Like I’m definitely a sucker for some cream cheese and nova with lox. And my mom’s potato latkes on the holidays are great.
Bleier: I totally need to add matzoh ball soup to my list! My dad makes the best matzoh ball soup! I don’t know what his secret is. He won’t tell anyone. But he will definitely get mad at me if I don’t mention his soup. It’s a big deal.
Valencia: Everyone knows it’s all about the extra broth! You need extra broth. That’s the flavor.
Jmore: OK, here’s the most important Jewish question of all. How often do you guys call your moms?
Bleier: At least a few times a week. I actually just got off the phone with her before this interview!
Valencia: Every day [laughing]. A call a day keeps that Jewish guilt away!
Jmore: Well, you may want to phone home about a special gift that we have for you today. Brace yourselves. [Reporter hands an intrigued Bleier and Valencia a pair of kippot bearing their full names and jersey numbers, purchased from Klipped Kippahs of Hollywood, Fla.] What do you think?
Bleier: Wow! Wow! Wow!
Valencia: Oh my goodness, with our names and numbers and everything!
Bleier: Priceless, huh? A custom yarmulke. This will go over so great. Thank you so much. Everyone is going to love these.
Jmore: Mazel tov! And thanks!
Ira Gewanter is a Baltimore-based freelance writer and a rabid baseball enthusiast.
Also see: 10 Questions With Orioles Reliever Richard Bleier — PressBox