Rare times for As with two Jewish players on the team

There’s really no reason to kvetch about the Oakland A’s Jewish Heritage Night being scheduled on Tuesday, Aug. 19. For one thing, it’s a free parking Tuesday — nothing to scoff at, with parking normally $20 per car. For another, fans will get to see the A’s in the heat of the American League pennant race.

But then again, it’s hard not to think “If only,” as in: If only the A’s had scheduled the event for exactly two weeks earlier. Oh, what a simcha that fourth annual Jewish heritage game would have been!

The A’s starting lineup on that night at O.Co Coliseum in Oakland included not one but two Jewish players: Sam Fuld in center field and Nate Freiman at first base. Had there been 1,800 or so Jewish fans in attendance, there might have been dancing in the aisles.

Nate Freiman

It was the first time since 1972, when first baseman Mike Epstein and pitcher Ken Holtzman were on the team, that the A’s had two Jewish players in a game at the same time, let alone in the starting lineup together. (Trivia question: Who was the third Jewish A’s player in 1972? Go to end for answer.)

Unfortunately, chances aren’t good for a Fuld-Freiman starting lineup repeat at next week’s Jewish heritage game. Freiman starts only against left-handed pitchers, and it looks as if the New York Mets will be starting a right-hander. Moreover, as a few injured A’s players come off the disabled list, Freiman might get sent back to the minors.

Still, the past couple of weeks have been enjoyable for Jewish A’s fans, with Fuld coming back to the team in a trade on July 31, and Freiman getting called up from the minors three days later. Sixteen days ago, the A’s had zero Jews on the team, then suddenly, they had two.

Freiman’s story is known in these parts. The 6-foot-8 first baseman is the all-time home run leader at Duke University and was a standout for Team Israel in a World Baseball Classic qualifying tournament in 2012, batting .417 and belting four home runs in three games. The A’s picked him up before the 2013 season and, due to a complicated rule, had to keep him on their major-league roster for the entire season. He ended up appearing in roughly half of Oakland’s 162 games last year and batting .274 with four home runs.

But because he struggled against right-handed pitchers, his playing time was limited, and this year he was assigned to start the season with Triple-A Sacramento. After three months of tremendous hitting with the River Cats, Freiman was recalled by the A’s at the end of June — he homered in his first game back — then sent back down a month later. A week after that, he got called back up again when someone else got injured.

“His role right now is to face lefties, and that’s fine, because the platoons the A’s use are so successful,” said Ken Korach, the Oakland A’s radio play-by-play man and the subject of a “Talking with” interview in J. a few months ago (which means he, too, is Jewish).

Korach said he thinks Freiman, 27, has “a bright future” but doesn’t know the A’s long-term plan for him. “I don’t see him supplanting anybody [and becoming an everyday starter] in the foreseeable future,” Korach said.

“He’s a wonderful guy, very bright obviously,” he added. “And he’s as nice a guy as we’ve ever had here in Oakland: a gentleman and extremely cooperative with the media. He’s been great.”

Korach said nearly identical things about Fuld, 32, a former standout at Stanford University who has had an interesting and very unconventional year with the A’s.

Sam Fuld

A talented defensive player who often makes extraordinary, highlight-reel types of plays in the outfield, the veteran of three seasons with the Chicago Cubs and three with the Tampa Bay Rays found himself out of a job this winter — until the A’s signed him to a minor-league deal.

Fuld played very well in spring training, and quickly became a fan favorite for his defense and overall aggressive, smart style of play. He won a spot on the A’s opening day roster, but barely a week into the season, a better-hitting outfielder returned from an injury and Fuld was cast off the roster; the Minnesota Twins claimed him from waivers.

Flash-forward to the trading deadline on July 31. Needing some outfield help due to more injuries, A’s general manager Billy Beane traded pitcher Tommy Milone to the Twins to reacquire Fuld. As of early this week, he was batting only .265, but he had made several spectacular plays in center field.

“It was tough to see him go [back in April], but it was a numbers game,” Korach said. “He’s one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball, and he’s under the radar because he’s not a big name. I’ve followed his career for a long time and seen all the highlights of those incredible catches.”

Fuld is also very cerebral, from the way he understands the nuanced aspects of baseball to the book review he wrote for the Wall Street Journal a few months ago. His mom was a New Hampshire state senator and his dad a college dean, and his life is so atypical of most major leaguers that the New Yorker did a six-page article on him a few years ago.

As for his presumed Judaism, Fuld said in that article, “It’s a little tricky sometimes. I wasn’t bar mitzvahed. I feel like I’m almost letting some people down when I tell them, ‘Well, my mom’s Catholic, and I was kind of raised celebrating both.’ ”

JewishBaseballNews.com, which tracks the performance of Jewish major leaguers, considers Fuld Jewish, and so do many others.

“It’s great having both of these guys on the team,” Korach said.

Oakland’s Jewish heritage game opponent, the Mets, have had two Jewish players on their roster this year. However, first baseman Ike Davis was traded to the Pirates in April, and third baseman Josh Satin, a former U.C. Berkeley star, was sent to the minors in May for struggling to hit left-handed pitchers.

As for next week’s Jewish Heritage Night, the A’s sold out of their stock of 1,800 special section tickets weeks ago, for the second straight year. Groups that bought the biggest blocks of tickets are Temples Beth Abraham and Sinai in Oakland, Temple Israel in Alameda, Temple Beth Torah in Fremont, Camp Tawonga, the JCC of the East Bay, JCC Sonoma County and Yavneh Day School in Los Gatos.

Each heritage ticket includes a free souvenir item (a cap this year) and a voucher for dinner (either roasted garlic chicken or a veggie wrap with hummus). Much to the lament of some in the East Bay Jewish community, the food will not be kosher, nor are there any kosher prepared foods at the stadium.

Epstein, whose nine-year big league career included two pretty good seasons for the A’s in 1971 and 1972, will throw out the first pitch. He and Holtzman gave the A’s one of the most potent one-two Jewish punches in major league history in 1972, but in a rarely recalled fact, there was a third Jew on that team: Former Met Art Shamsky played eight games for the A’s that season, then retired due to back problems.

Oakland A’s Jewish Heritage Night, 7:05 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 19 vs. New York Mets at O.co Coliseum, Oakland. Promotional tickets sold out; check with synagogues or agencies for availability.  www.oaklandathletics.com/promotions


Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.