Dodgers star rookie: A Jew named Joc from Palo Alto

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Ask Los Angeles Dodgers’ rookie outfielder Joc Pederson how his season is going, and the 23-year-old from Palo Alto will talk about the team.

“We’re playing great baseball, and that’s something we’re looking to continue to do,” a shy and wary Pederson said before a recent game. “It’s not how you start but how you finish, make a run and win the World Series.”

The Dodgers will be at AT&T Park in San Francisco for a four-game series next week against the Giants, and by the time it starts, they may have already clinched first place in the National League West standings.

Joc Pederson

And Pederson — whose mother is Jewish and who played for Team Israel in 2012 — is a big reason why, especially with his contributions before the all-star break, when he slammed 20 home runs and earned a start on the N.L. all-star squad.

Pederson was a favorite for the N.L. Rookie of the Year Award before going into a second-half slump. Coming into this week, he was hitting just .218 with 25 homers (only two since Aug. 18).

One of Pederson’s season highlights was competing in the Home Run Derby before the All-Star Game. The left-handed hitter drilled 39 balls over the fence and finished in second place.

With nearly every Pederson blast that night, his mother Shelly’s cellphone vibrated in the stands from all the incoming text messages. Many came from Shelly’s girlfriends from her long-ago journey through the minor leagues with her husband (and Joc’s father) Stu, at the time an outfield prospect. In 1985, Stu made it the majors, but played in only eight games with no hits in four at-bats for the Dodgers.

It was Shelly who in 2012 made a trip to Congregation Beth Sholom, the San Francisco synagogue where her late father, Larry Cahn, had his bar mitzvah, to produce proof of Joc’s Jewish heritage so he could play for Israel in the World Baseball Classic qualifying round that fall. He batted second and played right field for Israel, which failed to advance.

Capping an impressive rise through the Dodgers’ minor-league system, Pederson last year led the Pacific Coast League with 33 homers and won the circuit’s most valuable player award. In the offseason, the Dodgers traded Matt Kemp to San Diego to open the center-field job for Pederson, who has impressed many with his glove in addition to his power and his ability to draw walks.

Joc Pederson bats against the Washington Nationals last month. photo/jta-hillel kuttler

“He can run it down in center field with anybody,” said Dodgers broadcaster Rick Monday, who starred at the position for the team in the 1970s and ’80s.

Joc is part of a family full of … well, jocks. He learned the game from his father, as did elder brother Tyger, 25. Stu Pederson erected a batting cage in the backyard of the family’s home in Palo Alto, led drills and viewed videos of elite hitters with his boys.

When Stu coached for Palo Alto and Cupertino high schools, the brothers would serve as the batboys.

Tyger also was drafted by the Dodgers, in the 33rd round in 2013. His career has stalled, however, and this year he played at a low rung of professional baseball, for the San Rafael Pacifics and the Vallejo Admirals, a pair of independent teams. He also runs baseball camps and offers one-on-one instruction in Palo Alto; interested parties can contact him at [email protected].

Tyger Pederson said his family didn’t take part in any Jewish rituals when he was growing up, though he and his siblings sometimes went to bar mitzvahs or experienced Hanukkah at a friend’s house. “That was about the extent of it,” he said.

Earlier this year, however, Tyger went on a Birthright Israel trip, having been inspired by Israeli Alon Leichman, who plays baseball at San Diego State and was an amateur league teammate of Tyger’s on the Menlo Park Legends.

After the trip, Tyger helped run a one-day baseball clinic near Tel Aviv and met with officials about joining the Israel Association of Baseball as either a coach or a staffer. He said he’s interested, although one thing holding him back is army service; he also said he’d like to play for Team Israel in a tournament if the opportunity arises.

Joc and Tyger have a younger sister, Jacey, a high school soccer superstar at Palo Alto High; as a junior last year, she was the San Jose Mercury News’ player of the year, and she has accepted a scholarship from UCLA. Dad Stu also was a prep sports legend, as was their grandfather, Bob, a star quarterback on Palo Alto High’s undefeated 1950 football team and the school’s football coach for six years in the 1970s.

And then there’s the eldest sibling, brother Champ, 27, who nearly stole the show at the Home Run Derby.

That’s because of the embrace he received from Los Angeles Angels slugger Albert Pujols — an emotional moment that was caught by ESPN’s cameras and beamed to a national audience. Like Pujols’ daughter Isabella, Champ has Down syndrome.

Champ is an advocate on behalf of the genetic disorder, often speaking at schools and in front of youth groups; in August, he and Joc were on hand when the Dodgers dedicated a “Dodger Dreamfield” baseball field specially designed for kids with disabilities.

That ceremony and Pujols hugging his brother have proved to be two of the most memorable moments of the season for Joc, his home runs and amazing catches in the outfield notwithstanding.

“Albert’s a special human, and he does a lot for Down syndrome, so it was a pretty special night for everyone,” Joc Pederson said. “I think that was bigger than the Home Run Derby.”

Andy Altman-Ohr
of J. contributed to this report.