Is This The Golden Age of Jewish Baseball?
Danny Valencia’s parents, a Cuban immigrant and a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn, met as accountants in Chicago. Although many Cubans are crazy about baseball, it was Valencia’s mom who pushed him to play the game. “My mom has always been a huge baseball fan,” Valencia says. “When I go 0-for-4, the only person I don’t want to hear from is her.”
Not that Valencia went hitless often in 2010. After being called up in June, he hit .311, the highest of any rookie that year and the best by a Twins newcomer in 46 years. Valencia’s .394 average with runners in scoring position led the American League. “We were in dire straits for a third baseman, and Danny was our best choice,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire says of the 2006-08 minor league All-Star. “He just had to grow up a little bit in a lot of areas and he’s still working at it.”
Indeed, Valencia’s second season didn’t go nearly as well, but the talkative 26-year-old, who transferred from North Carolina-Greensboro to Miami after his freshman year, has never lacked confidence. “Danny definitely believes in himself and I think it rubs off on the team,” says outfielder Denard Span. “He felt like he belonged as soon as he came up and he has proven that.”
He is also a member of the tribe, although people can be confused by his surname. “People are shocked at first that I’m Jewish,” says Valencia, who disappointed all potential Jewish mothers-in-law hoping to fix him up with their daughters by getting engaged this year. “I get teased in the clubhouse about being Jewish, but we all get teased about something. Going to Hebrew school and being a bar mitzvah…made my mom really happy. I wished I had been out playing baseball, but looking back at it now, I’m happy I did it.”
New York Mets
It wasn’t inevitable that Ike Davis would become a major-leaguer, but it sure didn’t hurt that his father, Ron Davis, was a relief pitcher from 1978-88, most famously for the 1981 American League champion New York Yankees. “Baseball was something that I thought when I was pretty young I could play at a higher level if I worked hard enough because my dad was a big-leaguer and I had some talent,” says Davis, a 24-year-old Scottsdale, Arizona native.
A standout first baseman during his three seasons at Arizona State University, Davis was selected by the Mets in the first round of the 2008 draft and promoted to the majors in 2010. Davis’ rookie year put him among baseball’s top newcomers and among the best in Mets history. He was hitting .302 and was on pace for more than 30 homers and 100 RBI before he suffered a serious ankle injury on May 10, which sidelined him for the season.
“Ike’s got tremendous poise, especially for a guy his age,” says Mets catcher Mike Nickeas. “I’m sure part of it is because he was exposed to a tremendous amount of knowledge about this game at a really young age, but really it’s just his character. He’s funny. He’s quick-witted. He’s got a tremendous future in front of him.”
While putting together family trees as a youngster, Davis learned that many of his Jewish mother’s relatives had perished in the Holocaust. “I’m not really religious, but I appreciate what the Jewish side of my family has gone through,” Davis says. “I love history. If I wasn’t playing baseball, I would probably be a teacher. I can see myself doing that after baseball.”
For now, Davis is enjoying being a standout Jewish athlete in New York, the nation’s most Jewish city. “It’s good for the fans to see some Jewish athletes on the field, but honestly, for kids, school is way more important than sports because the chances of making the big leagues are so small,” Davis says.