SOX TRADITION: Brad Goldberg is the latest in a long line of Jews who have pitched for the South Siders

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Early on, Brad Goldberg knew who he was – and who he wanted to be.

The 27-year-old White Sox rookie right-hander ate, drank and breathed baseball almost from his time in the crib. But he had another identity, and a role model to enhance that. Mother Marla Goldberg picks up the story.

“His favorite player growing up was Shawn Green,” she said of the lefty-hitting outfielder, then with the Toronto Blue Jays, who clubbed 328 homers in 14 seasons. “We had season tickets to Indians games by the baselines (at Progressive Field in Cleveland).  “Brad had all the autographs. Shawn came over and started signing.

“Brad wiggled in and says to Shawn, ‘You’re my favorite player. I’m Jewish like you.’ Shawn came over and signed.”

Green had the double distinction as a talented outfielder and Jewish player. The latter is always a tight fraternity, usually never much more than a minyan’s worth of bodies in the majors at one time.

The age-old stereotype of nice Jewish boys growing up to be doctors, lawyers and accountants, but not stud athletes, has never totally been purged even with the passage of time.  So the several handfuls of Jewish big leaguers always possesses a distinction all their own, no matter the players’ level of religiosity.

Now Goldberg joins the club, faced with the hardest task of all – remaining a member in good standing at the sport’s highest level. After briefly boosting his profile last fall and in early spring as a recruited member of Team Israel, he is an under-publicized cog in a huge Sox rebuilding project that has drawn praise throughout baseball.

Mega-prospects like Yoan Moncada, whom Goldberg played with at Triple-A Charlotte before being promoted together in mid-July, draw superstar levels of attention. But Goldberg has labored in near-anonymity in the Sox bullpen.  

His status as a Jewish big leaguer has drawn little notice, partially because Goldberg has struggled in two stints with the Sox during the 2017 season. He has been blessed with the proverbial rifle arm with radar gun readings touching 99 mph in the majors – firmly in vintage Sandy Koufax territory. Goldberg was clocked once at 100 mph at Triple-A Charlotte earlier in the year. Aroldis Chapman, the ninth-inning finishing touch on the Cubs’ World Series champions, was renowned for throwing 100-plus.

“Everyone in professional baseball is gifted from a physical standpoint,” Goldberg said. “With that being said, I work really hard at being in shape and being flexible and try to put my body in the best shape to throw as hard as I can. But also, at the same time – get people out. If you’re throwing 99 or 100 and not getting people out, who cares?”

Obviously, such arm power is awarded to only a select few. And yet when one throws near or at 100 mph, the feeling was described as being natural, without stress. Todd Worrell, a 1980s St. Louis Cardinals closer, said it was “like playing catch.”

Said Goldberg: “I don’t know if it feels like it’s playing catch. I’m not out there saying throw this harder, per se. But if you’ve got 98 in the tank, throw 98. If you proverbially back off the pedal, that’s normally when bad stuff happens. You don’t train to go 75 percent.”

Goldberg will need to work harder than ever before and exercise patience while hoping management is of the same mindset. In time, he’ll learn about the Koufax parable, in which the most admired Jewish athlete in U.S. history was so disgusted by an off-track pitching career he tossed his equipment in the trash at the end of the 1960 season, his sixth with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Equipment manager Nobe Kawano saved Koufax’s throwaways, dutifully returned them the following spring training and the rest was history. Koufax went on to amass six of the most unforgettable seasons in baseball annals.

Goldberg one day hopes to talk to Koufax, 81, one of the oldest Hall of Famers to show up at the annual Cooperstown induction.

“I’d love to meet him,” he said. “That would be awesome. If I had that opportunity, I’d jump at it.”

Until then, Goldberg is fortunate to draw upon the counsel of Sox pitching coach Don Cooper, whose development of young arms is one of the most distinguished in the game.

Better yet, Goldberg can always talk with Steve Stone, by now the most prominent Jewish figure in Chicago baseball history this side of Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf.  With connections on the field and in the broadcast booth to both the city’s teams going back to 1973, Sox TV color analyst Stone has tremendous commonality with Goldberg, who was raised in Beachwood, a heavily Jewish Cleveland suburb. Stone hailed from Lyndhurst, the next town over from Beachwood.

No matter the length or effectiveness of Goldberg’s career, he is in the record books as part of a long line of Jewish Sox pitchers led by Stone, the leading pitcher on the famed 1977 South Side Hitmen with 15 wins.

Local products also are firmly in the timeline. Glencoe lefty Ross Baumgarten was 13-8 in 1979. Five-foot-six southpaw Marv Rotblatt, one of the shortest pitchers in baseball history, was a product of Von Steuben High School in Albany Park. Rotblatt was one of two Jewish pitchers on the 1951 Sox along with right-hander Saul Rogovin, who led the American League with a 2.78 ERA.

Right-hander Barry Latman was a mainstay in the 1959 American League pennant-winners’ bullpen. Lefty Steve Rosenberg and right-hander Al Levine were late 20th century Sox.

Meanwhile, proverbial good-field, no-hit catcher Moe Berg, a true baseball renaissance man, had his best big-league season with the Sox in 1929. Berg later immersed himself in spycraft for the wartime OSS. He was poised to assassinate German nuclear scientist Werner Heisenberg in Switzerland late in 1944 if Heisenberg gave any hints at a public lecture the Nazi A-bomb program was progressing.

Ron Blomberg, baseball’s first-ever designated hitter with the New York Yankees in 1973, had a brief run on the 1978 Sox.

Two Jewish general managers are associated with negative aspects of Sox history.

Harry Grabiner was owner Charles Comiskey’s longtime top aide, presiding over the rise and fall of the “Black Sox” team accused of throwing the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg was imported by Bill Veeck in 1959 to run baseball operations. But at Veeck’s behest to ensure a repeat pennant in 1960, Greenberg traded away a mother lode of position-player prospects in first basemen Norm Cash and Don Mincher, outfielder Johnny Callison, and catchers Earl Battey and John Romano for overage veterans. These deals arguably cost the power-shorn Sox at least two pennants later in the 1960s.

An unusual Jewish figure, key in Goldberg’s development, has been a longtime minor-league Sox instructor. Native Dominican Jose Bautista now serves as Double-A Birmingham pitching coach. Bautista, a Cubs reliever in 1993-94, traced his Jewish roots through his mother to 1930s and 1940s refugees who settled in the Dominican Republic, one of the few to take in those fleeing the Holocaust.

Amid the present rebuilding program, any young Sox has to regard the process like an open tryout. They can advance as quickly as their ability and production merit.

Goldberg’s process to stick in the majors started as early as possible. He literally had baseball on the brain.

“At 18 months old, Brad started sleeping in his crib with a batting helmet, mitt and real baseball. He wouldn’t take off the helmet. His grandmother, Beverly Kroll, was driving him crazy about sleeping in the helmet, that it would cause brain damage.

“So we went to our pediatrician (to debunk Kroll). He starts laughing. He says, ‘Ever hear of head-bangers? The cure for that is wearing a helmet.’”

“From the time he was six months old, he was rolling a ball. All he wanted was the ball. ‘Ball’ was his first word, not ‘mom.’”

At 3, Marla Goldberg took her son to a “Mom and Me” class at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood.

“He insisted on going to the class with the helmet, mitt and ball,” she said. “He said, ‘I’m not going unless I have it.’ The teacher smiled, said come here and he says, ‘I love baseball.’”  

Goldberg was a Little League prodigy, playing on a traveling team at 7, making his first baseball trip out of Ohio at 9 and winning a national title at 10.

The same year, he amused his family with the question, “Mom, can I quit school and play baseball all the time?”

The answer of course was no, but the Goldberg family still worked the game into a lot of their talented son’s activities. His bar mitzvah at Anshe Chesed Fairmount was baseball-themed. All attendees received a cap with Goldberg’s No. 34 affixed to it.

Father Bryan Goldberg was an early baseball influence in the classic father-son transference of baseball acumen.

“We would work tirelessly, going all over Cleveland for lessons,” the younger Goldberg said. “We had an oval near our house where we’d do long-toss. We didn’t ever look at it as I’m some kid from Beachwood. Just trying to get as best as we can.”

Grandfather Larry Kroll was his top cheerleader, traveling with his teams to boost him.

“A huge supporter,” Goldberg said. “Anything I needed or wanted, he helped. He helped pay for some tournaments and some gear, anything to better my career. The biggest supporter s I had, he and my grandma.”

Eventually Goldberg would play in college, first at Coastal Carolina University, then in the Big Ten at Ohio State before being drafted in the 10th round by the Sox in 2013.

“He truly was self-motivating,” Marla Goldberg said. “I never met anybody with more passion or worth ethic.”

Goldberg had the usual ups and downs of a minor leaguer. At one point he was converted to starting. He also amped up his physical conditioning and shed some pounds.

He learned about Bautista’s Jewish background while pitching in the low minor leagues.

“I thought he was joking the first time he told me,” Goldberg said. “He’s a great guy, a great pitching coach. He’s phenomenal. He still has a good arm. He was just big in helping me mature as a person and a player when I was with him in Kannapolis (N.C.). It’s being more coachable and learning the pro game. That was my first half (pro) year in Kannapolis.”

Several web sites and other media outlets track the progress of Jewish pro baseball players. Goldberg did not identify with that distinction until he was recruited along with a slew of other American Jewish players to round out the Team Israel roster last fall for the World Baseball Classic.

“Playing in the World Baseball Classic opened my eyes a little bit, and got me a little bit more publicity,” he said. “It’s something that I hold near and dear. It was a great experience.

“Everyone was there for the same reason, just to better baseball in Israel.”

Goldberg said all the players felt a sense of identity and belonging on Team Israel’s roster.

“You kind of just see the Jewish population, how much they truly do like baseball,” Goldberg said. “They don’t have a lot of people they can identify with.”

But what went around back at Progressive Field now has come around. Goldberg is more than willing to serve in the Shawn Green role that impressed his younger self.

“I don’t walk around boasting on my chest that I’m Jewish,” he said. “If it can help someone and I can be a role model for some kid, I’m down for that.”

Goldberg saved victories against Great Britain and Brazil in the WBC qualifier in Brooklyn last September.

“They contacted me through my agent,” Goldberg said. “I got invited to big-league camp (for 2017 spring training). I said my priority was with the White Sox. But Team Israel made it to the second round (in Tokyo). I talked to Ricks, (general manager) Hahn and (manager) Renteria, and Coop (Don Cooper). Everyone said, go and do your thing. It’s not like you’re going on vacation. You’re going to play baseball, and at a high level.”

Said Marla Goldberg: “It was a hard time to make a decision on the WBC. But Cooper really encouraged him. When they played in Tokyo, Brad said he never heard noise like that in his life.”

Team Israel’s Cinderella story of upsetting some traditional baseball powers ended in Tokyo without any more Goldberg heroics. But mere victories did not tell the whole story.

“A lot of people had no expectations,” he said. “But we knew we had a pretty good ball club. Everyone on the team was a high-character guy and we jelled pretty quickly. We had a little bit of head start playing in Brooklyn.”

Now Goldberg’s main task is a classic one – keeping his eyes and ears open with veteran counsel at hand. He and Stone likely will have more chats. Stone’s knowledgeability about pitching with a 1980 AL Cy Young Award on his resume is a given. Like Goldberg, Stone was blessed with a high-90s fastball at a young age. But he did not move his game up to elite status until he mastered the curveball.

“We’ve talked briefly a couple of times,” Goldberg said. “Obviously he’s a good role model. I do want to talk more with him. Obviously he’s a pretty busy guy with the broadcasts. I’m all open ears and would love to pick his brain even more.”

Part of a rookie’s job is blending in with veterans. The more traditional hazing has been discouraged by politically-correct Major League Baseball management. But as Goldberg talked about his life and teams in the Sox dugout at Guaranteed Rate Field, third baseman Yolmer Sanchez, passing by, razzed him about getting the long-form interview treatment.

“Very nice, my friend,” Sanchez mused.

He’ll need all the support he can muster from teammates. Goldberg’s struggles with control mounted as the dog days of summer set in. Unlike Koufax’s early seasons, there were no dominant performances scattered among the wandering pitches.

“They keep telling me and I keep realizing more and more my stuff belongs here,” he said. “Just being more convicted in throwing the ball over the plate.

“Try to get better with your everyday approach vs. looking behind you or in front of you. That doesn’t do anything for you. Just stick with the process working with your coaches, your coordinators and your manager. If you stick to baseball, all the other stuff will take care of itself or you get weeded out.

“It’s pretty simple. It’s a pretty binary system.”

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