By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Baseball is forever for Itamar “ET” Steiner, even though the former Tel Aviv Little Leaguer has likely played his last competitive contest as an outfielder.
The greatest game ever passed down from father to son will be imprinted the rest of his life on Skokie resident Steiner, starting in his first semester toward a projected business management major at the University of Illinois in Champaign. Baseball bonds will be firm from his late father David Steiner to “ET” no matter what path he travels.
The experiences they shared rooting for the Cubs and traveling to more than 20 big-league ballparks are now supplemented by the younger Steiner’s all-time inclusion in the baseball record book. His presence in the ledger has more to do with their father-son relationship than any on-field feat “ET” racked up in Israel or later for Niles North’s baseball team.
Itamar Steiner forever will be listed as the Cubs’ 40th-round draft pick in 2018.
The story is right out of a movie, featuring triumph and tragedy with the ending yet to be written. David Steiner had many more years to live, many more ballparks to visit with his son and possibly the mutual enjoyment of several more Cubs World Series triumphs, one of which he was lucky enough to witness. But Steiner died at 51 in a traffic accident in rural Uganda on Dec. 26, 2016 in the company of his son, who was only slightly injured. Now the best of the elder Steiner, baseball- and philosophy-wise, will be carried on by “ET.”
“He told me all the time he’s not living his life to make money. He’s not living his life to get ahead of anyone else,” he said of his father, described by Steiner family video profiler Josh Frydman of WGN as an “educator, real-estate investor, mediator and filmmaker.”
“ET” enjoyed a whirlwind of publicity in June, when he was besieged by interview requests in his counselor’s job at Habonim Dror Camp Tavor in Three Rivers, Mich., south of Kalamazoo, after the Cubs announced his drafting. More recently, with his bags almost packed for Champaign, Steiner sat down to take stock of his situation and how family is forever, just like his draft-choice listing, in a more relaxed manner with Chicago Jewish News. A major precept of Judaism is if one talks about a departed loved one, he is never really gone. Through his son, David Steiner became flesh-and-blood with multiple layers of sensibilities.
“He made himself a comfortable life,” said “ET.” “Once he got there, he was able to start making an impact, in a lot of ways. At a building he bought on Chicago Avenue, he’d employ homeless people in the area to do little jobs for him. Not only did he employ them, but he’d invite them to the restaurant, where they would read (magazines) and he’d buy them pizza. He’d give them purpose.
“He valued every person no matter his socio-economic status or race or class. He educated kids all the time about social justice and equality of human values.”
All David Steiner ever was is something to which “ET” aspires.
“I’m definitely my dad’s son,” he said. He is equally close with his Israeli mother, Irit Revivo, with whom he resides in Skokie when not at school. “ET” also has two sisters. His parents divorced after 20 years of marriage in 2016, but his relationship with his father remained as strong as ever.
“ET” accompanied his father in another role – documentarian. David Steiner traveled to Uganda at holiday time in 2016 to profile a pair of Sudanese refugees who had been deported from Israel. “ET” had gotten to know the refugees when he lived in Israel as a youth. WGN showed clips of Steiner, showing his post- World Series loyalties, batting a baseball around a courtyard to the Africans. He dressed up as Santa with a Cubs World Series shirt underneath.
“Baseball was a religion and Wrigley Field their temple,” Frydman said.
“He’s like, this is the place I feel the most spiritual,” “ET” described his father’s affection for Wrigley Field. Later, he branded his father as an “intellectual,” perfect for loving baseball as a “thinking man’s game.”
The post-championship euphoria and the joy of a reunion with the Sudanese came to a shocking end. Three hours into a five-hour bus ride to see other refugees on the day after Christmas, a car swerved into their lane and slammed into the bus head-on. David Steiner was the only fatality, a seemingly cruel cosmic act on a man practicing nothing but “tikkun olam.”
“Is it unfair to me? Yeah, it’s unfair,” Itamar Steiner said. “I don’t think it happened for a specific reason. It could have happened to anyone. Unfortunately, it happened to someone who had such a big impact on so many people — and could have had even more of an impact.
“I think I’m a better person, but I’m more of someone who has a responsibility to people now. I feel so strongly that we lost him, but I’m here and I’m in a position to carry on a lot of the things he did. I got much more into social justice.”
Continuing to play for Niles North provided some emotional relief for the left-handed-hitting Steiner. He was realistic about his own talents with no pretensions of attracting pro scouts or a college recruiter. “I was never a great ballplayer,” he said, including his time as a pitcher-outfielder for the Tel Aviv Comrades in a 10-team league for 11-and 12-year olds, the only such baseball circuit in Israel.
“ET” would move on with his life as college beckoned. He concentrated on academics, amassing a 3.80 GPA at Niles North. He took courses in Hebrew, in which he was fluent, to easily ace the foreign-language requirement in school. He even taught Hebrew to language novices.
But, unbeknowest to the teen-ager, family friend David Rugendorf did not want the father-son Steiner relationship to go unrecognized in the post-championship Cubs era. He assembled a package of information and shipped it to Jason McLeod, the Cubs’ senior vice president of scouting and player development, and a longtime close associate of team impresario Theo Epstein.
As Steiner finished out his senior year, McLeod and John Pedrotty, his regional scout, thought of the impact the ceremonial selection of Steiner could make on his life.
“As a father and a human being, it’s hard not to be touched by the story,” McLeod said. “It’s tragic. However, the correspondence with their good friend David and the follow-up stories he told me about ‘ETs’ father just struck me.
“He seemed like a man who really cared about helping others, especially those who may have been disadvantaged, and it seemed like he was exposing ‘ET’ to that. I cannot speak highly enough of how much (Rugendorf) cares for this family and he was big in helping me understand the story, the person and ‘ET’ much better.
“With that as a backdrop, I thought it was something pretty cool that we could do for this family. We are in a position as an industry to positively affect some lives and this was one of those times we thought we could help bring some joy to the Steiners.”
When “ET” heard McLeod’s voice announce his selection on his phone while standing in the dining room at Camp Tavor, he looked skyward and said, “You hear that, buddy?”
“It shows a lot about Theo, Jed and McLeod,” Steiner said recently. Although he never met the management triumvirate, he was invited to Wrigley Field to sing in the seventh inning alongside Cubs fan/comedian Jeff Garland.
Picked in the draft’s final round, Steiner was the 1,208th player chosen. Teams often use late-round picks to emphasize human interest stories of players who were not fated to be signed.
“ET” will miss playing, to be sure. “I was playing catch a few weeks ago at camp,” he said. “Just throwing the ball around, I wanted to get back on the field.”
But an adept consciousness for his favorite game should not go to waste. “I’ve got a baseball mind. I could use it,” Steiner said.
Although his choice of careers has yet to be determined, a baseball front-office gig is on his radar. “ET” has plenty of role models in many new-age executives who did not play at a high level. Epstein is foremost in this new breed.
“Of course, c’mon. I would do any job working for the Cubs,” Steiner said. He’s got a pathway treaded upon by others in the game, and McLeod said it is not blocked at all.
“There are so many more applicants wanting to get into professional sports over the past 5-10 years who don’t come from a traditional playing background,” the Cubs development chief said. “You’ve got to separate yourself from the pool somewhat by showing an employer why they’re going to benefit from having you in their front office.
“Intelligence and passion are a given, so what else will you bring to the table? Humility, work ethic, ability to communicate with others, how others respond to you, outside interests….these are all areas I feel candidates can separate themselves. More than anything, I’d say don’t get caught staring too far out into the future where you miss what’s right in front of you. Work hard and stay humble.”
From somewhere, facilitator/Cubs nut David Steiner might want to bring some parties together.
“If I were to talk to Theo or Jason or any of them, we see potential in you, bring you into the organization in a different way, come to an analytics job, I’d be willing,” said “ET.”
Nothing David Steiner would not do. So if his son is ever fortunate to work in baseball, it will still be a father-son affair. This baseball bond is too strong for corporeal life to break.