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Jacob Steinmetz is the first Orthodox Jew to be drafted into the MLB

As Jacob Steinmetz prepared for his first international trip as a professional baseball player last week, he had a lot on his plate – literally.

The 20-year-old pitching prospect, who made history in July 2021 as the first Orthodox Jew drafted into the MLB, was scheduled to make his third start for the Hillsboro Hops, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ High-A affiliate in Oregon, when they traveled across the border to face the Vancouver Canadians.

But before he could take the mound Sunday afternoon, Steinmetz had to figure out where he would stay and what he would eat. Since he joined the Diamondbacks organization, the team has ordered kosher food for Steinmetz and put him up in hotels near the field so he can walk to practice on Saturdays.

But there were no hotels within walking distance in Vancouver. And the team was worried that the kosher food they normally ordered for him from the Western Kosher supermarket in Los Angeles would get stuck at customs. So Steinmetz’s family stepped in, helping him find local kosher restaurants and organizing an Airbnb near the ballpark.

The 1.98 m tall right-hander was not bothered by the logistical problems.

Jacob Steinmetz pitched for Team Israel against the Dominican Republic in Miami on March 14, 2023. (Source: DAN PASSNER/JTA)

“I kind of expected it to be a lot harder,” Steinmetz said of the orthodox life in professional baseball. “Thanks to the Diamondbacks, who have worked it all out, been so open and honest about everything and are so willing to adapt to whatever I need, it’s been a lot easier than I ever could have imagined. Thankfully, I haven’t had to worry too much about anything.”

Since being selected 77th overall in the 2021 draft, Steinmetz has worked his way up the many ranks of the Diamondbacks’ minor league system. He played 12 times in the Arizona Complex League in 2021 and 2022 before being promoted to Low-A last year, where he made 19 appearances with the Visalia Rawhide in Central California. He also had his breakout season at the 2023 World Baseball Classic with Team Israel, when he struck out three major leaguers in a game against the powerful Dominican Republic.

Steinmetz said the initial excitement that came with being likely the first Orthodox Jew to make it that far in the minor leagues has begun to fade.

“I’m used to it, so it’s hard to put it into words now,” Steinmetz said. “It was definitely very cool at first, and I think it was maybe a little bit, no pressure, but I kind of didn’t take it that seriously. But now I can kind of just focus on baseball.”

Even though his uniform and zip code change, Steinmetz has developed a unique routine. The organization orders frozen kosher meals that are delivered to each game site. Common dishes include chicken tenders, spaghetti with meatballs and pulled brisket. He orders grape juice from Amazon Prime for Shabbat and matzo for Passover.

And while observing the holiday has been a learning curve for some of his coaches, Steinmetz said they follow his lead — even if they sometimes text him on Shabbat.

However, they would understand if he sometimes had to miss a training session or a game due to religious restrictions in Judaism.

Steinmetz speaks of trust in teammates

“There’s definitely some explaining that needs to be done,” Steinmetz said. “But at the end of the day, they just trust me with a lot. And I don’t take that lightly. Whenever I can be there, I try to be there. Whenever I have a little dilemma, I tell the coaches and they always say, ‘Hey, whatever you need, don’t worry about it.'”

Minor league teams, especially in Single-A, are often located in rural areas, far from Jewish communities or synagogues. Steinmetz sometimes holds a brief Shabbat service alone in his room, and although he pitched on Shavuot last month, he avoids playing on Shabbat or Jewish holidays whenever possible.

As a pitcher who only has to play once a week or so, it’s easier. And he got used to these makeshift arrangements when he was a promising teenager traveling across the country with his father, Elliot Steinmetz, the men’s basketball coach at Yeshiva University.

“Especially because I took part in tournaments as a child where we were kind of in the middle of nowhere, my father and I, and spent Shabbat alone, I’ve definitely gotten used to it,” Steinmetz said.

In the clubhouse, Steinmetz said, his teammates would occasionally ask him questions about his Orthodox lifestyle – particularly the laws of kashrut and Shabbat. And, of course, whether McDonald’s serves kosher food. (Outside of Israel and Argentina, this is not the case.)

“I try to keep it as simple as possible,” Steinmetz said. “I explain the basics to them, like what makes food kosher. I tell them it all depends on how the animal is killed and how the food is prepared from then on.”

Steinmetz said his teammates have begun to understand and are even teaching each other.

“Sometimes someone asks what kosher is, and one of my teammates says, ‘Oh, it just means the animal is killed a certain way and the food is prepared a certain way,'” he said. “And then they look at me and say, ‘Is that right?’ And I say, ‘Yeah, that’s pretty much it.'”

Steinmetz said some of his teammates come from cities with large Jewish communities, such as Miami or Memphis, and are used to seeing Jews go to synagogue on Saturdays. But for others, Judaism is completely foreign.

“There was a kid from the middle of nowhere in Indiana who I was pretty close with and who had never met a Jew,” Steinmetz said. “So explaining everything to him was a little different than explaining it to other guys.”

Steinmetz’s top priority, of course, is his game — and that’s improving. He began 2024 with Visalia, posting a 3.60 ERA with 59 strikeouts in 50 innings — solid numbers for a starter — before being promoted to Hillsboro on June 18. He had nearly cut his ERA in half from 2023, while also drastically reducing the number of walks he allowed.

“Last year I had a little bit of trouble with control,” Steinmetz said. “Even in games where I didn’t get a lot of walks on base, I was still behind in the count. I think this year I’ve just become a lot more confident with all my throws in the zone, so that allows me to thrive more. Just make contact early, get out early and get deep into the game.”

One of Steinmetz’s closest friends in Visalia was his roommate Druw Jones, the 2022 second pick and son of former MLB star Andruw Jones.

“He’s great,” Jones told JTA before Steinmetz was called up. “He’s one of my best friends on the team. Just a good guy to be around, always a good vibe.”

Jones, who grew up in a Christian home, said he often asked Steinmetz questions about his Jewish upbringing and practices – even though he had never tasted Jewish delicacies himself.

On the field, Steinmetz wears his identity proudly on his chest – or more accurately, on his wrist. An Israeli flag is sewn onto his Rawlings glove and he wears a headband with the Israeli flag under his cap. Steinmetz, who is not very active on social media, said the two accessories not only keep his long hair under control but are also his way of making his voice heard.

“When people see my headband, sometimes they say, ‘Hey, I stand with Israel’ or ‘Cool headband,’ things like that,” he said. “It just shows who I am and doesn’t hide from it.”

Steinmetz’s family was in Israel on October 7 to visit his brother, who was taking a gap year, but Jacob was unable to accompany them due to baseball commitments. He returned from Arizona to Woodmere, New York, on October 6 and spent the Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah holidays with family and friends. Like many Orthodox Jews, he did not learn of the Hamas attack until after the holidays.

“We found out about it through the synagogue, of course, and nobody really knew what had happened until we all turned on our phones afterwards,” Steinmetz recalled. His thoughts immediately went to his family. “I saw a text message pop up saying they were OK,” he said.

In the months that followed, the war between Israel and Hamas was hardly mentioned in conversations with his teammates, Steinmetz said.

“Nobody has said anything overtly anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist or anything like that,” he said. “I’ve only heard words of support and things like that. It’s just not talked about that much.”

Steinmetz’s family follows his starts online and occasionally travels to see him pitch – including at a game in early June in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., where Steinmetz’s father, grandfather and a handful of family friends traveled for what was his second-to-last start with the Rawhide.

“It’s fun to watch your kids work hard at something and then accomplish it,” Elliot Steinmetz told JTA. “Watching him and knowing how hard he works at it, how much it means to him, and seeing him out there obviously enjoying it and getting better every day, it means a lot to me. It’s awesome. I’m proud of him.”

Elliot said he attended two of his son’s games last year and two so far this season. The game in Rancho Cucamonga was the first game of the year that Michael Steinmetz, Jacob’s grandfather, attended in person.

“This is very special,” Michael Steinmetz told JTA. “He worked very, very hard for this. He always believed he could do this while preserving his beliefs and his customs. And he works very hard to prove that, I think on both sides. I’m very proud of him.”

The elder Steinmetz also referenced fellow Orthodox athletes and friends Jacobs, Elie Kligman, who was drafted after Steinmetz in 2021, and Ryan Turell, the former YU basketball star who spent the last two seasons in the NBA’s minor leagues.

“I think it’s great that he’s the first, that he’s pioneering and has proven to people that we can do it,” said Michael Steinmetz. “We’re just normal people and he’s just trying to prove that.”

Turell, who played for Elliot Steinmetz at Yeshiva, also attended some of Steinmetz’s games, and the two meet occasionally in LA, where Turell grew up. Steinmetz said they have talked about their parallel paths as Orthodox professional athletes.

“I’ve asked him about it a couple of times. It sounds kind of similar to me,” Steinmetz said. “He’s running around in the middle of nowhere and stuff. And of course in the G League it’s a little different and harder because they play every day.”

Back home on Long Island, his success made him something of a celebrity.

“When I came home during the off-season and went to synagogue on Saturdays, the kids would come over and say what was going on,” Steinmetz said. “And they would look at me like I was something, even though I’ve been going to the same synagogue for 17 years.”

But he understands why younger kids want to meet the orthodox pitcher who could one day make it to the major leagues. He said, “It’s definitely cool for them to see that there’s someone out there who can do that.”