Jewish World Review June 16, 1999 / 2 Tamuz, 5759

In the shadow of Hank Greenberg, a slugger emerges

By Steven Rosenberg

FOR JEWISH BASEBALL FANS in Detroit it’s been a long wait.

In 1946, Hall of Fame first baseman Hank Greenberg played his last game at Tiger Stadium. Now, nearly 53 years later, another Jewish player is beginning to make his mark in Motown, and at this point there may be no telling just how far he may go.

At 23, Tiger center fielder Gabe Kapler has the look of a future star. The Southern California native is already a legend for what he accomplished last year in the minors. Last year the 6-2, 208 lb. Kapler was the baseball minor league player of the year. His offensive numbers were huge — a .322 batting average, 28 home runs, 319 total bases, 47 doubles and a minor league leading 144 RBIs. After a strong spring training this year, the Detroit front office thought so highly of Kapler that they traded their speedy outfielder Brian Hunter away so Kapler could play every day. Since becoming a regular Kapler has already hit 8 home runs and knocked in 21 RBIs — not phenomenal stats, but respectable for 135 at bats.

Hollywood born, Kapler is an avid bodybuilder who has already earned a national television contract endorsing the KSwiss athletic line. Unusual for a rookie, especially for a player with less than half a season’s experience in the majors. In fact, five years ago Kapler was still playing high school baseball and only dreamed of getting drafted. After attending Cal-State Fullerton and Moorpark Jr. College, Kapler was a late-round draft pick by the Tigers. But his work ethic surprised the Detroit front office, and he put together three outstanding years in the minors. After last year’s monster season, the center field job was his to lose.

Econophone Kapler comes from a family of educators. His mother is the director of a Jewish preschool, Adat Ariel, in North Hollywood. His father teaches and produces children’s music. Sitting in the visitors dugout at Fenway Park, Kapler reflected upon his Jewish upbringing: “Up until the time I was eight we celebrated Christmas. Both my parents are Jewish but neither one of them really celebrated their heritage. And then all of a sudden things turned around. My mom decided she really wanted to celebrate her heritage. I had a bar mitzvah when I was 13.”

Kapler is proud of his family, his background and “Jewish blood,”

In the small fraternity of Jewish major league baseball players, Kapler already stands out. He’s spoken with Shawn Green, another Jewish kid from California, who is on his way to superstar status in Toronto.

Superstar is not a word they’re using yet to describe Kapler in Detroit. He won’t duplicate his Southern league season this year, but look for his numbers to increase steadily over the next few years. Kapler sets high goals for himself and would be happy if he was able to hit 20 home runs and get 450 at bats. His manager, Larry Parrish, is a believer. “He’s got his own style,” Parrish said before a Tiger-Red Sox game. “The one thing you really like about him is his makeup. His ability to grind, and his mental capacity is really tough.”

Tiger first baseman Tony Clark, one of the most feared power hitters in the American League is also dutifully impressed. Said Clark, “Kapler is in the big leagues for one simple reason, and that is because of his work ethic.” Kapler, an articulate, polite player is not quite like the “Bull Durham” rookie who “takes every game one day at a time.”

What’s the best part of playing baseball?

“It’s an overall feeling of being successful. That’s why I play this game. It’s an incredible rush.”

And hitting home runs?

“You could get real descriptive about it but it’s just an adrenaline rush. It’s also a feeling of release, like you just exhaled — you’re holding your breathe and G-d, you just want success so bad and you want to help your team and you do it. It’s a relief.”

Up in Detroit, no one is anointing Kapler as the next Greenberg. They’ll be satisfied if he begins to approach his potential. Throughout America though, Jewish fans are sitting back and waiting, reading the box scores and looking at the numbers next to Kapler’s name.

Folk hero, star or platoon player, Kapler already is a name.

Steven Rosenberg is editor of Boston's Jewish Advocate. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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