Jacob Steinmetz of Woodmere is a pitching prospect in spring...

Jacob Steinmetz of Woodmere is a pitching prospect in spring training with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Credit: Travis Quattrini

Getting drafted by the Diamondbacks was the realization of a childhood dream for Jacob Steinmetz, who at 19 still is very much considered a kid by major-league standards.

But receiving an invite from Team Israel to play in the upcoming World Baseball Classic, that had to feel more like destiny calling for the Woodmere native.

When the Diamondbacks selected Steinmetz with their third-round pick in 2021 (77th overall), he made history as the first Orthodox Jewish player to be drafted by an MLB club, so it was hardly surprising that Team Israel would seek to put him on the short list for its 2023 roster.

Steinmetz, a 6-5 righthander who throws in the upper 90s with a 12-to-6 curveball and circle change, definitely has the on-field credentials to compete in the WBC. What he didn’t possess, oddly enough, was the documentation to prove he was eligible to do so (the WBC stipulates a player is eligible if he would be granted citizenship or a passport under the laws of the country).

For Team Israel general manager Peter Kurz, that was the irony of his recruitment. Kurz has been a pioneer of sorts for baseball in Israel, working to promote the sport there for more than a  quarter-century after growing up a Mets fan in Manhattan (he was 12 when they won the World Series in 1969).

Since Team Israel first qualified to play in the WBC in the 2016 tournament, it has become easier to enlist players. The team has thrived in an underdog role, with a steady uptick of players approaching Kurz instead of the other way around.

In those situations, with the majority being American Jews, some having stronger family connections than others, Kurz could get a player on the roster with a bar mitzvah certificate or evidence that at least one of his four grandparents is Jewish. Maybe even a spouse who fits that criteria.

With Steinmetz, however, although he had a bar mitzvah, no such paperwork existed, and that made his situation one of the more challenging Kurz had come across.

After going to great lengths to track down some of the more unlikely candidates, such as former Met Ty Kelly, who was discovered only after he told two fans that he was Jewish — “a needle in a haystack,” Kurz said — the GM initially couldn’t get proof for Steinmetz, a pitcher who attended the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway (HAFTR). 

“Someone told me they were having the toughest time proving that I was Jewish,” Steinmetz said. “I think originally we tried sending in a school report card from my Jewish private school. I don’t think that worked. Then I think we ended up getting a letter from our rabbi.”

Steinmetz is used to facing hurdles that others don’t when it comes to being an Orthodox Jewish ballplayer. Before he was drafted by the Diamondbacks, he told interested teams what that involved, from abiding by a kosher diet as well as avoiding all forms of motorized transportation from sundown Friday evening to sunset Saturday.

In high school, Steinmetz walked as far as five miles for a game, but Arizona’s  Scottsdale facility for spring training is only 10 minutes away by foot, and he doesn’t anticipate any issues staying with Team Israel when the team heads to Florida next week.

The hard part will be surviving Pool D, a bracket that also includes the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Nicaragua — the most stacked group in the entire tournament. Team Israel seems to thrive when facing such steep odds. After qualifying in 2016, it knocked off Korea, Chinese Taipei, the Netherlands and Cuba before its Cinderella run came to an end.

This year’s team has nine players who spent some time in the majors last season, headlined by the Giants’ two-time All-Star, Joc Pederson. Kelly and Ryan Lavarnway — the MVP of the 2017 opening round in Seoul — are back, and Steinmetz will share a pitching staff with the Orioles’ Dean Kremer, the first Israeli player to be drafted by an MLB club (the Dodgers selected him in the 14th round, No. 431 overall, in 2016).  

“This is probably the best team Israel has ever had — there’s no doubt about it,” Kurz said. “And we’re very optimistic about what we can do. It’s true that the competition will be difficult, but listen, nobody ever thought that David would win against Goliath, either.”

While it’s unclear how much use Steinmetz will get out of the bullpen, just suiting up with Team Israel and being part of the WBC figures to be a career-changing experience after two rookie league seasons (9.6 K/9 in 12 games) under his belt.

“I think it’s really a good opportunity to just get better in general,” Steinmetz said. “I remember growing up when I would play basketball, my dad would always tell me to play with the older kids — the bigger and faster kids — because that’s how you get better. That’s kind of what this is going to be. Obviously, we’ve all seen the teams we’re going up against. Hopefully we’re looking to shock some people.”

Steinmetz’s dad, Elliot, is the men’s basketball coach at Yeshiva University, and because he’s always been more focused on hoops, his baseball education has come from seeing Jacob establish himself as the highest draft pick from Long Island two years ago. Now that he’s going to be on the WBC stage, Steinmetz believes his dad — an anxious spectator at his high school games — could have a tough time watching under the big dome at the Marlins’ loanDepot Park. 

“He seems more nervous than I get when I pitch,” Steinmetz said.

This will be the most high-profile event Steinmetz has ever competed in to this point, and with the distinction he carries as the roster’s only Orthodox Jewish player, there is a greater significance to that for Team Israel.

Kurz mentioned the closeness that this group tends to have, the special camaraderie the team brings to these tournaments, but also the awareness. He said the team plans to host a baseball clinic in Miami with players from the Dominican Republic to help spread the message of fighting antisemitism in the United States. For Team Israel, this is always about more than baseball, and maybe that’s the key to its success.

“It’s definitely something that plays a factor,” Steinmetz said. “I think really just being proud of who you are. I mean, everyone on the team is proud of being Jewish because otherwise, why be playing for Team Israel?”

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