Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame chair Stephen Frishberg tells a story of recently bumping into a current member of the Philadelphia Phillies on the street. While making small talk, Frishberg said that the Phillies' general manager, Ruben Amaro Jr., was among this year's inductees.
The player was surprised, according to Frishberg — not because of the honor, but because he didn't seem to know that Amaro was Jewish.
Though his name may give no inkling of it, Amaro considers himself a member of the tribe, and was inducted along with seven others in a May 18 ceremony at the Gershman Y, home to the hall of fame. This was the 12th class of inductees. The event, attended by about 200 people, was emceed by Michael Barkann, a longtime host of Comcast SportsNet's "Daily News Live."
Amaro, the son of a Cuban Catholic father and an American Jewish mother, was raised in the Rhawnhurst section of Philadelphia, where he excelled at both soccer and baseball.
The family, he said, was a pretty diverse mix. As the child of an interfaith marriage, Amaro was baptized, though not confirmed; while he didn't become a Bar Mitzvah, he said that the family celebrated major Jewish holidays.
"It was a part of our lives, though it may not have been as integral as some of the other inductees," he said.
Both his father and grandfather were baseball players, and Amaro's father spent five years with the Phillies in the early 1960s. After playing at Stanford University (he was a member of the team that won the 1987 College World Series), Ruben Jr. was drafted into the major leagues, going through player development with the California Angels and playing for the Cleveland Indians between two stints with the Phils.
"It was very scary as a rookie trying to make my way through the major leagues," he recalled. "There was some added pressure of being in my own town, so I don't think I fared too well. I felt much more comfortable when I came back the second time after being bounced around a while."
He noted that while the parallels between baseball and Judaism might not seem obvious, his career has been marked by hard work and perseverance — traits he said were distinctly Jewish.
Among those present at the awards ceremony was Amaro's mother, Judy Amaro Perez, who noted that one person who would have been particularly proud of the new inductee was Ruben's grandmother. "Many a seder did we have at her house, and Ruben was included," she said.
While Amaro isn't very observant, that's no problem for Hall of Fame director Debbie Weiss. Rather than impose a litmus test for Judaism, what they're looking for, she said, is integrity.
"It's someone with integrity and values that are consistent with Jewish values," said Weiss. That doesn't mean Shomer Shabbat, she added — it's more about the way people comport themselves.
This year's event was notable not only for those inducted, but because 2009 marks the beginning of the hall's Bar Mitzvah year, as well as its debut as an independent nonprofit. It was formerly under the umbrella of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Philadelphia.
Joining Amaro this year were Cliff Bayer, a two-time Olympian, who recently retired from fencing at age 24; Jeanne Friedman, a champion coach with Mount Holyoke College's crew team; Phil Jasner, a longtime sportswriter for the Philadelphia Daily News; Gary Martin,who played lacrosse professionally and as a student at the University of Pennsylvania; Morton Shiekman, an offensive guard for Penn and a draft pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the mid-1940s; Michael Tollin, an Oscar-nominated creator of film and television projects that deal with sports; and the late Sol Tollin (Michael's father), who excelled at baseball and basketball at Chester High School in the 1940s and was a basketball star at Haverford College.
As he concluded his remarks upon accepting the honor, Amaro offered a few pieces of advice for would-be hall of famers: Believe in yourself, be disciplined, respect your faith, never stop dreaming and, of course, always listen to your mother.