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Phillies Head to the Playoffs Minus Their Jewish Reliever

September 27, 2011 By:
Mordechai Shinefield, JE Feature
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Rookie pitcher Michael Schwimer on the mound. Photo by Miles Kennedy/The Phillies

When the Philadelphia Phillies called him up from the minors in mid-August, Michael Schwimer joined an elite group with a tiny membership -- Major League Baseball's small band of Jewish players.

Now, with the Phillies on deck to start the post-season on Saturday, Schwimer won't have the chance to fulfill his dream of contributing to his team in the playoffs.

The Phillies this week announced that Schwimer will not be joining the 25-player roster for the playoffs.

Still, this has been a banner year for Jewish baseball players. Along with the New York Mets' infielder Josh Satin, and the Boston Red Sox's Ryan Lavarnway (who was called up to fill in for injured coreligionist Kevin Youkilis), Schwimer entered the Major League in a year that Moment magazine has called "the golden age of Jewish baseball."

Schwimer had joined a tiny club: the only other Jewish member of the Phillies is general manager Rubén Amaro Jr; former catcher Mike Lieberthal was claimed by Jewish baseball fans but didn't identify as such.

Moreover, Schwimer, who was called up by the Phillies after an incredible year pitching for the minor league Lehigh Valley IronPigs in Allentown, entered the league directly in the spotlight. He was playing for the team with the best record in baseball and pitched alongside a cadre of starting pitchers that has been compared to history's greatest squads.

"This is a great situation and a great team," the 25-year-old Schwimer said during a recent interview in the Phillies Clubhouse prior to the playoff announcement. All around him, Ryan Howard, Shane Victorino, Carlos Ruiz -- players who have become household names in Philadelphia over the last couple of years -- were preparing for that evening's game, roaming around in various states of undress.

"Obviously, it's a team with the best record in baseball, but it's also a very veteran team. They've shown me the ropes and how to live life and how to be respectful of the game and do things the right way," he enthused, stationed at his locker adjacent to that of 2008 World Series closer Brad Lidge.

Still, Schwimer had to pay his dues as a rookie. He lugged around a Hello Kitty backpack filled with sunflower seeds and other snacks for the team as a hazing ritual.

And he had a rough start, which surely contributed to the Phillies' decision to send him home. On a team full of Cy Young contenders, Schwimer had a bloated 5.84 earned run average over the 11 games he played.

He got his first major league win over the Marlins earlier this month. But he blew saves and one particularly heartbreaking loss on Sept. 16 in the 11th inning against the Cardinals. With the Phillies just a win away from clinching the division, he gave up the go-ahead RBI to St. Louis' Adron Chambers.

As for his Jewishness, Schwimer was proud to talk about it. (Although when asked if he would pose for a picture wearing a yarmulke, he looked around nervously and fretted about being teased by the other players.)

Still, even more distinctive than his backpack is his wild hair, of which he said: "I take pride in my Jewfro. "

Schwimer attended Hebrew School for two years at Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, Va., a Reform synagogue where he became a Bar Mitzvah, an event that he describes as a "really good time with all my friends and family."

A prolific athlete -- he played baseball, basketball and football throughout school -- Schwimer was recruited as a teenager to play basketball in the Maccabi Games by his friend Ross Condon, another Jewish area star who played for the Villanova Wildcats before becoming the current director of basketball operations for Penn State's Nittany Lions.

Condon's dad coached the team. "I won a couple gold medals," Schwimer recalled of his three years of competition.

With the High Holidays coinciding once again with the playoffs, Schwimer momentarily found himself pondering that age-old baseball question, at least since the days of Sandy Koufax, the left-handed Dodgers pitcher who sat out the first game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur: Would you play on the holiest day of the Jewish year?

Acknowledging that his first priority was "trying to make the playoff roster," he said he's "not as devout as Koufax was" and would pitch if he's needed. At least this year, he won't be forced to make such a choice.

Of his holiday plans, he said: "I don't have full plans yet, but I'm definitely going to attend a service or do something for the holidays."

Schwimer considers icons like Koufax and Hank Greenberg to be trailblazers for Jewish baseball players. "I'm a huge fan of what they brought to the table baseball-wise and what they stood for," he said. "I really, really look up to those people."

During his brief stint here, he even found himself a magnet for local Jewish fans.

"Every day, there are kids saying, 'Hey, I'm Jewish, too,' and that makes me really happy. When people come up to me to tell me that, it really means a lot. This kid wishes he could be where I am, so it's humbling and it's really great."

Though Schwimer won't be playing with the Phillies this post-season, he is still considered a strong prospect likely to show up in spring training next year. For now, all he can do is prepare.

"My heart rate elevates every time I pitch," he said. "And I pitch better when that happens. Every outing matters for me. That's all I'm thinking about every single day. That's all I can do."

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