Kevin Youkilis says he truly doesn’t know what he’d do if faced with the same dilemma as Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax and Shawn Green.
What if the Boston Red Sox are scheduled for a post-season game on Yom Kippur, which begins Friday night, Oct. 7.
Both Greenberg, the Hall of Fame first baseman for the Detroit Tigers in 1934, and Koufax, the L.A. Dodgers’ ace left-hander, while not particularly religious, felt enough of an obligation to their faith not to play on that holy day.
In Koufax’s case, it meant missing the opening game of the 1965 World Series. In 2004, with the Dodgers fighting for first place, Green elected to sit out the Friday evening Kol Nidre game, but played Saturday afternoon.
For the 32-year-old Youkilis, a two-time all-star currently among the American League RBI leaders, it would be a tough decision.
“I don’t put religion into sports,” Youkilis said last week during the Red Sox’s three-game series in Philadelphia, which many believe to be a World Series preview. “I consider religion entirely different, so I don’t bring it to the field. “I’ve never played on Yom Kippur,” Youkilis added. “Hopefully if we were playing, it would be a night game, not a day game.”
He acknowledged a “lot of pressure” from the Jewish community not to play. “But you have to stick with your beliefs. You can’t worry about people who aren’t influential in your life who say things or tell you you’re wrong.
“I know Shawn Green had a tough time with it. It just depends upon the community. In Boston, they probably don’t even care. They’d want you to play.”
For the kid who grew up in Cincinnati rooting for the Reds, who dutifully went to Hebrew school through bar mitzvah (“It was a long Haftorah,” he recalls), before his parents allowed him to concentrate on baseball, playing in Boston has both its perks and drawbacks.
While you’re an instant celebrity everywhere you turn, it also means you don’t have much privacy, including at synagogue.
“Boston’s not a town where you go unnoticed,” said the 6-foot, 1-inch, 220-pound Youkilis, whose grandparents immigrated from Romania. Synagogue is no different.
“People want you to go to their synagogue. But sometimes it can be a little difficult. People approach you and sometimes get star -struck. You just have to pick and choose where you go. You just hope people realize what you’re there for.”
In his eight-season career, during which he has earned a Hank Aaron Award and a Gold Glove, Youkilis has emerged as one of the Red Sox mainstays.
For a Jewish kid to have such success – especially during a period when Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun and Texas’ Ian Kinsler are also playing at All-Star levels – it’s hard to dodge the tendency to make him a role model.
But Youkilis quickly dismisses that notion. “I know kids look up to us, but to me the biggest role models in your life are your parents,” said Youkilis, voted Jewish Player of the Decade in 2010 and who recently began marketing a “L’Chaim” T-shirt.
“We don’t make it out to be as big as the Jewish community does,” he said. “We just see ourselves as baseball players. It’s very special to be among a select few; a great thing for Jewish kids, but more so for Jewish fathers and adults.”
And as much as he said he doesn’t want to kill anyone’s dream, he advises kids that “school and education are more important than sports,” said Youkilis, a two-time All-American at the University of Cincinnati, before turning pro in 2001.
He encourages students to “set your goals high, but also realize education is more important and will take you farther in life than sports.”
Youkilis is an exception. His baseball career has led to two World Series titles; he’s currently in the midst of a four-year, $41 million-plus contract.
At the same time, it’s not always a fairy-tale life. “It’s work, it’s a job,” said Youkilis, who’s involved in several charitable endeavors, including Jewish Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Boston, where he attends an annual Chanukah party.
Still, he said, “it’s probably the best job you can ask for compared to sitting behind a desk and wearing a suit and tie.
“But to say it’s an easy, fun-going thing, I’d be lying.”
Reprinted with permission of the Jewish Exponent