PHILADELPHIA — Visiting Israel the past few winters to see his daughter and her family led to an unexpected job for Jerry Narron, a devout Christian and a baseball lifer: a coaching position for Israel’s team in the next World Baseball Classic.
In 2013, Callie Mitchell had just enrolled her son Aviel, now 5, in the Israel Association of Baseball’s T-Ball league and mentioned to the IAB president, Peter Kurz, that her dad is Narron, the bench coach for the Milwaukee Brewers and twice a big league manager.
On Narron’s visit that winter, he met with Kurz in Tel Aviv and offered to help promote baseball in Israel. After Narron addressed some youth players on the field in Petach Tikvah last December, a light bulb went off for Kurz: Add Narron to the WBC staff.
“I love the game, I love the Jewish people and I love Israel, especially through my daughter,” Narron said recently at the Brewers’ hotel here while the club was in town to face the Phillies.
Narron, 59, has worn a Major League Baseball uniform nearly continuously since being called up to the New York Yankees in 1978 as a backup catcher. (The following year, he was behind the plate in the Yankees’ first game following the death of their captain, Thurman Munson, in the crash of his private plane.)
The trip to Israel was his fourth in recent years to see his daughter, son-in-law and their two children in the capital’s Arnona neighborhood.
“I’m honored they’d consider me,” Narron said of the IBA while savoring a bowl of oatmeal and sliced banana.
When her dad was offered the WBC position, Mitchell said “he had a joy on his countenance I hadn’t seen in a long time.”
As to Narron not being Jewish, Kurz figures it doesn’t matter.
“He knows what Israel’s about and … obviously has great MLB pedigree,” Kurz said. “He’s a guy who loves Israel. It’s really from the heart.”
Saying “there are no coincidences in life,” Narron believes his WBC role follows a path blazed by his late father, John, having worked as a floor layer and salesman for the Isaacs-Kahn Furniture Company, owned by one of the few Jewish families in their native Goldsboro, North Carolina.
That relationship fostered in the Baptist-raised Narron clan an appreciation for Judaism – so much so that whenever he visits Jerusalem’s Western Wall, Narron places his hands on its boulders and utters words “in thanksgiving” for the late Sol Isaacs and Isaacs’ son-in-law Berl Kahn, his dad’s bosses. Narron also recites the names of the Weil and Leader families – other Jewish residents “who really built up Goldsboro after the Civil War,” he said.
“I’m a sentimental old fool,” Narron said of feeling moved to honor “people my dad cared about and loved. I thank the Lord for them.”
In Israel, where Jerusalem’s Old City and the Galilee’s mountains hold particular appeal, “I see God’s hand,” Narron said. “The gifts to this world that have come through the Jewish nation – it’s unbelievable. When God told Abraham the world would be blessed through his seed, it has been blessed.”
Narron doesn’t know how he’ll be serving the Israeli club, which will be managed by Jerry Weinstein, a coach in the Colorado Rockies’ farm system. Retired All-Star outfielder Shawn Green will be part of the coaching staff, as he was in 2012.
The roster of players and other coaches hinges on the WBC qualifying tournament’s schedule. Kurz said he hopes the games will be played during the 2015-16 offseason, making major leaguers available. The last qualifiers occurring in-season in September 2012 excluded major leaguers.
The championship rounds will be held during MLB’s 2017 spring training, enabling the pros to play.
Narron has already approached several major leaguers to join him in Israel next winter to run baseball clinics, and he’s recruiting Jewish players — starting with Milwaukee’s All-Star outfielder Ryan Braun – to join the WBC club.
Braun, whose father is Israeli, said he was noncommittal.
“I can’t even think that far ahead, man,” he said, noting the challenging season for the Brewers, who are last in the National League’s Central Division.
Baseball has blessed the Narrons, and vice versa.
Narron’s son Connor is an infielder in the Brewers’ system and Narron’s brother Johnny served with him on the Brewers coaching staff. They had a great-uncle Sam, who played as a catcher and coached in the majors, appearing in the World Series in both capacities. The great-uncle had a son who caught in the minors, and the latter’s son, another Sam Narron, made it to the majors as a pitcher and now coaches in the minor leagues. And three other Narron relatives played professional baseball for independent teams.
It’s “a family business,” Narron said.
Braun called Narron “one of the smartest baseball people I’ve ever been around,” providing some keen insights on baserunning and opposing defenses.
The Brewers’ manager, Craig Counsell, said: “You’re not going to find people with more experience than Jerry Narron — and he comes from a great baseball family.”
To Gabe Kapler, an outfielder for the Texas Rangers when Narron managed there and a coach on Israel’s 2012 team, Narron is “an exceptional human being” who is “great at leading men.”
Narron also managed the Cincinnati Reds, coached for five teams and played for three. Unlike his uncle, he has never reached the World Series, coming tantalizingly close as a player with the California Angels in 1986 and as a coach with the Boston Red Sox in 2003 before losing on last-inning, playoff series-deciding home runs.
For Israel’s WBC club, the stakes are more modest. Narron wants to help the sport grow in a country with a paucity of ballfields and no cultural pull to baseball.
“I hope I can impart some of that wisdom and experience,” he said. “I’ll just try to help the team in any way I can. I’ll do whatever I can to help the ballclub — isn’t that the line in ‘Bull Durham’?”