PEORIA, Ariz. — The Arizona Fall League is an elite league for baseball’s best Minor League players. It’s often called a finishing school because players who play here often make it to the big leagues in the next year or two.
At any given game, there are groups of scouts, radar guns in hand, checking out the future stars of Major League Baseball. You never know when a team will make a trade to bring in one of these prospects.
Me, I love heading to Arizona each fall to check out these Minor Leaguers. And as much as I enjoy evaluating their talent on the field, everyone who reads this column knows I always have a second motive: trying to find new Jewish talent to follow and write about.
Sometimes, you know ahead of time, like when the Brewers’ Ryan Braun played here. Sometimes, you find out after the fact, like with the Rangers’ Ian Kinsler. But every once in a while, you uncover someone during league play. There are times when you get completely surprised, finding out there’s a top Jewish prospect who you didn’t even suspect could be a Member of the Tribe.
Case in point: White Sox left-handed pitching prospect Aaron Poreda. I had asked Chicago’s first-round pick in the 2007 draft to come out for a video interview for my work with MLB.com. Imagine my surprise when he came out wearing a big gold Chai around his neck. I’ve seen, albeit rarely, players with Stars of David, but this was definitely my first Chai.
“I wear it all the time. I never pitch without it,” Poreda said. “It was my grandfather’s. When he died, my family asked if I wanted to wear it. He was one of my biggest fans and this is a way I feel he’s still watching.”
“My family was at a game and my dad asked him, ‘Herb, do you think you could catch one of Aaron’s fastballs?’ He said, ‘Catch it? I can’t even see it.’”
Indeed, the 6-foot-7 Poreda can crank his fastball up to about 95 miles per hour; coming out of college, it was pretty much all he threw.
His biggest improvement in his first full season was to greatly improve his slider. Now he’s in Arizona to continue working on a changeup, which would give him three good pitches and the ability to start in the big leagues very soon. Big lefties with that kind of stuff don’t grow on trees and Poreda has the potential to be a star. We’ve had our share of hitting stars lately, but we’ve been a little short on mound presence. I’m not talking Sandy Koufax here, but Poreda has the chance to be pretty special.
And one who certainly doesn’t shy away from his Jewish identity. Poreda grew up in the San Francisco area and went to Sunday school, then Hebrew school on Wednesdays. He was bar mitzvahed at Temple Isaiah, a Reform congregation in the East Bay. His father isn’t Jewish, but was happy to raise his kids that way, especially considering his wife’s family was the one living on the West Coast.
“The majority of the family on that side is Jewish,” Poreda explained. “I’d say our family was pretty religious, but more based on family traditions that have been handed down from generation to generation.”
Sounds like a typical athlete, doesn’t it? Poreda seems anything but typical, a thoughtful, honest young man who likes to talk politics in the clubhouse. He decided several months ago that it was important to educate himself on the issues and while he’s not loud or boisterous, he’s not afraid to voice his opinion (he supported Barack Obama, in case you were curious).
He’s also not shy about showing people who he is and where he comes from. He could easily wear his Chai inside his shirt at all times, a private way to remember his grandfather. Instead, he likes to have it on display whenever he can, even if it means he gets some puzzling looks from teammates and fans.
“Most people don’t understand what it’s about. I’ve had a lot of people think it’s a Pi symbol,” Poreda said with a laugh. “I like wearing it because it promotes my Jewish family and faith. It helps educate people because there are not too many Jewish athletes out there.”
(Jonathan Mayo, The Chronicle’s sports columnist and staff writer for MLB.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)