Sox pitcher Breslow is living his dream

Left-handed world champion will receive award from Mishkan Tefila on Jan. 22

By Susie Davidson

Special to The Advocate

Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Craig Breslow will receive Congregation Mishkan Tefila’s Distinguished Service Award next Wednesday night. PHOTO/GETTY IMAGES

Imagine that for your entire life, you worked as hard as you could to achieve one singular goal, you committed years and years, thought about this single achievement, dreamed about it. Now imagine that it just happened.”

That’s how Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Craig Breslow recently described the feeling of becoming a World Series champion in 2013.

The left-hander will offer more thoughts on that topic, and others, when he receives the Brotherhood of Congregation Mishkan Tefila’s Distinguished Service Award next Wednesday night.

The Brotherhood will also honor the 2013 Massachusetts Little League Champions from the Newton SouthEast Little League. A silent auction and autographs will be part of the baseball-themed evening, with proceeds shared between the Brotherhood and Breslow’s Strike Three Foundation, a charitable organization based in Monroe, Conn., which advocates and raises funds for childhood cancer research.

Craig Breslow shows his form on the mound as a member of the BostonRed Sox. PHOTO/WIKIPEDIA

I am thrilled and honored to know Craig Breslow. … He is a man of integrity. He is caring, he is dedicated, he is giving, and he is a real mensch,” said event chairman Chuck Diamond, who is also past president of Mishkan Tefila. “And oh, by the way, he is one heck of a relief pitcher.”

Breslow, 33 (a year older than his Red Sox number, 32, which the same as that of his idol, Sandy Koufax), is the team’s primary setup pitcher. For those not versed in the game, a setup pitcher – often called the “setup man” – pitches after the starting pitcher and before the closing pitcher, sometimes just for the eighth inning.

His path to the mound came by way of an academic trajectory that included a 2002 double-major bachelor’s degree from Yale University in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, and acceptance to the NYU School of Medicine, with a projected specialization in orthopedic surgery or sports medicine.

But his Major League Baseball (MLB) career had also been developing. In 2002, Breslow was named a College Baseball First Team All-American by the Los Angeles-based Jewish Sports Review, along with Sam Fuld and Adam Greenberg, who both became major leaguers. Breslow pitched for the New England Collegiate Baseball League’s Middletown Giants (he was inducted into the NECBL’s Hall of Fame in November) and was captain of his Yale Bulldogs team in college, with his senior year 2.56 ERA tops in the Ivy League. He was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers during his year of graduation.

In 2005, Breslow began in the major leagues with the San Diego Padres. In January 2006, the Red Sox signed him as a minor league free agent for their minor league team inPawtucket, R.I. He was promoted to Boston but didn’t make an appearance, and went back to Pawtucket due to lack of space on the roster. He was added to it after the season ended but then was waived.

In 2008, he signed with the Cleveland Indians, in 2008-09 with the Minnesota Twins, then moved on to the Oakland A’s from 2009-11 and Arizona Diamondbacks in 2012, before being traded back to the Red Sox on the last day of July of that year. He remains with the local team.

One would imagine that medical school would be easier than that, but it’s indefinitely deferred at this point. However, Breslow is still regarded for his cerebral acumen. He was dubbed the “smartest man in baseball” by The Minneapolis Star Tribune’s LaVelle E. Neal III, as well as The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Turbow, who added, “if not the entire world.” In 2010, he was also named the smartest athlete on The Sporting News’ Top 20 list.

Breslow – whose wife Kelly is described by her Twitter handle @ KellyEShaffer as an information technology executive and the director of operations and development for the Strike 3 Foundation – grew up in Trumbull, Conn., not far from his alma mater in New Haven. In high school, he excelled in soccer as well as baseball, and of course, scored 1420 on his SATs.

I did have a traditional reform Jewish upbringing,” he told The Jewish Advocate. “I attended Hebrew School and received a bar mitzvah.” According to recent articles in Moment Magazine, The Connecticut Jewish Ledger and San Francisco’s JWeekly, Breslow’s family attended Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, Conn., where he was bar mitzvahed in 1993. Moment also reported that he has fasted while pitching on Yom Kippur, and quoted Breslow in a 2011 interview as saying, “Being Jewish is more difficult in baseball ... but I try to do what I can in terms of paying attention to holidays.”

The Advocate asked Breslow more about that influence. Does he identify with Judaism culturally or religiously? “I absolutely identify both religiously and culturally with Judaism,” he said. “I observe Jewish holidays in a personal and meaningful way, despite the difficulty this presents during the baseball season.” Are there any ways that Jewish values affect him, in the way that he lives his life and or in his baseball career? “I believe that the Jewish view of charity is something that has remained prevalent in my life through my founding of a nonprofit,” he said. “Additionally, I would say that my Jewish upbringing has shaped the man that I have become – I believe that morality, fairness and humility are prominent in Judaism.”

Breslow’s father Abe is a teacher who was formerly the department chair in physical education and health, as well as a boys’ tennis coach and girls’ soccer coach at Trumbull High School; his mother Ann is a math teacher in nearby Bridgeport. The family suffered a hardship in 1992, when his older sister Lesley received a diagnosis of pediatric thyroid cancer and underwent a thyroidectomy (today, she is the mother of two and a 20-year cancer survivor). That experience inspired Breslow to consider becoming a physician, and spurred the formation of his nonprofit.

In a chapter from Brookline resident Larry Ruttman’s 2013 book “American Jews and America’s Game: Voices of a Growing Legacy in Baseball,” Breslow elaborated further on his formative Jewish values, which he said stemmed from his grandparents. “My father’s mother passed away when he was young – I think when he was a high school student – so I never had a chance to meet her, but I was pretty close with his father,” he told Ruttman. “My mom’s parents, my grandparents, kept a kosher house. We used to go up there for some of the holidays. We spent those together. So I think that the values were passed down from them, and I think that is something that’s probably pretty common in today’s religious world. The more generations you go back, the more stringent the religion appears.”

He also told Ruttman about the Hebrew high school that he attended once a week. “It was very interesting in that it offered a lot of the typical Jewish curriculum,” Breslow said. “I had the chance to take a class in Yiddish, and one on Jewish comedians. It was definitely schooling which went beyond learning to read Hebrew and about Torah.”

Ruttman had just received an email from Breslow when The Advocate contacted him this week. “He was thanking me for some good news that I had sent him about my book,” Ruttman said. “Talk about ESP. But on a different level, it tells you about the man: Responsive and responsible, [with] certainly Jewish qualities to go along with his well-known intelligence, athletic talent, and tzedakah. And he plays for the Red Sox! I ask you, is G-d smiling on Boston?”

Breslow was the Red Sox’s nominee for Chevrolet’s 2013 Roberto Clemente Award, an annual award that recognizes 30 MLB players as finalists for demonstrating positive sportsmanship and community participation. He was also one of 10 major leaguers nominated for the 2013 Hutch Award, named for the late MLB player and manager Fred Hutchinson, who died of cancer at the age of 45 in 1964, and for whom the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle is named.

His performance on the mound last year wasn’t too shabby either, holding major league batters to a .217 batting average with runners in scoring position, and to just .204 with two outs and runners in scoring position. In 2009 and 2010, he was second in pitching appearances in the American League (77 and 75 games, respectively).

Does he have any Jewish mentors in baseball, or elsewhere, and why does he admire them? “Jews in baseball, unfortunately, are a rarity,” he told The Advocate. “Thus, nearly every Jewish baseball player can identify with others, and we are aware and respect the Jewish players who came before us.” He said that he had the chance to meet Koufax, “a player I have long admired not simply because of his religion, but because of the importance he placed on his heritage, and because he was such a dominant figure in this game.” Breslow told Ruttman that he has a pet bearded collie named Koufax, that he wore number 32 in the minor leagues (and whenever else he could), and that his most cherished piece of baseball memorabilia is an autographed picture of his idol.

I felt there must be something special about Craig when I sought to interview him in 2007 – and talking to him then, he demonstrated the belief in himself which has carried him to fame and fortune,” said Ruttman. “Is that Jewish too? I suppose it is.”

Breslow will receive the Brotherhood of Congregation Mishkan Tefila’s Distinguished Service Award on Jan. 22 at 6 p.m. at Congregation Mishkan Tefila, 300 Hammond Pond Parkway, Chestnut Hill. The cost is $20 for adults and $10 for children under 12. For more information, call (617) 332-7770.