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This article originally appeared in The (Boston) Jewish Advocate and is reprinted with permission.
(Editor's update: Since this article appeared in 2004, Kapler has retired to become manager of the single-A Greenville Drive, Shawn Green joined the New York Mets, Jason Marquis joined the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox won the World Series for the first time since 1918. Since Kapler joined the Red Sox, fellow Jews Kevin Youkilis, Adam Stern and Craig Breslow have been on the roster for stretches of time.)
Gabe Kapler has as much pride in his heritage as any other Jew, but sometimes he wishes that he'd be known more for his accomplishments on the baseball field rather than being thought of as a "Jewish" baseball player. "I'd like to be recognized as a baseball player first, but that's out of my hands," the 27-year-old outfielder said. "However, I do feel really lucky to be looked up to. Carrying the torch is special."
There aren't many active Jewish major leaguers. Shawn Green, an outfielder with the Los Angeles Dodgers, is really the only household name. Other prominent Jewish players include Philadelphia Phillies catcher Mike Lieberthal and Atlanta Braves pitcher Jason Marquis.
At one time, Kapler was on track to be right there with Green among the game's elite players. However, the former Minor League Player of the Year has been traded twice and released once in the last three years. Now he's hoping to revive his career after being picked up by the Red Sox in late June. Through Tuesday, he was hitting .295 with two home runs and nine RBIs in 17 games for Boston.
The sculpted, 6-foot-2, 210-pound Kapler, who graced a couple of bodybuilding magazine covers early in his career, actually grew up with a Christmas tree in his Los Angeles home. His level of religious observance changed significantly after his mother began working at a Jewish preschool. "We started practicing a little more and attended a Conservative synagogue," said Kapler, who had a Bar Mitzvah. "I feel really proud of my heritage and my bloodlines."
Kapler was anything but one of those "can't miss" kids growing up. He was fortunate to earn a college scholarship to Cal-State Fullerton, one of the top baseball programs in the country, but he didn't stay on campus for long.
"I had a hard time in terms of partying and not quite being focused," Kapler admitted. "Being 17 and acting 17, I was home before the spring semester began. I wasn't going to class or practice and got caught doing things I shouldn't have been doing."
Kapler took a year off and then went to junior college in 1995 at Moorpark College. He led the team in nearly every offensive category before being drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the 57th round.
Kapler excelled in the minor leagues, including a 1998 season when he batted .322, hit 28 homers and drove in a minor-league-best 144 runs. He was in the majors by the end of the '98 season.
It didn't take long for comparisons to begin with Tigers legend Hank Greenberg, a Hall of Fame slugger who is considered to be one of the greatest Jewish baseball players of all time.
However, the future in Motown didn't last long as Kapler was shipped to Texas for established slugger Juan Gonzalez a little more than a year after making his major-league debut. Kapler strung together a 28-game hitting streak upon arriving in Texas and then hit 17 home runs, drove in 72 runs and stole 23 bases in 2001. A sub-par '02 saw him once again traded--this time to Colorado in the middle of the season.
Kapler lasted less than a season with the Rockies before being released and picked up by the Red Sox. He started with a flourish, collecting a pair of doubles, a triple and two homers in his first nine at-bats with Boston.
Kapler is enjoying Boston thus far, and he'll have little difficulty staying grounded. He knows all about quick starts after becoming the first player in Texas history to hit home runs in his first two at-bats upon joining the Rangers.
"It's been a short period of time, but it's been a great start here in Boston," said Kapler, who is serving as Boston's fourth outfielder. "I have a little callous on me from what I've been through in the past, though."
Kapler is the ninth Jewish ballplayer in Red Sox history and the first since Brian Bark pitched in Boston in 1995. He is also hoping, down the road, to become the second Jew, following Larry Rothchild of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, to manage in the major leagues on a non-interim basis.
Although he would rather be known as a ballplayer first, he doesn't hide his roots. On the back of his left leg, he has a star of David tattoo that reads, "Strong Minded." On the other leg there are two dates: The start and end of the Holocaust.
Although his wife, Lisa, is Catholic, his two children will know the history of Judaism. "They both go to the preschool that my mom teaches at," Kapler said. "They will definitely know where they came from and will be proud of their Jewish roots."
Just like their father.