A Young Baseball Phenom Won’t Play on the Sabbath; Will It Hurt His Career? April 2, 2021

A Young Baseball Phenom Won’t Play on the Sabbath; Will It Hurt His Career?

With the baseball season starting up again, here’s a fascinating story from the New York TimesDavid Waldstein: Elie Kligman is a high school phenom in the sport and well on his way to a possible major league career. But one major wrinkle in that future is his faith.

Kligman is shomer Shabbat, which, among other things, means he won’t play baseball starting Friday evening and lasting through sunset on Saturday — roughly 25 hours.

… even if a big league team were to offer Kligman a $10 million signing bonus, with the promise that he would be playing in front of 40,000 people later this summer — provided he agrees to play on the sabbath — he insists he would stand firm in his conviction.

“No,” Kligman said when asked if he could be enticed to break his religious obligations. “That day of Shabbas is for God. I’m not going to change that.”

Whatever you think of his religious beliefs, the potential conflict is obvious: Professional teams play a lot of games on Friday night and Saturday afternoon. So do college teams, for that matter. What happens when a player says, right from the beginning, that he’s unavailable to the team for that stretch of time?

It could mean they don’t bother signing him at all. That’s not religious discrimination; no team is obligated to draft him. And when there’s no shortage of talent, it’s easy to see why teams wouldn’t want a player who comes with a giant asterisk next to his name.

Then again, Kligman is training to be a catcher. And catchers don’t play every single day. There is a way to accommodate his religious wishes without hurting a team:

Kligman began focusing on catching this year because that could be the best long-term route to a career in baseball. He has the arm, the hands and the brains for the position, [high school coach Mike] Hubel said, and the hope is that if Kligman makes it to the professional ranks, his days off could be set for Friday night and Saturday afternoon.

As the article notes, pitcher Sandy Koufax famously didn’t play in a World Series game that conflicted with a religious holiday. But that was one day. No one in modern-day professional baseball has been in a situation where religion interferes with games on a weekly basis. (There’s one similar case a century ago.) It would be quite a story if someone with the skills to make it professionally couldn’t get there because his religion was a stumbling block — but at least in this case, Kligman is aware of the problem and leaning into it. If he doesn’t get drafted despite his skills, it would be due to his own decisions. Just as it should be.

There have been many stories of players demanding special treatment because of their religion and people trying to help them as much as possible, and other stories where faith-based bigotry prevents athletes from competing for reasons that deserve no sympathy, but this is a rare instance where a player accepts that his beliefs could have career consequences and simply doesn’t care. Or rather, he accepts his fate.

None of this means he can’t make it. If anything, his story reminds me of Chick-fil-A’s attempts to be in airports. The chain is closed on Sundays due to its founder’s Christian beliefs, which you would think would be a dealbreaker for airports looking to capitalize on travelers spending money. But as one airport administrator put it, the place is still a major draw: “They’re going to make the revenue in six days that some of our units don’t make in seven.” In other words, even with the handicap which both sides know up front, the value the chain brings to the airport is still worth it. (That’s putting aside the chain’s history of anti-gay bigotry, which is a separate issue.)

So if Kligman turns out to be good enough that teams want to take a chance on him, and if they can work out a schedule so that his personal beliefs don’t interfere with the team’s needs, it could be a win-win for everyone.

(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Nathan for the link)

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