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November-14-07
Issue: 8.10
this is column number 18
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Lenn Zonder looks at the modern Jewish sports scene!

This past Monday, five days shy of his 24th birthday, Major League Baseball named Milwaukee Brewers third baseman, National League “Rookie of The Year.” He is the first Jewish baseball player to earn the high honor.

The award is the culmination of a season of awards for the Mission Hills, CA native. He earned the same honor from “The Sporting News” and “Baseball America, two prestigious newspapers dedicated to sports or baseball, and also, he was voted the “2007 Players Choice NL Most Outstanding Rookie,” in a vote by his fellow major league players.

"When your peers recognize you with an award, that's great," Braun said. "Those are the guys out there on the field with you, competing against you. Their opinion counts the most, for a player."

Known by the press as the “Hebrew Hammer,” Braun is the son of an Israeli-born father, Joe Braun, and a Christian mother. However, he is proud of his Jewish heritage and does not mind the references to his ethnicity.

"It's something that draws a lot of interest and something I take pride in," Braun said.

As for his nickname, "The Hebrew Hammer," he added: “I’m cool with that.” It references his Jewish heritage, former Brewer Hank Aaron (whose nickname was "Hammerin' Hank"), and in the past, a nickname of Cleveland Indian third baseman Al Rosen and Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg.

In a bit of serendipity, Braun was raised for a time in Greenberg’s old house, owned for the past 40 years by his maternal grandfather. If that is not coincidence enough, Sandy Koufax’s original name was Sanford Braun. The name was changed to Koufax, the last name of his mother’s second husband.

"There's no (family) connection that I know of," Braun said, "but it is kind of cool."

Braun was born Nov. 17, 1983 in Mission Hills, CA. He attended Granada Hills High School where he played shortstop and pitched; earning four letters, and was captain for 3-years. He was also named the team’s Most Valuable Player. As a senior, he batted .451, with an on base percentage of .675, and broke the school record for career home runs, with 25.

The Los Angeles Times made him a two-time time all-area selection, while the Los Angeles Daily News selected him three times. Baseball America named him one of its top 100 pro prospects, but he made it clear he intended on going to college before thinking of a professional baseball career.

College didn’t slow him down a bit. Turning down scholarships to Stanford University and UC-Berkeley, he chose to attend the University of Miami. He chose, according to an internet article on Wikipedia, “Miami for its academics, its athletics, and its social scene, noting, ‘I think the girls were the deal closer on the recruiting trip.’"

Braun rewarded Miami’s faith in his baseball acumen by racking up a considerable list of awards including "National Freshman of the Year," and 1st-team "Freshman All-American," by Baseball America and 1st-team All-American by Collegiate Baseball. Moreover, he didn’t slowdown in his next two years batting .335, had a slugging average of .606, and stole 21 bases as a sophomore. In his junior year, his final and most successful at Miami, he batted .396 with 18 home runs, a .726 slugging percentage, 76 RBIs, and 23 stolen bases. He was 9th in slugging, and 10th in RBIs, in NCAA Division I, and was named to Baseball America's 2005 College All-American Team as the DH. His numbers earned Braun a spot as a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award, the most prestigious individual award in college baseball.

Braun was a first-round pick in the 2005 Amateur Draft going to the Brewers as the fifth selection. That made him one of the highest drafted Jewish ballplayers in the history of professional baseball, and definitely the highest selection since the New York Yankees took Ron Blomberg as the first pick of the 1967 draft — 16 years before Braun was born.

Between Miami and Milwaukee, the Brewers ran Braun through its farm system including tank towns such as Helena, Montana, West Virginia, Brevard County, Florida, and Nashville, TN. All in the relatively miniscule space of two years. But anybody with a record of achievement and a stick as solid as his was wasted in the minors. On May 24, 2007, the Brewers called him up to the parent club. The following day he got his first hit and scored his first run. The next day, May 26, he slammed his first homer — the first of 34 for the season — off San Diego’s Justin Germano. His 34-round trippers is the fourth best all-time for Jewish sluggers. The only members of the tribe who have done better are, as expected, Hank Greenberg (58), Shawn Green (49) and Al Rosen (43). On the other hand, Braun didn’t play an entire season either. He missed the first seven weeks of the season. Had he played the entire schedule, he couldn’t have caught Greenberg or Green, but Rosen was certainly within reach.

During the off-season, which runs until mid-February, the Brewers management has asked him to concentrate on improving his fielding skills at third base. They want him to field between 100-and 150-batted balls per day.

He intends to do that at the University of Miami where he will work out with another major league, power-hitting third baseman, Alex Rodriquez of the Yankees.

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