Wednesday, October 27News That Matters

Elie Kligman Won’t Play Baseball on the Sabbath

Elie Kligman is a switch-hitter with power. He has pitched no-hitters, immaculate innings and can snatch the ball with cool precision from any spot in the infield. He is a star in every way at Cimarron-Memorial High School in Las Vegas, with dreams of reaching even greater heights.

He is also shomer Shabbat, meaning he observes the strict rules of the Jewish sabbath and cannot — and will not — play ball on Friday nights or Saturday afternoons before the sun goes down.

Based on talent and desire, Kligman is good enough to realistically entertain his dream of playing Major League Baseball, or at least top level college ball. But he knows his devotion to his faith could shatter that dream before it starts, and he is ready to accept that.

And 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.”

Many Jewish players have declined to play on certain religious holidays through the decades, mainly on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana. One of the most notable instances came when Sandy Koufax, the Hall of Fame left-hander, chose not pitch in Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. (His replacement, Don Drysdale, got shelled, and when Manager Walter Alston removed him in the third inning, Drysdale said, “I bet right now you wish I was Jewish, too.”)

But missing the occasional game in October is nothing compared to sitting out every Friday night and Saturday afternoon game. The concept could prove particularly tricky in college, where many programs play doubleheaders on those days. It will be a challenge, but Kligman and his family have been working through the same obstacles ever since Elie and his younger brother Ari, 16, were small boys.

Observant Jews may not work during a 25-hour period from sundown on Friday until dark on Saturday, nor may they use electricity or tie knots, such as the ones found on baseball spikes. They may not tear clothing, like the uniform pants which can be shorn when a player slides into second base, and they may not turn the soil, which is technically what happens whenever spikes rip into grass or the infield dirt. Most of all, it is a day intended to be set apart for spiritual reflection.

For Kligman, it is nonnegotiable. As much as he loves baseball, he will not forsake his religious beliefs, even if it could eventually thwart everything he has been working toward. If there is a way around the conflict, it largely depends on whether he is good enough — some in baseball believe he could be — in which case, colleges and later major league teams, might make the concessions necessary to allow him to stay true to himself and his religion, and still play ball.

He is only 18, with quite a long way to go, but Kligman has already embarked on a journey to make baseball history.

“My goal is to become the first Shabbas observant player in Major League Baseball,” he said.

One advantage he has is his father, Marc Kligman, a former catcher and outfielder with a self-described “nondescript career” at Johns Hopkins University. A lawyer, Marc Kligman is also a licensed baseball agent, and he understands the landscape that prospects must navigate in order to fulfill their dreams. But his son’s quest is different from theirs.

Over the years, Marc Kligman has had to petition his sons’ little leagues, pony leagues, travel programs, high schools and all-star scouting events to make scheduling accommodations so his boys would be able to play as many games as possible. He said those efforts have generally been successful, as most people have tried to help.

Still, there have been missed games and hard discussions.

The first time it happened, when Elie was eight, he sat out a Saturday playoff game. During a moment alone with his son, Marc asked Elie how he was doing. Elie said he felt left out, but that Shabbas was more important.

“I was blown away,” Marc Kligman said. “Here’s a kid who won’t put God second. But he believes that the two can coexist. He’s got six days of the week to do everything he can to be a baseball player, and if colleges and Major League Baseball aren’t inclined to make any changes, then we’ll take what we can get.”

The Kligmans say there are a handful of college coaches — the family will not identify them, yet — who are aware of Elie’s convictions and still want him to play for their teams.

Elie is 6-foot, about 185 pounds and is ranked by Prep Baseball Report as the No. 14 prospect in Nevada, and he performed well at a recent scouting event hosted by the publication, which had 65 pro scouts in attendance. Brett Harrison, who scouts Nevada for the report and has seen Kligman play many times, said that he has the tools and the baseball knowledge to make an impact at a Power 5 college program within a year or two.

“I think with his ability to pitch and play several positions well, he will add inherent value wherever he ends up going,” Harrison said.

Kligman’s current coach is Mike Hubel, a former minor league player, who has been coaching for 25 years, the last 22 at Cimarron-Memorial. Many of his players have advanced to play at major college programs and several have made it to the majors. He says Elie Kligman has the talent and the drive to become a good pro, but is uncertain how colleges and professional teams — and the leagues they play in — will view his religious restrictions, which Hubel acknowledged can be tricky to negotiate at times, even for a high school team that is willing to accommodate them.

“I think it’s going to be a challenge,” Hubel said, “but then again, if you find a good Division I program with a good coach that’s willing to allow it, then it won’t be a problem. He’s a phenomenal teammate. He doesn’t talk with his mouth, he talks with his glove and his bat, and he can back it up.”

In some ways, professional baseball — if Kligman gets that far — could be a better fit, if only because of a key necessity of one position on the field.

Of all the characteristics that determine where players are positioned on the baseball field — athleticism, power and whether a player is left- or right-handed — religion has rarely, if ever, been a factor. But as random as it may sound, Kligman’s devout Judaism is the reason he is now concentrating on catching.

Owing to the physical and mental strain of the position, catchers are given regular days off during the week. In the professional ranks, it is often one of the weekend afternoon games — potentially an adaptable fit for Kligman.

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, 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.

With many teams now playing Saturday night games, Kligman could even arrive after the sun has set and play in those, too. He has done it numerous times. The Kligmans wrap up their sabbath observance with the Havdalah ceremony — a ritual commemorating the end of the sabbath, in which participants sip wine (or grapefruit juice on game day), light a candle, sniff a sweet spice to recall the sweetness of the day, say a prayer — and then Elie and Ari jump in their uniforms and zoom off to a game.

“We can do Havdalah, get dressed in their uniforms and be out the door in less than 10 minutes,” Marc Kligman said. “Really efficient.”

As word of Elie Kligman’s talent and aspirations have spread through the Jewish community, he has become a popular speaker on Zoom calls at Jewish day schools and synagogues across the country. The younger children want to know what number he wears and what his batting average is. The older one want to know how hard his sacrifice is.

Kligman explains that what he is doing is for God, so there is no feeling of sacrifice.

“It’s pretty amazing that they are interested in my life,” he said. “It kind of gives them hope that, if that’s what you really want to do, you can play baseball. But just not on Shabbas.”