Pittsburgh's Newest Jewish Star Athlete
John Grabow
by Jonathan Mayo

September, 2004 -- Jewish sports fans in Pittsburgh no doubt have been lamenting the loss of Steelers punter Josh Miller to New England via free agency. Who will be the favorite son of the Jewish community here now?


Have no fear, John Grabow is here.


I know the Pirates play second fiddle to the Steelers most of the time here, but the Bucs’ left-handed reliever is a good reason to turn that around. That’s right, Grabow is Jewish.


And there’s a lot to like about Grabow. He’s shown the willingness to work hard and be persistent. He was originally drafted by the Pirates in the third round of the 1997 draft, toiled away tirelessly as a starter for  several years before making the switch to the bullpen. Eventually, he made his Major League debut last year after 772 career minor-league innings.


He’s shown he can pitch a bit at the top level as well. For his career, he has averaged more than a strikeout an inning and he has found a niche as a reliever specializing in getting out left-handed hitters.


On top of all that, his background is extremely intriguing. His mother’s side is Jewish, his dad’s is not. Which makes Grabow himself wonder how people know he’s Jewish. Even if some people thought Grabow sounded Jewish, it’s not.


“I don’t know how people found out,” Grabow said. “Maybe it was word of mouth from my neighborhood.”


Grabow grew up in Arcadia, in Southern California and his mother’s side isn’t your typical Eastern European Jewish family that people assume here in the United States. Grabow’s grandmother’s maiden name is Mizrachi and they used to call  Beirut, Lebanon home.


“I still have some family in Lebanon and some in Israel,” Grabow said. “I’ve also got some Jewish family in Panama.”


While Grabow’s own household was fairly non-religious, albeit quasi-kosher,  he certainly got a taste of observant life. Both his grandmother and great-aunt are “pretty orthodox.” His grandmother came from Brooklyn, NY and still has ties to the vibrant orthodox community there.


“When I’m home, I get a little taste of it,” Grabow said of Jewish customs and Middle Eastern food. “When I’m on the road, I don’t get it at all.”


“My grandmother is more strict and my aunt’s house is even worse. Some of it I don’t understand. I just ask which food I can put on which plates.”


Grabow used to do things like keep kosher for Passover as a kid, but doesn’t follow those rituals so closely these days. His Jewishness has been a bit of an unknown to this point (consider this column a coming out party). That doesn’t mean he’s been totally ignored.


“It’s more toward the superstar players,” Grabow said, noting how the Southern California community has embraced Shawn Green. Guys like me fly under the radar.


“But when we went to team banquet at the beginning of the year, a gentleman came to me and gave me an article with a list of all the Jewish players. I was surprised they had something like that, where they were following the Jewish players.”


Grabow didn’t even know there was a set of Jewish Major Leaguers baseball cards, let alone that he was a part of it. Now that he knows, he’s certainly not shrinking away from the responsibility of being “the Jewish player” here in Pittsburgh. Would he embrace the role of favorite son for the community here?


“Definitely,” Grabow said. “That would be something that would be cool. My grandmother would really like that. And she’ll get a kick out of the card.”

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