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Moving to the Big Leagues, Braun becomes next Jewish baseball hope

By Mitch Nelles
Special to The Chronicle

Everyone knows Sandy Koufax is one of the best, if not The Best, Jewish Major League Baseball player of all time. He dominated the game during his 12-year career with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

But Koufax was the family name of Sandy’s stepfather, who married his mother when Sandy was 9. The star baseball player was born as Sandy Braun in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1935.

If the name “Braun” sounds familiar, that might be because the Milwaukee Brewers recently called up their top prospect from the Minor Leagues, power-hitting third baseman Ryan Braun.

Braun, also Jewish, certainly wouldn’t mind the connection to Sandy Koufax. And he seems comfortable being the newest Jewish hope in baseball.

“Being Jewish is something I take great pride in. There aren’t too many Jewish athletes that have achieved success at the highest level, so it’s something I am very proud of,” said Braun, who is considered by many to be the most highly touted Jewish prospect since Kevin Youkilis.

Braun, a native of Mission Hills, Calif., grew up in a tight-knit, mixed-religion household. His Israeli-born father, Joe, is Jewish, and his mother, Diane, is Christian. Braun also has a younger brother, Steve, who is playing shortstop for the University of Maryland Terrapins.

Braun, the Brewers’ first-round pick (fifth overall) in the 2005 Amateur Baseball Draft, had dominated opposing pitchers at every level of Minor League Baseball, and his call up to the Big Leagues on May 24 was inevitable. The decision to promote Braun before a game in San Diego was certainly welcome to the 24-year-old.

He called his parents first.

“I think they were probably more nervous than excited,” Braun said. “Obviously they were thrilled for me, and we were just really fortunate that I opened up in San Diego because they were able to drive down on such short notice.

“I just found out the night before, so for them to have an opportunity to see my debut was something I will remember forever. I talk to my parents every day – I’ve always been very close with them.”

Because he grew up in Los Angeles, many of his friends were also able to attend the game, Braun said.

‘Dream come true’

Braun did not disappoint in his debut, hitting a double for his first major-league hit. He reflected on his first game, and what it felt like playing in a Brewers’ uniform.

“Obviously it’s great to get here; it’s a dream come true,” he said. [The Major Leagues are] a place I’ve always aspired to get to. Just to have an opportunity to be here, to compete every day is very special to me.”

Braun’s parents must be very proud of their son. As of Monday, June 11, Braun had a .317 batting average (anything over .300 is considered excellent) with four home runs and 10 RBIs. He was batting third in the batting order – a spot typically reserved for one of the top two hitters in a team’s lineup.

“It helps having two of the best hitters in the league hitting in front and behind me,” Braun said, referring to J.J. Hardy, a shortstop who’s offensive prowess has surprised people this year; and the mighty Prince Fielder, who leads the National League in home runs.

“I feel like I am finally getting situated and more comfortable, just getting back into a regular routine and concentrating on baseball,” Braun added. “Everything was a little overwhelming at first, dealing with the media, trying to get settled as far as finding a place to live, a rental car – a million things going on off the field. I feel like I am back in a routine and can focus on baseball.”

Braun and his family have always focused on baseball. While in high school at Granada Hills in California, Braun was a two-time all-area selection by the Los Angeles Times and a 3-time choice by the Los Angeles Daily News. He was also rated among the top 100 prospects by Baseball America.

With numerous choices on where to attend college, Braun decided against home-state schools Stanford University and the University of California-Berkeley, and chose the University of Miami in Florida.

“When I took my trip to Miami, it just felt right to me,” Braun said. “I wanted to get away from home a little bit; it was the best decision I have ever made. We got to play in a couple of [college] World Series; that was a lot of fun.”

Braun’s journey through the minors has taken him through Helena, Mont.; Brevard County, Fla.; Huntsville, Ala.; and Nashville, Tenn.
Now that he is with the Big League club, Braun knows that he must perform well, and is excited the team has played so well this year, in spite of some recent losses.

“Everybody’s extremely positive and optimistic,” Braun said. “I feel inevitably throughout the course of a season you’ll have stretches when you don’t win as many games as you want. But everyone has remained optimistic and even keeled.”

Mitch Nelles majored in journalism at the University of Wisconsin and currently is an on-air producer for Milwaukee’s ESPN Radio 1510 Days/1290 Nights. You can hear him daily from 3 p.m.-6 p.m.

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