Making a new pitch for the majors

Making a new pitch for the majors

Local baseball phenom Rob Kaminsky sets his sights on Seattle

Rob Kaminsky played for Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic. (Photos courtesy WBC Team Israel)
Rob Kaminsky played for Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic. (Photos courtesy WBC Team Israel)

Next stop Seattle!

That’s the new mission for Rob Kaminsky, the left-handed pitcher from Englewood Cliffs who represented Team Israel in the recent World Baseball Classic. He hopes to don a major league uniform again this season, after his brief 2020 stint with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Last month, Kaminsky rejoined the Seattle Mariners organization and was assigned to the Tacoma Rainiers, its Triple A farm club. In its opening month, April, he got off to a good start, appearing in six games out of the bullpen and compiling a 1-0 record and an earned run average of 2.70.

His wife of 1 1/2 years, Meg, usually is there watching the game, even when it’s on the road.

Tacoma amounted to a promotion for the 28-year-old southpaw, although this winter, which he spent as a free agent, was not without its nervous moments. He played most of the 2022 season with the Arkansas Travelers, the Mariners’ Double A team, where he posted a 3-1 record in 39 appearances, totaling 36 innings as a reliever. He became a free agent last November and joined Team Israel in February, but between March 15 and April 14 his future in the game appeared uncertain.

“As soon as he got the call from the Mariners, he was on the next plane west,” according to his father, Alan Kaminsky. “Seattle is the organization that he loves,” said the proud dad, who led much of the family to Florida in March to watch Rob on the mound in the World Baseball Classic.

That performance was brief but efficient. Rob didn’t appear in the first two contests in Miami, a win over Nicaragua and a loss to Puerto Rico. He entered the pivotal third game of the four-game round robin on March 14 in the fourth inning, with Team Israel trailing the powerful Dominican Republic team, 3-0. He held the star-studded squad in check for an inning and a third, throwing only nine pitches. The first two batters he faced were Juan Soto and Julio Rodriguez, the major league All-Stars who were the winner and runner-up in the 2022 Home Run Derby.

“I faced Juan Soto of the San Diego Padres, who grounded out,” he said. “Then I faced Julio Rodriguez of the Mariners” — the 2022 American League Rookie of the Year — “who had an infield single.” Rob then got Padres star Manny Machado, the number three hitter in the Dominican lineup, to ground into a double play, ending the inning.

Boston Red Sox slugger Rafael Devers led off the fifth frame with a fly ball to center field, at which point Team Israel manager Ian Kinsler, a 14-season major league veteran, brought in a new pitcher, who let the game get out of hand in the sixth inning. The team managed only one hit, and the mercy rule was invoked after the seventh inning with the score 10-0.

Team Israel’s tournament run ended the next day with a 5-1 loss to Venezuela. Rob watched it from the bullpen.

While his agent, Casey Close, prowled MLB for Rob’s next job, the pitcher remained in Florida, working out daily. “I usually go to the gym in the morning, and every Tuesday and Friday I pitch against live hitters,” he said.

Kaminsky, here pitching for Team Israel, is with the Mariners’ Triple A farm club Tacoma Rainiers now.

Family is important to Rob, who was happy to have his wife, Meg; his mother, Donna; his father; Alan; his brother, Joseph, and other kinfolk in the stands rooting for him during the WBC.

Alan Kaminsky described the family’s WBC experience. “The team played Sunday through Wednesday, March 12 to 15, and some exhibition games before that. It was my wife and I, my two brothers, one wife, and my older son, Joseph, 36, who teaches special-needs children.

“He makes such a difference in children’s lives,” he added about Joseph. “I’m so proud of him.”

At the WBC, “I had so many different feelings surging through me — the overwhelming feeling of pride at seeing Robert wearing the Team Israel jersey was beyond anything.” Rob gave his dad his Team Israel jersey and his Team Israel kippah, and he now displays them in his home and office.

“That first game, when we were playing Nicaragua and they started playing Israel’s national anthem, the sense of pride was indescribable, and I started feeling tears well up,” Alan Kaminsky said. “To hear Hatikvah being played for 40,000 fans and to see my son standing on the baseline was amazing,” he said.

Minor league crowds number nowhere near those at major league ballparks, and attendance was zero during Rob’s time with the Cardinals in the covid-impacted 2020 season, which lasted only 60 games instead of the usual 162. Rob appeared for St. Louis in five games out of the bullpen. His stat line consisted of no wins or losses and a 1.93 earned run average in four and two-thirds innings. And there had been no genuine cheers — a factor that helped make the WBC experience so exciting, and which motivated him to get back to the majors.

As if he needed any more motivation.

After all, this is a Jewish kid who followed his baseball dreams to a Catholic high school.

Alan Kaminsky said Rob’s talent started to become apparent when he was about 5. “We would take him to the park, and he could catch long, high fly balls,” he said. In elementary school Rob was a very good basketball player, but “by the time he got to high school, it was all baseball. He just had a knack for it. The key is he just loved it. He always worked harder than anyone else. You can’t teach the work ethic.”

Rob had attended Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, and he became bar mitzvah at the New Milford Jewish Center — but the baseball bug was overpowering. So when he finished Schechter — it ends in eighth grade — he opted to play for a Catholic powerhouse, St. Joseph Regional High School in Montvale, where he excelled. He was the Star-Ledger’s New Jersey Player of the Year in both 2012 and 2013. In his senior year he compiled a 10-0 record and a 0.10 earned run average (one earned run in 64 innings!), striking out 126. He pitched three no-hitters and three one-hitters. He was also sensational as a hitter, batting .506 with 3 home runs and 19 RBIs. But he has never batted in a professional game. Rob said he was fine with that. “Pitchers up here are too good for me to hit,” he said.

Rob’s high school performance earned him a $1.785 million bonus from the Cardinals when he was drafted in the first round in 2013. Before that, he raised more than $30,000 for the pediatric cancer ward at Englewood Hospital through his Strikeout Challenge charity. He had asked supporters to donate whatever amount they chose for each strikeout he recorded in his senior year.

So how did attending a Catholic high school affect Rob’s understanding of being Jewish? Alan Kaminsky said that his son felt strengthened by his experiences at St. Joseph. “Robert realizes that he is in a unique position,” Mr. Kaminsky said. “He makes a lot of friends, some of whom have had very little exposure to Jews.”

Unlike the previous Team Israel in the 2017 WBC, this year’s squad was unable to schedule a group visit to Israel. So Rob hasn’t been there since a family trip when he was 4, but his dad says they’re planning another visit this fall — after the baseball season, of course.

And now that Rob has played baseball under a different flag, would he consider playing in a foreign country? “Yeah, I would. I’m open to almost anything – Japan, Korea, Israel.”

But Seattle is a lot closer, only 25 miles from Tacoma, and it’s the biggest trip the former major league hurler wants to take this season.

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