July 20, 2021 | Justin Emerson, Las Vegas Sun
Photo by Amr Alfiky / The New York Times
Elie Kligman was comfortable with the fact that his religious beliefs could impede his baseball career. He just didn’t care, and the Washington Nationals validated that belief.
Kligman, a Las Vegas local and graduate of Cimarron-Memorial High School, was drafted by Washington last week in the 20th round to become the second Orthodox Jewish player ever selected in the MLB Draft.
He won’t play on the Sabbath, meaning games on Friday nights or Saturday afternoons are out.
He’s good enough that the Nationals were willing to draft him, and that’s important for Kligman — not just that he’s a pro prospect, but that he didn’t have to sacrifice his devout beliefs to get there.
“It means a lot, so that you can be who you want and you can play baseball,” Kligman said. “Hopefully there’s a lot of people in the Jewish community and Israel that can be inspired by that.”
High school draftees have two options: sign with the team that drafted them and head to the minor leagues, or waive the draft rights and play in college. Kligman hasn’t decided.
As a late-round pick he won’t get the multimillion-dollar signing bonus offered to first-rounders, but he also hasn’t committed to college yet.
Typically players commit and even sign a letter of intent with a college well before the MLB Draft, but Kligman had the unfortunate luck to enter prime recruiting season as the world screeched to a halt. The COVID-19 pandemic took away his junior season and limited his visibility this spring. There’s only so much a recruiter can see off film without seeing the player in person.
That didn’t stop the Nationals, though, who nabbed Kligman with their final pick in the draft. The Lerner family, which owns the Nationals, has a Jewish background, and Kligman said the Nationals were aware of his religious beliefs and wouldn’t have taken him if they weren’t open to working around those.
“I talked to the Lerners after they drafted me and they obviously know what my situation is and they’re definitely willing to accommodate,” Kligman said. “It’s a big part of my life so I hope the team that drafts me knows that.”
And he just might be worth those extra accommodations. He’s excelled as a pitcher, catcher and shortstop. He was listed as the 14th-best high school prospect in Nevada by Perfect Game, a baseball scouting service. In his second start as a freshman in 2018, Kligman fired a no-hitter against Faith Lutheran, paving the way for a terrific four-year career at Cimarron-Memorial.
He’s focused on catching now, the position the Nationals drafted him as and one he believes plays to his skills and baseball IQ but would allow him regular rest because of its physical toll. The hope is teams would be willing schedule that rest to fall on the Sabbath.
“At the pro level if you’re pitching and you’re on a five-day rotation then they’ve got to jimmy it around it for you. If you’re a reliever they’ve got to make sure they use you up before you’re off the books,” said Marc Kligman, Elie’s father and baseball agent representing him. “We have to always go off the premise that they wouldn’t change anything.”
Kligman’s selection by the Nationals in the 20th round was historic, as just the second Orthodox Jewish player ever taken in the MLB Draft. He was 17 rounds away from being the first, but New York prep pitcher Jacob Steinmetz beat him to the punch by going to the Diamondbacks in the third round a day earlier.
Kligman and Steinmetz have become friends through their shared faith, and they have shot each other messages of congratulations when the other was drafted.
Kligman spent the week of the draft training with the Israeli national team. Since he’s not an Israeli citizen, he’s not eligible to represent the country in the Olympics. But his selection in the draft is still a major moment for the Jewish baseball community.
“I’m going to stand by him for his religious beliefs and if he makes it to the Major League level and he’s that quality, it’s going to be very interesting to see what happens,” said Lou Rosenberg, the executive director of Jewish National Fund-USA, which is raising money for Team Israel to get to the Olympics.
Kligman’s representatives and the Nationals will likely use this week to hammer out details of his next steps. If the signing bonus and certain agreements about paying for college if baseball doesn’t work out (common in the draft world) are met, Kligman’s next game could be with one of Washington’s minor league teams.
If not, he’s a Division I talent that should have little issue finding a school that will take him, even this late in the process.
On a bus with the Israeli national team, Kligman heard the news every amateur player dreams of hearing when the Nationals made their selection. He’s made it to this point and, doing so, has made a lot of people very proud, just by staying true to himself.
“I did say to Elie at one point when he was getting to the early part of high school, ‘Look, are you the right guy for this? Are you ready for this?’” Marc Kligman said. “He was never, never wavering. Just resolute.”