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A David of the Diamond

Brian Doyle: The Yankees’ 1978 World Series hero and Zionist baseball pioneer

3:31 PM, Oct 16, 2012 • By LEE SMITH
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It couldn’t look darker for the Yankees with the American League Championship Series on the line. Down two games to none, they head into Detroit tonight to face stopper Justin Verlander (17-8 record in the regular season and a 2.64 ERA). The Tigers’ ace breezed through the Oakland A’s in the first round of the playoffs, striking out 22 over the course of his two wins with an ERA of 0.56. Worse yet, the Yankees are without their best player, Derek Jeter (.316 BA, 15 HRs, 58 RBIs), who broke his left ankle Saturday night ranging for a grounder up the middle.

brian doyle

The 38-year-old Jeter’s revival this year was a central part of the Bronx ballclub’s success, and its chances in the postseason are considerably slimmer without him. Over seventeen years in the majors, the Hall of Fame-bound shortstop has put together a postseason career that, with 158 games logged, amounts to a full extra season of baseball. In the postseason, Jeter is the career leader in several offensive categories—runs scored (111), total bases (302), hits (200), singles (143), doubles (32), triples (5)—and near the top in almost every other. Starting in his rookie year, 1996, the Yanks have won five World Series. The last time they won the fall classic without Jeter was in 1978, when another Yankee All-Star middle infielder went down with an injury.

That October second baseman Willie Randolph was scratched from the World Series roster, and his replacement was Brian Doyle, a scrappy middle-infielder from Kentucky who weighed 160 lbs only with a mouth full of chewing tobacco. His older brother Denny helped get the Red Sox to the World Series in 1975, which the Boston club lost to Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine. Brian, however, led the Yankees to victory over the Dodgers in six games, during which he hit .438, going 7 for 16, with four runs scored and two RBIs. His unlikely post-season heroics turned him into the most cherished of champions, the triumphant yet still modest underdog.

That winter, my brother Matthew and I, then high school students, traveled from New York City to Winter Haven, Florida, in order to attend the Doyle Brothers’ Baseball Academy. The Doyles, Denny, Brian and his twin brother Blake, at the time an Orioles farmhand, were anything but absentee owners looking to make a quick buck on the basis of Brian’s newly found star appeal. Rather they were our ever-present tutors and role models. They rotated between the several different diamonds full of young ballplayers, anywhere between 10 and 21, teaching us the finer points in comradely heckling as they threw batting practice, coached the baselines, hit fungos and most importantly, given that all three were professional infielders, instructed us in the fine art of infield play, from slow rollers and rundowns to jumping after making the double-play relay to avoid an onrushing baserunner. I think it was Denny who likened my brother to the young Rico Petrocelli—a comparison perhaps inevitable since my slick-fielding sibling had just broken his nose a few months before and his profile had indeed come to resemble the noble Roman bearing of the Sox third-baseman. The last time we saw Brian was in 1981 when he came back to the Bronx in an A’s uniform, and he shouted a quick hello after finishing batting practice and before descending into the visitor’s dugout.

Now, with Jeter down, I needed to speak to him again. “Wow, I am getting old,” he said after I managed to track him down on the phone. “You guys were at the baseball school and now you’re working for THE WEEKLY STANDARD, which by the way is just an awesome publication.”

I asked him what he thought about Jeter’s injury. “It was heartbreaking,” Doyle said. “You hate to see anyone get hurt like that. Then I thought about the guys that could take his place, like Jayson Nix. I guarantee you that Jayson was thinking every day, if someone gets hurt I got to be ready. I know that’s what I was doing.”

What’s the key to being ready in the postseason? “It’s not about being concerned about your performance, but being focused and trying to slow down the game. Everything is magnified. A lot of people don’t know how to handle pressure. But pressure is not knowing how you are going to pay your bills. And in ’78 I was thinking, I am going to make more money from this than I’m used to, no matter what. Pressure is about being away from your family. But all my family was going to be there. So, the minute you walk through the gate, you can focus on who you’re playing, who’s pitching, and not let all the ancillary things bother you.”

Real pressure is a terminal illness. Several years ago Doyle was struck with leukemia, which nearly cost him his life. “I was in the final stages,” he says. “I was the first person to go through double chemo treatments, and now I’m completely done with the cancer. I had a great team around me,” he says, a group of supporters that included the late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. “He’d call and encourage me as I was going through it. And then I saw him every year going back for Old Timers’ Games.”

Doyle tells me of his current work on the diamond. “I’m raising money for baseball and softball for the nation of Israel. I’ve also written the curriculum for training Israeli baseball coaches, 1700 coaches, every coach in the nation.”

Doyle is an ordained minister, and like many evangelicals, an ardent supporter of Israel. “One reason I’m there is just to love on the people of Israel, they need people loving on them right now.”

He seems to have cherished the opportunity to discuss scripture and Jewish history in Jerusalem as much as he enjoyed teaching aspiring infielders in Eilat how to stay down on a groundball. His involvement with Israeli sports started a little less than a year ago.

“I was contacted by a man in charge of the global youth baseball federation, Jeff Siegel, who was trained as an instructor at the Doyle Academy,” he says. “He’s a wise baseball man who started doing work throughout the world and told me that Israel is ready for baseball and wanted me to be the director of player development throughout the country.”

Doyle tells me that he just saw the Israeli national team play in Jupiter, Florida where they lost to Spain in the finals of the qualifying round of the World Baseball Classic. He says that the Israeli coach, Cheshire, CT native and former Yankees catcher, Brad Ausmus, “did a great job. They have three native-born Israeli players now, including their best pitcher, a guy I trained right out of the army. He’s 36, but he still made the team. But most of the players are American-born Jews.”

I note that had the Israeli nine gotten out of the qualifying round, they might have done pretty well in the finals if some of the Jewish big-leaguers had joined the squad. With Ian Kinsler, Ryan Braun, Kevin Youklis, Ike Davis, Josh Satin, Danny Valencia, Sam Fuld, Ryan Lavarnway and his Boston batterymate and fellow Yalie Craig Briselow, the brainiest guy in organized baseball, we might be in the middle of the golden age of Jewish baseball.

Doyle says the goal is to have 70 percent of the national team comprising native-born Israelis. Come January he is going to be opening up a new baseball academy right outside of Tel Aviv. “After 5 years,” says Doyle, “if I can get the best athletes, I think you will see a very fast growth in Israeli baseball. I say five because even with a college player, the average is still four years to get to big leagues.”

Does that mean big league teams are going to be scouting Israel for ballplayers? “They better get the attention of pro scouts or I haven’t done my job,” Doyle says.

Israel did have a professional baseball league, founded in 2007 that lasted only the one season. “It left a bad taste in people’s mouths,” says Doyle. “Lots of people lost a lot of money.”  The goal now, he says, is to build Israeli baseball from the ground up. Naturally then he’s looking to the historical wellspring of much of Israeli life, the kibbutz.

“At first, they wanted me to start in big cities,” he says. “But I said where do most of the military’s special forces come from? I want your best athletes. All the kibbutzes have land and soccer fields, so I’m trying to raise money to throw up nets and to make soccer fields baseball fields. I want every kibbutz to field a team.”

Seemingly borrowing from both Field of Dreams and Theodor Herzl, Doyle believes that if you will it, they will come. “I can’t tell you how excited I am about it,” says the hero of the 1978 World Series, taking baseball to the world. 

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