It may be a depressing reality, but it’s no secret that for every guy who spends a day on a big-league roster there are hundreds of thousands of ballplayers who never make it.
So, when 27-year-old southpaw Jake Fishman, a Union College alum and career minor leaguer originally drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in June 2016, learned earlier this summer that he was getting promoted from the Miami Marlins Triple-A affiliate Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp to the organization’s parent club, it was, naturally, a “pinch me” moment.
But what made it even more surreal was his Union College background. As Union’s longtime baseball coach, Paul Mound, says about a school known more for producing presidents (Chester Arthur) than MLB players (the last alum to play in the big leagues was Bill Cunningham, who retired from the Washington Senators in 1912), “You don’t go to Union College to be a Major League Baseball player.”
And yet, when Fishman, who, as a standout pitcher from Sharon, Mass. (he attended the suburban community’s Temple Klal Yisrael’s Hebrew school and had his bar mitzvah at the synagogue) was passed over by big-time college programs and initially recruited as a center fielder, arrived at the Division III school’s bucolic campus in fall 2013, he knew he was big league material — as a pitcher.
While he wasn’t exactly pounding the strike zone with blistering fastballs (his two-seamer topped out in the low-80s), when he took the hill for the Dutchmen as a freshman the following spring, he had a nifty sinker and curveball that compensated for the lack of velocity.
A few springs later, Fishman, now a junior, was reaching 90 mph with his heater while continuing to flummox opposing lineups with his fluttering off-speed pitches. By season’s end, he was boasting a microscopic .41 ERA, and there were more MLB radar gun-toting scouts than fans in the stands at chilly games in upstate Schenectady, N.Y.
“From the first day I ever had him [Fishman] on Union’s campus, he told me he was going to be a Major League Baseball player,” recalls Mound. “I’ve told many people that are friends of mine that when I wrote ‘Jake Fishman’ on my lineup card and I wrote the number ‘1’ next to it for position, I flat-out knew we were winning. I’ve never, ever had that feeling with anybody else I’ve ever coached.”
The grand plan came to fruition on the evening of Thursday, July 29, when Fishman was called into his Triple-A manager’s office and promised a one-way plane ticket to Miami the next morning. He was getting promoted to the Marlins, but not necessarily activated, perhaps just designated to be a reserve on the club’s taxi squad.
After being told to “Give us a little time, we’re still figuring some stuff out” by coaching staff for Jacksonville and Miami, Fishman was summoned into Miami skipper Don Mattingly’s office a couple hours before the team was slated to begin a three-game series against the NL East-leading New York Mets. Indeed, he would be activated for the weekend series at LoanDepot Park.
Speaking to the Atlanta Jewish Times a few weeks after the call-up, Fishman, who pitched for Team Israel during the Tokyo Games last summer, acknowledges that he was a bundle of emotions during the whirlwind experience.
“It’s a lot of both [anxiety and excitement],” Fishman said, “it was going back and forth between anxiety and excitement, but mostly excitement. I finally made it. Now I’ve got a chance to pitch against big leaguers. It kind of felt very similar to back in college when I was facing Division III guys, and then I’d go play in the summer ball leagues. You kind of had that similar feeling of like, ‘Obviously they’re better, but it’s still the same game. And if you make good pitches, then you get them out.”
Indeed, Fishman made plenty of good pitches in his official MLB debut during the series finale on July 31. Called in to relieve starter Pablo Lopez in the top of the third inning with two runners on and two out, Fishman calmly induced a fielder’s choice grounder from Mets star Francisco Lindor to end the inning. It was a solid debut — 3.1 innings of one-run, four-hit ball — but it didn’t hinder the Marlins from designating Fishman for assignment after the team’s 9-3 loss and putting him on waivers, leading to his ultimate demotion back to Jacksonville.
“That’s kind of what I expected to happen — just watching historically how the Marlins operate,” admits Fishman, who was selected by the Miami Marlins in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft in December 2020, four years after leaving Union a year earlier to join the Blue Jays organization.
Fishman’s spectacular ascent from the Union Dutchmen to the Miami Marlins is a most improbable success story. From finally cracking the roster of an elite amateur summer league team (he pitched one game for the Wareham Gatemen of the venerable Cape Cod League before getting drafted in 2016) to the interminable minor league bus rides, there were moments when Fishman wondered if, perhaps, he could have made better use of his degree in managerial economics.
“There’s a ton of moments where you’re like, ‘What am I doing with my life? Why am I here on this 12-hour bus ride and getting paid basically nothing?’” he recalled. “There’s been multiple points across my career where I was like, ‘Maybe I’m just not good enough.’ It’s a long journey,” admits Fishman, who also happens to be a true techie (among his many projects is a self-created app that converts the audio from a MacBook Pro so that it populates on the Touch Bar).
Although his major league career was short-lived, it’s certainly possible that Fishman could be back with Miami when the club visits Atlanta during Labor Day weekend. MLB rosters expand on Sept. 1, and the rebuilding Marlins are not exactly loaded with ace pitching. But regardless of whether he pitches another frame for a big-league team (he is a free agent after this season), Fishman’s legacy in Union College athletics — and Jewish baseball history — is secure.
“He’s such an incredibly great person,” raves Mound, who now undoubtedly has a helpful recruiting tool in Fishman’s successful journey. “He would give perfect strangers at least a minute of his time to shake a hand. Words can’t express how proud I am of him as a human being, forget about a baseball player.”
- David Ostrowsky
- Jake Fishman
- Union College
- Miami Marlins
- Toronto Blue Jays
- Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp
- Paul Mound
- Chester Arthur
- Bill Cunningham
- Washington Senators
- Temple Klal Yisrael
- Division III
- Don Mattingly
- New York Mets
- LoanDepot Park
- Tokyo Games
- Union Dutchmen
- Cape Cod League
- Wareham Gatemen
- Team Israel