When you walk into the office of Chaim Bloom, the senior vice president of baseball operations for the Tampa Bay Rays, one of the first things that stands out is a large jar of gefilte fish.

It has been there for over a decade, a testament to one of the most unusual—and certainly one of the most Jewish—bets in baseball history. As Bloom explains, the fish is a holdover from Passover circa 2006-2007. Thanks to the holiday’s dietary restrictions, Bloom subsists throughout on jars of store-bought gefilte fish that he brings to the office. That year, one of the team’s longtime employees was passing through and asked about the stuff.

Did Bloom like it? The man inquired dubiously. “I said, ‘No, I actually think it’s sort of gross, but it’s just kind of what you do,’” Bloom recalled, “Which I do—I think it’s sort of gross.” Bloom promptly offered his interlocutor a taste, who declined. “He said, ‘No way, that sounds terrible.’” Then, however, came the challenge: “He said, ‘I’ll tell you what, if we win the World Series, I’ll eat that jar of gefilte fish.’”

“So now we’re still waiting 10-plus years later, but I have not gotten rid of the jar,” said Bloom. “I don’t know if it’s actually still edible. But we’re gonna find out.”

Because if there’s one thing Bloom intends to do, it’s to win that World Series. At age 36, the Yale-educated executive oversees some 200 employees at what the New York Times calls “baseball’s most innovative think tank,” the Tampa Bay Rays. Last season, the team had the sixth-best record in the American League, despite running the lowest payroll of all 30 teams in the sport. The Rays’ ability to outperform their resources and expectations has put Bloom in high demand. Over the summer, he was runner-up for the position of New York Mets general manager, and he has been courted by many other clubs looking to integrate the techniques that have bolstered the Rays.

How did a Jewish day school kid from Philadelphia rise to the upper echelons of baseball? What are the secrets to his team’s success? And does anyone actually know how to pronounce his name? I spent some time shadowing Bloom as he oversaw the end of spring training to find out.

***

There is only one Rays executive whose official bio begins with a pronunciation guide for his first name: “HIGH-em” Bloom. I asked Bloom if he often finds himself in the position of explaining to people in the industry how to say it. “All the time,” he said. Most people, he added, “figure it out or they figure out something close enough that they can call me.” He’s given up on the guttural “ch” sound, though. “The ‘ch’ to me is sort of a varsity-level thing with my name,” he joked. “In this game, if the worst thing you’re being called is some mispronounced version of your actual name, you’re doing pretty well.”

Rays General Manager Erik Neander, Bloom’s partner in crime in running the team, remembers how one security guard on their floor would regularly call him “Chaym.” Bloom never corrected him, so at one point, Neander called out of his office to helpfully offer the proper pronunciation. “The guy looked at the nameplate on Chaim’s office again and was like, ‘nah,’ and kept going with Chaym,” Neander recalled with a chuckle.

Of course, the name isn’t the only thing that tips people off about Bloom’s Jewishness. As the gefilte fish in his office shows, there’s also his unusual diet. “His kashrut is one of the things about his Judaism, other than obviously his name, that people notice the most,” his wife, Aliza Hochman Bloom, told me, “because he eats a lot and because there are notable things that he can’t eat all the time.” Bloom visits every Rays minor league affiliate each year, and whether he’s taking staff out to eat or dining in the clubhouse, the restrictions are readily apparent and accommodated by the team chefs. “He’s been with the organization for 14 years,” said Hochman Bloom. “They all know.”

Bloom and Hochman met at Yale, where he studied classics and dreamed of a career in baseball. They split up when he graduated in 2004 and left to work as a summer intern for the San Diego Padres, but reconnected years later. He would visit her in New York, where Hochman attended Columbia Law School, and she would visit him in Tampa, where he’d begun working for the Rays. Today, they live with their two sons in St. Petersburg, close to Tropicana Field, in part so that Bloom is able to return home on Friday nights and make Shabbat with the family, before returning to the stadium to watch the Rays play on homestands.

“The idea that your Judaism is an impediment to your career is something that I have not experienced at all, to my knowledge,” Bloom told me, “even as I’m aware that there’s plenty of anti-Semitism in the U.S. at large. I’m fortunate. I don’t think my parents felt that growing up; I think they felt it was a strike against them.”

“People have been awesome, incredibly respectful of everything having to do with it,” he said. But while the Rays have been very accommodating of Bloom’s Jewish practice, the Jewish calendar has been less forgiving when it comes to the Rays. Back in 2011, the team found itself in a clinching final game against the New York Yankees that would determine whether the Rays would make the playoffs. The catch: It was on Rosh Hashanah.

The contest was the capstone event of a historic comeback. At the start of September, the final month of the season, the Rays had trailed the Boston Red Sox for the final playoff spot—the Wild Card—by nine games. No team in baseball history had ever overcome a deficit that large to make the postseason. The Rays needed one more win to accomplish the feat. It was the sort of moment every baseball executive and player lives for. But Bloom had other commitments to honor.

“Leaving town that morning to go to Boston to spend Rosh Hashanah with my in-laws was one of the more difficult things we’d done in my career,” he recalled. “Basically, I decided that my commitments to my family were more important than being around for a game whose outcome I was at that point not going to be able to influence.”

“I can only imagine how painful it must have been for him to miss it,” said Neander. In the end, the baseball gods—and perhaps the Jewish God—smiled on the Rays. They defeated the Yankees in dramatic fashion, coming back after trailing 7-0 in the eighth inning, and sniped the playoff spot from the Red Sox at the finish line. “I’m not sure there were that many baseball fans celebrating in the Boston suburbs that night,” said Bloom, “but my in-laws’ household certainly was.”

***

Star players like Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg famously opted not to play on Yom Kippur. That Bloom would follow in their footsteps, after a fashion, is no surprise given his background. He attended Jewish day schools in Philadelphia, first Solomon Schechter and then Akiba Academy. His mother is a recently retired Hebrew and French teacher. His cousin is Yale Judaic Studies professor (and Tablet contributor) Eli Stern. His wife’s uncle, who performed their wedding, is Rabbi Lyle Fishman of Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Maryland, whose connection to Bloom was memorably uncovered by a popular baseball podcast:

But beyond balancing his Jewish life and baseball life, Bloom has his work cut out for him with the Rays. Because the team perennially runs one of the lowest payrolls in the sport, it has much less margin for error than big spenders like the New York Yankees. Cash-flush franchises like the Yankees and Red Sox are like pitchers who throw 100 miles an hour—the extra oomph on the fastball, like the extra money, enables them to get away with many more mistakes and still overpower their adversaries by sheer brute force. The Rays, by contrast, are the crafty finesse pitcher of baseball franchises, the sort of player who compensates for the lack of mustard on his fastball by locating it exceptionally well. In practice, this means that Bloom and Neander are constantly looking for the next competitive edge over their better-funded opponents.

Last year, they found one.

Perhaps no innovation has more fundamentally changed the game of baseball in the last decade than one that the Rays introduced last season: “the opener.” Traditionally, baseball teams have fielded a five-man rotation of starting pitchers, each one of whom is expected to pitch the bulk of the game that he starts. Faced with a spate of injuries to their starters and a thin roster of credible replacements, however, the Rays did something in 2018 that no team had done before. They began using their best relief pitchers to “open” their games, before replacing them with the normal starter, who would pitch a handful of innings before giving way to other relievers. Essentially, instead of one pitcher going as far into the game as he was able, the Rays opted for a calculated tag-team approach.

The strategy behind the opener was simple. Major League teams stack their line-ups with their best hitters at the top, to ensure that those hitters get the maximum number of plate appearances per game. That means that the most dangerous hitters come up in the first inning. This is particularly perilous for many starters, who work with multiple pitches and tend to use that inning to figure out which are working and how the ball is moving. For this reason, across the league, starting pitchers typically give up the most runs in the first inning. Relief pitchers, unlike starters, tend to have fewer pitches and are trained to enter the game in the middle of jams and be immediately effective. While they don’t have the deep arsenal or arm strength to start games and go many innings, they are uniquely suited to taking on the top of the line-up. Realizing this, the Rays decided to put their pitchers in the best position to succeed, which meant using relievers in the first inning, before having the “starter” enter and begin their day against weaker hitters.

The gambit worked. The team went from having one of the worst records in baseball before the opener, to one of the best by the end of the season. Their pitching staff’s earned run average clocked in at 3.76 per nine innings, the second best in the American League, trailing only the defending World Champion Astros. But the greatest evidence of their stratagem’s success was how it spread. Across the league, other teams began deploying openers, and while the Rays did not make the playoffs, others in the postseason used openers throughout, including the Oakland Athletics and Colorado Rockies. As one baseball analyst put it, “Because the Rays volunteered to go first, and because the Rays have been successful, other teams are more motivated and willing to play around with the starting-pitcher role.”

I asked Bloom how the decision to use an opener came about. He said that it wasn’t the result of any single conversation, and it wasn’t even entirely the Rays’ own idea. “This is not something that we had just come up with, or necessarily that we came up with at all,” he explained. “This is something that I think was part of baseball conversations certainly for as long as I’ve been in the game.” Many teams had pondered whether there might be a more efficient way to use their pitchers, rather than cramming them into a rigid rotational structure. But until 2018, none had done much about it.

Part of the problem was simply the reputational risk of trying something new. “If you do something conventionally and it doesn’t work, you don’t take the blame,” noted Bloom. “If you do something differently and it doesn’t work, you’re going to be under a microscope, and people are going to be pointing fingers at you.” He credits his organizational staff for taking the plunge. “They were unafraid to risk that.”

The other difficulty was the human component. Even if the opener concept looked good on paper, executing it meant getting players who had trained to play the game one way to play it very differently. “It’s easy to come up with an idea,” said Bloom. “The trick is implementing the idea and communicating it and getting buy-in and getting everybody on board.” In other words, rather than treating players like cogs in a machine who can be manipulated at will, one has to treat them like human beings. “Our field staff did such a tremendous job of that,” Bloom continued. “They were willing to put in the hard work of communicating to the players: This is what we’re doing, and why. Here’s how we think it can help you, and how we think it can help us win games.” The results were apparent in interviews with Rays pitchers, who became enthusiastic evangelists for the opener.

***

This careful process was emblematic of Bloom’s people-first approach to baseball. On paper, he is easy to typecast as an Ivy League nerd who entered baseball at the height of the Moneyball statistical revolution, and who came to upend the traditions of the game with computational analysis. Because of his age and background, many presume that Bloom is the sort of person more comfortable with databases and spreadsheets than actual players, coaches, and staff. But while Bloom is certainly fluent in advanced analytics, that’s not his calling card.

This was evident when we sat behind home plate watching the Rays take on the Phillies in one of the final games of spring training. Throughout the contest, Bloom ticked off not numbers, but the names of individual prospects, where they signed from, and what was exciting about them.

“I think that because of Yale, and Classics, and frankly the name ‘Chaim,’ people assume that he’s a quant-guy, and what they don’t realize is that he’s a hangout guy,” said his wife, Aliza. “He’s the one who stays in the clubhouse having beers with them until really late. He’s the one who all the training staff and the strength and conditioning guys and the coaches go to when they want to talk about something personal.”

“It’s easy to stereotype Chaim,” said Neander, “because of his age and his Ivy League education, as one of those people”—stat-heads with disdain for the old guard—“but Chaim is the furthest thing from them. He has deep respect for the game and knowledge of its history.”

That respect is evident from his office, which aside from gefilte fish, is filled with baseball memorabilia. Much of it pertains to Don Zimmer, the legendary infielder who spent six decades as a player, manager, and coach for countless Major League teams. He died in 2014, in the employ of the Rays, where he served as a senior adviser. “I miss him, so I like keeping that stuff out there,” Bloom said quietly. “He was a pretty special guy.” The two shared a personal bond. In his final years, Zimmer was no longer able to sit in the Rays stands for the entire game, but “he would still come pre-game and hang out with the staff and he would watch the first few innings on TV in the clubhouse” before going home. “So I used to watch the first couple innings of most games with him,” said Bloom. “And then you lose him and you’re really glad you did that, because you never know how much time you have left with somebody.”

As Hochman Bloom puts it, when it comes to baseball, “the thing Chaim loves the most is the relationships.” Bloom himself credits the Jewish values he was raised with for instilling this sensitivity to the human side of his work. “This is a very competitive business,” he said. “It’s a zero-sum business and we’re all fighting over the same number of wins every year, and there is that cutthroat aspect of it. But one of the things that I’ve learned over time, which I think ties into my upbringing and the Jewish values I was brought up with, is that in whatever you do, whatever passion you follow, whatever line of work you’re in, there are opportunities every day to bring your values positively to people.”

“I think I probably fall short every day of doing that perfectly well,” he continued, “but it’s something that as I’ve gone on in my career, I see more and more.” Not only is being attentive to the needs of everyone he oversees “important to me personally, but I think it makes me better at my job, and I can trace a lot of that to the values that I was brought up with about recognizing that there are things beyond you and your own desires, and that the impact you have on other people and on the world is really important.”

“That can be true in any walk of life,” he said, “and I’ve found that certainly in this business, it’s true every day.”

***

Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.





PRINT COMMENT