Sandy Koufax knew when the time was not right to play Major League Baseball, and so did Max Ungar. While Koufax decided back in 1965 not to pitch Game 1 of the World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur, Ungar has just decided to decline a contract offered him by the Washington Nationals, and to go to college instead.
Being picked in the draft by a Major League team might make a 17-year-old player’s head swell, but Ungar “has a good head on his shoulders,” according to his mother, Rachel Goldsmith. The catcher, and recent graduate of Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland, has opted to play college ball at Denison University in Ohio.
“He’s had a clear vision for some time now that he’s wanted to be a college player,” Goldsmith said. “He knows the value of education and has a pretty good sense of how life works.”
Her son agrees. “Getting a college education is more important than pursuing a professional career at this stage in my life,” Ungar told The Times of Israel. “It never crossed my mind to sign the contract.”
‘It never crossed my mind to sign the contract’
Ungar, who can barely remember a time in his life when he didn’t play baseball, is looking forward to playing on the college level. He said he purposely did not look seriously at Division 1 schools and chose to attend Denison, a Division 3 school, for its “really good academics.” He also wanted what he called “the concrete opportunities” that playing for Denison would give him. “I’ll get more time playing and more chances to really contribute to the team,” he said.
Had he signed the contract with Nationals, he would have likely faced five to ten years working his way up through the minor leagues. “It’s a long process,” Ungar reflected. “You go through all that, and then you’re lucky if you get a whiff of the majors.”
Still, it was nice to have been scouted and ultimately picked in the draft on June 7 by his hometown team — especially when he had only just recently returned from a three-month trip to Israel with his day school class.
“I didn’t play much baseball while I was in Israel. So as soon as I got off the plane, I started swinging a bat,” Ungar said. There wasn’t much time to get in shape for the workout the Nationals had invited him to. He was only one of a few high school students there (the others were all college players), and “I wasn’t expecting to get drafted,” he admitted.
Ungar is the middle child and only son of Goldsmith and her husband Howard. His older sister is a professional ballerina, and his younger one is a rising junior at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. When asked whether he thought that his Jewish upbringing and education might have influenced his decision in any way, Unger said it likely had.
“After going on the Israel trip and learning Jewish studies and Torah for thirteen years… the values you get out of that are that learning is important,” he reflected. “You learn that you shouldn’t grab the biggest marble. It’s better to take things step by step.”
Ungar also plays basketball and soccer, but he has an abiding love for baseball. He likes the fact that while it’s a team sport, much also depends on a player’s personal ability. “I like the fact that in baseball you’re always in control of your own fate,” he said.