While some established baseball veterans with huge contracts ride into spring training driving a Mercedes GLE 63s or Polaris Slingshot, one rookie has to endure ribbing about driving a horse and buggy. But Erasmus Kolb, who is Amish, can tolerate the gentle jokes from his teammates because he has a chance at his lifelong dream of playing baseball at the highest level.
Kolb, an outfielder in the Tampa Bay Rays minor league system, is at his first spring training camp, at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Florida. His teammates in various minor league stops over the past three years have accepted his beliefs and behaviors, while at the same time poking good-natured fun at what to many of them are eccentricities regarding dress, horse-drawn buggies and barn raisings.
While Kolb, who grew up in Shipshewana, Indiana, adheres to traditional Amish beliefs, he is an outgoing and fun-loving member of his team. He is also very serious about his desire to play major league baseball. While many Amish young people conclude school after eighth grade, Kolb continued through high school in order to play organized baseball. He received offers to attend several Mennonite and similar denominational colleges but when the Rays drafted him in 2013 he signed with them as likely the quickest way to reach the majors. Scott Russell, his manager in High-A, says that “Rassy has always had a single-minded determination to play hard and play well and make it to the top.”
Kolb is known for his wiry strength (“farm work” he says) and speed (“from chasing my older brothers and sisters”). He also knows what he needs to work on. “I need to be more selective at bat,” he acknowledges. “I need to work more walks and cut down on strikeouts.”
In uniform it is difficult to distinguish Kolb from being just another member of the team, especially as he is fairly fluent in Spanish, having studied the language in high school sensing that it would be a useful tool to interact with teammates from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and other Central and South American countries. His former Low-A manager Manny Torres believes that Kolb “has a special affinity to make the Latin players feel welcome, I think because he has been a bit of an outsider too.”
Difficult to distinguish — except for the beard. In typical Amish tradition, Kolb has kept his beard. Throughout his minor league progression it has earned him distinction and recognition with which he is sometimes uncomfortable. Out of uniform, wearing simple pants and a solid-colored dress shirt, and with the beard, he does look quite Amish. “I feel I need to be consistent in who I am,” he says, “but boy, I can get a lot of looks when I’m in a new town.”
His teammates, however, are quick to support him. Especially when fans or players from opposing teams make inappropriate comments. “He’s one of us,” says Kevin Roberts, his teammate in AA last year. “Really, every one of us is different in different ways. We all like Rassy and we have his back when someone says something stupid.”
Kolb’s interest in playing professional sports has generated some disagreement among the Amish in his home area. His bishop, Jacob Borntrager, ultimately gave approval to Kolb pursuing his dream. “There are aspects of this with which we are uneasy, yes, but Erasmus is well-grounded and has strong family support to keep him focused on both his goals and his beliefs,” said Borntrager. “If nothing else, it may help clear up some of the misconceptions people have about the Amish and our beliefs and values.” His father, Isaiah Kolb, adds that “He certainly has this gift, so we hoped he would have a chance to see where it leads while he is young. There will be opportunities for Erasmus to start his own home after this endeavor is over.”
The Amish are a church group with an Anabaptist background. Sometimes called “Plain People,” they share common historical roots with the Mennonite churches. The early Anabaptist movement in Europe formed during the Reformation. Anabaptist refers to being baptized again, as in adult baptism as believers. The Amish broke from the Mennonites in 1693, seeking a stronger separation from “worldly ways.” They wear modest clothes, do not drive cars and do not have electricity in their homes. They are a humble people, value simple living, are family-centric and believe in being as separate as possible from the rest of society.
What does Erasmus Kolb hope to get out of his first spring training? “I’m just soaking this all in. The atmosphere, the training, learning from the guys who’ve made it. This is great. But I know I have more work to do.” While he is certain to return to the minors for more seasoning, the major leagues now appear to be in sight. He’s after the view from the top of the barn.