Less than 2 years after death of dad, diehard Cubs fan gets call of a lifetime
Subscribe for unlimited digital access.
Try one month for $1!
Subscribe for unlimited digital access. Try one month for $1!
Two months ago, Itamar Steiner thought he was getting scammed when a man who called himself an MLB scout reached out for the 18-year-old’s medical records.
“Why would they want mine?” Steiner thought.
Steiner, who the Cubs ultimately selected in the 40th and final round of the amateur draft on Wednesday, was the starting left fielder at Niles North High School in Skokie. He didn’t have plans to play college baseball — although he’d be lying if he said he hadn’t considered being a walk-on for Illinois, which is where he plans to continue his education next fall.
Steiner will be the first to admit that although he “lives and breathes baseball,” his career most likely came to an end after his final high school game a couple of weeks ago.
“I was pretty sad,” Steiner said.
So that’s why when Jason McLeod, the Cubs’ director of scouting and player development, came calling, Steiner was puzzled.
Turns out, it wasn’t the area scouts who put Steiner on McLeod’s radar. It was a package in the mail from David Rugendorf, a friend of Steiner and his late father, David Steiner, who died in a bus accident in Uganda on Dec. 26, 2016.
Lifelong Cubs fans
The Steiners lived in Tel Aviv, Israel, for awhile — more than 6,200 miles from Wrigley Field. But even being halfway around the world, Itamar Steiner and David Steiner were diehard Cubs fans.
David’s father, Joe Steiner, can attest to his son’s fandom.
“[David] was the biggest Cubs fan,” said Joe, who is often referred to as “Papa Joe.” “[David] was studying to be a Rabbi and he always said Wrigley Field was his temple.”
With a glass of tea in hand, David and Itamar would stream games on their computer at 3 a.m., often Skyping friends back in the U.S.
The father and son duo did everything in their power to help the Cubs win a World Series, including writing notes to God and participating in a silly annual wish ritual.
“I’d always say how I hoped to see a Cubs World Series in my lifetime,” Itamar said. “And [my father] would always say, ‘You probably would, but I don’t know if I will.’ ”
But still every year, Itamar and David would close their eyes to blow out their candles on their birthdays and their wishes would always be the same: “I wish the Cubs would win the World Series.”
Silence ensued after the candles smoked out. The father and son would lock eyes.
“Everyone would say, ‘Oh, we know what you wished for,’ ” Itamar said. “But we would never say it out loud because we were that superstitious.”
On at least 10 occasions, Itamar and David also traveled to Jerusalem to put notes in the cracks of the Western Wall telling God how they wanted the Cubs to win a World Series.
The Cubs and baseball united the father and son.
“When it came to baseball,” Itamar said, “we were for sure best buddies.”
The 2016 playoffs
David’s passion for baseball rubbed off on his family. He would always take Itamar and his two daughters to major-league ballparks each year. The goal was to go to all 30. But they only managed to make it to 23 before David’s death.
In October 2016, Itamar was at a cross-country meet when his father informed him that their family friend, David Rugendorf, landed tickets to Game 3 of the National League Championship Series against the Dodgers. The flight to Los Angeles was already booked.
“It was a dream come true,” Itamar said.
While the Cubs lost 6-0 to the Dodgers, it was a memory that is sure to last a lifetime.
“When we were at the game, we never doubted that the Cubs couldn’t do it,” Itamar said. “They were the best team for sure.”
It was also the last game Itamar and David attended together.
When the Cubs actually won the World Series on Nov. 3, David and Itamar watched it at a friend’s house. Itamar remembers not getting a lot of sleep that night.
“It was one of the best things I’ve ever felt when they won,” Itamar said.
There was only one thing that David and Itamar didn’t agree on and that was movies.
David enjoyed watching educational, “sophisticated” movies, while Itamar liked to watch comedies.
But Itamar did enjoy working with his father, who was a Chicago filmmaker. It was a project that brought the two to Uganda in December 2016. Itamar got there a few days after David arrived.
The film was centered on the Come True project, which helped refugees relocate after Israel started deporting them in 2012.
There were two South Sudanese refugee boys that Itamar befriended when his family lived in Tel Aviv, Israel, when he was 10 years old.
Itamar stayed in touch with the boys despite moving back to the Chicago area. They went to Uganda as part of the Come True project.
David was there for Christmas in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. He dressed up as Santa Claus, but had a Cubs World Series T-shirt on display under the red coat. David and Itamar gave the children games and toys that were donated by friends from Skokie.
It was a grand night.
The next day, though, was a bad day; one that Itamar remembers “all too vividly.”
David, Itamar and other members of the film crew were going on a five-hour drive to a different community to celebrate Hanukkah.
“We were going to bring these different cultures together because that was something my dad did best,” Itamar said.
About three hours into the drive, there was a bus collision on a two-lane highway.
“[I] got out of the bus. My back hurt. I was really nervous,” Itamar said. “I knew the one person who could fix all of this was my dad and then I realized what happened.”
There were 17 people on the bus. David was the only one who died.
Baseball helped Itamar cope with the loss of his father. He played two more years of high school baseball and stepped up into a leadership role with the team.
“Every time I played [baseball], I’d think of him,” Itamar said. “And every time I watched the Cubs, I think of him and I’m so grateful that they were able to win and he was there to see it.
“Everyone says [David] lived a full life in 51 years and more.”
It’s been an emotional rollercoaster for Itamar since he received his first phone call from McLeod.
A few weeks ago, Itamar learned that he might not actually be drafted.
On Wednesday, McLeod called Itamar at 1 p.m. to inform him that because not enough people were signing, “it probably wouldn’t happen.”
“I told him anyway, ‘Thank you for even considering me. I really appreciate it. I really enjoyed talking with you. It was an honor to even be considered.’
“I was pretty letdown.”
Three hours later, Itamar was sitting in his cabin at summer camp. His phone was plugged into a charger. It rang again, but this time it was Rugendorf, who told him to get on the computer to watch the 39th and 40th rounds of the draft.
Itamar immediately flipped open his laptop and was on a conference call with all the teams and the commissioner’s office.
When the Cubs were up to announce their 39th-round pick, Itamar locked in.
“With this pick, the Cubs select …”
“It wasn’t my name,” Itamar said. “So at that point, I didn’t know what to feel.”
In the next round and final round, Itamar knew this was it. If his name wasn’t called, it wasn’t going to happen.
With the No. 1,208 overall pick, the Cubs selected Itamar Steiner.
“It was amazing,” Itamar said. “It’s the biggest honor as a Cubs fan that I could ask for.”
If Itamar’s father was still here, he knows what he’d say.
“Anyone who knew him always knew he was very enthusiastic about everything. He would always say, ‘This is so cool. This is so cool,’ ” Itamar said.
McLeod said once he heard Itamar’s story, it was a no-brainer to draft him.
“Knowing how much the Cubs meant to their family, knowing what his dad did for the community and how he really tried to help people, and then just the story of what happened — his dad was tragically killed,” McLeod said. “We felt it was something that we could do to ultimately bring some joy to this family.”
Life after baseball
Itamar realizes that he doesn’t have the elite skill to play in the majors. But being drafted by his favorite team is the best honor he could imagine.
He plans to attend Illinois and eventually transfer into the business school.
One day once he has a financial backing, Itamar hopes to finish the movie his father started.
“I’m not comfortable going back to Uganda,” Itamar said. “I think there’s too much emotion, too much fear to go back to there. I do want to find a way to finish the movie. It was one of his big dreams.
“The goal of it was to bring awareness and potentially money for the Come True project.”