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Sports with No Spectators

July 2, 2020 | by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

Greatness isn't measured by the applause of the crowds.

What happens when a major league baseball game is played in an empty stadium? No cheering for the home team, no screaming with delight when a favorite player smacks a gigantic home run blast over the fence, no standing ovation for a fantastic fielding play. No spectators, no feedback from the crowd, not a sound except for the clash of professional competition.

We are about to find out in less than a month as major league baseball owners voted unanimously to attempt a 2020 shortened 60-game season which, thanks to coronavirus, will take place in cavernous arenas with no audience.

I think this incredible setting for professional sports yields a powerful message for all of us.

The roar of the crowd is a powerful stimulant. That’s why there is a statistically proven advantage for a team playing on its home field to adoring fans and why sports clubs make sure cheerleaders are there to inspire and to motivate. But what happens when life doesn’t supply us with an admiring audience?

In major league baseball it only happened once before. On April 28, 2015 a game that was to be played between the Chicago White Sox and Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards in Baltimore was canceled due to security concerns related to civil unrest in the city which caused a curfew to be in effect. The game was rescheduled for that afternoon with no fans admitted. In the first inning of that “solitude” game, the Orioles’ Chris Davis hit a monster three-run homer that wound up settling near a street exit – and the ball just sat there wondering why no one cared enough to pick it up.

Players are expected to do their best whether their efforts are met with deafening cheers or deathly silence.

But the ballplayers played and the game counted in the final league standings. The hits, runs and errors of the participants became part of their lifetime averages, just as when there were 60,000+ people in the stands. Because the players are expected to do their best whether their efforts are met with deafening cheers or deathly silence.

Professionals are people who strive to excel no matter how many people are watching. Perhaps the best example was one of the greatest basketball games ever played. Michael Jordan said it was “the greatest game I’ve ever played in.” It took place just before the 1992 Dream Team Olympics, held in a locked Monaco gym in front of exactly nobody.

Just four days before the start of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics the American Dream Team were about to finish their preparations when a final practice was called that would end up going down in history. Head coach Chuck Daly decided to have a tough practice session at game intensity. He organized a five-versus-five duel and to balance the opposing teams he put Michael Jordan on one and Magic Johnson on the other. The practice had nine future Hall of Famers competing. Jordan was joined by Scottie Pippen, Larry Bird, Karl Malone and Patrick Ewing. Magic Johnson was blessed with Christian Laettner, Chris Mullen, Charles Barkley and David Robinson. These are the legends of basketball.

Michael Jordan’s team won. The only thing at stake was their personal pride, their desire to always give their best. Their audience was restricted to themselves. Hours later, in Barcelona, Team USA went on to change the history of international basketball forever as they went on to win the gold medal. Yet they all agreed that the most demanding and satisfying game had already been played in Monte Carlo.

Heroism comes from within. Greatness is not measured by the applause of the crowds but rather by the inner satisfaction of knowing that we have lived up to our potential.

The reality of our own lives is that unless we are famous celebrities our challenges are most often calls to personal duty and commitment to moral values viewed by no one but ourselves, and applauded only by our own conscience.

The Talmud teaches that in the World to Come God shows us the lives we have lived as well as the meaning of its events from a divine perspective. Everything we ever did in private, all the good deeds and the bad, are replayed without embellishment. It is then that we can clearly see our strengths and our weaknesses as well as the true purpose of what our lives were meant to be.

And it is then that we fully realize that we actually were always playing to an audience – an audience of the One who really counts.


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