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The Big Game: Baseball and the Jews

October 23, 2011 | by William Kolbrener

Like baseball, the ups and downs of Jewish history are strands of one larger story.

"What is it with you and baseball?" my wife asked recently after I emerged late for breakfast from my basement office.

"It’s a Jewish sport," I told her. Not because there may be a disproportionate number of baseball players in that classic volume, Jews in Sport. There is rather something about the sensibility of the game that makes for the connection between baseball and the Jews.

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"And the Mets won last night," I added. Unimpressed, and unwilling to indulge me further: "Are you having oatmeal this morning?" But after shul – morning prayers – and before getting ready for work, I had heard the results on internet radio, the Mets station, WFAN. It was a big win, the second straight and only their sixth of the last nine, and it happened in dramatic fashion. The Mets were down twice, and came back each time. In the second instance, the Mets tied the game in the ninth with a pinch-hit homerun, and though they threatened to lose by giving up a run in the top of the twelfth (extra innings for non-American readers), a rookie and new name on the Mets roster singled in the tying and winning runs.

I heard all of this during an update which segued into a call-in program for fans (people up at 1:30 AM in the morning and me) wanting to discuss the latest exploits of the Amazin’ Mets. I was tempted to call, but embarrassed at the prospect of introducing myself as "Bill from Jerusalem." There were other callers; one enthused, "The Mets are back! It’s great to be on top again."

Back on top again? It was only June, and baseball, with 162 games over six months, is a very long season. As the political commentator George Will once deftly offered, "you can’t grit your teeth through the baseball season." It’s simply too long for the investment of emotions in a single moment. Teeth gritting is for other sports, football perhaps, but certainly not the summer game. Not a game for teeth-gritting or undue expressions of euphoria. There is a rhythm to the long baseball season, and one game, however exciting and seemingly momentous, does not a beat make.

Baseball is a game of stories, complicated, intertwining, entangled which is one of the things that makes for the special connection between baseball and the Jews.

Baseball, rather, is a game of stories, complicated, intertwining, entangled which is one of the things makes for the special connection between baseball and the Jews. Bartlett Giamatti, the former commissioner of baseball and comparative literature professor, likened the game to Homeric stories of homecoming: but before the Greek ba’al teshuva (literally the one who returns) Odysseus left his hometown, Ithaka, Jews have been telling stories, making baseball the Jewish sport.

Recently, an older friend of mine, a fan of the Atlanta Braves, one of the Mets’ arch rivals for the uninitiated, mentioned in passing at the end of an email, that the Braves had taken the first two of four games against the Mets. Though he was enjoying the moment, he did not gloat (they ended up splitting the series); his enthusiasm for the recent Braves’ victories was qualified by thoughts for what he called "the long summer ahead." This showed the attitude of the mature baseball fan, at once immersed in the moment, but at the same time conscious of the bigger story.

One can have the typical baseball fan’s attitude about time and story-telling, or cultivate the perspective of my friend. To the typical fan – "John from the Bronx" in the middle of the night on WFAN – individual moments are invested with momentous importance of great triumph or catastrophic defeat. A good job interview, a promotion, a compliment received becomes a positive referendum on the self, the opposite a disastrous affirmation of failure. The former may not seem so terrible, except when the referendum goes bad: the job interview didn’t go as well as you had thought; your co-worker was promoted to an even better job; the compliment followed by a verbal twist of the knife. We can be nourished by the moment, gaining strength from successes, even if only temporary and apparent, and learn lessons from failures as well. But when they become more than that – definitive snapshots of ourselves placed on our psychic mantles – we are guilty of misusing the moment. In the days of social media, we engage in obsessive quests for those mini referenda on the self – the count of followers on twitter and facebook friends. But obsessing in this way is a sure sign that we are not aware – or avoiding – the demands of the larger story.

To view a temporary success as defining shows a failure to see the whole season, and to see how our lives are not always subject to our control.

For the baseball fan, to view a temporary success as defining – "it’s great to be on top again" – or the converse – "it’s all over now"– shows a failure to see the whole season, and, in the larger picture, to see how our lives and stories are not always subject to our control. Investing a particular moment or choice with ultimate significance is a kind of contemporary idolatry, a belief in the power of the self or money or your boss, or whatever you may happen to believe is the determining factor of your life. Acknowledging that there are other variables, maybe even an infinite number, is the first step to recognizing the divine, and the role of (what sometimes get simplified) as providence.

Milton got it right when in Paradise Lost, he calls Adam and Eve "authors to themselves," but also refers to God as the "Author of all Things." The philosophers might object to Milton’s contradiction, but the paradox tries to make sense of a world in which the creative self and a knowing God co-exist. We live in the moment, and narrate the story or various strands of the different stories that make up our lives. But that story is dependent upon another story – which we do not always fully know – that composed by the "Author of All Things." To recognize the place in that larger story is to move past the sensibility expressed in the contemporary mantra, ‘people make choices.’ To be sure, we do make choices, but those choices do not always lead to results we anticipate.

So as baseball fans, we may relish the moment – "the Mets win!" – but also understand that it’s just a passing moment in time, part of a whole season. As Jews we realize that we make choices and live in the moment with all of the intensity which it demands, while never losing sight of the larger frame, how our own stories fit into the larger and precedent stories of which there is only one sole Author. So the "big game" may offer thrills of victory or agonies of defeat, but we have to remember that, in the end, it is a long season.

Excerpted from Open Minded Torah by William Kolbrener. In Open Minded Torah, William Kolbrener offers a voice advocating renewed Jewish commitment and openness for the twenty-first century. In essays as likely to turn to baseball, the NASDAQ and Denzel Washington as to Shakespeare, quantum physics and psychoanalysis, Kolbrener provides powerful—and often surprising—insights into how open mindedness allows for authentic Jewish engagement.

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