Tonight I’m going to talk about baseball. It is not only timely, it fits our Torah portion, Bereshit. In the big inning, right? If that isn’t compelling enough for you, here’s what Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf wrote in 1988 explaining how Jewish baseball is: “The most important truth about the game is this: much of it is boring. You wait and you wait–sometimes for almost the whole, long game. But finally–and no one kows exactly when it will be–you will be the only one who can catch a fly ball or the only one who can drive in the winning run. Everything will depend on you. For that single moment, no matter how slowly it comes, the player must always be ready. There may be no second chance.”
That may be why the game has always appealed to me. It also helped that I grew up in New York in the fifties, where everyone, even my grandparents, had a favorite team. A stroll down the street would fill your ears with baseball games, because with three teams, someone was always playing at home. It was more than the national pastime, your team was part of your identity, a revealer of character.
I came from a mixed marriage; my mother rooted for the Giants and my father for the Dodgers. I identified with my mother, so Willie Mays was my hero. He used to catch the ball like no one else, the basket catch. I practiced it for years, getting hit in the face half the time. Early on I learned that it was OK to disagree. Sometimes there was no clear right or wrong. The Brooklyn Dodgers were the working man’s team and the Giants uptown had a little more class.
But the Yankees were another story. If you were from the Bronx, you were surely for the Yankees, but more than that, if you liked winners and power, you rooted for the Yankees. They stood for worldly power, Wall Street, US Steel. To root for the Yankees was like rooting for Microsoft. Last week, Robert Lipsyte, the NY Times sportswriter, confessed that he was a Yankee. His reasoning was simple, rational, and logical. This is a game about winning. Why wouldn’t you root for a team that has won more pennants and World Series than any other? It’s been a powerhouse since the days of Babe Ruth. Makes sense, yes? Why should anyone root for the weaker team?
But something about his assertion nagged at me. Yes, it’s true that we like to win and we like winners. But do we get the same thrill when the mighty conquer as when the underdog prevails? As Jews, we have always been the underdog except for one brief episode in history. The Maccabbees were our strength, they created the Hasmonean dynasty, and it fell because of corruption. There are drawbacks to everything, including power. At Chanukah, we celebrate the victory of a few against the many. Not by power and not by might, but by spirit alone, the prophet tells us. As a people, our greatest moments have been not in times of peace and prosperity, but in times of wilderness and persecution. We live in a world where it is a crime to be poor. Once upon a time it was a crime to flaunt wealth.
Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, a Hasidic genius of the nineteenth century, lived in terrible times. He has been called an ecstatic depressive. He taught us that we come into the world to discover that there are bottles with labels on them. When we reach a certain age, we can read the labels. Then we get a little older and we see that the bottles are mislabeled. So we spend our lives putting the right labels on the right bottles. This one who is labeled a winner in the world may not be a winner in God’s eyes and this one who is labeled a loser may be the winner. Who the world calls heroes may not be heroic by a higher measure of behavior.
We are a people who have been dying since our birth, on the fringes, rarely the mightiest. It has made us who we are, a life-intoxicated, ethically obsessed people who have learned never to give up, that light follows darkness. Because we are less than two percent of the world’s population and we sometimes suffer because we’re Jews, should we, now that we have a chance in history, give it up? It makes rational sense, yes? Yet almost every week someone calls me about considering becoming a Jew. They don’t have to, they want to, because they understand that winning doesn’t always mean getting the most points, the most people. Winning may mean that the experience of being a Jew deepens us, because our own struggle can teach us compassion for others.
I know some of you are Yankee fans. Some of my best friends are, even my son is. They do have great looking uniforms and it’s a pleasure to watch masters of the game. They deserve their fans. I also think, however, that being a Mets fan, the team that set records for coming from behind to win, who didn’t give up and made it to the World Series, who didn’t collapse at the sight of the Bronx Bombers, have something worth rooting about, too.