Baseball’s Higher Calling
Opening Day of baseball season is a few months away, but with all the free agent signings in the news lately, my thoughts have drifted towards the upcoming season.
By the time the first Yankees pitch is thrown, I have usually memorized the entire team’s roster, players’ statistics and game schedule. My parents joke that if all my high school classes were comprised of baseball players, statistics and scores, I would ace all of my exams. After last year’s disappointing playoff loss, I am anxiously looking forward to what will hopefully be a more productive season for my beloved Yanks.
Until the April 1 opening game against the Red Sox, I have to focus my passion on practices for my high school team. The baseball season for my high school team also begins in the spring. However, unlike the major leagues, we practice indoors during the winter happily making baseball a year-long sport for me.
I surfed the Web and came across a poem titled “Life,” written by Jim “Mudcat” Grant, a former pitcher from the 1960s. The first stanza of the poem got me thinking about the importance of baseball in my life. “Life is like a game of baseball, you play it every day. It isn’t just the breaks you get, but the kind of game you play.”
Many important lessons about life and Judaism can be learned from this sport. Both baseball and Judaism rely on rules to maintain their traditions and integrity.
I have always loved the game of baseball. I vividly recall the countless hours I spent as a young child throwing, catching, fielding and hitting a ball with my father and older brother.
Being an observant Jew, I did not play baseball on Saturdays like other kids. For many years I spent my Sundays in the spring and fall playing first base or pitcher on my Teaneck Little League or travel teams.
My fascination with baseball has not waned over the years; I play first or third base on my high school team and watch the Yankees as often as time permits. As much as I enjoy both playing and watching baseball, what I gain from participating in the sport transcends the game itself.
Both baseball and Judaism have a deep-rooted sense of tradition. Many aspects of Jewish life are governed by customs that have been passed down from generation to generation, such as being called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah; reenacting the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt at the Passover seder; or eating symbolic foods on specific holidays.
One family tradition I especially enjoy is eating my mother’s chicken soup on Friday nights during the winter. Another tradition I also look forward to is celebrating the first night of Rosh HaShanah with my family’s Sephardic friends and partaking in their customs and special meal that includes blessings over sheep heads and eating leek pancakes, butternut squash and other symbolic foods to ensure a happy and sweet new year.
In baseball, the national anthem has been sung at every game since the end of World War II; the ceremonial first pitch of a game is usually thrown by a notable figure; and foods such as peanuts, hot dogs and Cracker Jack are traditionally sold at stadiums.
Additionally Judaism and baseball have strict rules and guidelines that need to be followed or else the “game” loses its integrity. In Major League Baseball, unfortunately, there have been many situations where players, managers and executives have been punished for acts they committed that violated or tarnished the integrity of the game.
A famous example is the banishment of Pete Rose, the all-time hits leader whom the commissioner banned from being inducted into the Hall of Fame because, when he managed the Cincinnati Reds, Rose bet on Reds’ games, which tarnished the integrity of the sport.
Similarly, many of the commandments and rules in Judaism focus on the need to be honest and full of integrity. This point is illustrated in the Torah when Moses’ sister, Miriam, spoke badly and untruthfully about his wife, Tzipporah. God responded by afflicting Miriam with leprosy. “It is forbidden to say something with your mouth and have another thing in your heart,” said Maimonides in the Mishnah Torah.
Community and team camaraderie is valued in Judaism and baseball. In Judaism, we are accountable for our own actions, but the way our actions affect others is paramount. We can see this by the many laws governing the importance of charity, helping those less fortunate, visiting the sick and even the idea of praying with a group of 10 people in a minyan.
According to tradition, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed because the Jewish people did not get along, spoke ill of one another and did not help those less fortunate.
Baseball also values the individual and the team. Each player must stand alone in the batter’s box and try his hardest to put the ball in play. Yet he is only one of nine batters and therefore, can rarely win a game by himself. While every player’s instinct is to hit a home run, sometimes a player can better assist the team by making an out. For example, there is a specific play called a sacrifice where the batter intentionally makes an out to advance a runner to the next base, thereby helping his team win.
In baseball and Judaism, it is important to always try hard, keep in mind the best interest of others and remain true to oneself and one’s beliefs. I try to live my life according to these guidelines.
After Sandy Koufax, one of the greatest Jewish baseball players of all-time, famously refused to pitch in the 1965 World Series game scheduled on Yom Kippur, Sports Illustrated wrote that Koufax was “unfailingly true to his ideals.”
By sitting out the World Series game, he personified the concept of sustaining beliefs above all else. He encapsulated what it means to be true to oneself and a team player, at the same time.
The Bible sets specific guidelines on how to live your life and the sport of baseball brings to life a few of the ideas.