Monday, May 24, 2010

The Summer Game: Baseball and the Jews

“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.

Bartlett Giamatti, the former Yale professor of comparative literature and Baseball Commissioner, had written of the Greek not Jewish nature of the game. The goal to “come home” places baseball in the epic traditions of the West, beginning with the heroic Odysseus whose desire to return home to his native Ithaka is at the primordial roots of the game. Perhaps, I considered, since Odysseus is really the Greek version of the Jewish b’aal tshuva—the one who returns—there is a hybrid Hebraic and Hellenic provenance to the Great American Game. But Giamatti’s meditations are too abstruse and allegorical, somehow missing the point. Baseball, rather, is a game of stories, complicated, intertwining, entangled—which is what makes baseball the Jewish sport.

There is not only the story told by the standings, the win and loss columns, or the rivalry between teams etched in baseball’s collective memory; there are the unfolding stories of individual players. Unlike the synchronized beauty of pro football’s violence, these stories can be watched as they develop in the luxuriating slowness of the 162 game season. After a few games, just a highlight can alert to the latest nuances of the story-lines; for the true initiates even a box score is redolent with cues to their progress (there were once, after all—hard to imagine for our image-centered generation—fans who followed the whole season through box scores).
It’s not only the narratives that evolve over the course of the season. The games of the “endless summer” provide, if watched carefully, cerebral stories of the moment. I remember the magical season of 1986 of the Mets’ World Series victory when I first tuned into the broadcaster, Tim McCarver, with his elaborate explanations of the permutations that make up the confrontation between pitcher and batter. And so the position players factor in dozens of variables, for every pitch, every batter, every developing scenario. There are those that compile baseball’s ever-growing number of statistics. But the numbers, of course, tell a story.

Before Odysseus even thought of leaving his hometown, Jews were telling stories. From the first Passover seder in the desert, the year after the Exodus from Egypt, we have been following the divine command to recount the formative moments of our creation as a people—connecting the present to the past through story-telling. How strange, if you think of it, a mitzva, a divine command, to narrate! But not only that, we are always already enmeshed in a life-long cycle of story telling: the weekly Torah and Haftorah portions that tell the stories of Jewish history. Or the sabbath itself—the prayers and meals of which implicate every Jew in the story of the longest duration which stretches back from the present to divine creation. Or the cycle of holidays in which we find ourselves part of the stories that have already been told, and are not only told but re-enacted, with words and through actions—with each reading of the megillah at Purim time, with each lighting of the candles on Chanuka, with each blintz on Shavuot.
From the very first seder in the desert, there were already variations and embellishments. As the Passover hagadda enjoins, the person who adds to the narrative of the Exodus is to be praised—enriching himself and others through the telling of tales. The stories that unravel over time are experienced and told differently in every home: that the famous four children of the seder each recquire a different approach becomes a lesson for parents for all generations to tell the stories so that that their own children can hear them best. And since, as the sages say, there are “seventy faces of the Torah,” there will be an endless multiplicity and variation, ever-unfolding opportunities for narration. Jews are probably not, as the old saying goes, people of the Book, but rather people of the telling—the telling and living of stories.


Astros Fan In Exile said...

Michal Michelson sent me the link to this blog. I agree - baseball is a totally Jewish sport. Stories and math. What more can you ask for?

I was thrilled on my last trip to Israel that I could watch my beloved Astros games live on I just had to get up at 5 AM to watch the last few innings of night games. Makes me think that aliyah is possible for someone who thinks life without baseball is... well, life without baseball!

Astros Fan in Galut (

m said...
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