I enjoy baseball for many of the same reasons I enjoy being jewish. This comparison is particularly relevant when I consider my journey in becoming a fan of the New York Mets of the National League. This fandom (from the word fanatic) gives a wonderful sense of identity and community. A baseball team and a religion celebrate Holidays and special family occasions and if there is anything that compares to a hot dog smeared with mustard, it is grandma’s chicken soup at Passover dinner. In religious school, I learned about the heroes of my tradition and in developing my passion for baseball there were the heroes whose pictures and baseball cards go up on walls and bulletin boards.
But as a Mets fan and a male born into the Jewish tradition, mostly one learns to suffer. And we share an enduring and constant tradition of being the underdog. As my tribe sits year after year waiting for a messiah to take us to the promised land, so do the Mets. As we are persecuted and bullied for our religion, the Mets get persecuted and bullied by opposing pitching staffs and home run hitters. The comparison may not be perfect, but to me baseball is a religious experience.
Jewish ballplayers were the major heroes in my childhood. There was Sandy Koufax who had the added virtue of being born in Brooklyn, whose nickname was the “Left Arm of God”. Sandy was one of the greatest pitchers who ever lived. Hank Greenberg was the “Hebrew Hammer” who played in the thirties and forties and took significant abuse because he was Jewish. Players like Koufax and Greenberg inspired a kid like me to fall deeper down the baseball rabbit hole and also lead me to fall deeper into Judaism. I too entertained the fantasy that I could hit 331 home runs or pitch and record 2,396 strikeouts. Though I was a good player, I soon learned that my ability to do those things had less to do with my faith and more to do with my genetics. Even without being able to live up to their feats, they still became childhood heroes in the same vein as other Jewish people like Jonas Salk, Albert Einstein and Natalie Portman.
Judaism and Baseball have also brought me closer to family. My Grandfather, Father and I all share these rich traditions together. I never met my Grandfather, but when I learned he was a catcher, it was only more motivation for me to put on my battle armor and get beat up by 12-year old pitchers who couldn’t find the strike zone to save their lives. When my father brought me to my first professional Mets game, I got to see some of baseball’s greatest players and they way they played was magical. I earned a childhood hero when David Wright hit the first home run I ever saw in person. He didn’t need to carry any similarities or connections to me. He put on the Mets’ blue and orange every day he could and played his heart out on that field. That was enough to win me over.
Finally the last major connection is faith.” Ya just gotta believe” is a phrase coined by the late Met relief pitcher Tug McGraw, (who was not Jewish) when the Mets were hopelessly behind in the 1973 season. They rallied and won the pennant. One thing I noticed around the age of eight is that Jews and the Mets have one key phrase we say in common. To finish passover dinner we always say the phrase “and Next Year In Jerusalem!”. Hoping that next year we will celebrate in the promised land. For the Mets at the end of the season we say “Just wait ‘till next year!”. Hoping that next year we will celebrate in the promised land with a World Series Victory. That’s the biggest connection between the Mets and Judaism. With all the beauty of the game of baseball and the jewish people, the best part of them both is the waiting. Waiting for next year to finally be today and the faith that it will happen.
As Met fans say, “Keep the faith,baby.”