MAY 30, 2008

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

It is a well-known fact in Biblical scholarship that contrary to the belief that baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday in the 1800s, baseball has its true roots in the Bible. One need merely cite a number of passages to prove the point:

Genesis Chapter 1- When did creation occur? In the Big Inning

Genesis Chapter 6- Noah was actually a curve ball pitcher. We read how he “pitched the ark, inside and out.”

Later we learn that Adam and Eve were actually playing baseball in the Garden of Eden. After all as regards the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Eve stole first and Adam stole second.

Finally we have the story of David and Goliath. Conventionally it is thought that David used a slingshot to slay Goliath. Once again, the contest was really baseball, as we read how goliath was put out by David.

Okay, so maybe I’m stretching things a bit. I do have this tendency to see the world with Jewish eyes, gleaning religious teachings from domains which normally are not considered Jewish and extrapolating Jewish value lessons from them. The world of sports is particularly ripe for this.

Basketball season is over as far as New Orleans is concerned. I know the playoffs in the NBA are still going on, but our level of interest is not as great. The Saints are certainly in our minds, but it is not even exhibition season. But with the Memorial Day Weekend now past, the “great American pastime” of baseball takes center stage, even if they have actually already been playing for over a month and half. So this evening I would like to find my message in three baseball stories that have occurred this year.

The first took place on opening day at Fenway Park in Boston. The Red Sox were going to celebrate their second World Series victory in recent years and to throw out the ceremonial opening pitch of the season, they selected Bill Buckner. Though baseball is a team game, individual performances make a big difference. What moment could be more  triumphant, than hitting a homerun to win a game and watching the big “H” light up on the scoreboard? In spite of a long and accomplished career in the major leagues, Bill Buckner is best known for the opposite. For when you make a mistake in baseball, everyone sees it and a big “E” for error flashes on the scoreboard. How many of us could handle our mistakes being publicly shared?

Bill Buckner’s ignominious moment came in the 6th game of the 1986 World Series against the Mets. At the time the Red Sox had not won a World Series since 1918. It was the sixth game of the series against my New York Mets and Boston was ahead 3 games-2 in the series. The game was in extra innings and the Red Sox had a two run lead with two outs in the bottom of the 10th. Victory was within reach. New York tied the game with three straight hits. Then with a runner on third base, the ball was hit on the ground towards Buckner at first base, rolled under his glove and into right field for an error, allowing the Mets to score a run, win the game and opened the door for them to win game seven and the series.

Once again the Red Sox were losers and Buckner was pilloried by fans and media as the cause of it all. Ignore the fact that their ace relief pitcher had allowed two earlier runs to score. Buckner was to blame. “Some murderers didn’t face as much criticism as I did,” Buckner would say. “I couldn’t believe it. It’s like I did nothing in my career except commit that error.” In truth without Buckner’s 102 RBIs (runs batted in), the Red Sox might never have been in the series in the first place, but one error caused that all to be forgotten. Some consider this error to be one of the biggest sports stories of the past 25 years.

Fast forward to April 8 of this year. Forgiveness is the theme of the moment. Bill Buckner is called forward for the opening day first pitch and received a 4 minute standing ovation. It was deeply moving. Of course it perhaps only could have occurred after the Red Sox finally had two World Series championships to soften the old pain.

However, it raises the question of how we treat those who make errors and their impact upon us. If what they have done is malicious or intentional, it is one thing. But what about the person who accidentally spills something on us, who miscalculates a sum effecting our bill or perhaps a grade at school, our co-worker who forgets to do something, which means we have to work harder on the project and I could go on. Do we harbor that anger and withhold our understanding? We need to be forgiving of those who commit errors that impact upon us. Their hearts are in the right place. They just made a mistake.

Buckner had to do some forgiving as well. First, he had to forgive himself for making that error. I’m sure he will never forget that moment, but it was only one in a 22 season career. Over time, he accepted that reality. But on October 8, he came to terms with a related issue, as he explained: “I really had to forgive, not the fans of Boston, per se, but I would have to say in my heart I had to forgive the media, for what they put me and my family through. So, you know, I’ve done that and I’m over that.” I think all of us can relate to his pain and recognize him as a sports hero and a model for the value of forgiveness.

Our second story involves the Jewish value of rachamim-compassion. Rachamim is the basis for our caring and reaching out to other people in their times of need. We don’t have to do it, but as we share a human condition, we feel for others as they face trial and difficulty. It is rachamim that prompts us to donate for the relief efforts in China and Myanmar. It is rachamim that causes individuals to respond to the human interest stories periodically broadcast in the local media. But one does not usually think of rachamim on the baseball diamond, but clearly that was the case just about a month ago.

Sara Tucholsky was a part-time starter in the outfield for Western Oregon University’s women’s Division II softball team. Western Oregon was playing against Central Washington in a game that would determine a possible berth in the NCAA tournament, something neither team had ever accomplished. In the second inning with two runners on base, Sara hit a home run. Unaccustomed to hitting home runs and very excited, she missed first base as she circled the basepath, and turned back to touch the bag. In the process she twisted her knee and crumbled to the ground. According to baseball rules, no one from her team could come and assist her. For a home run, she had to touch all the bases. Her Coach was ready to put in a pinch runner for her, but that would have only meant she’d be credited with a single.

Then Mallory Holtman, the first baseman for the other team and the career homerun leader in her school’s history, asked if she could assist Sara. Along with shortstop Liz Wallace, the two Central Washington players assisted Sara to make it around the bases and register her only home run in four years of college softball. As it turned out, Sara’s was the winning run in the game, costing Central Washington the chance to win. Though they did not win the game, clearly Mallory and Liz and her Central Washington teammates are winners in the ultimate game of life. Not only was this exemplary sportsmanship, it is a model of how people can be compassionate towards others, even when it might cost you something in the process.

 

The final story is one of hope- tikvah. Hope is certainly one of our most basic Jewish values. Now I’m not suggesting that we start praying for the Saints to win the Superbowl. Yes we can be hopeful, but this story is a bit different. It involves Jon Lester of the Boston Red Sox. Ten days ago at the age of 24 he pitched a no-hitter, which is an amazing feat for any baseball player. But for those of you who are sports fans and even many who are not, you know that this is a story bigger than sports. In 2006 when Jon Lester entered baseball, there were high hopes for his career. Then, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a form of cancer. Fortunately, this is a treatable form of the disease, when caught early enough. In his case it was. Still he went through all sorts of therapy to beat back the illness, most of which would sap the strength of any man. He would not allow that to be the case. Lester was back in a Red Sox uniform last Fall and actually pitched the winning game in the World Series.

I don’t think that any of us here tonight are going to pitch major league world series victories or a no-hitter, but each of us faces challenges. Some are medical, others emotional. Some are financial and others personal. We can allow ourselves to be worn down by our trials, setbacks, moments of misfortune or we can face them with a sense of hope and move on to triumph. Jon Lester could have given into despair, but he had a dream, a vision, a purpose and harnessed to hope, he succeeded. We can do the same.

 

May we be committed to live by the values of our tradition and inspired by the examples of those in the world around us.

 

AMEN