March 29, 1998 / 2 Nissan, 5758

April means Passover ... and baseball

By Neil Rubin

THE SWEET EXCITEMENT of briskly walking toward the looming brick and steel edifice for the first time in six months is unparalleled.

The sidewalks are packed with vendors selling their wares. Kids and adults are donned with the appropriately logo-laden paraphernalia. Even the cops smile while stopping traffic to let you jaywalk, putting you a few feet closer to that glorious destination.

That would be the metal turnstile, the only barrier between you and baseball's Opening Day, which hits us this year on Tuesday.

Fools among us would argue that there are more important things upon which to pontificate. After all, on Tuesday alone the New York Times carried these stories of pending mayhem: "Yeltsin Dimisses His Entire Cabinet In Show Of Power"; "Baghdad Arrests A Germ Specialist"; and my favorite, "Toothpaste A Hazard? Just Ask the F.D.A."

But none of it's more thrilling than knowing that in a few brief days Cal Rikpen will again step into the batter's box at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. (OK, I'm still a northern carpetbagger rooting for his boyhood team, the Baltimore Orioles. By the way, fun series last summer. O's three straight, if I recall.)

Even in an era of hyper-inflated salaries, holdouts, idiotic management and dollars for autographs, there's nothing like Opening Day. Jews have long had an intense attraction to the sport. In some regards, it's one of the few "kosher" ones. Senselessly beating someone to a pulp (football or hockey) is not too Jewish. And if like with me, some of your relatives are as wide as tall, it's hard to relate to athletes who look like oak trees (basketball).

Our adulation proves the point. Look at the near-deity status achieved by some Jewish major league baseball players and how they're imbedded into the collective psyche of Jewish America -- Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax, Rod Carew (technically not a Jew, but raised his family as such) and even the briefly famous Mike "Super Jew" Epstein.

A few years ago I even spent an afternoon calling around to figure out of Mike Mordechai of the Braves was Jewish. He's not. The bigger question, "Why was it important to know?"

It's because most Jews just love baseball. Not all Jews to be sure, just the smart ones.

The comparisons are just too abundant to shirk off. In baseball you need to field a team of nine and need a manager guiding them. That's 10 as in a minyan, or minimum number of people needed for prayer. Then there's spring training, which is kind of like a kid studying for a bar or bat mitzvah or a parent brushing up on being a year-round Jew through adult education.

There's critical teamwork during the season's long haul. One player may provide the winning hit or pitch, but it takes a lot of people to get there. What's more Jewish than sticking together for the journey? And there's road trips, which means visiting different tribes and cultures. What a wonderful analogy to wandering the diaspora. Your homefield is a personal Jerusalem, a spiritual center where the kings of past summers once reigned.

As for opening day, funny how it always coincides with Passover, which is about our birth as a nation with one focus -- reaching the Promised Land (the World Series), and about coming from the evils of Egypt (a dark, wet winter).

As a kid, I remember trudging along with friends to a usually wind-chilled Memorial Stadium for the season opener. We Jews casually munched crumbling matzah and jelly sandwiches as the game began -- just about the time the soft pretzel guy parked his aromatic tray under our noses and yelled, "Get 'em while they're hot!"

Then the soda man breezed past with souvenir cups filled with its corn-syrup-laden elixir known as "Coke, here! Coke here!" A real Passover no-no, so we popped open a can of lukewarm cream soda. Finally, as we unwrapped delectable desserts of apples, macaroons and pure sugar Passover candies, the popcorn guy floated down the aisle.

If you can keep the faith on opening day, we all agreed, you can be a Jew anywhere, any time.

By now semi-sane readers are no doubt mumbling how it's all quite a stretch, this baseball and Judaism thing. But remember this: Baseball is a glorious game, a healthy vice for any Jew or anyone else.

So don't bother trying to reach me next Tuesday afternoon. My left ear will be glued to the radio for the most important event since the last opening day.

JWR contributor Neil Rubin is the editor of the Atlanta Jewish Times.


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3/9/98: Downsizing Jewish life
2/10/98: Film, Lies And Jewish Mothers
2/1/98: The news according to Sid

© 1998, Neil Rubin