Rabbi Joshua Waxman waxes poetic about why Jews have a thing for baseball.
Among the other names by which Passover is known in the Torah is chag ha-aviv, the festival of springtime. In this incarnation, Passover isn’t only a celebration of freedom but also a marker of the turning of seasons, of the return of warmth and promise after a long winter.
In Philadelphia, of course, it often doesn’t yet feel like spring when Pesach rolls around — witness the fluke snowstorm the morning of the seder! Instead, for many American Jews like myself, the true marker of spring doesn’t involve matzah, maror and charoset, but hits, runs and errors, as baseball returns once again and (with apologies to “Song of Songs”), the crack of the bat is heard in the land.
What is it about baseball?
Besides the appeal that baseball has for Americans in general, I think that baseball holds a special place in the hearts of many American Jews. There are some obvious reasons, such as the history: Legendary players like Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax bolstered Jewish pride, but there’s also the sense that the baseball diamond — and, by extension, America — was an arena where Jews could rise or fall on their own merits, talent and hard work.
Beyond that, I think the order and rituals of the game — as prescribed and pervasive as any seder — have a reassuring appeal. Baseball, after all, is not a frenetic game played against the clock but one that proceeds in a stately progression, which allows the drama to rise and fall and take as long as it needs to complete.
A people that can wait nearly 2,000 years for a homeland to be reborn is a people that rejects artificial timelines and instead celebrates the rhythms and rituals that sustain us along the way.
Baseball appeals as well because of the sense that anyone can turn out to be the hero at any time. In football or basketball, you generally know in advance who the big names, the playmakers, will be. Baseball has its stars, too, of course; but anybody has the possibility of stepping up at any time and getting the clutch hit, notching the key strikeout, making the crucial catch that changes the game. In this sense, baseball is the game of the little guy — not just in the sense that the players look like regular human beings — and appeals to the core Jewish values of recognizing the inherent worth of each person.
Finally, there’s hope. It’s built right into the structure of the game: Each pitch is an opportunity for something to happen, for a key hit or walk that can bloom into a rally that can turn a game around. We watch late into the game hoping for a comeback; if our team loses, we know that they’ll have a chance to win again the next day because baseball unfolds over the course of an expansive 162-game season, where each day brings a fresh slate and a new chance. In baseball, unlike in other sports, even the worst team wins one third of its games and every underdog has its day in the sun. What could be more Jewish than that?
So we sit back, settle into the stately rhythms and sounds of the game, and watch hope and promise bloom before our eyes with every pitch. Now that’s something all Jews can celebrate.
Rabbi Joshua Waxman is the spiritual leader at Or Hadash: A Reconstructionist Congregation in Fort Washington.