Thursday, November 3, 2016

Something Bigger Than a Curse


(Article first appeared on the JewishJournal.com/BeyondtheBimah)

Throughout the baseball playoffs many of my closest friends have asked why I am repeatedly bashing the Cubs. First off, sports have always been about cheering and booing, yelling and celebrating and excitement and disappointment. It is the ultimate escape from reality. So, it is not only acceptable for Michigan fans to hate Ohio State fans, Viking fans to wish the worse on the Packers and for everyone to smile when the Yankees lose, it is encouraged. Cub fans will say they would rather the White Sox win and see the Cardinals lose and that is fine, but many White Sox fans enjoy living in the glory that has been 108 years of Cubs losing. The fantasy world of sports allows us to take something not so serious, make it feel serious for a moment, even though at the end of the game nothing truly changes in our lives besides maybe a hangover and the purchase of an overpriced T-shirt.

But sometimes sports can be serious when it challenges something greater. For example, Jackie Robinson’s barrier breaking life meant more to the country than it did to the mere game of baseball. So why do I hate the Cubs? Well, like most of my decisions it’s Jewish. In the early 1900s Jews used baseball to assimilate. It was an inexpensive entertainment where an individual could blend into a crowd, take pride in their team/city/country, learn some English and most importantly make their children feel normal. So, my great-grandfather took my grandfather to a Cubs game. As they approached Wrigley Field a sign on the stadium read “No Jews or Dogs allowed.”  Do not tell me to get over it, I will not. Do not tell me it didn’t happen, because it did. And I will always be a White Sox fan because of it.

Baseball is unlike any other sport because of its rich history and tradition. And Jews were easily able to relate because tradition is the foundation of our religion, peoplehood and even pain. Of course, one does not need to look any further than the legacy Jews have in Sandy Koufax’s decision to skip game one of the 1965 World Series. Every year news outlets run numerous stories on the Koufax decision and every year Koufax’s silence adds another layer of intrigue. But at the heart of the story, there was a prideful Jewish man who withstood the pressure of secularism to stand up for his people.

Baseball and Judaism are about to collide again. This past August Team Israel, stacked with former Major Leaguers and current Minor Leaguers, participated in their second qualifier for the World Baseball Classic. Unlike their first attempt in 2012, the team qualified. Which means in March they, alongside many countries including Team USA, Team Israel will compete in the World Baseball Classic. Here will be another true test, the Koufax decision of its time, for several Major Leaguers. It was easy for former Major Leaguers like Ike Davis, Ryan Lavarnway, and Jason Marquis to showcase their talents on a national stage. And to take nothing away from their ability as professional athletes or their Jewish/Israel connection and pride, the only dilemma they faced was whether they wanted to play baseball.  But come March there are a handful of Major Leaguers who might be given the opportunity to play for Team Israel and Team USA. Ryan Braun, Ian Kinsler, Joc Pederson, Alex Bregman, and Kevin Pillar all have potential offers to play for both the USA and Israel. Also, eligible will be Paul Goldschmidt and Jason Kipnis neither who recognize as Jewish but have Jewish fathers so they could get an invitiation to compete for Team Israel.

Why is this important? Like my great-grandfather and Sandy Koufax these men will be faced with a decision. On a national stage Americanism and Judaism will collide and each individual’s choice represents a little bit of us all. If they choose Team USA it makes a statement, not just about themselves but about how far we have assimilated since my great-grandfather walked away from Wrigley Field. Team USA does not need any of those players to compete regardless of how great they are. But their participation on Team Israel would mean so much to a people and we would once again feel the pride that Koufax infected us with. The choice my great-grandfather made was a peoplehood decision and what Koufax did was a religious decision (even though he was not a religious man), but choosing Team USA in 2017 would be a public cultural display that pride in America supersedes the pride in your homeland and people. In some way, choosing Team USA means Judaism has lost the game to Americanism.

This is why I dislike the Cubs because my great-grandfather did not feel welcome in Wrigleyville. I have been to Wrigley Field including Ryan Sandberg’s last game. I caught my first foul ball off Starlin Castro's bat. I know that a Jewish man bought and sold the team. And I know that a Jewish man is the General Manager that assembles the team. But I have no love for that team on the North Side and it’s personal. Do not try to tell me to get over it because I won’t. Do not try to tell me that this Team Israel decision is not important because it is. I do not, for a moment, take the game of baseball seriously; because baseball is just baseball, until its not.

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