If you are too young to remember Chico Escuela, you may be too young to appreciate the role of baseball in the American consciousness. But before the season begins to wind down, I want to encourage you to (re)discover the National Pastime, and to do so because of the Jewish values it represents.
My friend Rabbi Morris Allen once produced a tee shirt that shows the parallels between the Jewish calendar and the year in baseball (think Tu B 'Shvat-Spring Training). I still have the shirt; maybe it is symbolic that it doesn't fit as well as it used to (I washed it in steroids). I am not as much interested in holidays as I am in substance.
What makes baseball different than other sports? Athletes can argue the relative skill sets, but for the spectator, the two qualities that make baseball unique among sports are patience and conversation. Football, hockey, basketball and soccer are certainly exciting, but they demand the constant focus and attention of the spectator. Golf and tennis, for the spectator, requires quiet from the crowd.
In a sense, soccer and golf exist in Jewish practice. Prayer, especially in community, expects focus and attention. Public reading of the Torah demands quiet. But study consists of patience and conversation. Classically, two (or more) students will take a text, which often requires great patience, and talk about it and all the matters it raises. In the same way that play is conducted on the ball field, the rules allow for infinitely expanding horizons and results that depend on the most excruciating detail. Even when the conclusion seems foregone, the ball game isn't over until the last man is out – and even then, it can be debated endlessly.
I don't mean to sound cute in this comparison. Going to a ball game with someone (especially someone of a different generation) allows for conversation that can become as intimate or superficial as either party allows, always with the safety valve that a strikeout, home run or diving catch provides. It is no wonder that generations of Americans have bonded over baseball the way generations of Jews have bonded over learning.
And in spite of the increased emphasis on personal performance by ballplayers, the goal remains a successful team effort, each member using his personal skills to help the others succeed. It seems to me there is no better way to illustrate what it means to live in family and community.
Almost certainly, this column resonates more with men than with women. It may be that women are more comfortable with personal conversation than men are (at least with each other). Yet, I still remember the advice given to me by a female psychologist about the best place to talk to a teenager: driving in the car, where eye contact is discouraged and there's always an excuse to change the subject when necessary.
Better: take me out to the ball game.