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The pulse of Israeli baseball addicts quickens as professional baseball comes to this land. For such a fan - as in "fanatic" - to live in Israel and watch baseball is to possess both this world and the world-to-come. Things cannot get any better than this. "For lo, the winter is passed, the rain is over and the voice of the baseball is heard in the Land" (see Song of Songs, 2:12).
Ah, the memories of the boys of summer: pennant races, inter-city rivalries, World Series, poems like "Casey at the Bat," songs like "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," the crack of the bat, the smack of the catcher's mitt, the duel between lone batter and crafty pitcher, the clay-colored base paths, the sparkling green outfield grass, double-plays, strikeouts, stolen bases, home-runs, the esoteric signals from the third-base coach, the roar of the crowd...
GRANTED, there are some very thoughtful people in Israel who are not happy with this latest manifestation of Americana in the Holy Land. But let's look at the bright side. There are certain lessons Israelis can learn from baseball.
For example, in baseball, if you get caught stealing (or you have three strikes), you're out! Imagine if in our public life this rule held true: If a politician gets caught stealing, or if he fails three times in his or her appointed tasks, out he goes.
In baseball, if the manager removes you from the game and substitutes someone else, you are forbidden to return to the game. The same holds true if the umpire ejects you from the game for bad behavior. You're out for the duration.
In Israel, does anyone who is ejected - or rejected - stay out of the game?
ISRAEL SUFFERS from a here-and-now mentality that rarely reflects upon its destiny as a people. This is precisely where baseball offers a fine model, for it bears echoes of eternity.
A baseball game, if the score is tied, goes into extra innings and could theoretically go on forever. It is eternal. Surely this is one reason the new baseball league does not play on Shabbat, the day of eternity.
Baseball teaches the value of home. The goal of the batter, who stands at home plate, is to advance around the bases and ultimately return to home. Unfortunately, the goal of modern Israeli society is to get ahead, leaving the values of home behind.
In order to return home, a base runner (unless he's hit a home run) must be advanced by his teammates. Team play, looking out for the other, is what makes a winning club.
Take the concept of self-sacrifice, which is so central to baseball. I sacrifice my turn at bat, and my opportunity to return home, for only one purpose - so that my team-mate can advance on the bases and ultimately return home. Is not this an attribute that we, in our highly competitive Israeli society, could adopt to great benefit?
THE BATTING average of the best players is about .300. That means that they succeed less than 3 out of 10 times. That is, in 7 out of every 10 attempts, they fail. And nevertheless, someone who fails 7 out of 10 times is considered a top flight player, sought by every team, applauded and cheered wherever he goes.
Is this not a lesson for life? Be not discouraged by failure. Even if you succeed only one third of the time, you will in the eyes of eternity be deemed a great success, as long as you played with integrity, touched every base, sacrificed for others, and played to your full potential.
The value of a player is determined not only by his batting average, but by how many runs he has batted in (RBI). That is to say, his worth is judged by how many of his teammates he enabled to reach home. Here is another manifestation of one of the great lessons of baseball: selflessness and concern for others.
For baseball fans, the game is life itself. This is because 18 players - nine on each side - are required to play a game. And each team has nine separate innings - again a total of 18 in which they attempt to come home as many times as possible.
There are no shortcuts. Even when a batter hits a home-run out of the park, he must nevertheless run around the bases, and he must touch every base. Details count.
From the mundane to the holy: In a Torah scroll, if a single, tiny letter is missing, the entire scroll is invalidated. Again, details count.
AFTERTHOUGHT: Of course, there is always the possibility that
the current will flow the wrong way, that baseball will become "Israelized."
For example, when a runner attempts to steal second but the umpire calls him out, the runner pleads with the umpire: "Look, maybe you could change your mind just this one time. I have a bad cold and can't run any faster, so maybe you could make allowancesâ€¦"
Or when the umpire calls strike three, and the batter turns to him and says: "Mr. Umpire, with all due respect, maybe you could reconsider? My mother is watching. It is embarrassing. Maybe just this one time you could reduce it to strike two and a half?
Or when games are supposed to start at 7 p.m., but actually begin around nine because the pitcher was delayed in traffic, or the major guest who was supposed to throw out the first ball came late, or not enough people are as yet in the stands. Will we see the owner of the ball park turn off the floodlights after the fifth inning because after 4.5 innings it's anyway a legal game?
But let's be positive. Imagine if the manager of the home team fails to summon his ace reliever when his team is seven runs behind, and instead begins reciting Psalms in the dugout, and his team suddenly comes from behind for a miraculous victoryâ€¦
Which will it be? Will Israel become a kinder, gentler society, centered on home, teamwork and faith, or will games be marked by arguments, shouting, special pleadings and cheating?
Time will tell.
The writer, a recovering baseball addict living in Jerusalem, was a rabbi in Atlanta, Georgia for 40 years.