Let’s talk some baseball.
Each month we’ll talk about the past and present. Who’s Jewish and who’s not. What should happen and what won’t.
We’ll leave the serious stuff – the situation in Israel, the shidduch crisis, and other issues of concern to the Jewish community – to the other qualified Jewish Press columnists.
Now, you might wonder what my qualifications are to be a baseball gadol – to be as accomplished and knowledgeable in the baseball field as the columnists on the other pages are in theirs.
I’ve been watching and writing about baseball for decades. I’ve seen the Philadelphia Phillies play in their three different homes – Connie Mack Stadium, Veterans Stadium and Citizens Bank Ballpark. I’ve seen the Pittsburgh Pirates play in their three ballparks – Forbes Field, Three Rivers Stadium and PNC Park. I’ve been to Cincinnati’s old Crosley Field (even wrote a book about it – Crosley Field, Arcadia Publishing, 2005), Riverfront Stadium and the current Great American Ballpark.
Well before big league baseball returned to Washington a couple of years ago, I saw the Senators play in old Griffith Stadium and D.C. Stadium before it was renamed RFK Stadium. I’ve been to Brooklyn’s famed Ebbets Field and the most unusual ballpark of all-time, the odd-shaped Polo Grounds across the Harlem River from Yankee Stadium. I’d been to Yankee Stadium numerous times before modernization robbed it of its uniqueness.
I’ve been lucky enough to be in clubhouses, dugouts and on the field with many of baseball’s greats and had the chance to interview yesterday’s heroes and tomorrow’s Hall of Famers. I was lucky enough to spend time with Joe DiMaggio and Hank Greenberg. I sat in press boxes next to Howard Cosell and perhaps the greatest sports columnist of all-time, Red Smith, then of The New York Times.
I love these lines Smith is famous for writing: “Baseball is dull only to those with dull minds,” and “Ninety feet between the bases is the closest to perfection that man is yet to achieve.”
How did I get into baseball writing? That may be a story for Yitta Halberstam’s Small Miracles books. I’ll tell you about it sometime. In the meantime, let’s talk about others.
One of the DVDs I enjoy watching and listening to is “HASC Highlights: A Time for Music l9.” I loaned it to a shul friend who also loved it, but he was so proud of his daughter for picking up on something in Abie Rotenberg’s “The Ninth Man.” There’s a part of that great song that goes, “when we were young yeshiva boys back in ’65….we talked about the Yankees, the Dodgers and the Mets.”
“Why did they talk about the Dodgers?” my friend’s daughter, a local Bais Yaakov graduate, asked. “They weren’t in Brooklyn in l965.” (The Dodgers left Brooklyn after the l957 season. Their heimish little ballpark, Ebbets Field, was replaced by a high-rise apartment complex in the early 1960’s.)
I told my friend to tell his daughter that she’s very observant but the boys were talking about the Dodgers because of Sandy Koufax. In fact, most yeshiva boys around the country were talking about the great Dodgers lefthander who was on his way to winning 26 games in l965. Koufax also racked up his fourth career no-hitter in ’65, so Abie got it right.
“So,” my friend’s daughter said, “a better line in the song would be, we talked about the Yankees, Sandy Koufax and the Mets.”
Those of us who remember the Brooklyn Dodgers will never forget October 3, 1951, when Bobby Thomson’s late afternoon home run sent the New York Giants to the World Series and Brooklyn into mourning.
The best book you can get about Thomson’s homer, the 1951 season, the players, sign-stealing and more is Joshua Prager’s The Echoing Green. Prager, who grew up in New Jersey, went to Moriah Day School, Ramaz High School and spent a year in yeshiva after high school before going on to college and a writing career with The Wall Street Journal.
As many of you know, Thomson homered off Ralph Branca. What many of you may not know is that Bobby Valentine is Branca’s son-in-law. The former Mets manager skippered in Japan last year and had many opportunities to see the Boston Red Sox’ expensive new Japanese import known as D-Mat. As you recall, Boston recently beat out New York for the right to sign pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka. Valentine says that while D-Mat isn’t too big and his fastball has been clocked in the low 90’s, he has excellent control and command of six different pitches. D-Mat is also a good fielder and very adept at keeping runners close to bases.
“Brian Cashman is a genius,” says Rabbi Mordechai Katz, the baal koreh (Torah reader) in our shul, referring to the Yankees general manager. “He unloaded Randy Johnson and Gary Sheffield’s big salaries and rebuilt the pitching staff with good young prospects.”
Rabbi Katz, a transplanted Easterner, is a staunch Yankees fan and one of the most knowledgeable baseball fans I know. He says the Yanks will win more games than any other team this season and that Cashman has positioned his team to add a major contract if the occasion arises during the season.
Boston’s general manager Theo Epstein also did a good job in the off-season and the Red Sox should finish a strong second in the American League East. New York and Boston should pull far ahead of the rest of their division.
But even though the Yankees have topped the A.L. East nine straight times and should do it again this year, it’s not like the old days when the top team in each league advanced to the World Series. As you know, there are two levels of playoffs a team has to win before going to the Series. Amazingly, there have been seven different World Series winners in the past seven years. The Yankees and Red Sox each won once.
The Mets could have three Jewish players on the club after the final spring training cuts. Besides holdover outfielder Shawn Green, the Mets signed lefty reliever Scott Schoeneweis and reserve outfielder David Newhan. The latter is the son of veteran Los Angeles Times writer Ross Newhan (who was a columnist for the national baseball publication I headed when David was a youngster). David, now 33, hit .252 with four homers for the Orioles last season in only 39 games, as a broken leg kept him on the disabled list.
Newhan could fill an important role for the Mets as he can play all outfield positions and do a good job in the infield (except shortstop). Schoeneweis, also 33, could be another valuable addition to the Mets. He’ll give up his share of runs, but a high-scoring team like the Mets should bail him out more often than not.
Think about this one: One major league team had two Jewish managers for a total of four years during a seven-year span in the l970’s. I’ll tell you about them next time. Hint: one was a former big league catcher whose brother, a former big league pitcher, died recently.