When it looked like there might not be a 2022 baseball season, fans like me were despondent. We are still in the midst of a pandemic which has claimed the lives, by some counts, of more than 900,000 Americans – though hopefully we are moving to a more manageable place with it. Additionally, we see Russian forces killing an unknown number of innocent civilians in Ukraine, with fears of a possible World War III. While skyrocketing gas prices could make it hard for families to drive out to games anyway.
While baseball is not life and death, it’s a great distraction. And though there’s no union for fans (though I wish there were), the owners and players had to know that they’d be pushing their luck in telling America they couldn’t work things out.
Thankfully, players and owners came to terms last week, and Spring Training is scheduled to begin Thursday, on Purim.
After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Mike Piazza’s home run to left-center field when the Mets played the Braves at Shea Stadium let fans smile for a few moments on September 21, 2001. While slam dunks in basketball are cool, and touchdowns in football can be glorious, nothing beats the glory of the home run in baseball.
I first played baseball when my grandfather, Jacob Rubenstein, whom I called Papa, had the chutzpah to pitch me the ball, even at age 77. I was seven or eight years old and could hit the ball hard. My Nana and Papa came from Ocean Parkway, Brooklyn, to visit us often in Monsey; my brother Gary and I loved them so much that we would bet on the times they would arrive; and we’d chase after their light blue Oldsmobile when they left. Of all the great things my parents did for me, one was having the biggest and flattest front lawn I’ve ever seen, and it enabled my brother to hit hundreds of ground balls to me nearly every day. He also had a great arm and could throw the ball high up in the air and I would catch it. When he got tired, he’d say, “We’ll play until you make an error.” Sometimes that meant another hour. Thanks to him, I became a great fielder.
One of my greatest joys was coming home from camp each day, devouring mashed potatoes with pieces of pickle in it and chocolate pudding that my Nana made and watching the Mets on TV with my Papa. We’d high-five each other when the Mets won, often when Darryl Strawberry hit a towering home run. And when they lost, I would throw a fit, sometimes even crying. He would try to console me as he smoked a pipe with cherry flavored tobacco, by saying “Alan, they don’t care about you, so why should you care about them?”
I wondered: Was what he said true? Did the players really not care about the fans? My Nana and Papa came to watch me play in Monsey Little League. I was the best-fielding second baseman. While I didn’t have power, I was a solid singles hitter, sometimes batting before my friend, who is now Rabbi Judah Mischel – popular author, speaker, and executive director of Camp HASC – who would step to the plate and, as my grandparents would say, “really give the ball a kenack,” or a wallop. One team featured mainly Italian-American players. I got along with them fine, but there was a speedy player who on occasion I’d hear say, as he veered off first base: “This Jewish catcher can’t throw me out.”
Thanks to the amazingly talented Mike Boxer, Moshe Cohn, Stuart Mayer, Avi Ishofsky and Shlomo Ressler, after college I was a part of Six13, a Jewish a cappella group primed to make an impact on the Jewish music world. With only a couple of performances, I told Rabbi Aaron and Rebetzin Rivkah Slonim, founders of Chabad of Binghamton (where I spent most Shabbats in college) that my big goals were to perform at Shea Stadium, Madison Square Garden and The White House. They said we could do it – not in a pie-in-the-sky way a father tells his son he can become an astronaut, but as emes. The Slonims are the nicest people and their encouragement fueled me to think big.
When I found out the Mets had a Jewish Heritage Day, I called them numerous times and sent our debut CD and we eventually got the gig. We performed both at Shea Stadium and Citi Field several times. The experience was indescribable. (We also got to sing in Madison Square Garden when the Knicks had a Jewish Heritage night. And after I retired from Six13, the group was in fact able to perform at The White House, for President Barrack Obama.)
One of my last performances with the group was in 2012 at Citi Field when the Mets beat the Astros 2-1. Besides for the fact that we sang the National Anthem, some songs in Hebrew for the pre-game, and G-d Bless America during the 7th inning stretch, that day on August 26, Ike Davis, one of MLB’s few Jewish players back then, hit two home runs, including the game winner. Though my grandfather was no longer alive to see it, my mother had a huge smile seeing her son sing in front of so many people. I saw a smile like that on my mother’s face on only two other occasions: when she found out my brother’s wife was pregnant and she would become a grandmother and at my bar mitzvah.
Baseball has always been a way for Jews to show they fit in and show patriotism, from Hank Greenberg to Sandy Koufax. After performing at games for the Mets, fans often inquired about Six13 and the conversation turned to baseball. They were slightly surprised that a Jew who just sang in Hebrew could know more about baseball than they did. At my bar mitzvah, from the bima, one of my heroes, Rabbi David Chanofsky, announced, “We love Alan, even though he is a Mets fan.” Rabbi Chanofsky, I probably don’t need to tell you, is a Yankees fan.
I’d like to think players and owners realized this was not the time to allow disagreements to destroy the season. Jewish billionaire Steve Cohen, who owns the Mets, reportedly did not object to an additional luxury tax that may mainly affect the Mets and Dodgers. Bbaseball coming back means we may be able to witness a repeat of last October, when the last World Series include three Jewish players: pitcher Max Fried and outfielder Joc Pederson of the Braves and third baseman Alex Bregman of the Astros.
And the future is looking bright, as there are two more Jewish players, Orthodox Jews, possibly waiting in the wings as the Arizona Diamondbacks drafted pitcher Jacob Steinmetz and Washington Nationals selecting Elie Kligman, who plays multiple positions, including pitcher.
Purim often coincides with Spring Training and as a young boy it meant the smell of the sun and the grass and outdoor sports and fun and awesome hamantashen.
While the world is a scary place, springtime, baseball and Purim remind us to look forward to brighter days, with G-d’s help. Not long before he passed away, my Papa told me, “We never know how long we are here, so you have to enjoy life.”