Part I, by Rabbi Craig Marantz
The following post is part one of a three-part series called “In the Big Inning: Reflections on Baseball, God and Camp.” Dreamed up one early Saturday morning on the camp baseball diamond, Rabbi Craig Marantz (Congregation Kol Haverim, Glastonbury, CT), Greg Kellner (Senior Assistant Director, URJ Crane Lake Camp), and Ben Meyers (Crane Lake Camp Counselor and Baseball Coach) offer their thoughts on America’s favorite pastime and their Jewish journies. The first part is written by Rabbi Marantz. Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 as the League Championship and World Series approach.
The Book of Genesis begins Bereshit bara Elohim et ha-shamayim v’et ha-aretz: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Jewish baseball fans translate this opening verse a little differently: In the big inning, God created, etc. etc. Could it be that God is the most important baseball fan? Perhaps. We’ll leave that up to you to decide. What this old chestnut of a joke does do is remind us that baseball and Judaism go hand-in-hand–have done so for a really long time, if not since Creation, than certainly since the Iron Batter himself, Lipman Emanuel Pike, graced the diamond for the Philadelphia Athletics way back in 1866. Besides being the first Jew to play professional baseball, Lip Pike once hit six home runs in a game. And, if those aren’t enough fun facts for you, Lip was also the first ballplayer to play openly for pay and began playing the Grand Old Game one week after his Bar Mitzvah. Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg, Kevin Youkilis and all the other Jewish players and fans join us in giving props to the Iron Batter for introducing the Jewish community to baseball. As we say at Crane Lake Camp: “Yasher koach! Kol ha-kavod! Yeah!”
At Herb May Field, CLC’s beautiful baseball diamond, we happily play America’s Pastime. Thanks to our wonderful head coach Calvin Gibson, and his excellent assistant coaches Ben Meyers and Brandon Rosenberg, our campers not only develop their skills in a safe, caring environment, but they have a lot of fun, too. Competition with other camps brings the CLC family great pride, especially the quality of our sportsmanship. For this we are thankful to our coaches and players. And, for good measure, we build up staff morale by playing our annual home-and-home softball series with chevrei (colleagues) from our sister Eisner Camp.
Like all places at Crane Lake Camp, the ballpark is a laboratory for Jewish middot (virtues), especially those fostered through being part of a team. In the world, great individual kavod (honor) comes to the player who pitches the best. Or hits the farthest. Or runs the fastest. Or catches the most sure-handedly. Success does depend, in part, on individual excellence, and there may even be one player who is clearly the most valuable to his or her team’s achievement. But, at the end of the day, he or she will tell you that without his/her MVT (Most Valuable Team), he/she cannot get too far.
The most important team middah on the field is kol Yisrael arevim zeh ba’zeh: All Israel is responsible for one another. From this sense of collective responsibility, we practice mutuality, synergy, cooperation and collaboration. In other words, we practice teamwork, and through teamwork we strengthen the friendship that sustains the shared commitment needed for our success. The Pirke Avot (the Wisdom of our Ancestors) teaches: “Two are better than one for they get a greater return for their labor. For should they fall one can lift the other; but woe to him who is alone when he falls and there is no one to lift him!” When we as teammates know we need each other to achieve shared goals, we look after one another. We learn to trust each other and take risks together. And with our friendship strengthened as teammates, we share more effectively the burdens necessary for our collective achievement (nosay b’ol im chaveyro), a level of success we cannot enjoy by ourselves As they say, a “faithful friend is a powerful defense…a treasure.” (Ben Sira 6:14)
We also discover that our commitment to team middot improves our personal virtue. In the most general sense, we hope every one of us who plays ball on our field cultivates a lev tov, a good heart. In a competitive world, a lev tov acts joyfully when others achieve success. In the words of Samson Rafael Hirsch, a good heart is one in which jealousy finds no place. And with envy in check, we can practice other middot like mitrachayk min ha-kavod, sharing the honor of our personal success rather than keeping it to ourselves, and its twin, eino machazik tova l’atzmo: refraining from taking personal credit for what is good. After all, we owe thanks to God and our parents, our teachers and coaches, and our friends and teammates–all of whom have helped us so generously and wisely along the way.
Growing up a Dodger fan in Los Angeles, I was often one of 3 million fans that showed up each year to support the team. The team, which fielded nine, called us the tenth man, a cool shout-out to us fans for showing up and cheering them on. Ten, of course, is a good Jewish number. The Ten Commandments comes first to mind. A minyan (quorum) for prayer requires ten so that we can create a more complete community. And so it is with baseball in the Bubble, we combine nine (or so) players with our “fans,” collectively our tenth teammate, and, together, we do our part to realize the mission of Crane Lake Camp: to strengthen self-esteem and shape lasting Jewish identity. We are here and present to do as much of this holy work as we can on the diamond and elsewhere around camp, for seven innings and whatever other time frames mark life at CLC.
We’re still not certain whether God created the world in the Big Inning. But we do find in our baseball/softball narrative elements of the collective inspiration and wisdom that make Camp so special and so transformative. And for these gifts, we thank God and all the beautiful souls at CLC who have have shaped them.