Yom Kippur: Play Ball!

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

“There are those who acquire their world in one moment” (Avodah Zara 18a). One action can define a life. While some people have to work their entire lives to be worthy of entering the World to Come, others can acquire their eternal reward with one powerful act.

Such a moment occurred, it seems to me, when Sandy Koufax, one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history, announced that he would not pitch the opening game of the 1965 World Series as it coincided with Yom Kippur. This one act by a Jew far removed from traditional observance likely had greater impact than 1,000 drashot given by the finest rabbis of the day.

In reading some of the retrospectives—many written commemorating 50 years, a yovel, since the ‘65 World Series—the impact Koufax has had is even greater than I had realized. (I was a little boy in 1965 and have no memory of the Series, or even of the Toronto Maple Leafs winning the Stanley Cup in 1967.) In many ways it marked a turning point in American Jewish history, where a Jew could, in the most public of ways, declare the overarching importance of his faith. Jewish pride—and even observance—was kindled by that one act[1]. The fact that people still talk about it speaks volumes.

As all observant baseball fans know, there is much that baseball can teach us about Judaism in general and teshuva, repentance, in particular.

One scores by coming back home to where one started, paralleling the process of teshuva by which we return to where we stood before we sinned.

Whereas a football player must wait a week to make amends, baseball is played day in and day out. Today’s mistakes can be corrected tomorrow. Baseball, not unlike Judaism, demands consistency and daily efforts.

Our Sages teach that teshuva was created prior to the world coming into existence (Nedarim 39b). By definition, teshuva must exist beyond time, as from the perspective of time it is not possible to change the past, to undo that which has been done. We can fast and daven all we want, but is it logical that “intentional sins can be turned into merits”? (Yoma 86b). But such is the gift of teshuva through which our actions of today have an impact on those of yesterday.

Of all the major team sports, only baseball has no clock[2]. It, too, exists beyond time and in theory can continue indefinitely. Furthermore, the slow pace of the game allows one to strategize before each play. Baseball, more than any other sport (unless one considers chess a sport), is a thinking person’s game, another reason many great rabbis were drawn to the sport. Every play can be dissected, analyzed and debated, both before and after, something that can be next to impossible to do in other sports.

Even non-baseball fans know that it’s three strikes and you’re out. But what many may not know is that this concept appears first in our own tradition. The Rambam (Hilchot Teshuva 3:5) explains that when determining if a person is a tzadik or a rasha, the first two times one commits a sin it does not enter into the calculation of mitzvot vs. aveirot. We get two free passes, so to speak. Only when one sins for the third time—a spiritual strikeout—are all sins taken into account.

Baseball is the most individual of the team sports. While there is a minimum of ten players, a minyan, on the field at any given time, the batter faces the pitcher alone with no one to pass to in a difficult situation. We may daven with a minimum of ten, but each person is alone in prayer. It for this reason the Amidahthe quintessential prayer—is said silently. Each person has their own individual needs and requests, and each person approaches G-d differently[3].

Many have noted that the clear lines of fair and foul on a baseball field parallel the clear do’s and don’ts of Jewish law. We even have an authority figure, a posek, to issue rulings. There are three other umpires to consult with when in doubt, just as many decisions require rabbinical consultation.

No other sport is as detail-oriented as baseball. There are statistics for everything, and I mean everything, ranging from OPS, RBIs and ERA to one’s batting average with runners in scoring position with two outs from the seventh inning on. The greater the detail, the greater the excitement, with the analysis of the most obscure statistics adding much meaning to the game itself. One often hears people complaining about how detail-oriented halacha is. But to the lover of Torah, such detail adds meaning and excitement to the beautiful tapestry of Judaism.

Baseball is, to the best of my knowledge, the only sport for which there are no uniform dimensions to the playing field. While it is exactly sixty feet, six inches from the pitcher’s mound to the batter’s box and ninety feet along the base paths, the sizes of the outfield vary greatly, as do the heights of the fences. Fenway Park and Wrigley Field get their charm from the unique quirks of the ballpark. While the basic rules are the same, there is much room for team choice, much as basic halacha applies to all but there is room for communal minhagim.

Probably the most important message of baseball is that the very, very best hit safely only 30% of the time. A failure rate of 70% makes one an all-star (and very, very wealthy). Failure is part of the game of baseball and life; even Babe Ruth struck out twice as often as he hit a home run.

Baseball may only be a game. But what a game it is…Play ball!

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[1] His “reward” was quickly granted. Although he was the losing pitcher in Game 2, he came back to pitch a complete game shutout in Game 5 and then, working on two days’ rest, he did the same in Game 7—a complete game shutout as the Dodgers won the World Series. Talk about nitkatnu hadorot, the lowering of the generations! Can anyone imagine this happening today when pitchers are coddled, given four days’ rest before starts and are rarely allowed to throw more than 100 pitches? Complete games are almost unheard of. The Toronto Blue Jays have not had a pitcher throw a complete game yet this entire season (2016)—that is, 166 games and counting. (Editor's note: As of August 16, 2018, no Blue Jays pitcher has thrown a complete game since April 23, 2017, or 263 games.)

[2] Sorry, cricket fans—but I show my North American bias here.

[3] This, Rav Soloveitchik explains, is the reason we need a mechitza during davening. Prayer is meant to induce a state of standing alone in the presence of G-d. Having one’s spouse next to you when you pray turns prayer into a family experience which, the Rav explains, is the antithesis of prayer. Similarly, the Rav noted that in his youth, fathers would not sit next to children during davening, as that, too—maybe even more so— takes away from the feeling of standing alone before our Creator, pleading for our lives.