Guest post by Mendel Horowitz
Like a field of dreams Yom Kippur counts on ghosts to inspire. In Kevin Costner’s sentimental role, his character Ray Kinsella carves a baseball diamond from a cornfield after hearing a mysterious whisper “if you build it he will come.” Encouraged by the prophecy and by the spirits of departed ballplayers, Ray in the end discovers his estranged father behind the plate and engages him in a seraphic game of catch. The High Holidays too can be stirred by fantastic voices – inexplicable motivators of contrition, correction, change. On Yom Kippur, standing solemn before my Maker with ghosts of past defeats and not-yet triumphs at hand, I too will aspire to engage Him. I too will hew a future from the past.
This year, the portentous Day of Atonement falls on the eve of September 23, while Sir David Wright hosts the Braves and the Mets delight in their amazing dream. For believers in Flushing, on that weekend baseball might seem delightfully temporal, repentance as distant a notion as spring. For me, our pastime is irresistibly spiritual, her diamond silhouette an invocation, her metaphors as vibrant as her checkered outfield grass. In my synagogue, that holy day will be celebrated as an occasion of longing, an extra-inning playoff of abstinence and prayer. I may not be rooting for the home team that afternoon but I will be encouraged by baseball’s oddities.
Our national pastime is peculiar indeed. When Yogi Berra quipped “it ain’t over till it’s over” during the summer of 1973, the Mets were in last place, finishing July a dismal 44-57. By August 30 the team was 61-71, 6.5 games back with 29 to play. Before the season closed the Mets would claim the NL East, victorious in 21 of their last 29 contests. The Mets infiltrated the postseason with a record of 82-79, to date the worst percentage by a division champion. After raising the NL pennant and battling to a World Series Game Seven, it was finally over when the Mets fell to the Mustache Gang and their swaggering MVP.
Yogi was only half right. In all professional team sports – baseball included – a playoff berth is routinely clinched before the season officially ends. It can be over before it’s over. Baseball is, however, unique in disallowing any single game to be over before its final out. Only on a diamond can a team come back from any deficit with no buzzer, whistle, or horn interrupting its rally. No game is over till it’s over. Just ask Mookie Wilson, who in 1986 delegitimized Billy Buckner on the tenth pitch of his heroic at-bat after the Red Sox were at three times one strike from deliverance. Baseball is a game of second chances.
For diehards, Yom Kippur is a final opportunity in a season of do-overs. When the Israelites forged a golden calf at Sinai Moses was compelled to smash the original tablets, tossing the first pitch in an epic struggle for God’s favor. Throughout a heated summer Moses labored valiantly atop the hill, earning the right to carve new tablets by offering himself for his team. On Yom Kippur, his efforts rewarded, the prophet descended triumphant, with God’s unassuming pardon and trophy slabs in hand. From the assurance of spring through the worry of summer, Moses carried his team to a fall salvation. Not bad for a rookie.
Relived annually, the Jewish season of second chances gets underway with the advent of Elul, the final month before the New Year. From then, each morning after services a shofar sounds and a special psalm is recited, calling to mind the far-reaching potential of the ensuing homestand. For a meritorious few and their less fortunate opposites, Rosh Hashanah, thirty days later, is the conclusive day of judgement, when the righteous and the wicked are inscribed in their respective tomes. Yom Kippur occurs ten days after that, allowing unremarkable journeymen extra innings to settle their score. Before the season’s final strike everyone will have their say at the plate.
A forty day homestand of penitence offers adequate occasions for transcendance. The process of repentance can invigorate, awakening dormant courage from slumber. But introspection is notoriously difficult to maintain, the stretch from Elul to Yom Kippur wearisome, draining. Like an ordinary baseball season (which spans three of four climatic seasons) the Days of Awe rely more on storylines than thrills, more on drama than excitement. Baseball is neither raucous nor bold. When “90% of the game is half mental” its energy is bound to be subtle.
By some estimates 90% of the game is also spent standing around. According to the WSJ baseball’s fleeting moments of action account for but 17 minutes and 58 seconds of a typical three hour game. From on-deck circle to bullpen, from pathological glove adjustments to obsessive shaking off signs, baseball is an exhibition of exaggerated preparedness. Everything important in baseball happens in the heartbeats between anticipation. Apprehension is baseball’s charm; waiting, her mystique.
What made the pennant race endearing in ‘73 and the rally against Boston amazing in ‘86, were the unhurried ways they unfolded. Few things happen suddenly in baseball, it’s magic evolves leisurely in plain sight. No need for rapid eye movement or instant replay; baseball’s feats are taken in with a pencil and a stomach for suspense. In baseball, time is not something to play against but to toy with, the moments between activity more moving than the action itself.
The Day of Atonement is itself drawn out, prone to rushes of emotion and spans of boredom too. Between its haunting first inning and expectant last are 25 self-denying hours, an ascetic journey of supplication, ceremony, and song. Like baseball, Yom Kippur is a slow game, one that rewards patience with equal measures of elation. The enchantment of the day lingers in its tensions, its allure apparent in its yearning. A classic Yom Kippur unfolds without hurry, its promise swelling cautiously, its hesitancy bursting my heart.
As a religious orientation, baseball imbues the virtue of readiness, the modesty of reacting to something thrown at you really fast. At the plate and on Yom Kippur I can never be sure what may be tossed my way. All I can do is to prepare. Before the ghosts arrived, Ray Kinsella sculpted sacred space from profane, building it so “he will come.” Before knowing who he was, Ray was prepared for his arrival.
Absolution is never assured. To encounter Him on September 23 I will rely on ritual and superstition to get myself ready. My personal playoff will be lengthy, and if all goes well, improbable. I envision a nail-biter until late innings when, like Kirk Gibson, I will limp to the plate and achieve the impossible. Preferably with a longball. Preferably on a full count.