By Larry Gordon
This newspaper does not cover sports, for several reasons. Yes, we have the Croton League scores and standings from time to time, and we feature some limited yeshiva sports coverage, but I’m not referring to those sports. I mean professional New York sports like the Mets, Yankees, Knicks, Rangers, Jets, and Giants.
Following professional sports has always been good, clean fun and, in the old days anyway, was not necessarily discouraged by our yeshivas. What I recall was vigorously discouraged back in the ’60s and ’70s, when we were in the formative years of becoming a community in the modern era, was the avid collection and trading of baseball cards.
Back in seventh grade in Yeshiva of Eastern Parkway, there was a virtual crusade and search on a regular basis during the season to check if anyone in the class was harboring baseball cards. One of the distant memories I keep to this day was how I brought two rather valuable cards to yeshiva one day but knew that if I left them in my pocket they would be found and confiscated.
There were these two large, heavy doors at the entrance of the yeshiva and they were usually held open, especially in the spring, by two heavy garbage cans that filled up over the course of the day. My plan was to place the cards under the garbage cans and then after class retrieve them. Frankly, I do not recall if I was selling the cards or trading them or whatever—but I needed them in yeshiva that day.
I thought it was the perfect hiding place for those cards, which if I still had today would probably be worth significant sums. During the school day, though, the oddest thing occurred. I waited until no one was around and then lifted up the garbage can to get my cards. And there they were, right where I had placed them, but torn perfectly in half. I was filled with stunned disbelief. How cruel! Who would do that, and why? My sliced-in-half once-valuable baseball cards were now worthless.
But that did not stunt my growth or interest in sports. From that day on I was conscious of my extraordinary interest in sports—especially baseball at that point—and I was also going to be a much more careful collector of cards going forward.
Let me say this right up front: I was never a Yankee fan and for some reason always favored the Mets. I have long harbored a theory about their frequently hopeless and helpless situation. As bad as the Mets have been over all these years, I just could not control myself from paying attention. On the flip side, no matter how many championships the Yankees were able to collect, it just did not exercise or excite me.
How are Yankee fans and Mets fans divided within the Jewish community? I have always found that people whose families suffered through the Holocaust before coming to the United States were more likely to be Yankee fans, while those with deeper roots in America were more inclined to root for the Mets.
I often thought that those whose families emerged from war-torn Europe and all kinds of suffering needed to latch on to something identified with victory. Championships and good feelings are what the Yankees served up to their fans for many decades (that is until this year). On the other hand, the Mets, from their inception in 1962, were awful and perennial losers. That was, of course, until the miracle year of 1969 when they stormed back and overtook the Chicago Cubs in late August and went on to win the World Series.
That they became the Miracle Mets was not lost on a bunch of frum kids like us who were still basking in the afterglow of the stunning Israeli victory in the Six Day War of 1967. I was an elementary-school student at the time and today can reflect on the headiness and even giddiness associated with both experiences. Israel’s triumphing against all odds in 1967 and the Mets’ comeback and championship in 1969 seem to have appealed to the same area of a kid’s brain in those days.
Frankly, though, I thought that as I grew older I would become more dispassionate about sports. Granted that the obsession is nothing like what it was, yet I have to admit that these days that teenage allure of sports is very much alive and home-team competition is still there.
Some days, regardless of what is going on in the world, I find myself checking the sports pages of the New York Times before anything else. I have only over the last year or two become aware of the sports coverage that is now offered by the Wall Street Journal, a coverage that has a different appeal and is widely divergent from that in the Times sports section.
Upon reflection, it seems that the appeal might be that sports coverage is both precise and accurate and not subject to editorial distortion like so much else in the Times—especially coverage of Jews and Israel. In sports, whatever happened has to be reported as such; if the Yankees won, then they won. It doesn’t pay to argue that a win is really a loss as the Times often contends about things in the Middle East.
This brings me to the sports coverage in the Times and the Journal. The Times these days usually has scores from the games of the night before, which of course are also available online but—as you know—not for us on Shabbos and yom tov. In terms of handling the papers on those days, there are different opinions and schools of thought; some do and some do not.
In addition to scores, the Times offers a fan and connoisseur of sports coverage standings, box scores, and frequently full narrative coverage of whatever happened in any given ball game. The WSJ features a whole different, though also appealing, approach to sports coverage, which I have come to appreciate and enjoy over the last two or so years.
The Journal is all about analysis and tracking trends, sometimes to the most absurd levels. Just the other day, in covering the New York Knicks, they featured a story that explains how when Knicks starter Carmelo Anthony is on the court, the rest of the team makes 41% of their shots. The story said that when Anthony is on the bench, the rest of the team is shooting and making 46% of their shots. The question asked was whether Anthony stifles his teammates. That’s a story? I can’t believe I read the whole thing.
I like the charts that the Journal sports section sometimes features. At the beginning of the season they featured a list of the top-earning ballplayers that were not playing this year because of injuries. At the top of the list was Alex Rodriguez, the often-injured and—when playing—often-criticized Yankee third baseman. He is earning $29 million this year. The second high earner on the list was Johan Santana of the Mets who just had surgery again on his pitching shoulder and will most likely never pitch in the major leagues again. He is earning $25 million this year. Let’s Go, Mets!
Let’s see. The Knicks are doing real well and will most likely be taking on the far superior Miami Heat somewhere down the road in the playoffs. I didn’t even touch on hockey here, as this has been a strike-shortened, much-abbreviated season that will really not capture anyone’s attention until the playoffs begin in a few weeks.
The Jets and Giants? Well that is a whole other culture and story, with divisions in the fan base that are very similar to what divides Yankee fans and Mets fans.
So this is the sports column I’ve wanted to write for a while. Not too much is certain except for the fact that I am fairly confident that considering the subject matter my sons are going to read this entire article. I don’t even know if kids collect baseball cards anymore or if yeshivas conduct search-and-seizure operations like they did once upon a time, trying to root out the scourge. I tend to doubt it, considering that today’s challenges are much greater than they may have been all those years ago.
Come to think of it, I’m not even sure the baseball cards were that big a problem. The issue more often than not was whether the bubble gum packed inside the card packages was kosher or not. Of course there was great doubt, so we always threw the gum away. I can report this, however, to a generation of collectors whose cards come in packages without bubble gum due to economic considerations: that gum sure smelled good. v
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