I can still feel the buzz we got that October day in 1965, the day Sandy Koufax elected not to pitch the first game of the World Series because it was Yom Kippur. It was a big deal to us kids at Temple Beth El in Troy, N.Y., a big deal to Jewish kids everywhere, that Sandy had decided that the Day of Atonement took precedence over Game 1 of the Series with the Twins.
During the musaf service, our thoughts flew out to Bloomington, Minn., where Don Drysdale was hooking up with Mudcat Grant and Sandy was no doubt hooking up with a local congregation. We knew it was wrong -- to let our minds wander to baseball when they should have been devoted to prayer -- but since we were in shul to atone for our sins, we figured we could pay it off right away. Besides, it wasn't every day that we felt so proud. October 6, 1965 wasn't every day.
September 26, 2001 isn't every day, either. Tonight, erev Yom Kippur, Shawn Green will not play for the Dodgers as they host the Giants. It may not be as big as the World Series, but it is in the middle of a pennant race, and Shawn is voluntarily stopping the longest current consecutive-game streak in the majors at 415.
"It's something I feel is an important thing to do," Green said when he announced his decision back on September 7. "To basically say that baseball, or anything, isn't bigger than your religion and your roots."
Green made his decision before the cataclysmic events of September 11, events that will deepen the solemnity of this Yom Kippur. He is not a particularly observant Jew; he doesn't attend services on a regular basis, nor did he have a bar mitzvah. But he is proud of his heritage and realizes that he is to Jewish kids today what Koufax was to us, what Hank Greenberg was to our parents.
"I wish this [Green's decision] weren't significant," said Rabbi Mordecai Kieffer of Temple Beth Emet in Anaheim, "but it is very significant. The fact of the matter is that many other Jewish athletes don't observe the holidays, and I wish they did. The truth is that they don't all feel this way, and the fact that he does is commendable."
One of my bar mitzvah gifts was a book, the Encyclopedia of Jews In Sports, by Jesse Silver. I'm still not sure why we Jews care so much about having Jewish athletes out there to cheer for, but that book gave me great comfort over the years. I gloried in the fact that the first professional baseball player, Lipman Pike, was Jewish. That there was a Jewish bullfighter, Sidney Franklin. That there were Jewish titleholders in boxing. That we had a great quarterback in Sid Luckman, a great center in Dolph Schayes, a great tackle in Ron Mix. That the 1906 Cubs, the team that won more games than any team in history, had a Jewish battery of Ed Reulbach and Johnny Kling.
We seem to be undergoing a renaissance of Jewish athletes. Nowadays, we have Jay Fiedler quarterbacking the Dolphins and David Beckham playing for Manchester United (and marrying Posh Spice) and Matthieu Schneider red-lining for the L.A. Kings. We even have a minyan in major league baseball: David Newhan, Scott Schoeneweis, Jason Marquis, Mike Lieberthal, Gabe Kapler, Keith Glauber, Brad Ausmus, Al Levine, David Eckstein and Green.
Thinking back on it, our attachment to Jewish athletes came partly from our desire to throw off the stereotypes other people pinned on us. Having Koufax as the best pitcher in baseball was a little like having a big brother in the schoolyard to come to your defense. I don't know if Jewish kids today feel quite the same way about Shawn Green, but back in my day, we could only dream about having a Jewish outfielder with such speed and grace and power (49 homers already). And commitment.
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