Is Baseball the Opium of the Masses?



   
    April Passover 2005 Edition            
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A Little Old Time Religion

By Jeremy D. Goodwin

I've heard the talk about the Red Sox being the true religion of New Englanders, and always thought the notion was a bit overblown. Until I saw the World Series trophy in my synagogue.

From the day after the Bosox vanquished a century of ghosts (and, oh yeah, the St. Louis Cardinals), this trophy has been taken around the region on a never-ending tour. Crowds of fans throng for the chance to simply be in the same room as the trophy, to catch a glimpse of it—as if the heavenly October victory could not truly be accepted into the heart without a peek at this physical manifestation of championship glory. The very lucky ones actually get to touch the thing; perhaps they hope that the trophy, like the cherished artifacts of some long gone Prophet, will bring blessed protection to those who can press their fingers against it ever so briefly. It certainly couldn't hurt.

It's been paraded through the streets of Boston, traveled to each state in New England, and visited sick children in hospitals. (No word on whether its actually healed any of them yet.) Then it visited the house of God.

The announcement on a salmon-colored flyer mailed from Temple Emanuel in Marblehead, Massachusetts seemed improbable, but I arrived at my suburban synagogue on the appointed time and saw that it was true: up on the bimah, the World Series trophy sat, gleaming brightly on a table directly beneath the eternal flame. It was directly in front of the curtained ark which holds the community's most holy possession, the Temple's Torah scroll.

In front of it hovered scores of pilgrims, doing something they'd likely never done before: snapping flash photographs inside the sanctuary. The memories of Rosh Hashanah services past are indelible, I suppose; the sight of the World Series trophy, however, must be documented on film. I did not hesitate to snap away with my own camera. The shining golden trophy seemed a perfect match with the gold trimming on the lamp hovering above and the ark behind. The many children present, fresh from Sunday morning religious school, could be forgiven if they were confused about which exactly was the most holy item.

It was strange to see this sight in the place where I had my Bar Mitzvah service fifteen years ago. However, it gave me pause to consider that it took the presence of this item to bring me back to my synagogue for the first time in perhaps three years. Why is it, I wondered, that I was more inspired to go to temple by the World Series trophy than by the promise of spiritual nourishment? Am I lazy, or irredeemably secular? Or did I feel that I got something from the experience of following professional sports that I was not truly getting here? When I think of my Red Sox memories, they're not just about games watched; they're about experiences with friends and family, stretching back almost as far as I can remember.

Rabbi David Myer led the congregation—mainly families, most dressed in Red Sox garb of one sort or another—in a prayer of thanksgiving. As Rabbis are wont to do, he engaged in a short etymological discussion meant to illuminate a larger point. The word "religion," he explained, is derived from "ligament"… as in, the connective tissue that holds us together.

"Religion doesn't just mean all the laws, all the customs, all the food. It's about bringing us together," he declared, acoustic guitar in hand. "When we celebrate an occasion such as the Red Sox World Series victory, it ties us together as a community, and it ties us together as families."

As he described the final out of the final game, it occurred to me that I had definitely never heard the words "Foulke" and "Mientkiewicz" said by a Rabbi before.

"People thought of their father, their grandfather, their great-grandfather: the people who weren't able to share in that day," he continued. "But they were very much alive."

It made sense to put this most secular activity—professional sports—into the context of religious celebration. I had indeed felt a deep sense of connection with strangers at religious services, as I had in the stands of Fenway Park. In our society of increasingly alienated individuals, that kind of connection is profoundly valuable. But Dr. Charles Steinberg, the Red Sox vice president who has ushered the prized artifact around on its pilgrimage, had a more lofty agenda. He made the case for the World Series championship as a genuine miracle. Not a secular miracle, like the gold medal for hockey in the 1980 Olympics. An honest to goodness, old fashioned, Red Sea parting miracle.

Dr. Steinberg compared the Sox' eight consecutive postseason wins with the story of Hanukah, in which a day's worth of holy oil was said to illuminate the temple's flame for the eight days it took to bring in some more.

"If [the team] stopped believing, they would not have won Game Four [of the American League Championship Series versus the Yankees]," he said from the bimmer. "The candle would have gone out. The oil would have run out. But the miracle wound up lasting eight days. It could only have come from above."

Whoa.

"We teach children about miracles, about believing in God," he preached. "But the examples are from thousands of years ago. We must recognize that we are in the history of the world right now where we are living in a time and place when we have been given a current, modern example of what some would call a miracle. "

Heady stuff, yes, but it made perfect sense to this crowd of Red Sox believers—myself included. A Red Sox World Series victory was always a concept like, say, world peace or a date with Cindy Crawford: you fervently hoped for it year after year, but never really expected it to actually happen.

Finally, like some sort of Moses in reverse, a red-jacketed security guard lifted up the trophy, held it aloft, and carried it out of the temple. It was packed safely in a little minivan appropriately painted with Red Sox images, and headed for the next stop on its journey.

As I stepped out into the sunshine of the surprisingly mild afternoon, I thought about the foregoing attempt to place the World Series victory squarely in the religious tradition in which I was raised. I thought about the semi-official slogan of the 2004 season: "Keep the faith." Maybe miracles aren't necessarily about the hand of God reaching down and changing events. Maybe they're more about the belief behind them. If it gets you to believe, isn't that enough? If something looks, smells, and sounds like a miracle, perhaps that's all that's important.

I think I'll even go back to synagogue soon for another visit. And not just the one with the Green Monster.


Jeremy D. Goodwin is a writer living north of Boston. Most recently, he helped co-edit The Phish Companion: A Guide to the Band and Their Music (Backbeat Books). He is currently finishing his first novel.

~~~~~~~

from the April Passover 2005 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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