Monday, October 31, 2016

The Theology of the Cubs

The Neshama of Baseball, Part II
Irwin
I have known Irwin Keller since 4th or 5th grade. He was a year ahead of me in religious school at Congregation B'nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim (BJBE) in Glenview, IL. He was always the smartest kid I knew, but I never told him that until now. He was not a know-it-all. He was a great guy who took knowledge - especially Jewish knowledge seriously. While we were all trying to learn how to decipher the modern Hebrew dialogues in B'yad Halashon, Irwin was mastering the language. He led the service for his Bar Mitzvah completely in Hebrew - or at least that is how we all remembered it. He has become a lawyer, founded a drag a cappella quartet, the Kinsey Sicks, and for many years has been the spiritual leader Congregation Ner Shalom in Cotati, CA. He is studying with the Aleph Alliance and will be formally ordained a rabbi relatively soon. He also blogs at Itzik's Well. You should read it. I learn something every time he speaks or writes, and I am proud to call him a friend.

Like me, he is also a Chicago Cubs fan. We watched Game 4 of the series together Saturday night. I was in the bleachers and he was in a bar in West Hollywood (don't know why he was in LA, I didn't ask.) But with Facebook in front of us, we were watching together. He wrote the piece below last week and gave me permission to re-post it. Enjoy this second installment of the Neshama of Baseball. The original article is here.

A souvenir ball from Irwin's childhood

The Theology of the Cubs

by Irwin Keller

I grew up with a rabbi who regularly used baseball references in his sermons. I adored him (still do), and his outfield metaphors were usually just right. That said, he was a native South Sider, and a White Sox fan. Even as a kid I knew to look at his baseball enthusiasm with some skepticism. Sox fans were not like Cubs fans. My family – generations of North Side Jews – were the latter. Being a Cubs fan was as essential to who we were as being Ashkenazim, Chicagoans, Earthlings. We shared something special and formative with other Cubs fans. It was different from just being a baseball fan. Cubs fans had their own kind of faith, their own special theology.

I was raised into this religion from birth. My grandfather and his brothers-in-law were all formidable Cubs fans. Every summer Sunday of my childhood, like clockwork, like Shabbos, Grandpa Joe and Grandma Sade would pull up in their Oldsmobile and we would watch the ball game together. We'd turn on WGN at 1PM, in time to settle in with the announcers' pre-game chatter. My mother would pour her father a scotch on the rocks. I'd sprawl on the floor in front of the TV. And the game would start. My grandfather, like so many Chicago grandfathers, would yell at the umpires, would yell at Jack Brickhouse, would yell at Leo Durocher. Sometimes there were double-headers and all 6 of us would have to eat dinner in front of the TV so as not to miss any plays.

We were faithful fans, my family, although not fanatics. But fanatics did exist in my bloodline. My great grandmother's brother, Morris Levin, was a beloved figure at Wrigley Field. He earned a mention in the 1930 edition of Ripley's Believe It or Not for attending every game of the season and knowing every statistic in the National League, this while being completely blind. The players would say, "Hello, Mr. Levin" to him on their way onto the field, and he could tell from the sound of bat meeting ball exactly where a hit was headed.

Cubs games were daytime diversions in the days of my childhood; Wrigley Field had no lights. Too many extra innings and a game could be called on account of darkness. And who needed night games anyway? For Cubs fans, part of the joy was skipping school or work to go sit in the bleachers. And to a Cubs fan's eye, there was something vulgar about night games. Under electric flood lights, the White Sox looked like a Vegas stage show. Real baseball took place under the blue sky and bright sun.

I guess I'm saying these things to shore up my baseball cred, to try to convince you that I'm not just jumping on a Cubs bandwagon, although clearly here I am bouncing along on it. Baseball was, I think, something I sacrificed growing up and coming out. In perfecting my new, rebellious, gay identity, I embraced an outspoken and derisive ignorance of sports. And it was mostly true – I know nothing about basketball, football, hockey. I only care about soccer teams when they make beefcake calendars.

But baseball? Baseball I'm not ignorant about. I know the rules. I once knew the players. I know the pace and the feel and the culture. When I moved to California, that spirit chilled in me. I attended a few Giants games and a couple As games. And the company of my buddy Emily was wonderful. But I walked into Candlestick Park and it wasn't Wrigley Field. It was the wrong team in the wrong place. And rooting for a team that could actually win felt oddly meaningless.

Because being a Cubs fan has something to do with faith. Not faith in a specific outcome, but faith for its own sake. Faith as practice.

The Cubs last won a World Series when my Grandpa Joe was 5 years old. By the time I was watching ball with him 60 years later, the organizing principle of fandom could not have been any realistic expectation of winning. Instead faith was a posture, a relationship with the world, or at least the world of baseball. Rooting for a team that had a good chance was easy and it was beneath us. That kind of fandom was for people from other cities, where strength of character was not strictly required.

Whereas the theology of the Cubs fan had (and has) something to do with an embrace of the "is" rather than the "might be." It is belief without proof. Endurance without promise of reward. Patience just because.
If only we could live our lives this way! With such constancy. With exquisite endurance, faith that doesn't flag, joy even in the waiting. Holding the world – and each other – with love and loyalty, despite imperfection, despite unfinishedness. We don't need a perfected world; we don't need a perfect partner; perfect children, perfect self.  If we could just hang on to life, with all its ups and downs, with the fierce love with which Cubs fans hang on to baseball. What a world this would be!

And if every century or so there's a World Series title, no one would complain.

I sat last Saturday and watched the last National League playoff game, Cubs vs. Dodgers. Without a TV, without cable service, I had to connive my way onto the live stream. I sat, prodigal that I was, with my Israeli brother-in-law who had never seen a baseball game, and I elaborately explained it all. The rules. Why innings don't have a timer. How a normal game lasts as long as a movie but a memorable game with extra innings is like an opera. Why all the spitting (I had to make this one up) and crotch adjustments (ditto). What makes baseball fans better people. Pointing out how casual and respectful opponents were with each other. I felt all my love for the Cubs – not for these particular players, who were new to me and were all born long after my last visit to Wrigley Field, but my love for this religion that is the Cubs, that pours through and from me.

I relaxed in a deep way, a way that encompassed my entire life and not just that moment on the sofa. I forgot my work. I forgot the fatigue of the ongoing High Holy Days. I forgot the awful election. It was the 6th day of Sukkot, when we call in the biblical Joseph to be our guest in the Sukkah. Instead, it was my Grandpa Joe who was clearly at my side, his scotch in hand, in answer to my glass of local Sonoma wine.

And now tonight I settle in for the World Series. Sure, I'd like us to win. But it doesn't really matter. We want it but don't need it. We deserve it and so do the people of Cleveland who have been waiting a lifetime as well. We'll be fine either way. Because that's who Cubs fans are. That is our theology. We love, we believe, and we do so without proof or promise of reward.

Now play ball.

Joe and Sade arriving for Sunday baseball.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Take Me Out To The Ball Game!

The Neshama of Baseball Part I: Lessons learned in Wrigley Field

I often say I grew up in Wrigley Field.

That is not really true.

My grandfather, Uncle Stanley and great uncles Ted and Lee did all take me to a number of games.

Rusty, Uncle Stan, me and John
Friends and I did occasionally get called in sick to school so we could ride our bikes about ten miles to the Skokie Swift, a train that would take us to the Evanston "El" and then on to Addison Street and the ball park.

I spent more than a few hours on Waveland Avenue during batting practice, hoping to catch a ball launched over the left field wall (I never caught one, it was usually crowded).

And I had many exciting moments in the park, usually in the third base grandstands (made famous some years ago by Steve Bartman - who had absolutely no impact on the final score of any playoff game) or the left field bleachers.

Like most Cub fans my age, I was certain that I was the kid being portrayed by one of the actors in the play "Bleacher Bums," because I was a kid who sat in the bleachers when the play was written. (I certainly was not the kid. I never knowingly met the playwright.)

I did learn a lot of important lessons there.

Ernie Banks taught me that when God gives us a beautiful day for a ball game, we should play two. Because when God gives you the gift of a beautiful day you should take advantage of it and do what you love best.

I learned that you can trust strangers who share your passion. Because when someone passes a ten dollar bill across fifteen seats, they will receive their hot dog or frosty malt and ALL of their change.

Jack Kearney*, the ball park organist of my youth taught me that we can each have a theme song and that music can bring meaning and fun to life. And it can rouse a crowd to cheer even when there is little to cheer about on the field.

I learned that when the opposing team hits a home run you throw the ball back onto the field. We don't make trophy's of things that hurt us. Not in our house.

And as any Cub fan will tell you, I also learned how to deal with disappointment and failure. Lots of disappointment. And tons of failure. For Star Trek fans who don't follow baseball, imagine the Kobayashi Maru scenario, played out six days a week, occasionally twice in a day, 105 days or so per year, for most of your (in my case) 55 years of life.

It wasn't always that bad. When I was 8, life in Wrigley was nearly perfect. Until September 4. That was when the Miracle Mets took first place away from the Cubs. They went on to win the pennant and the World Series. We finished third.

And there have even been some stabs at the playoffs. And they were thrilling as long as they lasted. But so far, they have been graduate level courses in dealing with missing the mark.

Last year I was lucky enough to get a ticket for game 3 of the National League Championship Series against the Mets. I went by myself, skipping a dinner with colleagues. It was a sublime experience. Memories of all of those games from my youth, and the beloved men in my life who brought me to Wrigley (only Uncle Stan is alive) came flooding back and they were standing next to me cheering as we battled DeGrom and the Mets. They took us apart. But I was there.

I am sitting on a plane bringing me home to Connecticut. I was blessed to have a friend whose brother works for a baseball team who arranged for me to get four tickets to each of the first three World Series games to be played in Wrigley Field since 1945 (a series we lost to Hank Greenberg and the Detroit Tigers, four games to one).

I attended the first game with Uncle Stanley, his son - my cousin Rusty - and my other cousin John (from my dad's side). John and I are closest in age, and as kids watched more than a few games together. We would debate who was more important to the team, Ernie Banks (me) or Ron Santo (him), while swimming at our grandparents pool. The Cubs were beat that night 1-0. It was not an exciting game from an athletic perspective.

But it was Shabbat with my family. A single beer instead of wine. A hot dog bun instead of challah. And those infernal ball park lights instead of candles (I still prefer a day game). But we were together. It was a beautiful evening spent with Stan, Rusty and John. Reminiscing without saying a word at times. Getting to know each other better as adults and fathers, since we often only see one another at special occasions with lots of family around. And it was also sharing the moment with more than 42,000 others who had similar stories and memories.

Last night I attended game four with my cousin Amy (Rusty's sister and Stan's daughter after spending the night at the home she shares with her husband David and their two beautiful dogs, Sesame and Poppy). We spent a wonderful day together before the game and then we were joined by my college roommate and fraternity brother Steve and his wife Nancy. More memories. Another 41,000 cousins-in-spirit. (Sure there were some Cleveland fans. But they were having a similar parallel experience. We were connected.

My dear friend Mark flew to His hometown of Cleveland for game one. He was joined by his brother and sister. We spoke as walked to the train to get to the park before the my first game. We talked about how amazing it was for him, and how excited I was for me to share the experience of each of our teams being in the World Series for the first time in our lifetimes with our families - with people who shared our connections with our recent ancestors who taught us to love our teams. We learned to love our teams because we loved the people who shared their passion with us, who taught us the secret handshake and bought us a frosty malt.

And it was the WORLD SERIES, DAMMIT. Here's the thing about being a lifelong Cub fan - and I by no means the first nor even the one thousand and first to say it - we have faith. We believe in the future. One week from now, whether we are the Champions or not, we will be tied with 29 other teams for first place for the 2017 season. We know in our hearts that there is always next year. And that makes us content, if not always happy.

Much as we believe in the future, and we have come to believe that Theo Epstein, the Ricketts and Joe Maddox have built the real deal in the last two years, none of us EXPECTED to see a World Series in Wrigley Field in our lifetimes before this version of the team. We have always hoped for it. We have always believed it could happen. But unlike my friends who follow the Yankees or the Red Sox (and I live amongst both in Connecticut), we didn't expect it.

And so I am frustrated and hopeful. Totally bummed that as of now we are down three games to one, yet completely excited that thirty minutes, Jon Lester will pitch and David Ross will catch. And I believe with perfect faith that the Cubs can win the next three games and win the World Series on Wednesday. And if they don't, well, it is a young team with a great organization and I am already planning to see them play the Red Sox at Fenway in April - a first for me.

When Uncle Stanley picked me up at O'Hare on Friday, we drove to Westlawn Cemetery. We visited my grandparents, Stan's parents. We told Grampa the Cubs finally made it to the World Series. And we were going. And he was coming with us. Then we placed pebbles on their stones and got ready to take ourselves to the ball game.

I learned a lot at Wrigley Field this weekend. Some I knew from my youth. I learned or was reminded that just like seasons, things go around and begin anew. The destination is awesome. The journey and people who take it with you, are what sustains you. Sometimes for an entire lifetime. Now if we can just get 81 more outs this week!

*I had originally written that it was Nancy Faust, but she was the White Sox organist, who made a deep impact on their fans too. She is the first one to play Na-na-na Hey, Hey, Goodbye in a ball park.

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