Buddy Up

When I went to religious school as a kid, at a small Jewish temple in my mostly Catholic hometown in upstate New York, Sandy Koufax was a subject worth fighting over. This was in the mid-1980s, nearly 20 years after the famed fastballer won Game 7 of the 1965 World Series for the L.A. Dodgers. Whenever our religious school class was assigned a book report or research project, the boys fought over who would present on Koufax. Since Koufax’s last season was in 1966, it goes without saying that none of us had ever seen him pitch. Nonetheless, young boys admire prominent athletes more than they appreciate novelists or nuclear scientists, and Koufax Studies became a trendy discipline at Temple Concord. David Ben-Gurion was boring and looked weird, but Sandy Koufax was Jewish and cool.

Last week, the NY Mets bolstered their line up with All-Star outfielder Shawn Green, a Jew. Since learning of these late season moves, I’ve felt something akin to the Koufax-mania of my childhood—a nostalgia rooted in my slipshod religious upbringing. Apparently, I’m not alone: the Times can barely stop reporting on Green; the Daily News printed a thorough review of Green’s first Mets press conference; even the English edition of Ha’aretz, an Israeli paper with an international audience, dutifully noted Green’s arrival, referring to the “fantasy of a Jewish superstar performing before the enormous, baseball-adoring Jewish community of New York City.” Apparently the myth of the Hebrew Slugger isn’t just a Jewish kid’s dream. It’s a certifiable New York Story.

Most of the articles mention that Green is past his prime. While the Times’ Ben Sphigel claims that, from 1998 to 2002, Green “was one of baseball’s most complete hitters,” averaging 112 R.B.I. and 38 homers in those five seasons, the bad news is that “since then, his power and production have plummeted.” Well, Green is now 33; isn’t that what happens to aging ballplayers when they don’t down cocktails of steroids and amphetamines? Green’s very mortal arc makes him a blend of real man and mensch, a player who stayed clean and did the right thing.

Green’s Jewishness is clearly a more compelling story than his lackluster numbers. The coverage of his religious identity has ranged from the Israeli bluntness of Ha’aretz to the Times’ kosher deli-romanticizing. The headline for their Aug. 26th article spelled it out: “A Power Hitter. And a Source of Jewish Pride.” Reporters Andy Newman and Michael S. Schmidt mostly avoid Catskills schmaltz, but the people they interview have no such standards. “He’s a team player, and he’s on our team, if you know what I’m saying,” said Alan Moskowitz, a Borough Park resident. Another Mets fan, described in the article as “a husky Manhattanite with a billowing Jewish afro,” reached for Yiddish comic glory by saying, “I haven’t been this proud of a Jew since my brother’s bar mitzvah.”

Buried under the narrative of Green’s old-school (or altschul) Jewish sports heroism is an even older American story, one the New York papers conjure in their frequent references to Green’s friendship with fellow Met Carlos Delgado. This is the most arresting aspect of the media coverage of Green’s trade. Yes, the trail of friendships that any journeyman ballplayer leaves in his wake is intriguing, but in the recent portrayals of the Green/Delgado relationship, ethnicity takes center stage. It’s not just that they have remained friends since meeting as up-and-comers in the Blue Jays organization in 1993, it’s that Green is Jewish, Delgado is Latino. They have beaten the odds of ethnic incompatibility and found real friendship through baseball, or so the story goes. “Green attended Delgado’s wedding in December, and Delgado stood in Green’s wedding five years ago,” David Picker of the Times reported on August 25. “Green is Jewish, so Delgado had to wear a yarmulke during the wedding. Delgado is bald, so he ended up taping the yarmulke to his head.” Better yet, Delgado recalled for reporters that, at his wedding, “We made [Green] dance the salsa.” And could the Jewish man dance? “Of course not.”

The stars of this impromptu New York buddy picture have a resonance that reaches beyond baseball and beyond New York City. Delgado and Green, however unwittingly, are kindling a trope of American male friendship that links them to Cooper and Melville, not to mention Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson. They are “Men From Different Backgrounds,” joined in a quest narrative that, in this case, may lead to the World Series. Instead of Ishmael and Queequeg, Green and Delgado offer an odd pair in which both men have aspects of Otherness. One friend is black, the other white; one friend is Christian, the other Jewish. I have no idea if this story is at all interesting to Latino baseball fans, but for Jewish fans it’s a big deal. Not only do New York Jews have a new Jewish ballplayer to root for, we have a place in another American narrative from which we are often excluded. Shawn Green plays for the Jews, in a manner of speaking, but equally important are the friends he has in the Mets’ diverse clubhouse.

When Sandy Koufax joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1955, he helped show that Jews could be thoroughly American. These days Jews are much less anxious about their status as Americans, but the story of Green and Delgado shows that all is far from settled. Otherness lingers. Near the start of Moby Dick, Ishmael, after an awkward introduction to Queequeg, thinks to himself, “the man’s a human being just as I am… Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.” This remarkable bit of reasoning gets at the core American appeal of the buddy story: our capacity to observe, accept and celebrate difference, without losing the Self. As remarkable as it is to hear a major league baseball player say, as Green recently did, “I’m looking forward to being part of the Jewish community [in New York],” the quote would feel empty if Green hadn’t turned to his friend Carlos a few years earlier and handed his fellow slugger a yarmulke.

great article.

one thing that perhaps needed mentioning was the other bases (not 1st, 2nd, 3rd or home) for a fascination with jewish athletes. the stereotype of jews as non-athletic, egg-headed, weaklings—a stereotype rooted in anti-semitism—makes the appeal (or dislike, presumably) stronger. the opposite (though arguably more pernicious) being the racist steotype of the able-bodied, physically potent black male athlete.

— Tyson    Sep 5, 02:28 PM    #


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