The Se­cret Jewish His­tory Of Base­ball’s Open­ing Day

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Seth Ro­govoy

Like a New Year cel­e­bra­tion, Ma­jor League Base­ball’s an­nual open­ing day brings with it an op­por­tu­nity to start afresh: to leave the past be­hind and to be­gin anew with a clean slate. Ev­ery team be­gins the new sea­son as a re­born en­tity: The reign­ing World Cham­pi­ons and last year’s losers are equal go­ing into the first game. Who they will be in the new sea­son is en­tirely de­pen­dent on how they per­form in the here and now; there are no lau­rels upon which to rest. The over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of teams did not make it to the play­offs in the pre­vi­ous sea­son. So teams and fans alike look for­ward to what the new sea­son brings: the chance for do­ing bet­ter than the pre­vi­ous year, dan­gling the ever-elu­sive prom­ise of a po­ten­tial World Se­ries win.

If this sounds vaguely fa­mil­iar, that’s be­cause it is. The new base­ball sea­son is much like the Jewish new year, when the seli­chot pe­riod of re­pen­tance dur­ing the month of Elul lead­ing into the Days of Awe presents ev­ery per­son with the op­por­tu­nity to set­tle one’s ac­counts from the past year and to start the new year afresh. In tech­no­log­i­cal terms, a re­boot or a re­set. Gains or losses are not cu­mu­la­tive, but rather peren­nial. Each year of­fers the op­por­tu­nity to do teshu­vah, to re­turn to a place of good­ness via re­pen­tance. As Mai­monides wrote, “Even if a man has sinned his whole life and re­pents on the day of his death, all his sins are for­given him.”

Ma­jor League Base­ball’s open­ing day this year falls on Thurs­day, March 29. There is no fixed date for open­ing day; it typ­i­cally oc­curs in the first week of April, on a Mon­day, Thurs­day or Fri­day, al­though in re­cent years it has been drift­ing into March, so that at the other end of the base­ball cal­en­dar — es­pe­cially what with an ex­panded play­off sea­son — World Se­ries games don’t run too far into Novem­ber.

For base­ball fa­nat­ics, open­ing day has the feel of a ma­jor fes­ti­val. Even Wikipedia gets it: “Open­ing Day is a state of mind as well, with count­less base­ball fans known to rec­og­nize this un­of­fi­cial hol­i­day as a good rea­son to call in sick at work or be tru­ant from school (as most teams typ­i­cally play their home opener in the af­ter­noon) and go out to the ball­park for the first of 162 reg­u­lar sea­son games.” Open­ing day, in other words, is a ver­i­ta­ble yon­tef, a hol­i­day. Not for noth­ing did thought­ful sports jour­nal­ist Thomas Boswell once pen a book ti­tled “Why Time Be­gins on Open­ing Day.”

This year’s open­ing day also hap­pens to fall on the day be­fore Seder night. The gen­eral prox­im­ity of open­ing day and Passover has been fod­der for much dis­cus­sion about the the­matic sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the start of the base­ball sea­son and Ju­daism’s spring fes­ti­val. Both are tied to re­birth and re­demp­tion; in­deed, Passover it­self is con-

In base­ball, ‘ Next year in Jerusalem’ is echoed by ‘ Wait till next year.’

sidered a new year, and the month of Nisan, in which Passover (and open­ing day) al­ways oc­curs, is known as the month of re­demp­tion. As it is writ­ten in the Tal­mud, “In Nisan we were re­deemed, in Nis­san we will be re­deemed” (Rosh Hashanah 11a).

In the lead-up to Passover, Jews tra­di­tion­ally do a thor­ough spring clean­ing in or­der to erad­i­cate any hametz from their homes. The crumbs of hametz are the phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion of the swelling of the ego. In base­ball, the lead-up to open­ing day is spring train­ing, a short ex­hi­bi­tion sea­son dur­ing which teams re­con­sti­tute them­selves, train­ing and re­train­ing with all due hu­mil­ity in prepa­ra­tion for the new base­ball sea­son.

Speak­ing of hu­mil­ity, both base­ball and Ju­daism el­e­vate the con­cept of sac­ri­fice to a pri­mary value. Mod­ern or rab­binic Ju­daism has its ori­gins in a sac­ri­fi­cial cult, in which of­fer­ings of grain, meat and in­cense were brought to the al­tar of the Holy Tem­ple. As much as it val­ues its base-clear­ing home-run hit­ters, base­ball, too, el­e­vates the role and art of the sac­ri­fice: Some of the most valu­able ballplay­ers are ex­perts at lay­ing down a bunt or at pop­ping up a sac­ri­fice fly, in­cur­ring an out in or­der to ad­vance a run­ner, thereby sac­ri­fic­ing in­di­vid­ual glory for the greater good of the team.

Passover, of course, is the story of lib­er­a­tion from slav­ery into free­dom — his­tor­i­cally, the free­dom to co­a­lesce into a new na­tion. The new base­ball sea­son, like­wise, gives teams the chance to rein­vent them­selves, freed from the con­fines of the pre­vi­ous sea­son’s sta­tis­ti­cal tally. In­deed, the fi­nal sen­tence of the Passover Seder — “Next year in Jerusalem” — finds its echo in base­ball in its an­nual, rit­u­al­ized ut­ter­ance of con­so­la­tion: “Wait till next year.”

And with that: Let’s Go, Mets!

Seth Ro­govoy is a con­tribut­ing ed­i­tor at the For­ward and a diehard, long-suf­fer­ing fan of the of­ten hap­less but lov­able New York Mets.

GETTY IM­AGES

READY FOR PRIME TIME: Open­ing day at Minute Maid Park in Hous­ton, Texas.

PUTTING LAST SEA­SON BE­HIND US: Mai­monides re­minds us that even a life­time of sin can be for­given.

PLAY BALL: Pres­i­dent Woodrow Wil­son throws out the first ball in Wash­ing­ton, DC, in 1916.

GETTY IM­AGES

WAIT­ING FOR LEFTY: Barack Obama throws the first pitch at Na­tion­als Park in Wash­ing­ton, DC, April 5, 2010.

BOB­BLE HEAD: ‘Mr. Met,’ mas­cot of the New York Mets, is hop­ing for a bet­ter sea­son this year.

WIKIPEDIA

SAC­RI­FICE: At left, a high priest of­fers a burned sac­ri­fice in the Tem­ple. Lat­ter day ball play­ers sac­ri­fice per­sonal glory for ben­e­fit of their team.

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