TWO LESSONS FROM BASEBALL

A Sermon for Parshat Ekev 5771

by Rabbi Wayne Allen

 

Pirke Avot, the text traditionally studied by Jews from Passover to Rosh Hashanah, reminds us that the wise man learns from every person: “Eizehu Hakham?” asks Ben Zoma. “Ha-lomed mikol adam” (Avot 4:1). Every person – young or old, Jew or non-Jew, learned or untutored – has something to offer and the wise person pays attention. In that spirit, I suggest that there are two people – one Canadian, one American, both non-Jews and both baseball players – from whom we can learn much.

 

Baseball, I believe, is a microcosm of human relations. What happens on the baseball diamond is often useful in looking at life as a whole. Consider the case of Matt Stairs, a Canadian-born player who recently announced his retirement after nineteen years in the major leagues. Stairs hold two major league records. In his career he has hit 23 pinch-hit home runs, significantly more than anyone else. This means that he was called upon to come to bat with little preparation time and when his team was usually behind – and he was able to deliver.

 

The second record he holds is much different and requires interpretation. In his nineteen year career he played on thirteen different teams.   The longest tenure he enjoyed was five seasons with the Oakland Athletics, from 1996 – 2000. Otherwise, he spent no more than two seasons (and frequently less) on twelve other teams.

 

Now there are two ways one can evaluate his career. One perspective – entirely defensible – is that Matt Stairs was simply not good enough to be retained by any one team. He is just counted among those itinerant utility players who fill out many of the team rosters. Another perspective, however, is that his talent was in such demand, that teams went to great lengths to acquire his services. He was, as they say, “the final piece of the puzzle,” that could earn a team a championship. And that was precisely how he was viewed in Philadelphia, for instance, where he helped the Phillies win the World Series. In other words, the vagaries of his career were not a function of questionable skill but of UNquestionable skill.

 

Success and failure in life are deceptive. Often they are measured in contradictory ways. I am reminded of the story of an American politician whose resume was long and storied, rising from the ranks of congressional page, to assistant to a city councillor, to councillor, then mayor, governor, and finally to the House of Representatives. But during his senatorial campaign his opponent criticized him on the grounds that he couldn’t hold a job! One man’s experience is another man’s critique. And there are those who can spend an entire career doing one thing in one place and be labled ‘un-ambitious,’ or ‘lazy.’

 

The fact of the matter is that success and failure can be measured in different ways. And it would be unwise to demand the same judgment in each case. From Matt Stairs we learn that talent is not measured by how many places you work but by how many places you can make work better.

 

The second player from whom we can learn is Jim Thome who, just this past week, became only the eighth player in history to hit 600 home runs in his career. (I will give a special prize to anyone who can name the other seven. See me at Kiddush.) To keep this achievement in perspective, earlier this season Derek Jeter of the N.Y. Yankees, with great fanfare and media coverage, became the 28th player to accumulate 3000 hits in his career. If you do the math, you would conclude that it is more than three times rarer to hit 600 home runs. According to statistics, Jim Thome is the second fastest player to reach that milestone measured by official at-bats. Only Babe Ruth accomplished the feat sooner. But by age, Jim Thome is the oldest. He is forty years old, which in baseball terms is ancient. He had to fight off both time and injuries to reach one of the highest degrees of athletic achievement.

 

Most people unfamiliar with baseball will probably not have heard of Jim Thome. Although he has always been respected by his peers and well-liked by his team-mates, he has never gained the high profile of other stars. Perhaps that has something to do with playing on what they call “small-market” teams. His career began in Cleveland in 1994 and continues in Minnesota this season. Those cities do not have the same aura as New York or San Francisco. Thome played in virtual media obscurity. But Thome did not play for publicity. He played for pride. His objective was not to win the accolades of adoring fans but to win games for his team. And in the end, his achievements are there for all to see. What we learn from Jim Thome is that you do not need to be loud, obnoxious, and egotistical to be counted among the greats. Consistency and character will earn you the same recognition.

 

According to the Torah (Deuteronomy 7:22), God will not dislodge the resident Canaanites from the land of Israel all at once. Rather, the goal will be accomplished “m’at m’at.” Jim Thome did not reach the pantheon of baseball celebrity by one deed on one day but through the dedication of many years. That, too, is an important lesson to learn.

 

There you have it. Two people who are not conveyers of text but who are living texts. May we all grow in wisdom by learning from those who have something to teach us, not necessarily by the content of their minds but by the content of their character.