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And Here's the Pitch

August 17, 2011 By:
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Mosaic by Jonathan Mandell/Fine Art Mosaics

Baseball and beer. Baseball and red hots. Baseball and bragging rights.

Baseball and -- Jews?

It's not such a seventh-inning stretch; in fact, say many, it is -- like Roy Hobbs himself -- a natural.

Maybe even biblical? "In the big inning" is the genesis of an old joke that goes back possibly to when the earth was created. Or, at least, to the beginnings of baseball some 165 years ago.

Interviews with scores of Jewish baseball fans provide a scorecard of hopes, dreams and history tying religion and the sport together -- even years after iconic pitcher Sandy Koufax, whose refusal to pitch on Yom Kippur during the 1965 World Series placed him on a Jewish pedestal instead of a mound.

Rabbi Rebecca T. Alpert has adored the game for decades and has long been considered an expert on Jews and baseball, having written many articles on the topic. It was, therefore, no wonder she was chosen as one of the "stars" for director Peter Miller's acclaimed documentary,Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story, a romantic rondelay featuring such legendary Jewish players as the late Hank Greenberg and, of course, Koufax.

Alpert, associate professor of religion and women's studies at Temple University, isn't just coming out of left field when talking of a spiritual tie between fan and phenomenon (although Out of Left Field is the title of her recently released book, focused on the history of Jews and blacks in baseball).

She sees parallels between Jews observing Shabbat and serving as spectators of the sport itself: "Both Shabbat and the game have a sense of timelessness, of being in a different space; there is no clock" as time goes by, and by its own rules, she says.

And then there is the parallel to the Jewish calendar, she says. The season begins with spring training at Passover time "and winds down around the High Holidays," a time when Jews deal with the Big Picture -- which, for baseball fans, translates into their own frame of reference: The World Series.

Which brings it all home to home plate at Broad and Pattison: Considering that the Phitin' Phillies are at the top of their game, are they the Chosen Players this year?

She laughs: "Well, we'll find out soon, won't we?"

Soon enough -- which may explain why Jewish Heritage Night, this year presented by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, pitting the Phils against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Aug. 18 at Citizens Bank Park, has been sold out for weeks.

Citing the city's "incredibly active and vibrant Jewish community," Michael Harris, director, marketing and special projects for the Phillies -- and Jewish himself -- says that "adding a Jewish Heritage Night to our promotional lineup was a very easy decision, and its popularity has dramatically increased each and every season" since starting four years ago.

Fields of dreams play out in many ways for baseball's most ardent Jewish fans. Philadelphia native Jeff Zaslow, columnist for The Wall Street Journal and a best-selling author (The Last Lecture, Highest Duty), is a veteran of the baseball scene: Zaslow spent college summers as a vendor hawking hot dogs in the upper reaches of Veterans Stadium.

"Maybe Jews love baseball in part because it feels like Judaism," he contends. "It is a mix of both rules and interpretations. The rulebook of baseball is set in stone, like the Ten Commandments, but then you've got the umpire, with discretion over balls and strikes, what's fair or foul, and the play-by-play guy offering commentary from the broadcasting booth.

"There's also a lot to argue about," he says. "Jews like that."

Michael Rosenzweig has a history with baseball, too. The president and CEO of the National Museum of American Jewish History on Independence Mall -- whose Museum Store itself is a wealth of Jewish baseball merchandise -- thinks the sport fits like a glove with the Jewish sense of time and place. "The rhythm of baseball is relaxed compared with other sports, allowing fans time to reflect and think, to contemplate managerial strategies and, of course, to schmooze with others without missing anything important."

And when it comes to numbers, "Jews also love deep statistical analysis -- it's a kind of pilpul," he says of the give and take akin to interpretations of the Talmud among scholars.

But how many fans find music in the crack of the bat? Chuck Brodsky does -- and the Philly-born folkie has gone on the record about it. "The Baseball Ballads" is just part of his oeuvre of odes devoted to baseball. ("Subtotal Eclipse," his latest CD, has three songs about the sport.)

"Aside from God and my family," he vows of the Phils, "there isn't anyone or anything I've loved or stayed connected to as deeply or for as long."

It's a long drive from his adopted home down South, where "I watch most Phillies games on my laptop down in North Carolina."

His best baseball moment? Performing his baseball songs in 2006 at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown "and while there getting to meet Dick Allen."

He says his song, "Letters in the Dirt," is about the way Allen, the former Phillies All-Star and his all-time favorite, used to get booed at Connie Mack Stadium. "It was fun to meet him and personally give him a copy of 'The Baseball Ballads' " with its song about him.

In the Southampton home of Elliott Cooper, the only thing missing is a case of Crackerjack -- but that's only because the longtime baseball buff may not have room to store the toy inside.

His basement, lovingly known as the Cooper Hall of Fame, is filled to the bleachers -- there are even a couple of seats from the old Connie Mack Stadium -- with memorabilia and memories.

A retired librarian with a shelf full of knowledge, Cooper has a handle on the sport's numerical appeal: "You can go to a game, relax, eat and get into the strategy, mentally, and forget your troubles. When the runner gets to third, think of the 17 ways he can score -- a great trivia game."

David Tilman may be part of the trivia game answer to "How many chazzans have played for the New York Mets?" He was a member of the 1975 Mets Dream Week Team of wannabes.

"Baseball is the only sport where the ball is put into offensive play by the leader of the defense; the pitcher is at a decisive advantage," something that, says Tilman, Jews can relate to for its " 'underdog' status."

Underdogs can rise to the top, says Mary Ellen Bernstein, vice president of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia and overseers chair of Hillel at Temple U., explaining one of the reasons she enjoys the sport and its history.

"Baseball players, like Jews, have overcome so much: Anti-Semitism and racism were very much a part of baseball early on," as documented in Jews and Baseball, "and baseball players overcame it, just like Jews have overcome so much," she says.

But not every Jew loves baseball. And, indeed, there are some places where it slides under the radar. Take Israel, for example, where the Israel Baseball League lasted just one season in 2007.

Oren Liebermann, a CBS3 general-assignment reporter -- with dual American and Israeli citizenship -- claims to understand why baseball was outta there so quickly. "The simple answer," he says, "is because baseball isn't soccer and it's not basketball. As much as Jews love baseball, it seems to be only American Jews, not Israeli immigrants like my parents."

But back in America, it's a match made in heaven for many. Indeed, Citizens Bank Park has been the site of on-field Jewish weddings, with the chupah at -- where else? -- home plate. "Citizens Bank Park is a perfect place for engagements as long as you are both Phillie Phanatics and want to share the experience in front of 43,000 of your nearest and dearest," says Monica Mandell, director of an upscale matchmaking firm.

Monica's own love match -- husband Jonathan of Fine Art Mosaics -- has had his own long honeymoon with the Phillies -- and the stadium; two of the artist's mosaics have been installed there (one of the park itself, pictured on this week's Exponent cover, the other of former Phillies hero Jim Thome, both commissioned by the team).

Baseball obviously is not just a kid's game -- noted by the grown-ups purchasing the popular Jewish Major Leaguer trading cards developed by Martin Abramowitz, called the Boston company's "part-time president, CEO and file-clerk."

But baseball does have a child's appeal to it. Just ask Simon Jack Katz, 4, who recently saw a game with parents Jennifer and Michael of Philadelphia.

His knowledge of baseball is simple, to the point -- and accurate: "The Phillies hit the ball and the bad guys don't catch it."

He adores the game and when you're in love, the whole world's Jewish. Which may explain why, when asked his favorite Jewish Phillies baseball player of all time, he said without hesitation:

"Ryan Howard!"

Theirs Is a 'Star-Spangled' Heritage Night

Take them out to the ball game?

Oh, Laura Warren and Danielle Lichter will be there; the game couldn't start without them.

Warren, 20, and Lichter, 17, will be singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" to open Jewish Heritage Night on Aug. 18, at Citizens Bank Park. The honor is their prize for winning "Israel: A Song in Our Hearts," the contest that was part of Israel 63 Independence Day celebrations presented in May by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia on Penn's Landing.

Oh, say can you -- sing? "I have been on stage since I was very young," says Lichter, a senior at Central Bucks High School East, acknowledging that "I would absolutely love to be a singer for my career when I'm older."

It is all a star-spangled sensation to appear before a Phillies game since she and her family are Phanatics for the team. It is not the first time she's handled the national anthem -- she performed it three years running at Sixers games -- but not before a sold-out crowd of some 43,000 expected at Jewish Heritage Night.

And to do so because she won the Israel 63 contest is in tune with her pride in Judaism: "I love to be involved in my synagogue's community and any Jewish community activities that I can."

Warren waves the flag, too. "Not only does this experience combine my love for music and my religion, but it also brings together my feelings of patriotism for our country and my love for the Phillies!" exclaims the sophomore at Reading's Albright College, who previously performed the national anthem at Villanova University, at 9/11 commemorative ceremonies.

Both young women proudly hold a vision of a future filled with music. Warren's dreams warrant a shot at "American Idol" or "The Voice," but "it doesn't necessarily matter which show or how," she says, "as long as I am able to have a positive impact on people with my music."

Concurs her "Star-Spangled" singing partner, an "American Idol" hopeful: "But first I want to go to college for musical theater and work on my singing career," notes Lichter. "But as long as I have music, I will be happy!"

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