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The Man Who Saved Baseball

December 23, 2010 By:
Andrew Sherman
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Andrew Sherman

Cliff Lee is more than just the modern-day Sandy Koufax. At least to Philadelphia Jews, he is.

Let me explain. Sure, Mr. Lee may be a good 'ole Arkansas boy who enjoys a hunting expedition and has the (non-Jewish) good looks of a young John Wayne. No matter. The man was -- and, by declining to don Yankees pinstripes, still is -- the sheriff that Philadelphia Jews have longed for in our longtime battle with the city of New York -- and our insufferable relatives who call it home.

Maybe Judaism has nothing to do with this. But here's a thought: Until Cliff Lee set foot in the New York City subway system on the eve of game one of the 2009 World Series and rode the train up to the Bronx -- where he proceeded to strike out 10 Yankees in a dominating 6-1 win -- Philadelphia Jews felt powerless against the Bronx bombers, and by extension, their arrogant and wealthier New York relatives.

We all have one -- a rich family member living in New York, be it a cousin in Manhattan or Great Neck, or an uncle in Westchester. The relative (who you still love, unconditionally) with the air of superiority and over-the-top claims: New York's bagels are "the best!" they say. "Its pastrami -- the best! Its theaters and museums -- the best! "We've got Zabar's!" they tell you, "Bergdorf's! B&H!"

And, of course, they're also quick to point out: "We've got the Yankees -- best baseball team there ever was!"

It should be noted that Jews and baseball are like bagels and lox -- an odd combination from the get-go, and one that has stood the test of time. Baseball is a sprawling, pastoral game, and Jews have traditionally been shtetl- or urban-dwellers. What's more, the sport was invented by a guy named Abner Doubleday, who sounds waspy and blue-blooded, and not like, say, Abe Froman.

And yet, Jews love baseball like no other game; many can rattle off Orlando Cepeda's 1967's statistics faster than they can cite the price of a postage stamp.

Out of this odd relationship came Sandy Koufax, arguably the game's greatest pitcher, and one of the rare Jews ever to don a major league uniform. But while he dominated the hated Yankees in the '63 World Series, Koufax did it as a member of the L.A. Dodgers, surely not a real Jewish baseball man's team, considering it had (recently) departed dear old -- and very Jewish -- Brooklyn. In other words, as good as he was, Koufax was no Messiah, because he didn't stick it to the Yanks as a member of a Brooklyn team.

Into this breach came Cliff Lee.

Pitching for the Phillies of Philadelphia -- a town not unlike Brooklyn in its Dodger heyday, long on blue-collar and middle-class types, not to mention old world, shtetl-dwelling Jews -- Mr. Lee rode the subway up to Yankee stadium, and toyed with the Bronx Bombers, and with them, all of their snobby New York Jewish supporters.

This performance, almost 60 years after the Yankees had swept the Phils in the 1950 World Series, was a grand old "right up your tuchus!" gesture to the city of New York, the one Philadelphia Jews had been longing for. After all, we're underdogs -- always have been, always will be.

And if Cliff Lee had parlayed his free agency into a bank-busting contract with the Yankees, all of that goodwill would have been gone. No more references to Koufax. No more matinee idol worship. Cliff Lee would have become enemy No. 1 to Philadelphia Jews -- our Superman who morphed into Lex Luthor.

Philadelphia has lived in New York's shadow since someone -- George Washington, Aaron Burr, Boss Tweed? -- decided one 18th-century day that the City of Brotherly Love, one of the finest port cities, and the home of the Declaration of Independence and Benjamin Franklin, would no longer be the capital of the United States -- not for commerce, not for government and not for sports. And the Jews who settled there, in a predominantly waspy place (think the Duke brothers and the painters Wyeth), have never wanted to be second fiddle.

Mr. Lee -- the Philadelphia Jewish community turned its lonely eyes to you. It told you, in thoughts and prayers: Do not go to New York for the money; do not go for legacy. Do not go to New York and align yourself with our self-promoting relatives to the north.

And you listened. God bless you please, Mr. Lee.

Andrew N. Sherman, who grew up in Penn Wynne, is a freelance writer and public-relations consultant who now lives in Brooklyn.

 

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