Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Demise of Kevin Youkilis

AS A JEWISH YANKEE FAN, I'm conflicted. Last Sunday, the heated rivalry between the Yankees and the Red Sox lost a bit of its luster, as Boston traded struggling third baseman Kevin Youkilis to the Chicago White Sox. I gotta tell you, as a Yankee fan, I couldn’t be happier. For as much as I love my boys in pinstripes, I loathe everything that has to do with those bums from Beantown. And few players drew more of my ire than that bald, goateed, hitting machine that is Kevin Youkilis.

Youkilis man was a bonafide Yankee killer – he bat .312 against them, seemingly always coming up with a big hit to push the Sox ahead. There was no one you would hate more to see up at the plate in a clutch moment than “Youk”. Making matters worse, he was a sparkplug, an intense and fierce competitor who seemed to spur on the rest of the Red Sox to never give in, never surrender. He was the heart and soul of the Red Sox, so much so that when President Obama made light of the trade, the crowd in Boston booed him!

In the “us versus them” world of sports, in my eyes, Kevin Youkilis was definitely one of “them”. However, as much as I disliked him, there was a part of me that rooted for him, for Kevin Youkilis is Jewish. That’s right – this now-former Boston baddie, once nicknamed “the Greek God of Walks” for his uncanny ability to get on base, is a member of the tribe. He is one of “us”!

His family hails from Romania – their original last name was Weiner, for goodness sake! In interviews, he speaks of his bar-mitzvah in Cincinnati, recalling his long Haftarah portion. As a big leaguer, he has made the decision to sit out when a game fell on Yom Kippur, though with none of the fanfare of Sandy Koufax. And while like many other athletes, he has chosen to create a charitable organization, “Kevin Youkilis Hits For Kids”, he is, I am sure, one of the few to deem it a “mitzvah.” And who could forget, in the early stages of his career, Denis Leary's rant about Youkilis after Mel Gibson’s drunken anti-Semitic diatribe.

Seeing Kevin Youkilis succeed filled me with a sense of Jewish pride. We have always looked with admiration to Jewish athletes whose success flies in the face of traditional stereotypes. We rejoice in their accomplishments, look up to them as role models, particularly when they themselves express their connection to the Jewish people. How many Jewish boys and girls dream of being professional athletes, of hitting that game winning home run, of catching that touchdown pass and dancing in the end zone, of dunking a basketball over Lebron James. The odds may not be so good, but when we see a Kevin Youkilis succeed, it gives us hope.

In truth, there aren’t a whole lot of former bar mitzvah boys swinging for the fences. Aside from Youkilis, Ian Kinsler of the Texas Rangers is the best of the bunch, if we are to exclude players tainted by the suspicion of using performance-enhancing drugs (we are looking at you, Mr. Braun!). But Youkilis stands out from the rest – an All-Star, an MVP candidate, a postseason hero with two world championships. He was even voted as the best Jewish player of the decade by the organization of Jewish Major Leaguers! And who knows, if he is able to turn things around in the Windy City, we might look back on his career as the greatest of any Jewish baseball player (with the exception of Sandy Koufax, of course).

So, here’s to you, Kevin Youkilis – mazel tov on a great career so far. May you go from strength to strength, but preferably, not against the Yankees.

Rabbi Josh Lobel is Associate Rabbi at Congregation Shir Hadash in Silicon Valley, California.