Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Rabbi Becomes a Baseball Free Agent

I BLAME MEL HALL. It was Memorial Day 1991, and my cousins, my brother and I were going to Yankee stadium to see the Yankees take on the Boston Red Sox. Given that I didn’t grow up in a big city, I had never been to a Major League baseball game. At the time, I wasn’t a baseball fan. I had rooted for the Mets during their run to the World Series in 1986, but I was really a baseball free agent. I was looking for a team but hadn’t found one. My cousins were huge Yankees fans and assured me that the game would be great and that we’d have a good time.

So we piled into my Cousin Josh’s car and headed to the Bronx. On the way, Josh was explaining to me the history of the rivalry between the Yankees and the Red Sox. When we got to the stadium I couldn’t believe it. Now I had seen Yankee stadium dozens of times on television, but it was something else to see it in person. We found our seats in the right field mezzanine a few rows behind the fa├žade and settled in for what my cousins were calling, “The greatest rivalry in sports.”

The day played out like a sports movie. This was not the same Yankees that we watch on television today. Their lineup was good, but was not the superstar lineup that this year’s Yankees trot out every game. After trailing the entire game, Mel Hall stepped to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning with runners on first and second. On a 2-2 pitch Hall hit a home run right to right field right in front of where we were all sitting.

That was the day when I became a Yankees fan. In spite of the fact that both my father and brother were, and have always been Dodgers fans, I decided to jump on the Yankees bandwagon. All of fourteen, I found myself attracted to the glory, the history and yes, the arrogance that the New York Yankees carried with them.

All that changed last night. It was the bottom of the 9th inning with the Yankees trailing 2-1. Raul Ibanez came to the plate as a pinch hitter in place of the 29 million dollar man, Alex Rodriguez. Now, most sports teams or organizations that make 29 million dollar mistakes can’t simply “pinch hit” for the black hole into which they threw their money. But the beauty of being a New York Yankee is that you can simply open your wallet and spend as much money as you’d like on the next overpriced free agent. When the payroll goes north of 190 million dollars, we know who ends up paying the price. We know that it’s the fans that end up footing the bill. If you watch a Yankee game, you will notice that there are many empty seats. It’s not because the Yankees aren’t popular, it’s because the tickets can be a thousand dollars each. In this economy no one can afford a thousand dollars for a seat. If you can afford that, I hope your charitable contributions would make a director of development blush.

There are many stories in sports in which an aging veteran joins a new team in search of a championship. In the NHL, after over twenty years playing for the Boston Bruins, Ray Borque joined the Colorado Avalanche and one a championship in his first year with the team. In Basketball it is a common theme of an older former superstar wiling to join a team in pursuit of a title. Yes, sports are rife with these types of stories. But while most people accept a pay cut to join a new team, the Yankees are actually willing to overspend on these players in order to get them on the team in a diminished role. It always bothered me that while people would accept a pay cut to try to win a title with Phil Jackson or Bill Belichick, the Yankees actually gave a pay raise to come play with them.

In this election season there has been a lot of talk about ‘the game’ being “rigged.” Well in baseball it is most assuredly is. Teams are supposed to be able compete without the benefits of revenue sharing or a salary cap even though their cities or television markets might be one tenth the size of New York’s or Boston’s. It’s just not fair.

I have a lot of friends who are Orioles fans. Heck, some of my best friends are Orioles fans. After decades of suffering (mostly at the hands of the owner, Peter Angelos) here they were with an exciting team who no one expected to be this good. There was enthusiasm and excitement in the D.C. area about the Orioles and Nationals both being in the playoffs. And their reward for a great season is to play a team with a payroll higher than most countries GDP.

In Judaism we are taught to root for the underdog. We are told to love Jacob even though he is not the strapping man that his older brother might be. We root for David whose bravery we still marvel at in his defeat of Goliath. Well I’m tired of rooting for Goliath. There is no excitement if he wins. Rooting for the Yankees is like playing a sports video game on franchise mode while cheating the computer in every trade you make. If you don’t win one season, who cares, you’re team is so good that you’ll retool during the offseason and come back with an even more devastating season next year. And before all of the Red Sox fans start smiling and nodding their heads, you should all know that you’re just worse. You’re exactly like the Yankees, you overspend (albeit not effectively) and manage to be offended by the “evil empire” of the Yankees. Congratulations Red Sox fans, you are the Yankees north.

I am sad to say it, but after 21 years, I find myself a baseball free agent friend again. I know that people will criticize me for declaring my free agency even before the season is officially over. But I have to do what’s best for my family. I hope it doesn’t distract the team too much. I am not going to answer any more questions about the matter, please, we’re trying to win a championship here.

Rabbi Ben Goldstein is a rabbi in New Jersey. Become a fan of his on Facebook.