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Op-Ed: The Yom Kippur Clincher

Even before the famous story of how Jewish baseball legend Sandy Koufax took the holiday off, Yom Kippur and Baseball have been linked, but not so much anymore. The author tries to find a connection
Published: Tuesday, September 25, 2012 8:10 AM


Sidney telephones his rabbi a few hours before Yom Kippur and says, "Rabbi, I know tonight is Kol Nidre, but tonight is also the final game of the World Series. I'm a life long fan, Rabbi. I've got to watch the game on TV."

The rabbi replies, "Sidney, that's what video recorders are for."

Sidney is surprised. "You mean I can tape Kol Nidre"?

The above joke is an ‘oldie, but goodie’, but would need to be updated for a young audience in the 21st century. First, try explaining to a kid growing up in this digital age what a VCR is.

But, more importantly, whereas Yom Kippur and the World Series used to overlap quite often (Sandy Koufax, the Dodgers’ ace pitcher, and years before him slugger Hank Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers, did not play on the holiest day on the Jewish calendar), nowadays the issue doesn’t even come up.

It’s not that there aren’t a few Jewish ballplayers playing these days in the major leagues (names like Ryan Braun, Ian Kinsler, Gabe Kapler, and Kevin Youkilis come to mind), it’s just that with the seemingly endless 162 game regular season and the addition of extra rounds of playoff games with more teams, the World Series only begins in late October, well after the High Holidays have ended.

Perhaps we Jewish baseball fans should rejoice. No more conflicts between the High Holidays and the World Series. No more wondering if our favorite Jewish player will play or not on Yom Kippur. True, it was a source of pride for Jews when Koufax or Greenberg sat out on Yom Kippur, but shouldn’t we be glad we don’t need to worry about it anymore?

But something feels missing without meaningful games conflicting with Yom Kippur. Perhaps the current end of the season pennant races with teams jockeying to qualify for the post-season would fill my Yom Kippur-baseball void.

As luck would have it, the team I root for, my hometown San Francisco Giants, punched their ticket for the post-season early with a full eleven games to spare. Last Saturday night they already ‘clinched’ their division title and can now rest up for the playoffs which begin in two weeks, while a number of other clubs, who have yet to qualify for the playoffs, battle it out for the final post-season spots.

What a difference it was this season. My Giants can relax. That was hardly the case two years ago when the team had to win their final game of their grueling 162 game schedule just to get into the playoffs. Yes, the adrenaline was high in that last game (the Giants beat the Padres 3-0 that day to earn a playoff berth and eliminate the Padres from the post-season in the process), but ask any player on that team (or any Giants fan) and they’ll tell you, they’d much rather clinch a playoff spot earlier and not wait till the final game of the year. In fact, the pressure was so stressful that the team announcers lovingly referred to the 2010 season of Giants baseball as ‘torture’.

All this talk about ‘clinching’ reminds me of the Rambam’s (Maimonides) teaching: On Rosh Hashannah, one who is found to be righteous is sealed for life. One who is found wicked is sealed for death. As for the average individual, [the court] leaves the matter hanging until Yom Kippur. If he has repented he is sealed for life; if not he is sealed for death."

Clinching your playoff spot early is like those righteous people who are sealed for ‘good’ on Rosh Hashana. They can rest easy. Perhaps, on the flip side, the same can be said for losing teams that get eliminated from playoff contention well before the regular season ends. Their ‘fate’ has also been determined.

But most of us are somewhere in the middle. We have to ‘sweat it out’ until Yom Kippur. We are not yet ‘playoff worthy’ nor are we ‘eliminated’ from playoff contention and we are still ‘in it’ till the very end.

We have something to play for (and pray for) on that final day of the season (Yom Kippur).

Yes, I felt joy yesterday when my team ‘clinched’ with 11 games to go, but it was pretty inevitable and wasn’t nearly as exciting as when the 2010 team clinched on the final day of the season which had such ‘finality’ to it: win and you go on to the playoffs, lose and you go home.

Why is everyone so excited at the end of Yom Kippur when the shofar is blown? It’s not just the fact that the fast is over and that we can now go and eat; there is more to it than that. It’s because at the end of Yom Kippur we realize that ‘WE’, as a ‘community’, as a ‘people’, as a ‘team’, WE did it! We ‘clinched’ on Yom Kippur, in a sense.

And the joy you see in synagogue at the end of the Yom Kippur service is not too far off from the joy you see on the field when your team ‘did it’ by clinching their playoff spot. (Ok, we don’t spray each other with champagne like the players do, but you get the idea).

And the good energy from ‘Clinching Yom Kippur’ is supposed to carry over, into the next day, into the next holiday (Sukkot), and into the rest of the year. We are supposed to build on that excitement, build on that momentum.

The 2010 San Francisco Giants ‘clinched’ on the final day of the season and they carried that late season momentum over into the playoffs, which lead them to their first ever World Series title since they moved from New York to San Francisco in 1958 (over 50 years ago!).

I won’t go as far as to say that ‘it’s a cinch to clinch’ on Yom Kippur, but it can be done if we take it step by step till we finally get there. It’s just like that old baseball cliché: ‘We’re gonna take ‘em one game at a time.’


Gmar Chatima Tova!