As September begins, we once again have two important events that coincide, both of which are important to Jewish sports fans.No, I’m not complaining (again) about not being able to watch critical games on Shabbat. This time, the two events that overlap are the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, along with the very end of the Major League Baseball regular season.
In Judaism, we use the High Holy Days as a time to reflect in the months of Elul and Tishrei about our own behavior and how we act toward others. Along the way, the goals are to repent and to forgive — in Hebrew this process is called Teshuva. This can be the case in thinking about our attitudes toward people we shared a bunk at camp, teammates, parents; I think it also applies to people we have never personally met. And while we admit that cursing at the televisions at players or plays that drove us crazy the earlier months of the season was wrong, we will still do it MORE if our team makes it to the playoffs. That is human nature — to get drawn to what we are about, but sometimes it brings out a side that is not as pleasant.
A case in point for the 2015 baseball season, one that shook the whole baseball world this year is the Alex Rodriguez steroid saga. It all started in 2009 — test results revealed that showed Rodriguez — already at that time on the way toward legendary status for his amazing hitting and contributions to the Bombers’ success, had been taken Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs), also know as steroids. A fan favorite for years, many felt let down by Rodriguez. To apologize, Rodriguez held a Spring Training press conference apologizing to the fans, his teammates, and the Yankees organization.
After serving a 50 game suspension, Rodriguez returned and helped the team win its first World Series in nine years. Many fans and sports professionals had forgiven him, but of course some were still angry for what he had done. He had brought shame to the sport they love and the team he represents.
Fast forward to 2013. In February, a list of players who had supposedly received PEDs from Dr. Tony Bosch is leaked and featured in a Miami newspaper. Rodriguez’s name is one of the names on the list. Now, even some of Rodriguez’s greatest supporters turn against him in the face of this cold, hard and disappointing data. Although all the players on the list received punishments, for most, the Commissioner’s office dealt evenly with them as first offenses, But it was Rodriguez’s second offense, and so he was given a longer suspension: 211 games. This meant that he was forbidden from playing for the rest of the current season and all of the next 2014 season. As you can imagine, this turned Rodriguez into a baseball villain to some. The media expressed how they felt he had let down the sport, and had taken away the glory from a once beautiful game.
Once Alex finally returned this year for the 2015 season, some fans were still angry and unsupportive of him, but some decided to forgive him. In Fenway Park, home of the rival Boston Red Sox, Rodriguez was showered with tens of thousands of boos every time he came to the plate.
One fan in Atlanta took this tradition of shouting slurs at A-Rod to an especially extreme level. When the Yankees came to Atlanta to play the Braves, Rodriguez was not eligible to even play, since MLB rules do not permit designated hitters to play in National League parks. When Rodriguez came to the plate, readying to pinch hit, he must have heard the boos loud and clear. Just after A-Rod’s arriving at the plate was announced, a Braves fan went tumbling down three sections, or the length of 50 feet. Some fans sitting in that section revealed to reporters that this fan, a season ticket holder of many years, had been leaning over the railing and screaming insults at Rodriguez. Many described him as clearly drunk, so he must have lost his footing and tumbled over the rails as he focused on hurling insults at Rodriguez.
To me, this is the ultimate example of a fan’s hatred of a player detracting from the beauty of the game, being vicious to players, and resulting in terrible outcomes for the fan and those who love him. I was sickened to think about the end of this fan’s experience that day which was to have started off as a great chance to watch terrific baseball. Reporters wrote that the fan’s blood drenched the steps; later that night, the fan was declared dead at an Atlanta hospital. How could the fan have been so filled with anger toward Alex that he could not control his thoughts, words, and actions to the point where he ended up dying for the cause of insulting a player who was trying his best to play the sport well and overcome a bad history to now give it honor?
As upsetting as this particular incident is, there have been other instances where fans showed disrespect to Rodriguez in their own ways. A Baltimore video surfaced of a fan who turned his back every time that Rodriguez came to the plate. Also, when Rodriguez recorded his 3,000th hit in June, a home run, the ball had been caught by noted “ball-hawk” Zack Hample. Ironically, a few weeks before the home run, a fan had asked Hample on Twitter what he would do if he was able to secure the home run ball. Hample’s response? “I’d give him a dummy ball (a replica rather than the actual one from play) and the finger. That man deserves favors from no one, least of all a fan.” Hample later deleted the tweet.
Negotiations with the Yankees took a long time. Hample eventually returned the ball, but he did so having extracted a costly price from A-Rod and his team. The Yankees showered Hample with VIP treatments such as VIP passes to the All-Star Game, and many other undisclosed gifts. However, Hample did also request that the Yankees donate to a charity he supports and works with, which they did.
Anyway, you now have a short list example of the many fans who reacted negatively to A-Rod after he turned a new leaf and returned to play pretty amazing baseball as he almost daily stands and takes his best swings at the rawhide in front of fans who are so mixed about their support. Fortunately, to balance those critics (whose balance can be called into question many ways — pardon the pun), there are also many loyal fans who have gone to great lengths to show that they have forgiven A-Rod. One example is famous Yankees fan Vinny Milano, AKA ‘Bald Vinny’. Bald Vinny leads “Roll Call” at the start of each home game, when the fans in the bleachers chant the names of each Yankees starter.
Milano also owns a t-shirt company. During last year’s 2014 All-Star Game, the Jordan company sponsored a commercial that paid homage to Yankees legend Derek Jeter, who was due to retire at season’s end. The theme of the commercial was “RE2PECT,” a play on Jeter’s number two and the word representing one of Jeter’s greatest qualities: respect. This year, Bald Vinny’s company made t-shirts that follow a similar pattern, but the theme was adapted to the A-Rod saga: these shirts reading #FORG1V3, a play on Alex’s number 13.
My point is that Rodriguez has done his best to redeem himself. This may seem like a silly example, but it’s an important one especially for kids like me who are determined to get to the stadium the moment the gates open in order to watch batting practice and chance upon conversations with the players they love. Previously known as someone who never signed autographs and didn’t like interacting with fans, A-Rod now makes a point of engaging with fans by signing balls (and tickets, and programs, and hats, and t-shirts!) before almost every Yankee home game, which is something that barely ANYONE does, let alone someone with a bad reputation like A-Rod. But A-Rod has also forgiven to the fans and organization in his own way.
You may have heard of President Teddy Roosevelt’s expression about foreign policy, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Roosevelt knew that actions ultimately mattered more than words Well, Rodriguez has definitely has demonstrated that on the turf, where he has carried that big stick, leading the Yankees toward what looks like an exciting playoff season. And he is doing that by trying to ignore the people who shout insults, not acting like a braggart or a hothead and by developing a connection with fans who admire him even though that may sometimes feel like a nuisance to him.
Alex’s story of his fall and the ways he’s acting now remind us that all human beings deserve a second, and even third chance to steer themselves on the right track. And they deserve respect as they attempt to make the sharp and difficult turn away from deceit or being unethical and toward acting as role models for the community. Given the drama that has been playing out, I decided that I would turn to the Mishnah Torah to see what we can all learn about repentance as the A-Rod situation coincides with the days of forgiveness — Y’mei Teshuva.
In Chapter Two of Mishna Torah, Rambam’s discussion of repentance says that complete Teshuva can happen when a person has a chance to commit the same sin, but doesn’t. Here, Rambam is especially focused on the motivation of the person who has done teshuva. To Rambam, that complete teshuvah happens when not repeating it happens out of forgiveness rather than out of fear or lack of strength to ‘stay on the derech’ and do the right thing So, for Rambam forgiveness is more important than overcoming temptation and the yetzer hara.
While you could argue that Rodriguez cheated repeatedly in earlier years by using PEDs and impacting his performance and the results his team and others achieved, he has now learned his lesson: According to Rambam’s approach, A-Rod is now devoid of his sins and leading himself and others by his example of focusing on his own development, the game he loves, the team he has a commitment to, and proving to his fans that they should feel restored faith in their hero. This halacha also says that it is praiseworthy to confess in public and disclose your sins there. This is also something Alex has done — he did so when he held his press conference, and has done so every time he apologized.
Perhaps that is what makes the behavior of nasty fans so unfair. In addition, A-Rod turned 40 in July, and this milestone is hopefully significant for him and has meaning to it from a Jewish perspective. Pirkei Avot Chapter Five. Mishna 24 says that “Ben Arbaim LeBinah,” which means that 40 is the age of understanding. The belief is that people are able to reflect and develop insights in a greater way by age 40, which is why in Jewish tradition that it when many individuals start reading some more complicated books like the Zohar. Now that A-Rod has reached that age, he is also capable of understanding what he did wrong and making sure — through his thoughts, actions, and drawing upon the fans and teammates who are rooting for him — that he won’t do it again. He is a changed man now, and I believe he deserves a lot of credit because has learned from his mistakes.
In conclusion, we as Jewish fans must keep an eye on both of the games: On our personal development and the example of A-Rod’s acts of repentance as we approach the High Holy days. Hopefully our repentance along with A-Rod’s repentance and “Big Stick” can lead to each of us growing to be better people this year and can help the Yankees to a 28th World Series title this season.