Kosher Movies: The Natural

As a young boy, I loved basketball. My favorite bar mitzvah present was a basketball. My father even erected a backboard and hoop with a net in my backyard and I played regularly with my buddies, enjoying the sound of swish when the ball fell through the net without touching the backboard or rim. The backboard was affixed to the roof of a free standing garage and hung down from there. The problem: the top half of the garage had glass windows and every once in a while an errant ball would shatter the glass. That did not stop us from playing.

On Sundays, I played at the local JCC on my team, the Spartans, and felt great delight and contentment when I scored a few points. I liked to play the forward position since I was closer to the basket and had more opportunities to score. On rare occasions, I experienced the athlete’s high, an almost transcendent feeling of satisfaction after winning a game and knowing that I contributed to the victory. I was reminded of those golden moments as I watched The Natural, an almost mythical narrative of baseball hero Roy Hobbs.

Roy’s love of baseball originates with his father who encouraged Roy to develop his God-given talents. After his father dies, Roy experiences an epiphany when a lightning bolt strikes a tree in his backyard, splitting it in half. From that tree, Roy whittles a baseball bat that he names Wonderboy, which functions as a symbolic Excalibur as Roy hones his magical baseball skills.

Several years later, Hobbs has a chance to play in the big leagues. On the train to his interview, he meets a beautiful but strange woman who invites him to her hotel room in Chicago. There she shoots him and kills herself.

Flash forward 15 years and Roy Hobbs, after drifting from one job to another, finds an opportunity to play professional ball again for the New York Knights. He is paid a pittance, but now he has a chance to play the game he loves. His ability is questioned by the team’s manager who, when he first meets Roy, exclaims: “People don’t start playing ball at your age, they retire!” Although viewed at first like a senior citizen whose best years are behind him, Roy’s manager and teammates eventually recognize his talent and rally around him as their hero.

Politics and greed enter the picture when the last place Knights begin to win games and make a serious run for the pennant. Unsavory people attempt to bribe Roy but to no avail. When bribery does not work, they poison his food hoping to prevent him from participating in a critical pennant game. The tension mounts as Roy struggles to play in spite of the doctor’s counsel that he is risking his life and health by playing.

In a magical moment of cinema, Roy shows his best self, determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past. The climactic scenes are sheer poetry, evoking a transcendent aura as Roy becomes the savior of the New York Knights. Every time I watch these closing frames of the movie, which in essence evoke the redemptive power of sports, I choke up with tears.

Roy Hobbs climbs a mountain to achieve the success that eluded him as a young man. Moses, also climbed Mt. Sinai twice. The first time he was greatly disappointed after his mission was compromised by the sin of the golden calf. The second time he was successful when the children of Israel wholeheartedly accepted the yoke of the commandments.

Moses found an opening to rededicate himself to his original goal, for a do-over, and he was determined to achieve it. Moses, too, understood that no matter what past mistakes were, there is always an opportunity to begin again. Hope does, in fact, spring eternal as it did for Roy Hobbs.

Roy’s journey towards self-fulfillment reminds us of the hidden message of the proverbial spring training season, when one begins anew regardless of one’s lack of success during the prior season. The mantra “wait till next year” is a clarion call to tell us that past failure and even advanced age does not preclude us from advancing in life.

About the Author
Originally from Mt. Vernon, New York, Herbert J. Cohen served in the pulpit rabbinate in Atlanta at the beginning of his career. After six years, he moved into the educational rabbinate and served for 23 years as Principal of Yeshiva High School of Atlanta. In 2010, he and his wife came on aliyah to Israel. His latest book, published by Urim Publishers, is "Kosher Movies: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema." He may be reached at rabbihjco@msn.com.
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