POLITICS OCTOBER 30, 2006
It's problematic for me this year, especially as a Jew, but I can't stand the Mets. Depending on your conception of when life begins, I attended my first Yankee game either six months in utero or three months out of the womb, and I've never looked back. Unfortunately, during my formative years, the Yanks were a fairly dismal team, and the Mets were the toast of the schoolbus; I was six when they rolled to the 1986 world championship, their first in almost two decades. The other (mostly Jewish) Yankee fans in my Canarsie elementary school switched their caps from navy blue to sky blue in a heartbeat, unable to withstand the power of the city's zeal for the coked-up, brawling, working-class team from Queens. Not me. It helped that the Mets were facing the hated Boston Red Sox, but I opted to stay neutral, changing the subject to how Dave Righetti would be unhittable next year for the Yanks.
This year it's much, much harder. First, the Mets are managed by an idol of mine, the great Yankee second baseman Willie Randolph. It was his number, 30, that I sported when I became my little league team's starting second baseman. Second, the Mets are a towering force that any baseball fan has to respect. Despite palpable pitching weaknesses (Steve Trachsel, the injured Pedro Martenez and Orlando Hern?ndez, the inconsistent Billy Wagner), they're able to turn any opposing pitcher's mistake into an orgy of run production, all through their lineup. The Mets coasted to win the National League (NL) East--the first time in eleven years that the division hasn't gone to the Atlanta Braves--and, last week, dispatched their toughest opponents, the Los Angeles Dodgers, in a three-game sweep. Two years ago, the Mets were pitiful. Now, they're World Series contenders and arguably the best team in baseball.
But there's a third reason it's hard not to root for the Mets: a slugging and Gold Glove-winning right-fielder named Shawn Green. In late August, the Mets acquired Green from the Arizona Diamondbacks. Despite the team's preexisting wealth of charismatic young talent--the rookies Jose Reyes, Lastings Milledge, David Wright, and the superstar Carlos Beltran--Green immediately became the toast of the city. Or at least, the toast of Borough Park, Midwood, parts of Flatbush, the Upper West Side, Rego Park, Flushing, and Riverdale. That's because Shawn Green is a Jew. And if you, as a Jew, don't become a Mets Believer--what a shonda!
Green came to Queens on August 23. Almost immediately, Jewish New York, forever on the lookout for an heir to Sandy Koufax as the repository for Jewish sporting dreams, lionized him. It took less than a week for a near-pornographic profile to appear in The New York Times. The piece opened with a description of a fan's poster, which read "The messiah has arrived." When a Manhattanite named Joshua Ostrovsky witnessed Green knock in a run with an opposite-field single to left, he told the Times, "I haven't been this proud of a Jew since my brotmeher's bar mitzvah." A question overtook New York: Would Green break the record set by Hank Greenberg back in the 1930s and 1940s for most home runs hit by a Jewish player? The Times' Murray Chass tracked down Greenberg's son, who gave Green his blessing. Even though Shawn Green hasn't even been bar mitzvahed, it seems that, every time he steps into the batter's box, he sanctifies the Name.
It's not that Green isn't a good player--he is, despite a mediocre performance in the NL Division Series. But Green isn't the issue. Jews are. It's absolutely absurd for anyone to obsess over the fact that Hank Greenberg hit 331 home runs. That makes Greenberg eighty-ninth on the all-time home-run list. Why on earth would any Mets fan want Green to steal the crown of eighty-ninth-best home-run hitter? If you're a real Mets fan, you should want Green to go after the other Hank--you know, Aaron. Ah, but Greenberg was a tribesman, so his circumcision somehow raises his marginal statistic to a feat of greatness. If that doesn't patronize Jewish athletic achievement, what does? Certainly Greenberg thought so. His son told Chass that Greenberg wanted to be known as a slugger, not a Jewish slugger: "I don't think of myself that way," he quoted his father as saying. "I think of myself in terms of Gehrig, DiMaggio, and Williams."
It's too much to ask that sports live up to the promise of social solidarity: all fans--no matter white or black, Jew or gentile--rooting for their city against all rivals, investing great players with emotion and pathos based on ability, not heritage. The real world of fandom, sadly, isn't like that. But tribalism is especially sad when it's mixed with a deep sense of ethnic inferiority, as it is when Diaspora Jews devote their attention to any act of physical exertion. A crucial aspect of the early Zionist project was to propose the redemptive physicality of their program as a solution to what is in fact internalized anti-Semitism. Hayyim Nahman Bialik's seminal 1903 poem, "In The City of Slaughter," mercilessly blamed the victims of the brutal Kishinev pogrom for not taking up arms in resistance. My boss, Franklin Foer, described in his book, How Soccer Explains The World, the European "muscular Judaism" movement contemporaneous with Bialik, a gym-rat self-improvement ethos that reeks of self-loathing. "We want to restore to the flabby Jewish body its lost tone, to make it vigorous and strong, nimble and powerful," wrote movement founder Max Nordau. Not to be outdone, there's Rich Cohen's sorry tome Tough Jews, which exalted as model Yids the thuggish gangsters that my colleague and fellow Brooklynite Leon Wieseltier once insightfully termed "sick fucks."
That's not to say that Shawn Green's fan-base is rabid. Only when he steps to the plate on Shabbos--and bat on Shabbos he does. And to confess fully: I'll be part of Green's citywideminyan during the postseason, assuming the Mets advance past St. Louis to take on Detroit in the World Series. And I'll have a question to ask Green's Hebrews when he gets up to bat: Should the Yanks get Righetti to replace Ron Guidry as their pitching coach? Consider it revenge for Canarsie.
This article originally ran in the October 30, 2006 issue of the magazine.