This morning, for the Shabbat in Pesach, we read from Song of Songs. That reading made me think a great deal about my father, who loved the spring and everything associated with this season--especially baseball. The following piece is not short, but I hope you enjoy it; it is my tribute to Dad.
Within the ballpark, time moves differently, marked by no clock except the events of the game. . .
Since baseball time is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly: keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young.
-Roger Angel, “The Interior Stadium”
I got engaged two weeks before Opening Day. Outside, a cold wintry rain fell upon the monuments, museums, and playing fields of
Winter will end. Spring will come. This quiet but unshakeable faith in the future is shared by Jews, middle-aged lovers and serious baseball fans. The national anthem of the Jewish state is HaTikvah, “The Hope”. The mid-life bride and groom live Samuel Johnson’s definition of second marriage as the triumph of hope over experience. And baseball fans? We are the captives of what Roger Angell called “the wild vernal hopes that leap every year, jonquil-like, in the hearts of followers.”
The Talmud teaches that one of the first questions we will be asked in the world-to-come is: Tzipita y’shua—did you live with hope? On that chilly Saturday evening outside the nation’s capitol, our little gathering held a great deal of hope. I was preparing to marry again. My fiancée, Janet, was eight months pregnant. Pesach, the season of our deliverance, was just a month away. And in little over a fortnight, major league baseball would return to
I have never met a more unshakeable optimist than my father. He was born in the thick of the Great Depression and grew up under the shadow of World War II and the Cold War. Over the course of his long career, he witnessed countless events—both personal and political—that would have led any less sanguine observer to despair. But Dad never lost hope. He professed a near-messianic faith in progress, despite all evidence to the contrary. He simply refused to believe that reason and beneficence could ultimately fail to prevail.
When Dad delivered his message of hope at my engagement ceremony, the rest of us leaned in close to hear his words. Two months of intense chemotherapy and radiation had reduced his voice to a hoarse whisper, punctuated by frequent bouts of coughing. For nearly a year, he had fought bronchoalveolar carcinoma, a rare form of lung cancer that disproportionately affects non-smokers. By the time of our t’naim, he was in the midst of a particularly difficult regimen at
Dad attributed his optimism to his own father, a child of Lithuanian immigrants who became a classical Reform rabbi. Joseph Fink was widely known in Buffalo, New York for his erudite scholarship, his interfaith work, and his weekly radio show, The Humanitarian Hour, in which he preached universalism and hope to his listeners. Several years ago, Dad wrote an essay for the anthology, When I Think About My Father: Sons and Daughters Remember. He noted: “My father’s conviction that human beings are intrinsically decent, that rational thought can solve all problems, infused my being.” But these are Dad’s mature, philosophical musings. How and when did Dad really absorb his father’s buoyant spirit? Dad didn’t go into this in much detail, but he ends his essay with a significant vignette, a poignant memory from his childhood: In the summer, when the days were long and
I did not inherit Dad’s optimism. Perhaps my failure to perpetuate the hopefulness of my paternal line is due, in part, to my hometown Washington Senators. They were infamous for their haplessness, inspiring the maxim:
For over half a century, the Senators had opened American League play. This tradition began on April 14, 1910, when President William Howard Taft threw the ceremonial first pitch. Weighing in at well over three hundred pounds, he hurled a strike to Walter “Big Train” Johnson, who went on to shut out the rival
Richard Nixon did not show up in 1970. Perhaps he was holed up with his advisors plotting the invasion of
The game itself provided
Alas, for the Senators, things went from bad to worse. They returned to their customary place in the cellar with a record of 70-92. Then, in the off-season, they made a disastrous trade, sending several of their most promising young players to
Soon thereafter the team actually departed for
Dad empathized with my brooding. He grieved with me, patiently waiting me out. But, like Kohelet, he also understood that there is a time to mourn and a time to move on. As spring training for the 1972 season approached, Dad reminded me that he had celebrated his Bar Mitzvah in 1948, just weeks after
Meanwhile, we needed a new team. We were certainly not going to root for the Texas Rangers. The natural choice would have been the neighboring Baltimore Orioles, but they had been the Senators’ American League rivals, and we could not shrug off that history. After some consideration, Dad proposed the Cincinnati Reds.
Dad attended his only World Series game a few months before my first birthday. In October of 1961, he was a senior rabbinical student at the
The Reds were clearly outmatched from the start. The Bronx Bombers sported a powerhouse lineup, featuring ace pitcher Whitey Ford and two of the best sluggers in baseball, the perennial all-star Mickey Mantle, and Roger Maris (whose sixty-one home runs that season broke Babe Ruth’s legendary 1927 record).
Nonetheless, the hometown underdogs battled the Yankees to the end, coming to within four outs of the Series lead. Unfortunately, a Roger Maris homer in the top of the ninth put the Yanks ahead 3-2. A late
Like the rest of the frustrated crowd, Dad drove home discouraged. He listened to the next two games on the radio. They were worse. The Yankees clobbered the Reds 7-0 in game four and 13-5 in game five, to easily capture the Series. But Dad never forgot the excitement of game three. Years later—especially when visiting rabbinical classmates would join our family’s Shabbat dinners—Dad would recollect that autumn classic with unalloyed delight. Long after the disappointment faded, all that remained for him was the sheer joy of being there, and the promise that the fledgling home team carried through their last at-bat.
After the Senators abandoned us, I, too, began to root for the Reds. By the mid-1970s, I followed their progress from
During the summer of 1975, I gloated incessantly to my baseball-crazy camp friends. That was the season of the Big Red Machine, one of the greatest teams ever assembled.
By the time I followed in my father’s footsteps and enrolled in the rabbinical program in
Yet through ineptitude and scandal, the Reds continued to enjoy the same honor long-granted to my late, lamented Washington Senators: Opening Day. For the Senators, the privilege of hosting the first game of the American League season came as a perk of geography. They represented the nation’s capital, the home of the president.
Opening Day was, therefore, a long-established holiday of sorts for the entire city of
After my ordination, Dad and I occasionally went to a ballgame together. When I came east to visit, we might head down to Four Mile Run to watch the minor league Alexandria Dukes. Sometimes we attended rabbinical conferences in big league cities. If it was baseball season and the local team was playing at home, we would sneak out of plenary sessions to go to the ballpark. Dad’s summer stopovers in my adopted city of
In June of 2004, Dad was diagnosed—out of the blue—with lung cancer. I flew back to see him, with my daughters, Tanya and Rosa. I warned them that “Pops” was seriously ill, but when he greeted us at the airport there was no sign of his sickness, aside from a slight dry cough. He was his usual, irrepressible self. On the ride home, he shared his plans for our visit, and announced that he had purchased tickets to see the Orioles play at Camden Yards.
I found the trip to
Dad’s health held through the fall. He resisted the standard treatment of radiation and chemotherapy; over the years, he had seen too many friends and congregants suffer more from these medicines than the cancer they were supposed to cure. He opted, instead, to participate in a
But as fall slipped into winter, Dad began to fail. His coughing spells became more frequent and intense. Fatigue set in. His appetite diminished. The tumor started to spread again, at an alarming rate. His doctors urged him to start a course of radiation and chemotherapy. Dad considered his options, then reluctantly agreed. Just as he had feared, these treatments induced nausea, cramping, and jaundice. The radiation scorched his larynx. After I returned home from a mid-February visit with Dad, I consulted Janet. We put our future planning on a fast track and hastily arranged to gather our families in
After the ceremony, we continued the celebration over dinner at an Italian restaurant around the corner from Dad’s house in Old Town Alexandria. Dad decided to stop home first. He wanted to nap for a few minutes before joining us for the festive meal. The rest of the family—Janet’s parents and sister; my mother; Dad’s wife, Barbara; my brother and sister; and our children—assembled in the restaurant. We poured a round of good wine, raised our glasses, and toasted our fortune with a heart-felt l’chaim—to life! We proceeded leisurely, with appetizers and conversation, waiting for Dad. An hour passed. Still, when the server came to take our order for the main course, Dad had not arrived. I volunteered to walk home to check on him.
I found him resting on his living room couch. I offered to bring supper back to him, but Dad was determined not to miss the party. He put on one of the brash, technicolor sweaters that he always favored. The two of us ambled, arm in arm, out into the darkness. For most of the four blocks to the restaurant, we made our way through the nippy night in silence. Then Dad took my hand and spoke softly into my ear. He told me how much he loved Janet, how happy he was for me: “Oh son, it’s so cold but, still, it is spring. This is the dream of any parent. . . to see the generations go on and on, in happiness, to know that there will always be a watcher who says that morning is coming.” We both cried. Then, just before we entered the restaurant, he shifted the conversation to baseball. He whispered of his high hopes for the Washington Nationals, the long-awaited new major league baseball team that would begin their season on April 4. Dad knew they didn’t have great talent, but he was optimistic that their veteran manager, Frank Robinson (once the young star of Dad’s 1961 Cincinnati Reds) would coach them to success.
RFK Stadium was not yet ready for baseball in early April, so the Nationals opened the season on the road against the Philadelphia Phillies. They lost.
And after so many years of waiting, I missed the game. Instead, I spent the evening sitting shivah for Dad.
Shortly after my engagement ceremony, I had returned home to
At almost nine-months pregnant, Janet flew back to
And so it went until Tuesday morning, April 5, when I concluded shivah by walking around the block to the local Starbucks. I flew home the next day; that same night the Washington Nationals earned their first victory, 7-3, in
On April 14,
I missed that game, too, but Dad would have understood. I was across the continent in
That evening, in both the nation’s capital and