Keeping the Faith

Published on Haaretz

It was 9:49 P.M. on a Thursday night when Robinson Cano flipped the ball to Mark Texeira and the New York Yankees won their 27th World Championship.

We were holding hands – my wife and I, and our 12 year-old twins – all of us but our 6-year-old daughter, who had cheered herself into exhaustion and fallen asleep. Even our dog, Yankee, was excited.

But there were no cheers coming from our neighbors that evening last October. We were, after all, in Israel, watching the replay of a baseball game that had actually finished 15 hours earlier. This gathering was part of my life-long campaign to turn my sabra children into Yankee fans.

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I know the odds are against me, an immigrant fan in exile, living in a country mad for soccer and basketball. My children will never learn about turns-at-bat through kickball, or running bases by playing punchball. My boys will never hone their aim by pitching at a rectangle chalked on the side of a building. No popular Israeli sport involves throwing in its pure form.

Despite hosting the original David vs. Goliath, and embracing individualism with the passion of converted collectivists, Israelis appear disinclined to fall in love with the pitcher vs. batter, one-on-one combat at the center of this team sport. Perhaps in 2010, we prefer to disappear into the national consensus, or bask in solo success, but not to do both at the same time. Fulfilling the Zionist dream has left us in a baseball wilderness.

My boys found no companions among their friends, non-Anglos one and all, to explore the modest little league that operates locally. We tried the Israel Baseball League, a semi-pro affair that lasted one summer season. We were so close we could feel the backstop rattle, but the highlight for my sons was to join a pack of feral boys storming the sidelines to retrieve foul balls. The Tel Aviv Lightning, with its English name and exclusively American fans, seemed only to highlight baseball’s foreignness.

This is nothing like how I grew up in Queens, watching the 20 games broadcast annually on WPIX, or with my radio pinned to my ear, to follow the rest. I read the paper every day to check how my two teams – the Yankees and the State of Israel – were doing.

To cultivate Yankee loyalty in my own children, we watch videotapes of the occasional Fox or ESPN broadcast, the VCR set for the middle of the night, when the Yankees play back home. To maintain the requisite suspense, I impose a news blackout on game day – no sports channels, no on-line newspapers, and no reading of e-mails from fellow fans in the States until after the game.

I stop the tape to lecture my boys on working the count, the set-up man and the home-run wind tunnel. Their baseball knowledge has evolved from hits to RBIs, and soon we will tackle ERA. In our house, at least, I have become the world’s greatest baseball authority.

I teach my kids to cheer, because watching without rooting is a passionless exercise.Now, when I give my daughter the signal, she yells, “Go Yankees! Get 100 runs!”

The 2009 season was perfect for a tutorial in pinstripe worship. Last year, my boys learned to recognize our new star pitcher, CC Sabathia, and to trust that our new power combo, A-Rod and Texeira, would always come through (or if they didn’t, that little Nick Swisher would do the job). My twins longed for the ritual pie-in-the-face after walk-off wins, and loved saying “Swiiiish-er.”

There is one thing missing, however: anticipation. Baseball yearning is a skill that demands practice. I want my children to care about what happens, not just to understand. But my sons don’t sulk for hours when we lose. How complete is the thrill of a comeback victory if you’ve never felt the despair of letting one slip away?

With this season’s opening day 48 hours away, I wonder about my need to transform my kids into Yankee fans. I worry that by teaching them the ways of the old country, I am implanting my own homesickness in them. And perhaps it is futile to hope my children will live or die with each game the way I did at their age. They do care – they hopped around the room screaming when the Yankees won the Series last fall – but I know they really watch the Yankees to be with me.

Despite globalization, baseball has never penetrated the consciousness of America’s closest ally. Perhaps Israel’s frenetic anxiety cannot adjust to baseball’s erratic but leisurely rhythm. Maybe it is impossible to carve out space for the optimistic uplift of the Babe and the Mick and the Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth in a mythic universe so crowded, ancient and tragic.

Yankee lore may be an escape, but it also provides some balance; for once we can hope for a victory with no tears, and feel good about rooting for the top dog. If my Israeli children don’t suffer in every Yankee defeat, I will be content with their cheering.

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