Wednesday, May 20, 2015


Arsonists attempted to burn down our synagogue but failed to understand the power of miracles.  The attempt was claimed to be the biggest anti-semitic attack in 25 years.  Our synagogue was one of three attacked. The communal response was, however, immediate and miraculous!  Over 300 clergymen gathered in support of the Jewish community; a gathering least expected! Contributions poured in from all over the country.  The community was able to rebuild, foiling the arsonists plan and dismissing the opinion that this country harbors anti-semitic sentiment.

One of the organizations that helped us was the Oakland A's Major League ball club.  They pronounced a "Jewish Community Night" and invited the three synagogue communities to come to a game at severely discounted prices to raise money for the rebuilding of the synagogues.  The three rabbis of the shuls were invited to an opening game ceremony to throw out the first pitch.  I had the opportunity to be out at the mound, and be introduced to some of the players.  Although I did not throw out the first pitch, our Hazan sang the Star Spangle Banner!  After the first ceremonial pitch, the other two rabbis made themselves available to the press, I made my way to the A's dugout where I spied former all-star pitcher, Vida Blue doing an ESPN radio interview.

[Blue was a left-handed fastball pitcher when I was in High School. I recognized him immediately, since I also had the pleasure of meeting him at his home in Oakland with my High School typing teacher who was from the same home town. My teacher asked me one day if I wanted to meet Vida Blue and I could not refuse!]

After the interview, I introduced myself as one of the rabbis whose synagogue was arsoned, reminded him of our meeting many years ago with my typing teacher, and asked Mr. Blue if I could leave him with thought!  He said, "sure Rabbi!, I'am pleased to make your acquaintance again!"

I said the following, "One need not be religious to appreciate that Baseball is the only sport that teaches miracles happen!  Because it does not matter how far behind a team might be trailing, one may always come back and win!  Without a clock, there is no time limit in Baseball! Like life it self, a game runs its course.  Yet, when one least expects it, however, the fate of the game can change at any moment just like a Miracle happens with the blink of an eye! We don't rely on Miracles to happen everyday- a life runs its' course, but a true ballplayer understands and believes that they happen!  Miracles happen in baseball!"

Vida Blue gave me a great big smile, saying "Rabbi! Thank You! I am going to use that in my next speech! (but I'm not goin' to quote you!)"- he said with big jovial laugh and a two handed handshake! I responded, "you don't have to quote me! What I said is self-evident!"

I turned from the former fireballer, and saw the manager, Art Howe and I immediately approached him, introducing myself and recounted the same thought about baseball.  I evoked a giant smile and also a two handed handshake from him.

I returned to the stands and enjoyed a classic "come from behind, 'miracle' A's victory!"  As I exited the stadium, I commented to my wife that "I bet the manager and Vida Blue remember that diminutive rabbi based on what actually happened tonight!..."

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Tryout

I tried out for the Fresno Giants, a single A professional ballclub with affiliation with the San Francisco Giants on a dare during my day off at Summer Camp when I was 22.  My wife, seven months pregnant found the phone number and called the office to arrange a tryout, not believing anything would come of it.  The manager of the club picked up and said, "sure come on over before the game tonight and I will give your husband a tryout!  We are always looking for new talent."  She put down the phone and exclaimed, "I can't believe it! The manager is expecting us before the game tonight!"

My wife and I got into the car and made our way from camp in the mountains to the Fresno Giants stadium about an hour away.  The thought dawned on me that I did not have any cleats for the tryout! Was I going to tryout for a professional ball club in Converse All-Star sneakers?!  We stopped at a Big 5 Sporting Goods store along the way and bought a pair professional baseball cleats to show my earnest in this propitious endeavor.

I was welcomed by the manager and told immediately to warm up with one of the pitchers who also came early.  The manager asked me some pertinent questions like "where did you play ball?" and I honestly answered "I hadn't played since high school" that evoked a surprised response. The manager's silence seemed to express "Why am I wasting my time on this guy?" He actually spoke and kindly repeated what he said on the phone "Well, we are always looking for new talent; let's see what you've got!'

Now, I knew immediately that perhaps I was out of my league because the difference of my throws in warm-ups compared to the fellow I was playing catch with were feeble. With each throw, I wound up with much strength and the ball popped lightly into his glove.  His simple flick of his wrist, however, pounded a loud smash into my glove that recoiled my arm backwards! I am thinking "not much to see here in warm-ups"

The manager asked me what position do I want to play and I honestly answered that I used to play Center Field, however, since my arm is really not as strong as it used to be I prefer to play Left field.
He said ok and asked me to take the position.  I hustled out to medium depth and he immediately cracked a fly ball over my head that bounced against the wall.  I tore off for the ricochet and cleanly fielded it and with a traditional hop-skip-and throw made a perfect throw to second base, a straight line cast, however, it died and bounced twice to the fellow fielding second.  The next hit was a liner to my left and then to my right; I caught both on the run and repeated perfect throws on a line to second base but they bounced twice to the bag.  The manager directed me to throw to third on the next fly ball that was hit down the line where I made a running catch and threw hard to third base, this one too was a perfect throw but bounced also to the bag twice!  At this point the manager saw as much as he needed to because he stopped the outfield play  (my thought was that he was cancelling the try-out,) however, he said, "now, go grab a bat and let's see how you hit!"

I could not find a bat that was light enough for me.  I was given a basic caveman's club! It was a small handled huge barrel 36in Louisville Slugger.  In high school I used a thick handled 34 in Jackie Robinson signature Louisville Slugger.  The bat was too big for me, however I choked up on it and took my place at the plate.  The manager asked the fellow that warmed me up to take the outfield in Right since I was left handed. Pat was his name who went out to shag my hits; he was completely uninterested and was not ready for what happened next.

The manager delivered the pitches and each one I hit solidly.  I sprayed the ball all over the right side from Center field to Right field making Pat run silly back and forth retrieving my hits.  At this point a few more Fresno Giants started onto the field and just stood watching me line the ball to Right field. I over heard one fellow mention to another, "Sheet Joe, that little guy hits far!"  I had just cracked one over Pat's head to the warning track in the power alley.  Although I had the wrong bat, I knew that I wasn't embarrassing myself.

Eventually, the manager stopped the tryout and I hustled to the pitcher's mound where he was standing and I asked humbly," What did you think?"  He replied quite frankly that I open my hips on my swing too early but that I had a pretty good eye.  He continued to explain that if I was really interested in playing professional baseball then I would have to report to the AA club at Shreveport, LA next spring because I really was too old for the Fresno club which was A league.  He recommended that I would need to strengthen my arm in the off season to continue a baseball career, but he wished me good luck in a very positive manner and thanked me for coming out!  He was very gracious to me and my wife by giving us free passes to that night's ball game.  I still have the stubbs (and the cleats).

Tuesday, January 20, 2015


My greatest fan is my mother.  She, by nature, is the consummate advocate with a robust intense sense of right and wrong.  Cross her, she becomes one's fierce adversary.  Generous and kindhearted to a fault, she stands by her family, children and friends tenaciously.

There was one time that my mother's advocacy got me benched!  I was in high school roaming the outfield in Center one day, having pretty good fortune at the plate with two singles.  Toward the end of the 6th inning my coach pulled me aside and told me straight up that I would be sitting out the next game!  What he said did not register immediately because I was having such a good day! I made no mistakes, my contribution was solid, a punishment of sitting out a game seemed so unwarranted!  As the meaning of his words sank in,
I blurted, "but why Coach?! What did I do?!"
He replied, "Oh it's not you! Its your mother!"
I continued to probe, "My mother? What does she have to do with it?"
The coach explained, "She called me a '%$#@@%!!&' from the stands."
I defended my mother, "Coach, that's impossible! My mother never says that! She does not use such language! It can't be true!"
The coach remained adamant, "Sorry, you're going to sit out next game because I know what I heard!"
I pleaded, "Coach Please! Perhaps Coach was mistaken! Please let me start tomorrow!"
"Nope!," he said, "go talk to your mother tonight if you want to continue to play...Ask her what she said about me. I do not have to tolerate insults.  You want to play, you'll talk to your mother."

Wow! I was devastated! Taking away something I love to do (play baseball) hurt badly.  I couldn't believe my small minded thin skinned coach.  What did my mother have to do with my valuable contribution to the team? A parent from the stands yelling some epithet made him angry?  Could this be pay back for missing a game because of Passover?  He did not punish me for that when I missed.   I had to talk to my mother, if I wanted to continue playing ball.  I looked over to the stands behind home plate where my mother was beaming with pride, gregariously chattering that her son and his team were doing so well that day.

Although we won that day, I knew the evening would not end in joyous celebration.  When I returned from the game, my mother was already at home preparing dinner. As I walked into the house, she greeted me with a big congratulations on a great game! (My mother is a great baseball fan, growing up in Brooklyn with 'dem Bums' the Dodgers!)  She knew the details of the game with all its subtleties.  My mother, however, was never subtle, so I had to begin my interrogation immediately, "Ma, did you call the coach, a "%$#@@%!!&" from the stands today?"
"What!" she exclaimed, "You know I never use such language!, What are you talking about? Why are you asking me such a question?!"
"Well," I began slowly, "My coach claimed to have heard you from the stands scream that word directed at him."
"I did not use such a word!"my mother declared.
I continued, "Did you say anything? Did you call him anything at all?"
"I called him a "%$#', but not a '%$#@@%!!&'" my mother admitted.
I started to whine, "Aah ma, why did you have to say anything, don't you understand that now I am benched for the next game!"
"What!! He can't do that! Not to my son!" she proclaimed.  "I will have him fired!" [This was no idle threat because my mother did lead a successful campaign that resulted in my 6th grade math teacher being fired for incompetency!]
"Please, Ma, your not going to do anything, don't you understand he has the power to do whatever he wants with the team.  It's his team!"
"Look, Ma, if you want me to continue to play, you can't come to my games anymore.  I don't trust the coach to do the right thing.  It's true I should not be benched but he was very insulted by whatever you said."
"I did not use such fowl language, you know that!"
"Please, don't come to the games."
"The last thing I want is for you is not to play...That %$#!... I won't show up again, for you, NOT for him!"

Sure enough, I sat out that next game and my mother did not show up. The following game was away, at Mountain View, a game that I was used as a pitcher.  With my first strikeout, I heard my mother from the stands scream something like "Great Job!"  I spied the home plate stands and there she was, sitting in disguise, in sunglasses and a London Fog trench coat on a sunny warm California blue sky day!

I questioned my mother that night why she showed up at the game, but she denied that she was there. I contemplated an argument, "What? you think I can't recognized my own mother?", but I dropped the subject because I realized how important being my advocate and fan was to her.  She continued to come to every game and cheer for me and my team.  And I am happy she did and indeed, the coach never benched me again.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sunken Diamond at Stanford U.

I once pitched at Sunken Diamond, the actual first time that I ever pitched in a true stadium.  The occasion was an All-Star Game of 15 year old's.  I felt the excitement and buzz that our team was finally going places!  Of course there were rumors that Major League  and College scouts would be at the game to spy out the talent.  [There was one obvious person to check out, one of our opponents, a fellow named Nicky Tabaleya. He was very talented, with a very smooth swing he was known to hit the long ball and get on base but lacked speed.] There was something intangible about just walking into a stadium as a player that made butterflies in my stomach.  The stadium did not fill up but did field a respectable crowd.  A sense of awe overtook me in the same way when I walked out onto Yankee Stadium's field as a 5yr old after a game with my father to exit through the actual Center field gate...

I did not expect to pitch that day; my normal position was Center field.  My coach approached me earlier and explained his decision: with one pitcher sick, he wanted to save our number 1 pitcher for the following outing.  The decision put great pressure on me, but the sun was shining without a cloud in the sky, a typical Northern California day making me forget any pressure, creating a great desire to play baseball!

Great weather always gives a pitcher an advantage because the warmth keeps one's arm loose.  On that day I feel great; I place the ball where I want it without forcing any pitch and without tiring out. I do not have to push the ball but rather my pitches feel like I have the flexibility of a sling shot. I am striking out players and any hits are staying on the ground and the game seems in our favor.

Our team jumped out in front 3 zip.  I even had a base hit up the middle and contributed one of the runs.  During the 5th inning, however, favor turned to disfavor.  With three straight batters, our infield committed three straight errors to load the bases!  My pitches were good choices all were low in good spots around the plate, however, our second baseman booted two, our third baseman booted another and now I am looking at Nicky Tabaleya, that short stocky talented phenom.  Earlier I dispatched him on an inside pitch that he popped up for an out.  Now, he had the advantage, knowing there were no outs and virtually anything might score a run.  I decided to keep the ball out of his wheel house.  He had a natural smooth swing that he pulled upward.  I threw just upward in the strike zone hoping he would pop the ball up again and that is exactly what he did: with the most ever smooth swing, he indeed popped the ball up.  It was a very high pop up that carried beyond second base into shallow center field.  Our shortstop tore after it and our center fielder converged under it.  I thought: great easy pop fly!  There was, however, a communication error: nobody called for the ball and thus it dropped and two runs scored!

I finally ended the inning with a strikeout but the damage was done.  We were losing 5-3!  The score keeper counted 4 unearned runs!  We never were able to recover those runs and thus we were eliminated from continuing the All-star tournament.  My coach did not lament his decision and congratulated me on a good effort.  He said, "Sometimes even with the sun shinning, it rains! and there is nothing you can do about it except get a good night's sleep and play another one!" Or wait until next season.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Handball match

One wall Handball was very popular in New York City.  Every park seemed to have endless handball courts.  During the first half of the twentieth century when the city was teeming with immigrant and first generation families, handball was an inexpensive outdoor staple for fitness, well before Jack LaLane's health clubs hit the scene.  In New York, the game was known to have many Jewish players because at that time the city's population was more than a third Jewish.  My father is one of those handball aficionados who teamed with his brother-in-law playing pick up games at Queen's Highland Park.

I learned the game from him.  Looking on, handball seems very basic and easy: hit the ball against the wall in way the opponent can't return to ball to the wall on the fly.  Yet, according to my father, handball is very complex because winning is usually determined by strategy and smarts.  When the ball should kept high on the wall and when the ball should be rolled out as a "kill" shot depends on the circumstances of each possession.  Sending a player to chase the ball careening off the wall to either side of the court is also a good move to keep one's opponent off balance and out of position.

When I came home one day and told my father that I had found handball courts at one of the neighboring parks, his immediate desire was to visit the courts and see what was in the offering. His face lit up; he had not played in years!  Our family had moved away from New York four years previously.  I think my father gave up handball since he started his family.

We got into the car and I directed him to the park.  He took one look at the courts and reacted, "This in not a handball court!- I have never seen a court with two half side walls!- I am used to 'one wall'." I told my father that it could not be so different than the game that he was used to.  There was irony in the term "used to" because my father had not played handball in probably 15 or 20 years; I was 12 and he was  41.  Subsequently, we went to a sporting equipment store and bought handballs and gloves and went back to the park and started hitting the ball.  He taught me the game.

I went to the park more frequently during summer vacation with friends and we happily played for hours; handball is one of those rigorous, satisfying workouts.  On weekends, my father would come and play with us.

I remember on one particular Sunday that my friends could not make it to the park, so only my father and I were playing that day.  As we were warming up, two huge athletic looking fellows walked up to watch us warm up.  They were obvious collegiate athletes resembling Football players.  One spoke to my father asking him if he was interested in playing 'doubles'(two against two).  My father looked at me as he said, "sure!" To me he said, "I'll take the left side because that is what I played when your uncle Ben and I paired up "(that must have been more than 20 years ago before my father was married to my mother!). Even though I was left handed and could guard the left side with my strong hand, I was not about to argue with my father who anticipated a great handball game, a workout and some real fun.

And fun we had!  My father consistently had an amazing overhand kill shot to the left corner with his right hand and only a few times did the ball go through our strength, through the middle since I felt it unclear who was supposed to hit the ones coming up the middle of the court.  Indecision resulted in allowing the ball to go past us both.  Fortunately, that did not happen often because our opponents, although unusually strong, were not playing a very smart game.  They were hitting the ball incredibly hard but without strategy.  As a matter of fact, we had to switch balls because they broke one by hitting it too hard: it split!  We won the first game handily and we were immediately challenged for a re-match.  

At this point, I could see the sweat poring out on father's forehead.  He graciously accepted the challenge.  He had not had such a workout in recent memory.  We beat them a second time too creating slight irritation that an 'old man and his kid' beat collegiate athletes!  My father was resting at this point always dabbing his forehead.  A third chance for redemption was understood, so we played a third game and again beat them!  

Our opponents could not believe that they were vanquished by a father and his son.  My father was incredibly tired, exhausted to the extent that one of the athletes asked if he was ok.  He answered in the affirmative and asked the fellows where they learned to play handball.  They mentioned that they were Stanford Football players and their coaches recommend playing handball to stay in shape in the off-season.  My father was duly impressed with their coaches because he had not heard of handball on the west coast but always knew it was a great game and workout!

Our opponents graciously thanked us for the match and went on their way.  We, however, stayed parked at the side of the court resting.  Although I was ready for more, my father just sat there with a satisfying smile on his face saying, "great games weren't they?!"  I could tell that my father was spent, he had trouble getting up and sweat was still poring out.  It was as if the perspiration was making him giddy, marveling at dispatching a pair of collegiate athletes half his age.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Programmed Hatred

We had just finished a group project in Junior High school.  Dave and I were proud of our contribution to some Social Studies assignment and simultaneously commiserated and celebrated our effort. I liked Dave; he was a soft spoken, studious, kindhearted fellow and we made a good team in school.  That same week we began a new physical education initiative of a 'lunchtime 3 man Basketball league' with a by-standing team providing the referee. Every team eventually had to provide a referee when it was not scheduled to play. In this initiative, Dave and I were separated; we were assigned to different teams which meant we could not collaborate as in Social Studies.  I even recall some regret that we were not placed on the same team.

Well, that same beginning week, I was assigned to be a referee for Dave's team's lunch time game. The game was incredibly lopsided because Dave was playing against a much bigger team.  One of the reasons that Dave and I got along so well and identified with each other was because we were both short fellows; in line ups (according to height) we were perennially next to each other.  Dave's team did not have a chance; there was no way to defend against people a full head taller.  The other team racked up the points.  When I called a foul against Dave's team, he winced.  After a second foul, he grimaced.  And after the third foul he went ballistic and tore into me: #$%@#!!! JEWS CAN'T REF! @#$%$^&!! JEWS CAN'T REF, I HAVE HAD ENOUGH OF YOU! YOU STINKIN' FILTHY JEW!! GET OUT OF HERE, YOU CAN'T REF! JEWS CAN'T REF!!

 I was dumbfounded, shocked and hurt.  Then I fumed silently.  Without saying a word, I removed my whistle and walked determinedly to the Physical Education office, looking for Mr. Sutton, the PE teacher and commissioner of the lunch league.  The teacher asked me what was up and I handed in my whistle saying, "I didn't realize that I was breaking some rule."  He asked, "What are you saying?" "I am handing over my whistle because I didn't realize that Jews are not allowed to referee.  Dave screamed at me 'JEWS CAN'T REF!'"  Mr. Sutton was momentarily speechless.  He had never encountered such an occurrence.  "There is not such rule! You are a fine ref! I can't accept your whistle.  I will talk to Dave. We do not tolerate such behavior here."

I never spoke to Dave again nor did he to me.  Over the years I have played this game over and over. I asked my self why did I have to be so "impartial" and call the fouls as I saw them?  Why could I have not shown a little bit of compassion, seeing a lopsided game and overlook the fouls committed by the weaker team?  Had I shown a little bit of compassion, I would never have experienced that outburst and Dave and I would probably have continued collaborating on projects and I even might have shown him by example that Jews were not the terrible things that he conceived them to be.

Each time, however, I came up with the same answer: I was not an adult, I was programmed to be an "impartial referee who calls the fouls as he sees them regardless of who commits them"  Had I the wisdom of a compassionate adult, I would have looked the other way.  I was, however, an adolescent trying to be impartial, trying to figure out the world around me.  As a result, I discovered programmed hatred, the blurting out of some preconceived prejudice that came to light under limited circumstances of frustration. No former teamwork, friendship, collaboration or common commiseration could have elided the programmed hatred.

Sunday, July 13, 2014


When I was about 7 years old, I was too young to play official little league baseball, but I nevertheless, enjoyed watching my older brother play at third base for his little league team.  Watching him play helped implant my interest in baseball.  Sometimes I must admit, however, I would get a little bored and wander off to discover the wooded areas around the ball park.  One game stands out as a formative moment in my religious education!

As I wandered off, I spied the area for interesting odds and ends that would stimulate a typical 7 year old.  Now it happened that I loved the sound of an exploding coke bottle.  The kind of shapely bottle that when struck would make a fantastic pop that would bring music to my 7 year old ears.  And lo and behold I saw one: an empty Coca Cola bottle just lying there on the ground.  What made this scene so amazing to my 7 year old mind was the fact that right next to the bottle was a perfectly formed stump of a tree that had a jutting jagged edge that conceivably could make a great platform to break the bottle!  I couldn't wait to hear the pop of the bottle breaking.

I looked around and specifically at my father who was all the way on the other side of the field watching my brother at third base.  I was in the woods on the first base side of the field.  I spied my father very carefully and was convinced that he was paying attention only to my brother.  So, I picked up the bottle and slammed it against the tree stump hoping to hit the jagged edge and hear the pop!  There was just a thud, no pop.  So I made a second attempt, but not without spying out my father.  Sure enough, I was in the clear, he was not watching me, he was watching my brother at third base.  Again the bottle made the sound of a thud and not a pop because it did not break.  On my third attempt, I was determined to use all my strength since on the other attempts I was unsuccessful.  So, I made sure that my father was not watching me - he was still preoccupied with my brother at third base.  I picked up the bottle and raised it higher than before and literally threw it down onto the jagged edge of the stump.  I immediately derived much pleasure because on my third attempt the bottle broke and gave off a tremendous popping explosion! I was momentarily in heaven until I realized that I was not the only person to hear that beautiful noise.

The entire ball game paused, turned and stared at me.  "Oh My" I thought if everyone heard that beautiful sound then my father must have heard it too!! I turned away from the field, I looked around, I looked up at the sky as if I had nothing to do with the breaking of the bottle.  Moreover, I glanced in the direction of my father:  He was oblivious to me and only looking at my brother!!  I was safe, in the clear and had nothing to worry about I thought.

The  game ended and I made my way to our car. My brother's team won and my father was going to take us for some victory sodas!  I even congratulated my brother on his win.  I probably should not have said anything because my father started to wax philosophic out loud. "I wonder what happens to little boys who break Coke bottles in woods during a baseball game?!"  My  brother piped in saying "yeah! what does happen to little boys?!" hoping that I would get punished.  My ears started to burn and my face became beet red then blanched - I was cornered with nowhere to go and nowhere to hide!

Ironically, my father did not punish me.  He had the power to crush me, but he did not. He decided on a merciful path.  He saw how devastated I became.  He understood that I learned a very deep lesson that day.

I learned that a real true parent never takes his eye off his child even when the child is sure that the parent is not looking.  I learned that my parent has deep concern for me and yet there is an element of independence that he allows me.  My father deliberately did not interrupt my experiment.  He could have interfered yet elected not to because the lesson of conscience and doing the right thing would not have been integrated sufficiently had he just yelled or interfered.

I figured soon after this episode in my life that if my father was so concerned with me and kept his eyes on me, then all the more so I assumed that my Father in Heaven who is concerned with all his children keeps his eye on all of us, even when we are sure that He is not watching. The lesson of conscience and choosing the right path will be integrated better than through His direct intervention.