For some, The Nets’ arrival in Brooklyn is a religious experience. After a 55-year exile, “the folks on the stoop” (as Brooklynites are designated in an NBA promotional video) have been granted a sports franchise. With the Nets now on Atlantic Avenue, borough president Marty Markowitz has claimed to see “the ghosts of Ebbets Field departing,” taking with them a half-century of tears and the heartache of betrayal. For Markowitz and his kindred, the team’s arrival suggests that prayers do get answered, that devotion — and patience — are rewarded.
As fate would have it, the longed-for Dodgers stand-ins are confessedly Brooklyn-spirited and the borough will not have to adjust its iconic swagger. With its multiple owners — one, Jay-Z, a black rap mogul from Bed-Stuy — the sole Brooklyn franchise seems eager to assert a fresh urban attitude. Not everyone has been impressed. Phil Mushnick of the New York Post drew attention to the Nets’ new color scheme and was criticized for his racist rant about it. What a shame. By heralding neighborhood and loyalty, the Nets’ bold outlook should appeal to blacks and Jews alike. Both cultures have suffered countless indignities, both have flourished in the County of Kings and both relish similar community values. Within hip-hop’s bravado lies a fiery Jewish soul — downtrodden, bullied, ready. Consider Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys.
The allure of Jay-Z — like that of professional athletes — is his exploitation of graphic imagery to evoke powerful emotions in his enthusiasts. Sure, some hip-hop language is vulgar, misogynist and racist, but its message can be motivational, educational and inspirational. Organized sports are sometimes violent, always aggressive and fiercely competitive (and bigoted and sexist), but they are cherished for the invaluable lessons they are said to impart.
Owing to its unhurried pace and lack of physical contact, baseball is the most elegant of professional team sports. There is a reason New York University offers a course entitled “Baseball as a Road to God” and not a similar one about football, basketball, hockey or soccer. There is no Ken Burns documentary about any other Great American pastime; no “Casey at the Bat”; no “Who’s On First?” for the NFL, NBA, NHL or MLS. When the Nets say “Hello Brooklyn!” and hail “tradition” in their promotional video, the spirit conjured is of the Dodgers and Jack Roosevelt Robinson.
For some Big Apple Semites, religion and sports are tastefully combined in a cholent of symbolic meanings. My father, a tribesman from East Noo Yawk (Berriman and New Lots), speaks often and emphatically of baseball as a religious metaphor. To him our national pastime is inherently Jewish and “Dem Bums” were a nine-man minyan. “Baseball’s lack of boundaries — both in time and space — reflect God’s infinite nature,” my father will preach to anyone listening (and sometimes to anyone at all). His “baseball as an expression of the divine” postulate includes such gems as relating the exquisite distance between bases to divine providence. I once suggested that Ted Williams’s observation that those who fail “only” seven times out of 10 attempts will be the greatest in the game serves as consolation for devotional lapses. Father heartily agreed.
My bloodline is not alone in turning to baseball for immortal truths. Nota Schiller, in a lecture entitled “The Jewish Metaphysics of Baseball,” claims that uniform infields correspond to the uncompromising Written Law and dissimilar outfields to the plasticity of tradition. Schiller also shares my impression that baseball is alone in determining triumph by returning home, an achievement that has defined Jewry for millennia. George Carlin’s reflection that only a baseball manager dons the same uniform as his players mirrors the Psalm “I will be with him in trouble.” God, like a faithful skipper, stands by his team.