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Spiritual Moneyball

The R.A. Dickey trade; or why the New York Mets, like American Jews, are at risk of losing their soul

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R.A. Dickey No. 43 of the New York Mets pitches against the Miami Marlins at Citi Field on Sept. 22, 2012. (Alex Trautwig/Getty Images)

I’m done with the Mets.

I’m relatively new to baseball—I’ve been a fan since 1999, when I emigrated to the United States and was unlucky enough to accept a friend’s invitation to come out to Shea Stadium and watch the boys play—but, still, I feel I’ve been through a lot. I kept my cool in 2007, when the team, seven games in the lead on Sept. 12, lost 12 out of the season’s remaining 17 games and failed to make the playoffs in what is widely considered one of the worst collapses in the history of professional sports. I held my tongue last year when Fred Wilpon, the Mets’ owner, bad-mouthed his three leading players and called the collective enterprise “a shitty team.” I stiffened the upper lip as José Reyes and Carlos Beltran were traded away and immediately enjoyed a career renaissance in their new and more loving homes. Such, I told myself, was baseball, and such was life.

But when news came last week that the Mets were trading R.A. Dickey—Cy Young winner, master of the elusive knuckleball, public intellectual, fan favorite—I felt something that was less the ordinary indignation of the frustrated fan and more the existential wallop you feel when your faith is being tested.

I’ve known that feeling once before. I was 14, the son of a moderately religious family, and, increasingly, the institutions regulating my devotion appeared twisted and unkind. I’ve always maintained my faith in God; it was Judaism I had many questions about, and these questions, I soon learned, were unwelcome by my teachers and my rabbis and my family. The more I inquired—why were Jews the chosen people, say, or what to do with the troubling commandment to wipe out the seed of Amalek—the more I was told to shut up and submit. Naturally, I drifted away. It took two decades and a considerable amount of intellectual and spiritual effort to realize that I could answer my questions all by myself and feel my way back into faith.

Naturally, my dedication to the Mets, as stringent as it may be, is nothing near as meaningful and all-embracing as the one I reserve for my faith. But as the Dickey trade clearly demonstrates, sports and religion are increasingly suffering from the same syndrome, an inability to realize that at the heart of their pursuit is not just rules and regulations and bottom lines but belief, and that belief is irrational and wild, difficult to predict and even more so to control.

Just consider Dickey. The maverick pitcher is 38. He spends his off-season doing things like climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, which, for anyone whose living heavily depends on the elasticity of his limbs, is an ill-advised pastime. And, in return for signing away his services, the Mets received catcher Travis d’Arnaud and righthander Noah Syndergaard, both very promising prospects, both much younger. If, like the Mets, you adhere to the dogma known as Moneyball—a statistical analysis-based approach to looking at each player’s numbers and maximizing performance while cutting cost—the trade is eminently sensible, the sort of deal no responsible management team would ever turn down. But such an approach fails to realize that what compels fans to attend games or watch them on TV isn’t just the ratio between the won and lost columns at year’s end, but the mad joy that comes with knowing that the player standing on the mound is also an adventurer and the author of a thoughtful and well-received book and a passionate advocate for a host of charitable causes.

Mets fans adored R.A. Dickey for his heart. But hearts carry little weight with the team’s management, which is obsessed with arms and legs and tendons and hamstrings. The more profitable sports teams grow, the more likely we are to see men like Dickey (or, if you’re a basketball fan, Jeremy Lin) sacrificed on the altar of corporate obtuseness.

Which brings us right back to religion. The hard-working, well-meaning men and women who run this country’s Jewish institutions, from national organizations to local JCCs and synagogues, may not have the Wilpons’ resources at their disposal, but, unfortunately, too frequently they share their penchant for risk-averse management that is focused on balance sheets rather than on fans’ desires. When it comes to navigating the future of our community, most American Jewish institutions are playing spiritual moneyball.

If this sounds like an unmerited and overly harsh judgment, observe the case of B’nai Jeshurun. Earlier this month, the rabbis and board leaders of the celebrated Upper West Side synagogue sent out an email warmly endorsing the United Nations’ decision to award Palestine the status of a nonmember observer state. It’s a controversial political issue, but the statement had little taste for rank politics. Instead, it cited that week’s Torah portion, which told the story of Jacob and Esau, provided an exegetical take on the news, and ended with a call for recognition, reconciliation, and peace.

Instead of following the statement’s spirit and debating the role spiritual leaders and religious institutions had to play in the messy, thorny course of earthly affairs, much of the congregation roared that the rabbis had no right to speak. A week later, the statement’s authors issued an apology. “While we affirm the essence of our message,” it read, “we feel that it is important to share with you that through a series of unfortunate internal errors, an incomplete and unedited draft of the letter was sent out which resulted in a tone which did not reflect the complexities and uncertainties of this moment.”

But it is the nature of complexities and uncertainties to elude capture. All we can provide in response to life’s overwhelming series of unfathomable events are incomplete and unedited drafts. If we wait too long, if we value certainty above all else, if we fail to live in the moment, we’ll find ourselves, like the New York Mets—like, one could argue, B’nai Jeshurun—ossifying into irrelevance, awash in heartbreaks and bad faith.

Let us, then, learn from l’affaire Dickey. If we want to engage more Jews, young and otherwise, in our communal enterprises, we have to realize that it’s not the programs and the opportunities and the rational draws that drive anyone into the tribe’s fold. It’s the wild stuff, like climbing Kilimanjaro or sending out a letter in support of Palestine.

You can call it irresponsible, and perhaps it is, but people who follow their passions often are. They’re also immensely inspiring. I want to root for a team that understands that players who are encouraged to write books and climb mountains are often precisely the sort of players who can, at an age when most other athletes are contemplating retirement, rise to the top of the game. And I want to belong to communal organizations that allow for unfettered and unchecked expressions, for yelps and howls of joy and rage, for unmediated and imperfect answers to the world’s untidy questions. Sadly, in religion and sports alike, there’s little of that spirit to go around.

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Kerry Swartz says:

I can’t wait for Jon Stewart to jump on this trade.

marjorie says:

I just read Dickey’s autobiography — I’d heard that he was adapting it as a memoir for middle-grade readers, and as a person interested in children’s lit I was curious. And I thought it was great that an athlete who survived childhood sexual abuse was going to discuss it for an audience for whom this kind of honesty could do a lot of good. But I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the grown-up book! The guy has coped with a lot of bad stuff, had a lot of therapy and works so hard to be a mensch. Even though he’s a serious Christian, there’s a lot we Jews can learn about his attitudes toward faith and prayer. (Also, how lovely was his letter that ran — that he PAID to run — in most of the local papers thanking NY for supporting him as a Met? MENSCH.)

marjorie says:

This was the quote about prayer from Dickey’s book that I really liked (and is so unlike the way most athletes talk about God and prayer): “When I pray I am not just talking to God. I am deepening my relationship with Him. To me prayer is not a me-driven, goal-driven endeavor, something I turn to when I really need to pitch a dominant game or get out of a tight spot or personal crisis. I’ve never prayed to God and said, ‘Lord, please let me strike out Albert Pujols four times tonight.’ Nor will I ever do that. God is not a genie in a bottle that you rub when you want something. He is the ever-present, ever-loving father, the guiding spirit of my life, my Light and my Truth. He has a plan for me; I believe that as much as I believe anything in my whole life, and even if I don’t end up flourishing in New York or proving myself to be a trustworthy big-league picture I know that’s because he has something else in store for me, and whatever that is, I know that I will be at peace.”

PhillipNagle says:

Try being a Cub fan. He should appreciate what he has with the Mets.

“Eminently sensible,” indeed. As much as we’d like to view baseball and the other major sports as fun pastimes, they’re more business-y than ever. And Mr. Dickey — clearly a smart and easy-to-root-for athlete — is an asset that had little value to the doubtful-to-contend Mets organization for the next couple years. (The Blue Jays, however, are primed to take a run at the AL East with the Yankees and Red Sox looking vulnerable.)

They’re in the dreaded “rebuilding” phase, which means hard decisions and forward-looking actions. The two main prospects (and they are unproven, to be sure) the Mets received are very highly-thought-of in scouting circles, and if they reach their potential at the same time as the other top prospects already in the Mets’ minor league system, this will be a contending team in 2015.

So while it likely won’t be fun to watch the Metropolitans for the next couple years, there is hope for the future. (And I say that as a Phillies fan, who really doesn’t want to see that happen.)

Robert Starkand says:

This is a kooky article. Any fan with common sense would see the Dickey trade as an easy decision. He is more valuable to a competing team. If it was a 24 year old Tom Seaver, that would be a building block. If these young players work out, then it was a good trade. If there was no trade, the Mets would have to pay more money for a team guaranteed to lose. Like all fans, we want a winner. We can appreciate Dickey from afar. As for B’nai Jeshurun, endorsing an end run around direct negotiations with Israel is madness. i guess you can cite the Torah to support any position, including self destruction. But there is one thing I am sure of, the Torah does not teach us to be stupid.

Habbgun says:

I agree with you about this article. How come its only liberal positions that are brave? And how are fans supposed to throw out money as an important part of baseball? Teams only have so much to spend and spending more doesn’t always gets results like it does when spent on education (oh wait, it often doesn’t work with education either). Personally I hated seeing David Wright stay and Dickey go but a big part of that is David Wright is now grossly overpaid and Dickey would be an even greater asset if he just got run support.

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Spiritual Moneyball

The R.A. Dickey trade; or why the New York Mets, like American Jews, are at risk of losing their soul

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