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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

Liel Leibovitz
December 28, 2012
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)
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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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.