When a Win is not a Win

At a Jewish education conference once, I was sitting behind two people at a workshop when the rabbi who was leading the workshop made a baseball reference. One of the people in front of me turned to the other and said, “I have a baseball rabbi too.”

I found it a funny comment and thought about my own use of sports analogies. I don’t often make sports comparisons, but sometimes they make very good sense. Sports are very popular in this country, and there is much to say about not only the games themselves, but the meanings they have for us as humans.

I am a baseball fan, and have welcomed the beginning of the new baseball season. Opening Day, the official beginning the season, is a holiday for many, and it coincided this year with Passover. And while the team of my youth, the New York Yankees, still holds a place in my heart, I have turned most of my attention to the team of my adulthood, the Seattle Mariners. More can be said here about migration and assimilation, both Jewish themes, but that is for another time.

More can be said too about the place of baseball in American society, and especially about the role of Jews in baseball. A recent exhibit at the National Museum of American Jewish History called “Chasing Dreams: Baseball and Becoming American” not only examined the roles Jews played in the development of baseball as team owners, commissioners, players and the lyricist for the classic song “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” but also how baseball served the roles of “Americanizing” different minority groups, and how baseball has been a bellwether for civil rights advances and other larger social trends.

But I’ll just stay with statistics. Baseball, like life, is obsessed with statistics. Batters, pitchers, fielders are all measured to a sometimes intricate system of numbers and formulas, all meant to give a shorthand to performance. What numbers are tracked can be very position specific. Pitchers, for example, are tracked by a win-loss record, how many games they win when they are pitching, and how many games they lose. And while teams will use multiple pitchers during a game, it is the pitcher who is on the mound when a team gets the runs that eventually win (or lose) the game who gets the win or the loss.

I thought of this recently after a recent Mariners game when, after leading going into the ninth inning, they ended losing the lead, but eventually winning in extra innings. When a team is ahead at the end of the game, it has become common practice to call in the pitcher known as the “closer,” i.e., the pitcher who is meant to close out the game and secure the win. They usually have power and a smaller arsenal of pitches meant to efficiently get those last few outs.

The most common measure for closers is “saves,” i.e., are they able to save the game by maintaining the lead and the eventual win. (For those halachahists, not every situation is a “save situation.”) When they come into a game with their team ahead, and they do their job and get the final few outs, then they are not credited with a “win”—it was another pitcher who was responsible for keeping the other team from scoring—but they are credited with a “save.”

That is not to say closers don’t get wins and losses, they do. But wins are generally good things for a pitcher—except if you are a closer. Why? Because if you get the win in a game, it means you failed at the job you were brought in to do. It means that you blew the save, and allowed the other team to score. You were only able to gain the win because your team then came back to score, and you were able to hold back from the other team scoring any more.

So when is a win not really a win? When it comes after a blown save. A  win for a closer is not a sign of success, but specifically it is a sign of success only after a failure. And it is a sign of success that demonstrates that your teammates, your community, was able to rally around you and help you through your mistakes.

Today is Lag B’omer, the 33rd day of the Omer. We have been counting down each day between Passover and Shavuot, making the spiritual journey from Egypt to Sinai, from the festival of Egypt, Exodus and liberation to the festival of Sinai, revelation and covenant. It marks the transition between being a people without the bonds of oppression to a people bound by a new social contract and communal system.

The Omer also reminds us that spiritual journeys are not only measured in lifespans, but in the day by day. Each day counts. Each day is an opportunity for another win, loss or save. Each day may be a setback, or an opportunity to recover from that setback. And each day is another opportunity to be reminded that our own personal journeys are always backed up by our community, by those who support us.

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