Growing up in Los Angeles, the arrival of spring meant two things – Passover and baseball. I warmly recall going to see the Dodgers play during the intermediate days of Pesah – matzah, gefilte fish, and kosher-for-Passover fruit-roll-ups in hand – a hyphenated American-Jewish identity if there ever was one. Passover and baseball: As a player, my abilities in the former were matched only by my inabilities in the latter – thus my career choice. As a spectator, my passion for both remains undiminished. Two national pastimes: one American, one Jewish – my appreciation and knowledge of both coming by means of the memorable tunes, tastes, and languorous hours spent sitting side-by-side with my father and brothers. Two ritual-filled endeavors: the mid game stretch for instance – one for Elijah to take me out of Egypt, one for the seventh inning to take me out with the crowd. Two stories about the aspirations of a people to make it home. Two narratives that conclude but never end – one signing off with “next year in Jerusalem,” the other with “wait ‘til next year.” Let the counting of the Omer . . . and the homers begin!
It is said that Solomon Schechter once remarked: “You can’t be a rabbi in America without understanding baseball.” With one seder behind us and the second seder this evening, this morning I want to talk to you about baseball, about Passover, about the connection between the two and what can be learned by bringing two of my favorite subjects into conversation.
The 2023 baseball season isn’t just any season. For those in the know, baseball has introduced some of the most consequential changes in its rules since the introduction of the designated hitter in 1973. These changes include but are not limited to: increasing the size of the bases by three inches – to encourage base stealing and reduce the odds of collision; the addition of “ghost runners” in extra innings – to cut down on long games and wear and tear on pitchers, and the elimination of the infielder shift – a change, which, if you are still paying attention, is aimed at addressing the non-traditional defensive strategies teams have adopted since the rise of sabermetric analytics.
While sports radio hosts and their fans busily debate the reasons for and the merits of these changes, all agree that the biggest change is the addition of the pitch clock. In brief, the new rule states that when the bases are empty, pitchers will have fifteen seconds to throw a pitch, twenty seconds if a runner is on base. Hitters, for their part, need to be in the batter’s box and alert with at least eight seconds on the clock. If the pitcher has not started to deliver a pitch in time, he will be charged with a ball. If the batter delays entering the batter’s box, he will be charged with a strike.
Why was the pitch clock introduced? The short answer is that over the years the game has grown longer and longer. In 1970, the average length of a game was about two hours and thirty minutes; in 2000 – two hours and fifty-eight minutes; and in 2021, a whopping three hours and eleven minutes. The game has become bloated. The fiddling around by pitchers and batters has been getting worse and worse; attention spans are more attenuated, which – when combined with rising ticket prices, resentment over lock-outs, and the lingering effects of the pandemic – has thrown the sport of baseball into a defensive posture. Fans were voting with their feet.
A change was needed, and while we are less than two weeks into the season, preliminary data signals the startling impact of the new rules. Game time is averaging two hours and thirty-eight minutes, – down from 3:11. Batting averages are up to .310 from last season’s .292. Stolen base attempts are up – as is their rate of success. No question, there is an adjustment period. everyone is getting used to the new rules. There was a bizarre ending to a spring training game due to a pitch clock violation, and just the other day, Padres slugger Manny Machado became the first player to be ejected from a game for arguing a pitch clock violation. I have no doubt that this new season will provide us with many, many opportunities to argue over these new rules and whether they do or do not hold the keys to redemption for our boys of summer.
This morning, I would like to narrow the focus of the pitch-clock discussion to the seder table itself. Because if there is one thing a seder table and a baseball game have in common, it is that they are two endeavors premised on the rejection of any governance by clock. The whole point of a seder is to let it unfold at its own glacial pace. Think of the five sages of Bnei Barak, who spent the whole night absorbed in the telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt, going on for so long that their students eventually had to tell them it was time for morning prayers. Yes, there is an order one must get through, but like a ballgame, it is in the interruptions, the sidebars, the commentary told around the event that make it what it is. As the Haggadah teaches, “the more one dwells on the Exodus from Egypt, the more one is to be praised.”
Growing up, the closest we had to a pitch clock was my mother, whose raised eyebrow signaled to my father to speed things up. I remember there being some rule about not eating after midnight – but that rule was honored in my house only in its breach. Only with the introduction of grandchildren, or more honestly, daughters-in-law, did our seders start and end earlier and proceed more quickly. The other day I was speaking to a child of our congregation, now a young adult, who shared with me that she always believed that the take-home of the seder was to teach children the importance of delayed gratification – that one could invite a group of people to sit at the dinner table and then have them wait a few hours until they could eat. The late Roger Angell wrote famously of “the quality of baseball time,” and the violence that is done to it by its “NFL-ification” – polluting it with distractions like mascots, rock music trivia, and dance companies. I imagine a Passover purist reacting similarly to the stunts and gimmicks and abridgements on the market today. You have probably seen the haggadot: 30 Minute Seder, The Swift Seder, Creating Lively Passover Seders. What’s next –A Tik-Tok seder? A pitch clock for the Passover seder? “Heresy!” Says the purist. “Listen, if you must, to your podcasts at 1.5x speed, but don’t touch the seder. The seder is like a cup fine wine, or four: It is meant to be sipped slowly; that is its very enjoyment.
So where, I ask myself aloud and in front of my community, do I stand? As a fan of both baseball and Passover – invested in the sacred past and dynamic future of both – am I an innovator or purist? Where do I position myself on the pitch clock? Let me offer three responses which, if nothing else, will give you something to argue about tonight.
First, I think that the choice of timeless vs. timebound doesn’t fully represent the temporal dynamics of baseball or Passover. There are elements of both in both. Baseball has always had a clock – it just ticks, as Roger Angell wrote, “inwardly and silently.” The unfolding pace of a baseball game contains bursts of sudden activity – the rapid release of the ball or the swift crack of the bat. The slow tension that mounts between the pitcher and base runner who then tears away at breakneck speed to steal second – a temporal juxtaposition that generates the excitement of baseball. It may not be a clock, but time and timing do sit at the core of the sport. It is the reason why the great Jewish ballplayer Shawn Green’s book on the sport is called The Way of Baseball: Finding Stillness at 95 MPH.
And so too with the seder. Time, mystical time, plays a huge role in the story. The children of Israel are enslaved for centuries and then depart Egypt b’hatzot – not at around midnight or at about midnight, but – precisely at midnight! I have never seen a group of Jews leave an event that quickly! Maybe that was the real miracle of the Exodus. It is a haste memorialized in the seder’s central symbol, matzah, a remembrance of the hipazon, the speed in which the Israelites left. There is a clock built into the matzah: eighteen minutes. One second more, and that matzah becomes hametz. Yes, the Passover story is a long one; its arc spans hours and generations. But it is also a tale of a tightly coiled people released in an instant – stealing away in pursuit of home. Timing is everything and everywhere in Passover – you just have to know where to look for it.
Second, and this will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me, to the question of whether I am an innovator or a purist – pitch clock or no pitch clock? I think the answer is not “either-or” but rather “both-and.” Much as we love to recall those five sages pulling an all-nighter at the seder, one has to wonder where their wives and kids were. My guess is that the former were cleaning up and the latter had long checked out. Neither baseball nor the seder nor Judaism is intended to be treated as a museum piece. There are ways to innovate and preserve at one and the same time. That is actually what a rabbi is hired to do. As someone once said, “to meet people where they are and inspire them to live Jewish lives connected to tradition.” When asked about the pitch clock, a teenager in our community responded: “The pitch clock is good. It makes the games faster. And it doesn’t hurt the game.” Now, I am not saying we are going to start taking away people’s aliyot if they dilly-dally on their way up to the Torah, but I also have no intention of letting our tradition go the way of City Opera or any other institution that thinks that people will continue to turn out for a three-plus-hour experience. To innovate or not to innovate? Like everything in life, it is a balancing act, the narrow bridge, the yin and the yang of baseball, seders, and, for that matter, life. As Yogi Berra said: “When you see a fork in the road – take it.”
Third, and finally, a concluding observation that in some respects is an extension of the first two. As much as people, myself included, like to turn baseball into a metaphor and meditation on life, the truth of the matter is that neither baseball nor the seder is at all like life. Seders may be endless, and baseball may be an endless summer, but life is decidedly not. Life comes with a game-ending buzzer and none of us knows when it will go off. In that sense, baseball and seders do not mirror existence, rather just the opposite: They offer an escape from existence. They enable us to enter, for an afternoon or an evening, a timeless story whose telling began long before the span of our lifetimes and will continue to be told long after our time has passed. Opportunities for us, mere mortals, to sip from the cup of eternity.
And it is in this observation, I believe, where we find our take-home. Time – no different than water and air – is a precious natural resource. Neither I nor you should need a pitch clock to remind ourselves that the things we most cherish in this world will perish, but sometimes we do; sometimes it helps. If there is a message to the rites of the season, it is that the while hope may spring eternal, life does not last forever. On this festival of freedom, may we live our fleeting lives with meaning – swinging for the fences and leaving it all out on the field.