This past Sunday the Yankees held their annual Old Timers’ Day, one of the great rituals in sports owing to the Yankees’ status as baseball’s most illustrious franchise. By coincidence of sorts, I attended at the same time a personal version of Old Timers’ Day: a reunion of our yeshiva elementary school class in celebration of the 40th anniversary of graduation. Besides the obvious distinctions – we haven’t yet produced a Hall of Famer – there were others, and similarities as well.
The Yankee fans greeted most of the Old Timers warmly. There were some players who weren’t “Old Timers” in any meaningful sense; the stars of the 1990’s championship teams are all younger than I am, and some looked still fit to play. Others – an elderly and frail Yogi Berra, a Whitey Ford who is truly white, a clownish but white-haired Joe Pepitone – had aged dramatically. Some received raucous applause – Bernie Williams, Joe Torre, David Wells, et al. But why? Is it simply gratitude for past performance? Certainly, the fans relate to the players more personally than the players relate to the fans. The players, after all, are performers, like actors. Yet, it is hard to imagine cheering wildly for a great actor or actress because of a role played thirty or forty years earlier. Actors move on to other roles, and baseball players come and go. The Yankee fan – like fans of other teams and in all sports – root their allegiance in the team first and in
individual players second. The team has moved on, like all teams do, even if it
properly acknowledges the past. So why are people touched by these events, by
seeing familiar but wizened faces long past their prime ?
Count me as skeptical at first about our class reunion – unusual because no recent class in our school had such an event and possible only because of the gargantuan efforts by the event “organizer,” his wife and sons, and our hosts. Such events usually require at least one person who is “meshuga ladavar,” passionate and indefatigable. We had it. And skeptical also because I am in touch with several classmates with whom I have a relationship, clearly not missing those with whom I do not. Nor am I moved by empty nostalgia; too often people
reminisce over the “glorious” past when they do not have much of a life in the
present and not many hopes for the future. Even my memories of those years had somewhat faded. And yet…
Fully two-thirds of our class attended. Most who did not either live in Israel or were attending other events on a busy Sunday in late June. Seeing these familiar faces – some of which I did not recognize but for the name tags they wore – brought a rush of memories. A trivia game – with details painstakingly compiled by the organizer, and to which I assumed I would have little to contribute precisely because I thought I remembered so little – reawakened long-forgotten names, places, events and experiences. It was then I realized the attraction of these events – whether held at Yankee Stadium or equally posh accommodations in suburban New Jersey: by re-living the events of youth we get to feel young again, but without the anxieties and uncertainties of the impending future. And the memories are almost all pleasant, and even more pleasant than the events actually were long ago.
The fans cheered their former heroes, not only for what they had done and for the thrills they had provided but primarily because in seeing them, our joyful
youth once again came alive. Seeing Graig Nettles reminded me of the time I
missed a home run of his at Yankee Stadium because I had to walk my date to the rest room. (I married her anyway.) Rick Cerone inevitably evoked images of the deceased Thurman Munson, whose position he filled the year after Munson was killed in a plane crash on Tish’a B’Av in 1979. And the presence of Berra,
Ford, Moose Skowron and others reminded all of those fixtures of youth who have passed away – Mantle, Maris and the rest. A now 60 year-old Ron Guidry and many other were living reminders of the passage of time for all of us.
Unlike these players, whose primes ended long ago and whose achievements are mainly in the past, our class revived our younger years but marveled at the present – the children and grandchildren we have spawned, the careers (the gamut of today’s Jew – lawyers, doctors, businessmen, Rabbi) we have entered – and how especially our present was shaped indelibly but subtly by those experiences of forty years ago. In the flood of memories – of faces, teachers, classes, and special events – the past lived, and we were all reminded of how our formative years do mold us in ways that are not apparent for years to come. I, designated speaker, even referenced the Gemara (Avoda Zara 5b) that states that “one does not fully comprehend the words of one’s teacher until after forty years.” It is then that, matured and formed, even occasionally hardened by life’s tragedies, we realize the influences of bygone years were not bygone at all, but an essential part of our being, personalities and world view.
We don’t often get to re-live the past. Old Timers’ Day – baseball and personal – affords that opportunity to escape the present, to embrace what seems to be a perfect and idyllic past, and to momentarily re-enter what was at least a simpler time. We confront our youth but from the perch of adulthood, like looking down from the mountain to the place from which we ascended. I was moved to see old classmates, to bask in their successes and to recognize that even if we have grown apart our formative experiences forever bind us together. You can’t go home again, but you can sometimes glimpse the past more clearly through the prism of the present. And we become conscious that who we are today is the fruit of seeds planted many years ago by rebbeim, teachers, and, yes, classmates, that has ripened and blossomed over time.
That realization engenders a moment of gratitude that unleashes feelings of joy notwithstanding the wistfulness, and the bonds of a shared history with others that, apparently, can never be severed and will always be cherished.