Three weeks ago, I wrote a piece heralding the beginning of a new era in Jewish baseball history, a charge being led by three all-star players, Kevin Youkilis, Ian Kinsler, and the eventual winner of the 2011 National League MVP award, Ryan Braun. (*) Three weeks ago, Jews across this country could look to that threesome, especially Braun, the Brewers’ slugger, with pride. Three weeks ago, Jews were able to celebrate their first baseball MVP award in almost a half-century.
But that was three weeks ago. This past weekend, the “golden era” of Jewish baseball, as it was termed by this writer, suffered a major setback with the news that Braun faces a 50-game suspension at the beginning of the 2012 season. According to reports, Braun violated baseball’s substance abuse policy, and as such is subject to the automatic suspension. It has been reported that Braun failed two separate tests, each of which showed elevated levels of testosterone, and both of which also showed a synthetic component to the elevated levels.
Initially, I wanted to give Braun the benefit of the doubt, that this was a false positive. He labeled the positive tests as “B.S.”, and a statement was released by his management team, which stated that there was no “intentional” violation of baseball’s anti-drug policy. Braun has been a stellar player for five years now, racking up gaudy statistics while never being held under suspicion of ingesting any illegal substances. There has been no startling change in his physique, like the popeye-like arms that were brandished by Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco or the swollen head of Barry Bonds. Also, baseball has presumably cleaned up its act, strengthening its drug testing programs and procedures, so it seemed impossible that he could have been using steroids, right?
It is possible that the tests were incorrect, or that Braun had taken some other substance, innocently, which led to the positive results. In reality, however, for me to suspect that he was truly innocent is little more than reverse discrimination. In the past, any players accused of drug usage have been immediately vilified by this writer and others, my own beliefs surrounding the guilt of these players completely bypassing the presumption of innocence that I preach for my clients. (**) So for me to do so here, based solely on his (and my) religion, would make me the ultimate hypocrite, and I will therefore not protest Ryan Braun’s innocence.
Assuming that the drug tests are valid, and that Braun does face this suspension, the positive tests will have a broad range of adverse ramifications: baseball as a whole will be tarnished, especially with the news that he knew of the positive tests before he was even named as MVP. The presumed aura of a “cleaner” baseball society will be exposed to be fraudulent. The Brewers’ franchise and its offensive firepower, already facing the loss of slugger Prince Fielder, will be further decimated by the loss of Braun for what will amount to be almost a full one-third of the 2012 season. Obviously, Braun and his own personal legacy will be forever harmed, even if the tests are proven to be wrong, because the mere suspicion of drug use, as we have all learned, is a tough hurdle to overcome.
Lastly, the positive tests will have a potentially adverse effect on the Jewish people. First, it will create a sense of disillusionment in the people who looked up to Braun as a model for our people, a people who have struggled mightily to have athletes to hold up as role models for our children. Those superstars have been few and far between. The 1930’s-1940’s were dominated by Hank Greenberg. He passed the yad (a small, baton-like implement shaped like a hand with an outstretched finger used to mark a person’s place while reading the Torah) to Al Rosen, who in turn begat Sandy Koufax in the 1960’s. The early 1970’s brought us swimmer Mark Spitz, who rose from the horrors of the 1972 Munich Olympics as a true Jewish hero, capturing seven gold medals even as Palestinian terrorists murdered eleven members of Israel’s Olympic squad. The late ‘70s featured Rod Carew, who apparently never really converted to Judaism but whom we embraced as our own regardless, and Shawn Green hoisted the religion on his shoulders thereafter.
Until the current crop of all-stars, there was a void. Adam Sandler did his best to fill that void with his trio of Chanukah songs, aimed at listing the Jews in Hollywood and elsewhere to, as he sang, provide little Jewish children with a sense that they were not alone during the Chanukah, and Christmas holidays. Those songs, however, contained very few athletes. He included the afore-mentioned Carew and Olympic skater Sarah Hughes; the other two athletes listed, however, were O.J. Simpson, whom he was quick to label “not a Jew”, and former Oakland Raider QB Daryle Lamonica, who was included simply because his name rhymed with the holiday.
Sandler’s recitation of actors, singers, and other entertainers, however, did not provide a great deal of surprises. Jews have always had a presence in Hollywood, both in movies and television, and there have been a plethora of Jewish singers. From the Marx Brothers and Three Stooges to Rodney Dangerfield and Joan Rivers to Jerry Seinfeld, Jewish comedians have made audiences laugh for decades. But nobody has ever questioned the Jews’ abilities to make people laugh, especially with their own brand of self-deprecating humor. And with respect to Hollywood, nobody has ever questioned the Jews’ ability to be overly dramatic. The overwhelming number of Jewish singers who have recorded Christmas albums (Bette Midler, Neil Diamond, Barry Manilow, to name a few) is of concern to some, but Jewish singers continue to be a presence in popular music.
So why is it so devastating that Braun may have cheated? There is an ever-present fear among the Jews that anti-Semitism, which still exists throughout the world, will be heightened in the wake of any scandal involving a Jewish person. Many people breathed a collective sigh of relief when the Jewish people were not blamed for the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal. Thankfully, the mention of her religion was not a featured part of the stories about her, as some had feared. The same is true for the Bernie Madoff scandal, which could have been used by some to fuel the stereotypes of alleged Jewish greed. And now, if Braun is exposed as a cheater, it can provide more fodder for anti-Semites to point to how Jews are unable to succeed at sports without cheating; this, clearly, would be a vicious and incorrect statement, but is not beyond the realm of possibility.
Is it wrong for Jews to try to look to their own for heroes, whether on athletic fields or otherwise? For many Jews, it is no different than people looking to athletes from their home countries. So many Jews fled from and remain disenfranchised from their home countries that their religion has become their “home” identity, so for a Jewish boy to look to Ryan Braun as his hero is no different from the Italian child who reveres last year’s MVP, Joey Votto.
Then again, the true religious zealot would argue that it is wrong. The first of the Ten Commandments states that “Thou shalt have no other Gods before Me”. Could it be, then, that God provides us with a superstar athlete once a decade or so, a man of such awesome ability that he rises above those around him (Greenberg, Koufax, Spitz, Braun) simply to test us? Is it possible that worshipping these athletes as heroes is therefore a sin, and that God has sent a message to us through Braun’s failed drug tests that people are not to worship athletes?
A truly religious Jew would likely make that argument. So would former NBA superstar (and non-Jew) Charles Barkley, who famously stated that “I am not a role model.” Perhaps God simply chose Barkley to deliver his message several years ago, and when that was not properly heeded, he was forced t o take matters into his own hands through a more blatant means. Perhaps.(**) http://open.salon.com/blog/andywolf/2009/08/10/hey_big_papi_-_como_se_dice_accountability