Writer Joe Epstein jokes that during the years he taught literature and writing at Northwestern University, he had the collateral duty of coaching the Wildcats’ Jewish wide receivers. This extra chore, he concedes, didn’t take up much of his time. The joke always gets a laugh, and deservedly so.
The gag is that for some time now young American Jewish males have more often chosen to pursue success in the professions than in athletics. Today’s young Epsteins are far more likely to end up as gynecologists than as wide receivers or second basemen (though as the intended and unintended consequences of ObamaReidPelosiCare continue to reveal themselves, this avenue to prosperity may have to be rethought). Of course this doesn’t mean that American Jews are not interested in sports, in baseball particularly, or that there won’t be another Sandy Koufax or Hank Greenberg.
It was in running across a story about a new set of 50 baseball cards featuring Jewish players that I learned that one of the 50, Kevin Youkilis, will play in Japan this year. He’ll ply his trade with the Rakuten Golden Eagles, the former team of Masahiro Tanaka — the New York Yankees’ latest multi-millionaire. Oy vey, as we Southern generic Protestants are prone to say. Just how is this going to work out?
Yook! as he is officially known, was beloved in Fenway Park during his years with the Boston Red Sox (somewhat less perhaps, after he briefly wore the despised pin-stripes of the New York Yankees) both for his production and for his blue-collar, all-out, in-your-face style of play. Our Kevin will do whatever it takes, down to and including biting his opponents’ ankles, in order to win. I’ve always admired his approach, if not his batting stance. (Those who have seen it know why. Ted Williams, always the diplomat, once said that then Sawks right-fielder Dewey Evans’ stance “makes me want to throw up.” Kevin’s swing probably would have given Teddy Ball Game reflux disease.)
Yook! is a big fellow. He’s listed at 6-1 and 220 pounds. At 34 his skills have eroded a bit, which is why he’s headed for Japan. He wasn’t particularly fast even as a younger player. Defensively he’s always played at first base or third, positions where quick reactions and good hands count for more than speed. But he has always been a smart and aggressive base runner. Aggressive but not foolhardy, he always seems to know when he can take an extra base, even though his slides are more often controlled crashes than things of beauty and a joy forever. At game’s end he always has more dirt on his uniform than anyone else on the field. Sometimes grounds keepers would shake him down before raking the infield.
In his BoSox days, when Kevin did something good at bat or in the field, which was frequently, Fenway fans loved to chant, “YOOK!” (Who wouldn’t?) In fact, I was convinced that Red Sox fans could be found in so many precincts across the known universe that the term “Red Sox Nation” was unduly restrictive. My bet then was that if the Sawks played an exhibition game on Mars, little green guys with a half dozen eyes across their foreheads would show up and yell “YOOK!”
We’ll have to wait a bit to see how Kevin’s take-no-prisoners style of play fits in with the more disciplined, more reserved, more team-oriented, don’t-make-the-other-guy-lose-face style of play in Nippon Professional Baseball. American baseball players in Japan have all had to deal with major cultural differences and well as differences on the field of play. Certain kinds of aggressiveness that are considered good, competitive hard-ball in America are looked down on in Japan.
These cultural differences and differences in baseball etiquette have confounded previous American players. (The most amusing treatment of these comes in Tom Selleck’s 1992 home run of a movie, Mr. Baseball.) The differences in the game itself are less challenging. The ball in Japan is a little more tightly strung, and a bit smaller, as are the ball yards. There is only one level of minor league baseball in Japan, as opposed to the rookie league, low A, high A, AA, and AAA system of apprenticeship here. So there are players in the two six-team Japanese major leagues who would still be in A-ball here.
Yook! has always given baseball fans in America their money’s worth. He played hard here, took advantage of his skills, and left it all on the field. For this he has always been appreciated. Let’s hope this continues to be the case on the other side of the world. I for one hope the cry of Yook! will be heard at ball yards somewhere for many years to come.