If I Forget Thee, O Ken Griffey, Jr….

Like many immigrants, I retain aspects of my life in the old world while at the same time adapting to those in the new. That is the same for me having immigrated to the new world of the Pacific Northwest from the old world of New York. That has taken adjustment over the years, and nothing more slowly than my acculturation in baseball.

As you may know, I am by birth a fan of the New York Yankees, but have, after many years, come to see the Seattle Mariners as my own as well.

So when it was announced that Ken Griffey, Jr. was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame with the largest percentage of votes ever, and will be the first player to be depicted in the Hall with a Mariners uniform, I celebrated not only as a fan of baseball but as a fan of the Mariners as well.

Ken Griffey Jr.
(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Griffey was indeed a stellar player and his election to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility was well deserved. He was elected with 99.3% of the ballot (437 out of 440 votes). And while on the one hand that is a great achievement, on the other hand it begs the question, why was his election not unanimous? Or in other words, why did three people not vote for Ken Griffey, Jr.?

[Hall of Famers are voted on by baseball sportswriters. Each year they fill out a ballot with eligible former players (players need to have played for a certain amount of time and been retired for 5 years). A player who receives 75% of the vote is elected, and candidates stay on the ballot for 10 years.]

The question of who didn’t vote for Griffey may not be answered right away, or the answer may never be known. It is important to note that none of the greats were elected on the first ballot, so perhaps one of the sportswriters compared Griffey to those past greats and felt that since they weren’t voted in unanimously, then Griffey shouldn’t be voted in unanimously. Or perhaps one of the sportswriters felt that no one, no matter what their statistics, should be elected in their first year of eligibility.

Or maybe someone thought that with a unanimous vote for Griffey a distinct possibility, they would not vote for him because of a belief that nobody should be elected anonymously.

It reminds me of an esoteric tradition within Judaism called  zecher l’churban. Literally it translates to “a remembrance of the destruction,” referring to the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, first in 586 BCE then again in 70 CE. The destruction of the Temple is seen as one of the great calamities of Judaism, because it was the central institution of the Jewish people, the place where major worship happened, and the location where it was believed the people were spiritually closest to God. Following the destruction, the Temple took on a central place in the religious imagination of the Jewish people; its destruction invoked as a metaphor for the world’s imperfection and its restoration invoked as a metaphor for redemption. Indeed, we face east for certain prayers because we face this holy spot.

The practice of zecher l’churban is drawn from the Talmud, the body of Jewish literature developed not long after the Temple’s destruction. In seeing that communities were mourning excessively for the Temple’s destruction, the rabbis created a new rule:

The Sages have ordained: a person may stucco a house, but should leave a little bare. How much? Rabbi Joseph says, a cubit square. A person can prepare a full-course banquet, but should leave out an item or two. A person can put on ornaments, but should leave off an item or two. For it says, in Psalm 137, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.” [Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 60b]

The rabbis say yes it is OK to mourn for the loss of the Temple, but do it in a reasonable symbolic way. So when you paint your house, or prepare a lavish meal, or dress up fancy, leave a little undone as a reminder of the destruction.

Or in other words, as I like to understand it, we should always have with us a reminder of imperfection. For we, and the world, are imperfect. And this reminder of imperfection should instill in us a sense of humility and the possibility of redemption.

Which brings us back to Griffey. We know that nobody is perfect, we all fail at some time or another, even those who rise to the top of their field like Griffey did. And so no matter how great one is, no matter how accomplished one is, no matter how advanced one is, maybe no one is worthy of a unanimous vote. Those three votes (or non-votes) that kept Griffey from attaining 100% is a zecher l’churban, an important reminder of human imperfection.

Mazel tov to Ken Griffey, Jr. May your 437 votes remind us of the potential for greatness. And may those three votes remind us of our need for humility.

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