Houston’s Jewish Existentialism Astro Alex Bregman – The Forward


If you’re not from Beantown or Bayou City, you might not be aware of a remarkable drama that’s going on right now. The Boston Red Sox and Houston Astros are engaged in a marathon fight to win the American League Championship Series. After a first win in Houston, Boston erupted with two wins that included not one, but two Grand Slam tournaments in a single round. Like a cue, another grand slam was belched out by the Sox in Game 3.

But the earthquake plates had not finished moving. In the hostile confines of Fenway Park, the Astros went orbital in games four and five. Not only did they beat the Sox pitchers for 18 points in both games, but they also put down the Boston killer row, allowing just three unnecessary runs. Not only did the momentum seem to shift to the Astros, so did the home court advantage. Houston will be home for the last, maybe two games.

But is it possible that in the end all the races are, well, useless? That the noise and fury rising from the stadiums, roaring in taverns and coolers, and rumbling in the media mean nothing? In short, that this series is less an epic than an existential event?

No player is better positioned to offer an answer than Alex Bregman, the All-Star third baseman who, before joining the Astros, was a member of the Albert Congregation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Although Bregman majored in sports administration at LSU, he often appears to have majored in philosophy. With an emphasis, it seems, in existentialism.

It’s crazy, but people dressed in Astro swimsuits and conjuring up barbecue smoke share a number of ideas with philosophers once wrapped in trench coats and shrouded in Gaulish smoke.

“Playing meaningful games,” Bregman remarked, “that’s what it is about”.

It sounds pretty straightforward. Until you realize like Nietzsche – the grandfather of existentialism – that the Grand Arbiter is dead. We killed the Ump, says Nietzsche, replacing it with reason and science. (MLB risks killing umps by replacing them with the science of automated ball hitting technology. Who needs the Big Man when you have Trackman?)

How Houston Astro star Alex Bregman became the most eloquent existential philosopher since Albert Camus

How can life be meaningful in such an absurd world? What to do when, overnight, the traditions and truths that we have lived our lives by evaporate? When does everything we thought was solid melt in the air? Just as the existentialist thinker Albert Camus turned to football – aka, football – for an answer we could turn to baseball. Former goalkeeper for his university team, Camus remarked “the little I know about morality, I learned on the soccer field”.

So, too, for Bregman. The 2017-18 cheating scandal, when the Astros stole signs from opposing teams, taught him a harsh existential truth: not only are we doomed to be free, but we are also responsible for the choices we make freely. It is only by exercising this freedom that we can live meaningful lives, but also live a life inevitably marked by mistakes.

It took a while for Bregman to choose to admit he made the wrong choice. This is not surprising: after all, freedom is also an inexhaustible source of existential angst. But as existentialists have insisted, the burden of freedom is liberating. This is what Jean-Paul Sartre meant by his paradoxical assertion that the French have never been so free as under the German Occupation. Or, as our Gold Glove finalist puts it, “having pressure is a privilege”.

The existential lessons Bregman learned from baseball don’t end there, however. For one thing, life is littered with times when you realize you’re as lonely as Bregman standing in the batter’s box watching a ball blaze towards him at 100 mph. It is, most of the time metaphorically, a moment of life and death. For Dr Rieux, the narrator of Camus’ novel “La Peste”, such loneliness is, literally, also a moment of life and death.

Although unable to cure his dying patients, Rieux nevertheless persisted. As he said to his friend Tarrou: “I defend them as best I can, that’s all. The right thing to do, Rieux understands, “was to do your job as it should. “For Bregman, it’s no different:” The only thing I have control over is working hard and running my business the right way. “

How Houston Astro star Alex Bregman became the most eloquent existential philosopher since Albert Camus

On the flip side, the doctor and batter eventually discover that, whether faced with the plague bacillus or the puckered ball, their efforts only make sense when done with other men. To a priest who joined him to fight the plague, the atheist Rieux declares that only one thing matters: “We are working side by side for something good that unites us. Learning Spanish to get closer to the many Hispanic players on the team, Bregman echoes Rieux when he explains that “being a good teammate is part of life”.

But you also have to be a good person. At his bar mitzvah, 13-year-old Bregman announced that we “must all realize that there are people who can suffer and we must all try to do our part to alleviate that suffering when we can.” Even a baseball player can do something about it. Several years later, upon learning that a fan was dying of stage 4 cancer, Bregman visited his home and spent an hour at his bedside. Perhaps Rieux, who spends his life alongside the dying – a spectacle, he admits, to which he has “never been able to get used” – would approve.

Finally, the two men share the same existential and skeptical vision of victory. When Tarrou tells Rieux that his dedication to healing the dying means a life of endless defeat, he can only nod. There is no reason to hope, Camus insisted, but it was no reason to despair. Astro fans might want to remember what Bregman never forgets. “This game is so great,” he observed, “because it’s a game of chess.”

Rieux could not have said better.

How Houston Astro star Alex Bregman became the most eloquent existential philosopher since Albert Camus

Robert Zaretsky teaches at the University of Houston and is a columnist for the Forward. His new book, “Victory Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in Time of Plague” will be published next March.

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