On Saturday, August 10, Zack Wheeler and the Mets beat the Diamondbacks, 4-1, while Phil Hughes and the Yankees lost to the Tigers, 9-3. I enjoyed both games immensely. The Mets had taken over third place in the N.L. East and sat only two games behind Washington for second. The Yankees were stuck down in fourth place of the A.L. East, seven out of the Wild Card, trailing five teams for the last available playoff spot. Better still, the Mets’ record was only 4½ games worse than the Yankees’.
My instinct was to mention this approvingly somewhere, like on this blog. Why wouldn’t I? Do you know the last season in which the Mets a) posted a better record than the Yankees AND b) finished higher in the standings than the Yankees?
1990. That’s when. That’s twenty-three years ago. As of August 10, the Mets and their young pitching were on the upswing. The Yankees were an overpriced mess. It might not constitute retaking New York, given that we weren’t going to any playoffs in 2013 either, but what a step in the right direction the process was about to start taking if the Mets could be said to have compiled a better year than the other team in town. Oh, how I wanted to make a thing of it.
But I thought better of it. You can figure out why. You just have to look at the standings as they stand right now and understand it didn’t pay to harbor those kinds of thoughts, let alone say them out loud. When good things happen — which, for us humans, sometimes includes bad things happening to those we’re not particularly crazy about — we are best off just keeping the, shall we say, Sheadenfreudic portion of our joy to ourselves…particularly when we’re in only the provisional stages of having something tangible to gloat over.
There’s a sermon somewhere in there, I imagine. It turns out I once knew someone who could have offered me some valuable insight on the matter.
No disrespect intended to the current practitioner of rabbinical duties at the Hillcrest Jewish Center in Queens, but I’m deeply sorry their Yom Kippur services will not be led by the late Rabbi Evan Radler tonight and tomorrow. I’ve never been to Hillcrest, mind you, but I knew Rabbi Radler.
Let me clarify: I knew Evan Radler. I had no idea he became a rabbi. I had no idea what he did with his life after both of us were 11 years old. I had no idea that his life ended when both of us were 42 years old, which was eight years ago. I doubt any of it would have come up had his name not popped up on Facebook a while back.
Names from the distant precincts of the past pop up on Facebook like Omar Quintanilla pops up with runners on base and two out. It just happens. On some page comprised of people with whom I went to high school, somebody mentioned Evan Radler, who I knew from day camp one summer and one post-camp event one winter’s day. Funny thing about seeing that name appear as if from out of nowhere was it wasn’t the first time in decades I had thought of him.
Now and again Evan passed through my consciousness. Some people will do that even if they’ve been out of your direct view in what seems like forever. This was 10- and 11-year-old Evan, or my conception of that person, based on what little I could recall of him. For instance, before I got to know Jason well and I was supposed to meet him outside Shea, I’d think, “What does he look like again?” and the face I’d come up with was Evan’s…and then I’d have to recalibrate and recall these were two separate people from two different periods of my life and, besides, Jason in his late 20s didn’t look or act anything like Evan the pre-adolescent.
I solved that problem given time and practice, and I’d be hard-pressed to tell you why I associated with the two, but Jason aside, Evan would come around now and again in my stray thoughts on his own. Just for a flash, usually. I went to camp with dozens of kids when I was 10. I only remember a few specifically. Hardly any of them cross my mind involuntarily. Evan would, though. That’s why it was jarring when one of my high school classmates who knew him mentioned him on Facebook. That’s why I couldn’t resist looking him up on Google. That’s why I was saddened out of proportion to familiarity never mind contemporaneousness to learn in 2012 that Evan, whom I had last seen in 1974, died in 2005 .
As for Evan having become a rabbi — my first reaction was, “Really?” Evan Radler from kosher but not nuts about it Camp Avnet? Well, why not? I have no reason he shouldn’t have, save for you don’t think of 10-year-olds growing up to be rabbis. The only overtly religious components of Camp Avnet were we had to keep our heads covered and we had to say a brucha before eating. Evan, like the other kids who went to the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach (which converted to Camp Avnet during the summer) or Jewish day schools like it, speed-read those Hebrew blessings from right to left and got to their sandwiches while I, a student of the Long Beach public school system, was still stammering over the phonetics. I once told him I didn’t see any real point to making us carry out what felt like a rote ritual. He didn’t exactly proselytize in my face but made it clear he was fine with saying his prayer.
From that he became a rabbi?
Of course there was more to Evan than that transitory episode in the lunchroom. Plus he went on to adulthood and anything goes from there, I suppose. So why shouldn’t a 10-year-old grow up to be a rabbi? Studies show most adults, regardless of what they wind up doing with themselves, were — for approximately twelve months at some early stage of their lives — 10-year-old children.
I’m no authority on rabbis (and Judgment is considered in some quarters best left in the hands of a Higher Authority this time of year), yet it is my impression that Rabbi Radler did his job well. Kind and sincere words  were left behind in the wake of his untimely passing. Evidence of his brand of spiritual leadership eventually went up on YouTube and from what I’ve watched , the videos suggest he surely found his calling.
If one can express one’s condolences long after the fact, I am very sorry for his family, for his congregation and for his community that he was lost so soon. No doubt it would have been interesting to have known him beyond childhood. Chances are remote I would have ever seen him again, but in the Facebook era, you never can tell.
But I did know him once and that’s the Evan Radler who sticks with me, the Evan from the summer of 1973. If the date jumps out at you right there, given what we here know about that time frame, you might think I’m suddenly talking about Evan within the context of the demi-miracle of demi-miracles that occurred for our benefit that autumn.
To which I would say: sort of.
Longtime readers might recognize “Camp Avnet” as the institution that was responsible for bringing me to Shea Stadium for my first game, July 11, 1973. I’ve written about it on multiple occasions, but I’ve never mentioned the name Evan Radler in connection with my own Book of Genesis. There’s a good reason for that.
Evan was a Yankees fan. He was a serpent in the Garden of Avnet in baseball terms. Everybody was a Mets fan in those days. Everybody at camp, anyway. Thus everybody was excited to get on that bus and ride to Shea and see the Mets play the Astros. Evan, however, was the iconoclast in our group. Evan didn’t root for the Mets.
I found that bizarre to the point of insulting. Why would anybody around here not root for the Mets? Kids in Chicago or Pittsburgh, sure, but we’re not there. We’re here. Why would anybody around here not root for my happiness? Root against my happiness? Evan wasn’t one of those “I like both teams” kids, either. He let you know who he was for and who he was against. I didn’t generally make a thing of who I was against because you hardly ever came up against their supporters.
But I had now.
I had known maybe one or two of “his kind” in elementary school to that point, but I wrote them off as sociopaths, cranks or a little dim. Evan was too nice and too smart to be so summarily dismissed among the Yankee rabble. We got along great despite our differences. He was, in the space of eight weeks worth of swimming, arts & crafts and a bus trip to a ballpark, the best friend I made that summer. I even went over to his apartment — his family lived adjacent to the boardwalk in Long Beach — one Sunday to hang out, something I didn’t do much with anybody at that age. I remember he had displayed in is room the same full-color caricatures of ballplayers that I had been collecting. These were the illustrations that had been running in the News every Sunday throughout the summer of 1973, the ones Bruce Stark drew of the Mets  and the Yankees. I saved those pages because they half-featured the Mets.
But Evan preferred the halves that featured the Yankees. Like I said, bizarre.
As 10-year-olds, our allegiances were never far from our collective consciousness. We were 10. We talked about baseball. What else were we going to talk about? (As opposed to now, when I’m 50, and I’m so much more well-rounded.) Evan never seemed malicious but could dwell a bit on the acerbic side. He didn’t mind making note that as the summer of 1973 wore on, his team resided in first place in its division and my team wallowed in last place.
I liked Evan but I didn’t like that. And as August became September, and the Mets began climbing out of the basement and into the pennant race, I had my eye on two sets of standings. I wanted the Mets to win the National League East and I just as badly wanted the Yankees to lose the American League East. Not just not finish first but fall as far from the top as they could.
I got both my wishes. The Mets won their division, their league and almost the World Series. The Yankees plummeted to fourth, 17 games behind the Orioles, saddled with a losing record no less. You gotta believe it was perfect.
No, actually, it would get more perfect. As the postseason unfurled, Evan and I were in different schools, so our first opportunity for a chance meeting arose the following winter at the Hebrew Academy. To encourage return business, the school would hold a “camp reunion,” inviting back those who spent the previous summer there to get reacquainted with the idea. “Reunion” seemed kind of a stretch to use when talking about 11-year-olds getting together, but we got a notice in the mail, I told my parents I’d like to go and my father drove me across town and dropped me off for the festivities.
I wanted to go for only one reason. I wanted to run into only one kid I knew from Camp Avnet. And I got that wish, too. Evan Radler had shown up.
The second I spotted him in the Hebrew Academy gym, I ran over in his direction and announced to him the one thing I’d been waiting months to say…the only thing I still remember saying to him that Sunday afternoon in late January. It was, in essence:
HOW ABOUT THOSE METS NOW, HUH?
OH, AND YOUR YANKEES…NOT SO GOOD, HUH?
I had come to gloat and I was gloating. I don’t know that I had gloated much before this moment. I hadn’t all that much to gloat about, probably. I’d like to think I was raised to muster the common sense to never gloat even when your target is right in front of you and you’re infused with the righteousness of the Mets winning and the Yankees losing. Whether you’re well-versed in gloating or brand new to the discipline, it’s not a skill worth honing. The only thing I didn’t like about Evan during the summer was he rubbed the standings in my face. Why would I do something like that to somebody else, assuming he wasn’t a total jerk? Oh, this reunion between camp buddies could’ve gotten ugly. We were 11 and I was acting the part of the jerk.
But no further ugliness transpired. Evan gave me a decent-sized smile, as if he knew it was coming. I doubt he was happy with the result of the previous baseball season, at least where his team was concerned, but he sublimated it into an “I know, I know,” as if he had figured out that his haughtiness back in July and August of 1973 was perhaps misplaced. It’s even possible Evan wasn’t actually rooting against my happiness across those summer days. I don’t know, however, if I’d go that far in reconstructing the events of four decades ago.
I never saw Evan again. Couldn’t tell you what steered him into the clergy. Relevant to what we do here, I couldn’t tell you how important baseball remained to him. Perhaps it accompanied him on his journey. Perhaps he decided that after 1973 that if this was the way it was going to go — the Yankees forever blowing it, the Mets always coming out on top — maybe there were better things he could do with this passions. Or maybe he stayed a Yankees fan as a diversion from weightier matters of the soul until the day he died far too soon and thus got to enjoy the rewards of six world championships. Maybe, between learning more bruchas and marveling at Reggie Jackson homers, he allowed himself a harmlessly vengeful smirk as the Mets swirled down the toilet in the late ’70s and thought to himself, “That kid from camp in 1973…where is he now…huh?”
Perhaps I flatter myself to think any of this stuck with him. He had a life to live and by all indications he lived to it to great effect. On a panel discussion I was able to watch online, he explained why he came to support gay marriage, which, not that long ago, was something that took at least a little courage among people of his profession to declare. “Let’s move forward,” he advised the skeptics in his audience, “let’s grow up.”
I know he was talking about something else entirely, but he wouldn’t have been unjustified telling me the same thing almost 40 years ago.
Not that I would’ve listened.