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Sarah Jacobsohn - 2019 Jewish Athlete of the Year

By BERNIE BELLAN
It seems strange to be writing an article about the Rady JCC Ken Kronson Sports Dinner.
For over 40 years that assignment would have been given to Harvey Rosen.

 

 

 

 

Jewish Athlete of the Year finalists (l-r): Serena Buchwald (Diving); Sarah Jacobsohn (Ultimate); Premier Brian Pallister; Yonatan Orlov (Baton Twirling); Michael Akbashev (Judo); Yohnatan Elizarov (Figure Skating)

I’m not even sure that we paid much attention to the first few sports dinners in the pages of this paper when they first began in 1973 – beyond running perfunctory press releases announcing that a dinner was about to be held.
But, over the years the dinner has grown in magnitude. The real turning point came in 2009 when Payton Manning was the guest speaker. Until then, while the speakers may have been famous, none of them was still active as an athlete, still competing at the highest level of whatever professional sport in which they were engaged. Since then, we’ve had still-active greats such as Drew Brees and Eli Manning appear here.
As a result attendance at the dinner has grown by a huge amount. This year, almost 1300 tickets were sold.
So, where does Alex Rodriguez fit into that pattern?
After having retired following the 2016 season – after 25 years in Major League Baseball, Rodriguez was one of the greatest baseball players of all time - and would easily top any list of the most coveted guest speakers at not only a sports dinner but, based on his success in business and his fame as being part of one of the best known couples in the world (with someone named Jennifer Lopez), landing him as guest speaker would have to be considered a major coup for the dinner committee.

But honestly, I had never seen Rodriguez interviewed or heard him speak. I hardly ever watch baseball, and I didn’t even know that he now spends part of his time on Fox Sports as a commentator. I didn’t know whether he was at all articulate – or whether he would be a crushing bore (and we’ve had a few of those at past sports dinners).
What a huge surprise it was then, to hear from someone who spoke with passion and seemed to be genuinely contrite for mistakes he had made in his past. After all, the label that was most often applied to Rodriguez was that he was one of the biggest “jerks” in all of baseball. (While I may not watch baseball, I do enjoy reading stories that describe what athletes are really like.)
I had seen TV sports personality Sara Orlesky interview athletes on stage at the sports dinner in the past, and frankly, I wasn’t a great fan of the format. Orlesky is far too respectful when she interviews big name athletes and I wasn’t looking forward to a sycophantic question and answer session that wouldn’t really reveal anything about the guest.

In this case though, Rodriguez’s story was as fascinating as they come. He has a terrific self-deprecating sense of humour, and is all too willing to make himself the butt of a joke – even when it comes to his relationship with someone whose public image is even greater than his: Jennifer Lopez (or as 90% of the world knows her: JLo. I wonder though, whether Ami Hassan of Falafel Place would recognize her. I bet not. He didn’t recognize Julia Roberts when she walked into his restaurant – and told her to take a walk and come back in half an hour!)
Before I begin to describe what Rodriguez had to say (in the adjoining article) – a few words about the rest of the sports dinner, which is now considered a model for other sports dinners. It ran smoothly – over in just 3 1/2 hours, which is much less time than it used to drag on. MC Sara Orlesky was businesslike in her approach, introducing guests without droning on (although it wouldn’t hurt to have a sense of humour occasionally).
Past MC Joe Aiello was always a treat with his off-the-cuff one liners. Even Rabbi Matthew Leibl ought to receive consideration as MC for future dinners. His benediction was typically thoughtful, drawing an analogy between baseball and Jewish life in the sense that the ultimate goal of both is to make it “home”. In the Jewish context, Rabbi Leibl noted, “home” can refer to Israel (unless Israel deports you first; see story in the past issue how Israel deported my nephew, a visiting academic, over a huge visa mix-up. By the way, after realizing how terrible that faux pas looked, Israeli authorities stepped in three days after my nephew had been deported and overrode the decision to deport him. Yes, this paper does have considerable impact, it turns out.) Or, “home” can refer to the importance of family and home, Rabbi Leibl suggested.

This year’s sports dinner honouree, Marjorie Blankstein, is legendary for her generosity. As her daughter Carol noted, her mother doesn’t wait to be approached for a donation; when she sees a worthy cause in need of help, she takes the initiative herself and approaches that cause with an offer to help. How many times has Marjorie Blankstein (and before his passing, Marjorie’s late husband Morley Blankstein as well), lent her name to a particular cause as part of a drive to raise funds?
The purpose of the sports dinner is to raise funds to help send needy kids to the Rady JCC daycamp. With hundreds of thousands of dollars raised through the dinner, the Rady daycamp has become an enormous enterprise, helping to provide summer recreation for thousands of Winnipeg kids.
One of the highlights of the dinner is watching the heavy hitters in the audience outbid each other for some very major prizes. Each year in recent years the Vickar Automotive Group has donated a car to be auctioned off. At past dinners the cars tended to be lower priced vehicles – and although they would fetch bids upwards of $17-18,000, this year the car being auctioned off was a Corvette Stingray!


Can you believe it went for $27,000? But then, as if that weren’t dramatic enough, Alex Rodriguez grabbed the microphone and said he was going to offer three prizes of his own:
The first was four tickets to watch the New York Yankees at any stadium in Major League Baseball where the Yankees might be playing this summer. Along with the tickets, Rodriguez was also giving four field passes for the winning bidder to go on to the field and meet the players from both teams. Nice. That prize went for $7,000.
Next up, he offered an opportunity for four people to come to L.A. and visit with him at Fox Studios, where he is a regular sports commentator. At the same time they would be invited into the sports booth and visit with his co-commentators. The winning bid was $7500.
Then, Alex really pulled a rabbit out of his hat: He said that JLo was about to embark on a 30-city tour (with one stop in Canada, in Montreal). “All the shows sold out in one hour,” Rodriguez noted.
“What I’m offering is four tickets to the show in Montreal,” he said, adding that JLo didn’t know he was going to be doing this. On top of that, whoever won the tickets would be invited backstage to meet with the performer after the show and “have a beer with us” in her dressing room. (Rodriguez noted though that if “she hears about this and breaks up with me, you’re bringing me back” to the sports dinner.)
After a pretty serious bidding war, the tickets went for $11,000! But, Rodriguez didn’t stop there. He turned to the table that had finished second in the bidding, and asked: “Are you still interested in the tickets?” The answer was yes. “Then I’m going to give four more tickets to you” (for the $10,500 that table had bid).
Not bad, huh? Completely on his own, Alex Rodriguez had raised another $36,000 for the sports dinner!
What I wondered though, is why didn’t he take bets on how long his relationship with JLo will last?

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