A Jewish champ in Da Bronx

If Yuri Foreman wins the first boxing match at Yankee Stadium since 1976 on Saturday night, he may become something of a celebrity as a Jewish champion.

Foreman is currently the WBA Super Welterweight champ. But boxing has plummeted in popularity over the last 20 years and few sports fans care who the super welterweight champ is.

Still, the fact that Foreman is Jewish — and training to be a rabbi! — is bound to get him some media attention if he wins Saturday’s high-profile fight against Miguel Cotto.

There were a lot of top Jewish fighters during the first half of the 20th century, like Benny Leonard and Barney Ross, but far, far fewer in recent decades.

Foreman was born in Belarus during the Soviet days. His family moved to Israel when he was 9 and he started training in an Arab gym.

Along the way, Foreman started practicing Orthodox Judaism. He won’t fight during the Sabbath.

But Saturday night’s fight will be long after dark. HBO’s coverage won’t start until 10 p.m.

The last fight at Yankee Stadium (the old Stadium, of course) was the third Muhammad Ali-Ken Norton showdown in 1976. Ali won the fight, but many observers — myself included — thought that Norton won their rubber-match.

I am among the last boxing fans, but I’ve only seen Foreman fight once. His reputation: good defensive boxer, no punching power.

His opponent, Cotto, has been a top fighter in recent years. But in his last fight in November, he got TKOed by the great Manny Pacquiao.

Cotto is of Puerto Rican descent and will likely have a lot of fans at the Stadium. As will Foreman.

So, as the man says, Let’s get ready to rumble. (Am I a frustrated sports writer? Maybe.)

Tale of the tape: Yankees vs. Pope

So I was at Yankee Stadium last night for the first playoff game, talking to fans about the high cost of seeing Yankee baseball these days.

Being there was not unlike covering the pope’s visit to NY a couple of years back.

tjndc5-5jnvbyb0psn12s1ibitk_layoutFirst you have to go through security and line up for your press credentials. Granted, security was not nearly as extensive for the Yanks as it was for B16.

Then you have to find some room to work, with armies of media people all around you. The media section at the new Yankee Stadium is much more comfortable and roomy than at the old stadium, but it’s still real crowded. The Japanese reporters alone, who follow Hideki Matsui’s every move, take up a lot of room.

The Yankees have a lot of people who assist the media. They are constantly bringing out stacks of paper — statistics, quotations from the pre-game pressers, background info. It was the same with the pope, but the Yankee people produce more stuff.

I had a bit more freedom to move around during the game than I did during a papal event. And that’s understandable.

Interviewing fans at Yankee Stadium is not all that different from chatting with the faithful at the old Yankee Stadium (where B16 celebrated Mass) or at St. Joseph’s Seminary, where the pope held a massive youth rally.

Yankee fans, like pope fans, were thrilled to be at the big event. But they often have trouble explaining why.

tjndc5-5r7p9zi66kz12gmzgbw9_layoutIt’s obvious to them.

Who wouldn’t want to see the pope? Who wouldn’t want to see the Yanks in the playoffs?

What else? Pope followers wore special T-shirts from their parish, their youth group or the papal event itself. Yankee fans wear T-shirts sporting Derek Jeter’s name and number.

The papal events offered much memorabilia. But no one can compete with the Yanks when it comes to selling stuff.

Other than that, papal events and Yankee games each have some formality, serious moments, opportunities to cheer, and really loud PA systems.

And when they’re over, you have to wade through the crowd. It takes a while.

Missouri Synod’s Benke keeps going and going

Remember when the Rev. David Benke of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod got suspended by his denomination from taking part in an interfaith memorial service at Yankee Stadium after 9/11?

It was one of the biggest — and to many people, baffling — religion stories of 2002.

At the time, a letter from a superior to Benke said: “Joining in prayer with pagan clerics in Yankee Stadium was an offense both to God and to all Christians.”

The suspension was eventually lifted and Benke continued on as president of the Atlantic District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which basically covers eastern New York state and has its headquarters in Bronxville.

I mention this because Benke was just elected to a seventh term as president (a bishop-like position).

Benke, 63, has been president since 1991, making him one of this region’s senior religious leaders. He is a good-humored and well-liked fellow among his clergy and with clergy from other denominations.

He also serves as pastor of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church and School in Brooklyn.

In his remarks at the district’s 57th convention, he said: “Where do I get my energy? Long-time residents and denizens of Cypress Hills who have known me know for over 35 years often say, ‘You know you always look the same.’ And my response is invariably, ‘Good grief! I must have really looked old when I was young.’ ”

He then continued: “The secret to my spiritual energy is my baptism. And yours.”

But Benke has to update his letter on the Atlantic District webpage.

The headline? “Rain, rain go away.”

No, I wasn’t there, but you can watch Joel Osteen at the Stadium

Ugh. People keep asking me if I went to Yankee Stadium last Saturday to see Joel Osteen.

I interviewed him beforehand and wrote a preview of the big night, after all.

But I couldn’t go. Just too much going on that weekend.

Truth is, if I had known what kind of reaction I would get to the preview (a lot), I would have done whatever it took to get to the stadium.

Boy, people LOVE this guy.

I can tell you this: You can see much of the Yankee Stadium gig on YouTube right here.

And here is the beginning of Joel’s sermon:

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The weekend line-up

Today: Archbishop Dolan visited Ground Zero.

As he walked out, he said he felt an “overwhelming sadness at the horror, suffering and pain that the site still carries.”

Tomorrow: Joel Osteen at Yankee Stadium. Will he fill more seats than the Yankees?

Sunday: I’m speaking at Maryknoll at 2:30 p.m. about covering the religion beat.

Monday: The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life releases a major study on people who switch faiths.

Batting first…lifting you up…Joel…Osteen

Joel Osteen’s big night at the NEW Yankee Stadium is only three days away — and my advance about him is on LoHud today and in the Journal News.

I’ve already received several comments asking me whether Osteen’s inspirational approach is sincere and whether he will last.

Hard to say.

I do think he’s sincere. After all, he is very honest about who he is and what he does — he is the son of a preacher who became a preacher himself and believes that his gift is to lift people up.

And that’s that.

Will he last? I don’t see why not. I was just saying to a colleague that these are dark and cynical times in many ways. Maybe Osteen provides a spiritual salve that works for people?

7 p.m. at the Stadium. Doors at 5:30 p.m. Tickets here.

If you missed it, I used my FaithBeat column this past Saturday to compare Osteen with Archbishop Tim Dolan, in terms of their comfort with the media and their rare ability to communicate with the masses.

And, hey, is it just me, or does Osteen have a striking resemblance to Martin Short? Imagine Short with the hair gel and a less goofy smile.

Maybe it’s me.

Joel and me

The differences between me and Joel Osteen are clear, aren’t they?

He looks relaxed, at ease, hair shimmering, ready to go.

I’m tense, hunched shoulders, semi-perplexed, with a near buzz-cut.

Yeah, that’s me on the left.

I got a chance to sit down yesterday with one of the nation’s most prominent preachers — the most prominent? — to talk about his upcoming gig at the NEW Yankee Stadium. On Saturday, April 25 at 7 p.m., he will become the first non-baseball player to “perform” at the new house.

How did Osteen get this opportunity? Apparently, the Yankees reached out to him. But Osteen told me that he had no idea WHO within the Yankee family decided to turn centerfield over to a Houston preacher.

When I say “turn over,” I don’t mean for free. Osteen’s people are paying a hefty fee to rent the stadium. But it’s a great opportunity, nonetheless. I heard that the Rolling Stones inquired about breaking in the new room, but Osteen — who has some of Jagger’s charisma, I would say — got the spot.

I’ll be writing a profile of Osteen soon, in advance of Yankee Stadium, of course. I talked to him about lots of interesting stuff — interfaith relations, the former Catholics who attend his church, all those unchurched folks out there.

He is certainly a unique guy. Pastor of the largest church in the country. Best-selling author. Beloved by conservatives and liberals alike, despite (because of?) his unwillingness to talk politics or political issues.

He is either truly humble or does a great job pretending to be. He says that his gift is to lift people up with a positive, empowering message — and that’s it. He’ll leave all the other stuff to other preachers with different gifts.

And he can’t quite explain his appeal. It must be God, he told me, because it’s not him.

More to come.

(Papal) Pride of the Yankees

I got my “2008 Ticket Information & Fan Guide” from the Yankees yesterday (but are there any tickets left that I can afford?).

small-mv021308planner03.jpgThere’s a whole page dedicated to the papal Mass on April 20. The Yankees note:

Yankee Stadium has a unique history and special relationship with Vatican City. Not only is Yankee Stadium the site of the first-ever Mass celebrated by a Roman pontiff in the United States — Pope Paul VI during his 1964 visit — it is also the only venue to host more than one papal mass in this country. Pope Benedict’s Mass will be the third. In 1979, Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass in Yankee Stadium during his first papal trip to the United States.

And:

The Apostolic Journey of Pope Benedict will be, for many, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It is especially fitting that in its final year, Yankee Stadium will once again be the place for people to share in this very special event.

If only Bob Sheppard could introduce the pontiff. And now…celebrating Mass…by second base…Pope…Benedict…XVI…