Thursday, October 28, 2004

Red Sox Nation Redeemed

John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, likened the new lands in America to a shining city on a hill that offered hope for he and his religiously oppressed brethren. Thus, from it's very founding, New England was deeply inculcated with a dogged belief in having faith and reaping the rewards for such righteous belief. These rewards did not come naturally though, and there were setbacks. Yankee hard-work and stubborness also evolved from these roots and, combined with their bedrock faith, they enabled New Englanders to believe that through persistance good things could come.

In 1918, the Red Sox won the World Series. They didn't win it again until last night. During this span, generations of New Englanders have endured chants of "1918" from arch-rival Yankees' fans, have been inundated over the last decade and a half with tales of a supposed "Curse" (which never "existed" until a book by Dan Shaugnessy posited the theory, by the way), and have come so close so many times, only to have their hearts broken by Game 7 failure after Game 7 failure. Last night, that all ended.

I was born in Vermont, but my first real, fully-formed memories were generated in Massachusetts. I don't remember the 1975 World Series; not Fisk's home run, not Tiant, not the eventual loss in game 7. I'm sure my father talked about the Sox, but for me, the Red Sox permanently entered my consciousness through Topps baseball cards. I can still smell that cardboard-stale-bubblegum smell that assailed my nostrils whenever I ripped open a new pack. I eagerly looked for Red Sox players (and cursed the seemingly endless amounts of Seattle Mariner players in every pack!) and always regarded it a good day when a Fisk, Rice, Lynn, Burleson, Hobson or Yaz card appeared. I never managed to collect the entire Red Sox roster, but through my collecting I learned of the Red Sox, new their stats and came to identify them as MY team. I shared them with my buddies and with my family. I didn't know of the history. I was blissfully unaware. That would change.

In 1978, I moved to Maine, the new kid in a new school, but the Red Sox were still there, in the background. In the late summer of '78, I was aware that they had played well, but I didn't know that they were swooning and that the Yankees were charging. And then one fall day, I vividly recall that I knew that I had to get home from school to watch the Red Sox and Yankees in a playoff game. I knew that the winner would keep playing and would probably win the World Series. I ran through the door and turned on the TV and saw that the Red Sox were winning. Cool! And then I saw some skinny, little guy get up to bat. And he hit a home run. His name was what? Bucky Dent? The game blurred. The Red Sox, the best team I had ever seen, the one that I thought could never lose, the one that I had come to love, had lost...to the Yankees. A hatred was born. Shortly thereafter, some of the players I loved the most, specifically Freddy Lynn (my first baseball glove was a Fred Lynn signatured Wilson) and Pudge Fisk, left the team. But I perservered. The Red Sox, not any particular player, were the objects of my devotion and loyalty. They would sorely test that in the years to come.

By 1986, I was a full-fledged devotee of the Red Sox. I saw Clemens pitch his first 20 strike-out game. I watched them come back against the Angels in the '86 ALCS. Hendu and Spike and Maaahhty Barrett took their place in my Sox pantheon next to Rice and Dewey. And they came close. They were up 2-0 on the Mets. A complete unknown had emerged, Calvin Schiraldi. And an old vet, Buckner, had contributed. Then they faltered, then came game 6, and a 10th inning lead, and it's evaporation, and Mookie and the ball between the legs. And my heart was crushed. I don't even remember Game 7.

The late '80's/early 90's were a tough time for me to follow the Sox. I was in New York (aak!) going to college and cheered the Sox from afar. I got info from the box scores and hung on during the debacles that were the playoff series against the Oakland A's juggernaut. After graduation, I went to sea in the Merchant Marine. It was even tougher to follow my beloved Sox, but they didn't accomplish much in those years anyway. When I stopped sailing for good in 1994, the team had started building again. Nomar was an emerging star, Mo Vaughn was in his prime and the Sox seemed to face the Indians in the playoffs every year. (I, reality, I think it was only a couple times). By 1999, Pedro Martinez, the best pitcher in baseball, was on the Sox and an old rivalry had finally begun anew.

From 1999 until now, the Red Sox have been negatively defined by their rivalry with the Yankees. Always coming up just short, never able to climb the mountain. Last year, Aaron Boone's home-run was but one more excruciating example. To be 5 outs away...My wife sat next to me and watched Boone's ball disappear. She came to understand the depths of frustration. I asked myself, How could I possibly put myself through this again? Then came this off-season with the Manny waiver move, the Courtship of A-Rod and the Schilling signing. I had doubts. I predicted that they wouldn't make the playoffs because it just seemed like, on paper, they were too good. And wasn't that exactly when the Sox seemed to let us down? When everything seemed to be in place? But I still cheered. How could I not, they are part of me, part of my sports identity. I had come too far to give up now. I even took the crucial step of introducing my kids to the Red Sox when I took them to Fenway for their first time. I had officially passed on the birthright. Would this next generation ever see the Sox win it all? Was this a cruel joke to play on my kids?

It is a rite of spring to watch the Sox come out blazing, only to be eclipsed by the Yankees by May, and to pray that somehow, some way, they make the playoffs. And that is exactly the script that they followed again. They swept the Angels and looked good. The inevitable showdown with the Yankees loomed and it looked like it would be one for the ages. Then Schilling's ankle failed. In what seemed like a blink of an eye, the Sox were down 2-0 to the hated Yankees. But they were going back to Fenway and, though it would be tough, they could still easily make this a series. Then came game 3. A slaughter. I blanched, I loved them too much, I turned off the TV and stopped watching. By Sunday, like an addict, I reluctantly turned on the TV, vowing that if they were going to go down, I may as well witness it. But they didn't go down. They came back. They slayed the Yankee dragon with the bats of Big Papi and the previously struggling Mark Bellhorn and Johnny "Baseball Jesus" Damon. It was possible, after all! Faith and belief could be rewarded! But there was one more step to go.

The Cardinals were a seemingly imposing foe, but they had an Achilles heal: their pitching. And that proved the difference. The Sox bats never let up and their pitching was relentless. The Cardinals were introduced to East Coast baseball. The Red Sox and Yankees had battled, and the winner had emerged hardened. In retrospect, whichever National League team found their way to the World Series would have been outmatched by either the Bronx Bombers or the "Idiots." The Yankees and Red Sox fed off each other all year. This time, for the first time in my memory, the Red Sox had emerged victorious. They came back from an 0-3 deficit and used the momentum to dispatch the Cardinals with relative ease.

How did they finally do it? The Red Sox had luck and they had skill, but most of all they had faith. Faith in themselves and their teammates. They dragged New England along and, by beating the Yankess, they showed us that our faith could be rewarded. We finally believed they would win it all. It was finally going to happen. Last night it did: they won the World Series.

As I look at it now, my loyalty and devotion to the Red Sox are a metaphor for my larger outlook on life. I don't believe in abandoning a cause, a belief, or a person because it would be easier or convenient. I'm stubborn and believe that persistance will be rewarded. I've experienced such in my personal life. The ironic thing up until today has been that one of my earliest strains of loyalty, that to the Red Sox, has been the one that has endured the longest without being so rewarded. Yet, I didn't maintain my loyalty in the hopes of being rewarded. Nor did I do it out of some perverse pleasure taken from cheering on a perpetual "loser." I didn't relish the pain, I endured it. Catastrophic failure inured me against the little failures by putting them into perspective. Yet, most importantly, I was loyal because it was the right thing to do.

Now, if I close my eyes I can imagine a city on a hill. Flying over the city is a flag, a white banner that folds and straightens with the October wind. When it straightens I can see two off-set red socks, beckoning the faithful onward. The city is Boston, the Hub of New England, and many will come from Maine and New Hampshire and Vermont and Massachusetts and Connecticut and Rhode Island and from further afield on a pilgramage to celebrate a long sought victory. We have done our penance. We have walked through the shadows and emerged to see that shining city on the hill. Our suffering is over. We have kept the faith and have been redeemed. The Boston Red Sox are Champions again. All is right, Red Sox Nation.

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