There’s only one Christmas card on our refrigerator. It’s a standard photo of two kids and a generic season’s greetings message. Scrawled in the white space is a single sentence: “I’m pretty sure this is NOT the year.” This is not as cryptic as it sounds. My wife and I understood immediately: our holiday correspondent thought the Red Sox wouldn’t win the World Series in 2013. Because if you only have room for one thought on a yearly greeting, what else would you mention but the fate of the Red Sox?
What is it about the Red Sox – or any sports team – that makes their success seem so important? Damned if I can figure it out. All I know is that half of the ten happiest, most thrilling, or most memorable moments of my life concern the Red Sox.
Which is – by any objective measure – insane! The success or failures of a few over-conditioned college dropouts should logically be no concern of mine, regardless of what uniform they’re wearing. And yet sometimes I can’t fall asleep because a struck baseball has landed one foot on the wrong side of a wall. I have spent more time worrying about some 24-year-old kid’s shoulder than I have about my own – even when I couldn’t lift my arm above my head! I have stood in line for a half hour to get the signature of a meathead I don’t even respect personally just because he was able to throw a spheroid 95 miles an hour.
Obviously there’s something deep within the human psyche that demands a broader purpose or sense of group identity. We see this in politics, which is no longer about voting your pocketbook or economic interests but about making a statement about what kind of person you are. At election time people get INFLAMED because one candidate has promised to raise or lower the tax rate on a particular group by three or four percentage points even though the real-world impact will be minimal. Or they are FURIOUS because someone has made a symbolic gesture they don’t like about gun control, global warming or birth control. In fact, the more meaningless the gesture (flag pins, anyone?) the more it drives group solidarity.
At least in sports, we don’t pretend that whoever wins the championship will materially change our lives. We more or less understand that the players don’t love us back and will leave if another team offers them a contract worth a thousand dollars more, but we still root for them as if they were intimate members of our family.
Having said all that, I find myself in the curious position of not caring quite as much about this Red Sox team this year. Oh, I care A LOT, and have watched many many games, but it no longer feels like life and death. Beginning in 2003 (the year the Sox SHOULD have won it all) I went on an eight-year bender in which every twist and turn with the Red Sox felt like the most important thing in the world. I checked www.bostondirtdogs.com twice day, subscribed to Die Hard magazine and scheduled my life around big games. That all came crashing to an end in September 2011, when the Red Sox experienced the biggest collapse in the history of baseball, forced out manager Terry Francona, lost general manager Theo Epstein and then revealed that a number of the Red Sox pitchers had been chowing down fried chicken and beer WHILE THE GAMES WERE GOING ON.
(Probably a photo-shopped image, but who knows for sure?)
In response to that fiasco, the Sox then hired Bobby Valentine as manager, an unmitigated disaster from the start, who led the team to an ignominious last place finish in 2012. And to make matters worse, Francona wrote a “tell-all” book that laid bare the dysfunction in the Red Sox management and the selfishness of the players. By the time I’d finished that book my eight-year fever had broken. I just didn’t care anymore. Didn’t follow the off-season trades. Didn’t follow Spring Training. Didn’t want anything to do with them.
I wasn’t really paying attention when they overhauled the team, signing a bunch of players I’d barely heard of: Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Johnny Gomes, Steven Drew, Mike Carp. The Sox had cleared out some over-priced malcontents and picked up cheaper players with more “character.” Now, it’s one of the bigger debates in sports: does a player’s “intangibles” contribute to the team’s success, intangibles being defined as being selfless during the games, displaying leadership in the clubhouse and supporting his teammates. The connection between character and success is something sportswriters talk about – something we all WISH were true. We all want a fair world where the good guys get ahead, but in sports, raw talent and ego usually prevail.
The 2013 Red Sox may be one of those teams where character actually does matter. Everyone says the new players are unselfish and they are winning, so maybe there’s something to this. By rights, I should be ecstatic about this team. They have the best record in the league and are winning some thrilling come-from-behind victories. But I’m only very happy; I’m not over-the-moon.
And I’m not alone. Last summer we went on vacation in Massachusetts and after dinner one night we walked through the tourist-clogged downtown, fully expecting to see the Red Sox game playing on the TVs in the bars and restaurants. But as we peered in the doors to see what the score was we discovered that a Patriots pre-season game has displaced the Sox. In restaurant after restaurant the Patriots had pride of place. It was almost as if the town had decided by osmosis that a meaningless football game was more compelling than a pennant race game.
There’s also been a lot of teeth-gnashing in the Boston sports media over the lack of attendance at Fenway park for even the most compelling games. For nine years in a row every game was sold out and now there are 3-4,000 empty seats a game. What’s the problem.? Here are some suggestions:
The Broken Heart Syndrome. This is a real thing. When someone crushes your heart, tears it out, stomps on it and feeds it to the neighbor’s dog, it’s hard to turn around and love them the next day, even if they ask for forgiveness. This new team of good buys is paying the price for the terrible behavior of the last two years.
Fatigue. As noted, it’s hard to maintain an infatuation for years and years. Eventually some of the intensity will burn out. Of course we’ve lost a lot of the fair-weather fans – the ones who hopped on board after 2004 and made the Sox a fad. And good riddance. But even those of us who are lifetime fans go through periods of ups and down and I feel like I am emotionally exhausted by the last decade.
Player anonymity. Although we root for the team, we also root for the individual players, in whom we become emotionally invested. We remember them as rookies, we know their family situations, we have cheered their success. Because of the significant turnover on the 2013 team there are fewer fan favorites to root for. There’s scrappy super-loyal Dustin Pedroia; Jon Lester who had cancer and pitched a no-hitter; Clay Buchholz who married a supermodel and pitched a no-hitter. You could add David “Big Papi” Ortiz to the list, but he’s kind of worn out his welcome with all his griping. It hasn’t helped that in a show of solidarity many of the players have grown beards, which makes it harder to tell apart. Seriously, who is Mike Napoli and who is Johnny Gomes?
(Seriously, who is who in this photo?)
No Yankee Challenge. I never thought I would say this, but I miss the Yankees, as obnoxious, entitled, smarmy and privileged as they and their fans are. I mean, I really hate the Yankees and everything they represent. Their season has been the pathetic mess I urgently wished for, and it was glorious to embarrass them in Yankee Stadium earlier this month. But as we cruise toward the post-season it seems much less important without the Yankees to root against. When the Sox and Yankees play in meaningful games it seems like Armageddon – sometimes there’s an ecstatic result and sometimes I want to kill myself. But I never feel quite as alive as when they are at each other’s throats.
Finally, I’m not sure what role the Boston Marathon bombing plays in the way we feel about the Red Sox this year. The bombing took place about a mile from Fenway Park just after the conclusion of the Sox’ Patriots Day game. The most significant moment of healing wasn’t the memorial service attended by the President but at the first Sox game after the bombing. Through the luck of the schedule, the next game was the following Saturday, after the bombers had been killed or captured. All of Boston tuned in to watch the pre-game ceremonies, including this tribute film:
So maybe the Red Sox are a team of destiny, destined to bring joy to Boston after the sadness of the Marathon. It didn’t work out for the Yankees that way after September 11, but that will be the dominant narrative if the Sox make it all the way. You can count on them including some bombing victims in the Duck Boat parade.
Bottom line? I still love the Red Sox. I’m a bit afraid of committing myself emotionally, even though they done everything to deserve it this year. I’m looking forward to the play-offs with a bit of trepidation but hope they get hot at the right time. My life is measured out in Red Sox milestones and I’d rather remember this stage of my life as the time they won their third World Series trophy rather than as the time they finished in last place.