Four in fourteen

Thu, 11/01/2018 - 8:00pm
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Today the duck boats rolled through Boston, celebrating yet another World Series Championship. A few fans were a bit too taken by the moment and threw full cans of beer, I gather to be caught by the riders who could open them and spray anyone nearby.

I thought, as I have many times over these past few days, of 2004, specifically, of the instant at which I let myself believe, not hope but believe, a win was in the offing. It was not any analysis of statistics, or phase of the moon, it was my off-handed comment that if the Series came back to Boston, and if the Red Sox won, Fenway would be torn to the ground by the frenzied fans.

The response, from someone with Irish roots, deeper and darker than the most dour Puritan, said there was no way the Boston team would sweep the series. It was a moment frozen in amber, the sun shining beyond the window, the files on the desk, the spot where I was sitting, all as clear as yesterday.

Flashes of absolute certainty do not come to me often; at that moment I felt the world shift.

I grew up in New England — although it was not until high school and a glorious summer when baseball came alive — that I began to understand that team I always presumed to be champions had not been for a very long time. I knew better on that October day, now 14 years ago, than to say aloud, what I felt but am not sure I even let myself think: Next Year had arrived.

Not too long thereafter, some officials from upstate came down and over lunch we talked of that night in St. Louis, when under a blood-red moon, 86 years ended. One said his wife had gone to bed before the game was over and after that last, game-sealing out, he just sat on the sofa for how long he couldn't guess, and like so many across New England, the next day went to the cemetery and wept at his father's grave.

Time was, before 2004, every year in the spring I wrote of baseball, with the words that seem to apply especially to New England, of springtime and hope, of the possibility that flows over the earth as it awakes after a long dark winter. One needn't really be a full-fledged fan to know baseball marked the turning of the seasons. One year I worked “ethereal” into my text and the copy editor expressed annoyance “You aren't writing about the Red Sox again?

Well, yes, I was, and I had no intention of ever stopping, because, on Opening Day, hope sprang eternal, never mind we all knew how it would end.

In 1997, I waited until summer to write that column, which I came upon again a month or two ago. “New Roads and Impossible Dreams” I called it; the text morphing from a history of Ocean Avenue, called “new” in the early years of the century, to the status of the Red Sox.

“It is July in New England, and the verdant fields of spring have turned summer pale. The tall grasses are all drying, losing their resilience, and heavy with seed they fall before the downpour of a thunderstorm come and gone so fast the precipitation hardly registers on the gauges. Briefly, the beaten meadow has an oddly familiar smell, the faint fermentation of damp hay.

“It is July in New England, and I sneak a look at the sports pages to see how far the Red Sox have fallen and find they have no margin, they are already at the absolute bottom of their division. Someone has to be last and, statistically, the Red Sox are not in as poor a position as teams at the bottom of the other five divisions, but it's only the start of July, when there is supposed to be a glimmer of hope that sucks us into thinking maybe this year will be different. We all know the routine, shine, slump, soar, crash and burn.

“Serious fans, I am sure, know all the reasons for this extraordinarily poor showing, which player was traded, whose contract demands were not met, where the manager is failing. None of these factors matter to those of us who who touch the sports pages solely to look at these charts of League and Division come summer.”

Then I ran off a bit, to the 18th century preacher Jonathan Edwards and his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” which seemed to hold the citizens of Enfield, Massachusetts over the pit of hell. His “their foot shall slide in due time” seemed, back then, to be applicable to the Boston team, removed in times but not so far in place from his congregation. “They were always exposed to destruction... to sudden destruction” and “they are able to fall of themselves without being thrown down by the hand of another.”

My father had been a fan, I recalled, of this team which “made those who followed its exploits bungee jumpers before there were bungee cords. It is some faith or hope or more likely charity which keeps the dream alive, that never allows it to hit the ground and be absolutely shattered. Every season it becomes new fodder for all the sportswriters and a widening range of columnists who cannot let be this very regional torture. It is an easy topic, it is the one time we New Englanders can wear our hearts on our sleeves and wallow in this strange misery that is comfortable in its certainty. We bask in it and secretly wonder what would happen if the Red Sox, the team who captured the crown — or whatever it is in baseball — when the New Road was truly new, won the World Series.

There have been four championships in a century of Red Sox baseball, all of them in the last 14 years. Who would have dared dream?