In the immediate aftermath of the 2004 season, I and every other Bosox fan who enjoyed ready access to spell-check was offered a quickie book deal. Among a few thousand other words, I wrote these, responding to a long-suffering (but now liberated) friend’s comment that there seemed to be a whole lot of Johnny-come-latelies freeloading on the team’s sudden, altogether stunning success: “Well, as for me,” [I said and wrote], “I’m feeling rather benevolent about all things Red Sox these days; very hail-fellow-well-met to any and all newcomers to the fold.” I was at the time, and have remained, sanguine that, vis-à-vis choosing a ballclub for rooting interest, one needn’t martyr oneself over the years—drip, drip, drip; clank, clank, clunk—in order to be redeemed. You didn’t have to live through 1946, ’48, ’49, ’72, ’75, ’78, ’86, ’88, ’90, ’95, ’96 and ’98 to be allowed to enjoy ’04 as thoroughly as you might wish. And then, of course, ’07 to boot.
This kindhearted stance of mine might have been attributable to my status as a parent of young children. The kids were, by their very nature, freshly made Red Sox fans. My wife and I were raising our family in Westchester County, New York, which is supposed to see the sprouts of a new generation of Yankees backers each springtime. We were resisting this agricultural—and philosophical and emotional—imperative.
After the trials and final tribulations of 2003 (ah, Grady), to which Luci and I had been party at the Old Stadium, the Sox were a more difficult sell. If it took pink hats to bring Caroline and Mary Grace into line, then, well, it took pink hats. If, with Jack, all the talk had to be about Damon’s Samsonesque hair and Big Papi’s posturing in the batter’s box, rather than the yesteryear transcendence of Ted and Yaz and other dinosaurs, then so be it. I was, at age 50, ripe and ready to be a modern-day, even latter-day Sox fan, never disavowing my battle-scarred heritage, but dedicated to moving forward. When some of my generational confreres started deriding the new citizens in this thing that was being called Red Sox Nation as “Pink Hats,” I thought to myself: Caroline and Mary Grace look really cute in their pink hats. And so did all the other kids posing in their Christmas card photos that December of ’04, when every mailing we received from what we called “back home” included a Red Sox picture.
But, yes, there sure were a whole lot more of us than there had been only yesterday. I grew up on the ’60s (meaning pre-’67) Sox; Dad took Kevin and me to our first game in 1960 so that we might see the Splinter play at least one time before he retired. The sounds of Fenway, during that game and the next several dozen at which I was in attendance, were hollow but beautiful: the thwack of bat on ball, the thump of ball in glove. You could hear all that because there were only four or five thousand of your friends habiting the grandstand, their chatter subdued. The shouts of “Get your dogs!” or “Cracker Jacks, heayah!” were not only audible but crystal clear.
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The Sox fans of today, including my kids, refuse to believe this: a semi-filled (never mind often all-but-empty) Fenway. But as they say in baseball, you can look it up. My children have grown up on multiple championships by the Sox, Pats, C’s and Bruins, and so it has proved a relatively simple matter to raise them right; not least, they retain near-constant bragging rights at school. But as I type these words, the Sox are what they are, Miami is not only the NBA champion but the best team in the East, the skaters are on strike and thank God for Tom Brady.
But this is about the Sox. I hear we have a sellout streak ongoing today, as we draw the curtain on the lamentable 2012 season. People I trust, like Mr. Lucchino of the front office, say that this is so. I’m not sure I quite believe them, and my doubt causes me a small bit of chagrin. A few seasons back, such folks as I had great sport with the number of obviously empty million-dollar seats at “sellouts” in the New Stadium in the Bronx. “Ha, ha—sure!” And, well: Now we were forced to watch SportsCenter highlights from the Fens, a lot fewer fannies in evidence than had been tallied by the beancounters even before the first pitch was thrown. As I trudge up to bed, I find myself wondering if, sellout streak notwithstanding, it sounded quite like the old days in the stands at Fenway tonight: hollow baseball sounds breaking through. My older daughter is, as said, named Caroline, and she is sweet indeed, so you can imagine how she enjoys the sing-along 8th-inning stretch. But, I think to myself as I pull the covers up against the autumn chill, perhaps now is the time to coach the kids about what it really means to be a lifelong Red Sox fan.
This is not principally about 2012, it’s far more about September of 2011. That was the epic and tawdry collapse; that was the one that really reminded a veteran about the wars gone by, when the guys did all they could to screw it up on a regular basis, and the gonfalon stayed nestled in its box for another year. Maybe, just maybe I should explain to young Jack that the many bums I held as holy in the early 1960s were just as bad as the dugout chicken-eaters and locker-room beer-swillers of last year. Who are we to get puritanical about these things? Yes, sure: We’re authentic New England puritans, but really: What is a performance enhancing drug? Fried chicken and a cool Bud will never yield a positive test, yet we now know that Manny and Papi and whomever else were Minute Maid-quality juicers at various intervals, and none of us fans are offering to return the ’04 hardware. Even the heroes of yore, the good guys, the be-sainted . . . I mean, they used to pull outlandish stuff all the time. Look, but briefly, at the properly canonized Gentleman Jim Lonborg. Let’s say Jon Lester broke his leg skiing in the Rockies during the off-season with Jill St. John, or her modern equivalent—Jessica Simpson, for instance. Good God. He would be crucified.
So you see, kids, the Sox you’re given are the Sox you get, and you love them just the same—you love your Monbos and Moreheads and Malzones just as you must love your modern-day Middlebrooks, even when he doesn’t run out a line drive down the left-field line that looks to be foul but, oops, just landed fair. We would like to think he got chewed out by Bobby Valentine for dogging it, especially as we explain to our little leaguer that ”You never dog it like that, no matter what.” But how can we know? The manager’s name is Valentine. Maybe a man named Valentine chews nobody out.
I was called Bobby when I was a kid, but I’m getting up there now and no one calls me Bobby anymore. I presume Bobby Valentine—as a name and a flesh-and-blood Red Sox—will now join our franchise’s truly felicitous roster of punchlines. Pumpsie’s flight to the airport. Pinky’s unaccountable longevity. Bobby Valentine’s brief romance with Boston. Pumpsie, Pinkie, a guy named Valentine—makes you want to laugh, or cry.
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There is something not only logical but epoch-defining to the fact that 2012 is winding up the very worst Red Sox campaign since ’66. It was the following season way back in the day—the very next season, 1967, the year of the Impossible Dream—that the Big Deception was born. Overnight, it became easy to be a Red Sox fan. The deception has lasted three and a half decades, always something obvious to cheer about. A winning record. A pennant race. We liked them apples plenty, but now, as 2012 winds down, we are asked, “How do you like these apples?”
To my confreres with pink-hatted children, I can only say: Teach your kids to like them as well as they can. I was talking the other day to my friend Dave Shribman, who’s the editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette but who grew up outside Boston right about the same time I did. I asked him if I was wrong about any of this, and he—doubly bruised after the promise of this year’s Pirates (his new, second team)—said no, no, not at all. In fact, he went further: “I have seen this movie before, time and again. I know how it ends. And in some ways, I see it as comfort food. For a generation of Red Sox faithful, we are home again.”
If so, let’s hope we’re only home for a visit. I wouldn’t mind winning again, sonner than later.
But if we don’t . . .
You see, children, this is your team, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, in glory and in shame, in the win column and the loss—till death do you part. Realize that now, and stick with us.
Not all will. There are—I’m sure you’ve seen them in videos—military obstacle courses that feature all sorts of hazards, logs and puddles and such. All these intrepid soldiers make their way forcefully along, and then they come to the rope ladder. Some just can’t get over, or don’t pull quite hard enough—their pink hats blown away as they fall backward into the mud and decide to quit the effort. Red Sox Nation has had a good run for several years, but now it confronts the rope ladder. There has been a shakeout already, I’m sure, no matter what the sellout streak says. Not long ago in Fenway, in order to keep the place filled, they had an eighth anniversary celebration of the 2004 team, eight apparently being the new ten. Certainly we hope that next season there isn’t cause for a ninth, nine being the new eight. But if there is, my kids will be there. They are going to make it to the top of the rope ladder—to the top and over. And then they are going to be Red Sox fans forevermore. Till death do they part.
Because in the interim, they need a place to live.