Slumming historians have made a point of telling a yawning nation all about the Boston Red Sox. Heartbreaking defeat. Surreal catastrophe. Ill-omened personnel moves. Big, slow white people. We’ve had them all thrown at us separately, or under the rubric of a so-called “curse” that allegedly attended the team because it once made the altogether logical—and at the time, popular—move of selling off an overweight pitcher who’d been such a cancer in the clubhouse that one of management’s primary functions was to determine each morning in which brothel he might have passed out the night before. But last night, as the Red Sox methodically dismantled the New York Yankees, their $190 million payroll, and a good bit of the game’s history, Red Sox fans experienced something utterly unfamiliar.
Each of the previous three games had hung by a thread. The players seemed to be performing on the edge of the abyss, moment by moment. Every pitch was crucial. Then last night, as Johnny Damon’s second home run of the game settled into the right-field stands at Yankee Stadium, and the game went to a hysterical 8-1 with the Yankees clearly out of pitchers and mystique, it was hard for the Red Sox fans to know what to do with themselves. Oh, there was the requisite tiny thrill ride when manager Terry Francona mysteriously lifted Derek Lowe in favor of Pedro Martinez, who was promptly barbecued for two runs and likely removed as a starting pitcher until at least Game 3 of the World Series. But that little frisson of peril dissipated quickly as it became plain that the Yankees had pretty much given up. There was nothing left except the requisite shots of happy inebriates, some elegant pictures of mournful faces around Yankee Stadium, and the eventual chaos at the end in which the Red Sox players danced for a long time at the center of the field.
In Dead Solid Perfect, the golf novel by the great Dan Jenkins, there is a moment at the end in which the hero, Kenny Puckett, a raggedy journeyman pro from Texas, runs into Jack Nicklaus outside the scorer’s tent, having just outdueled the Golden Bear to win the U.S. Open. Stuck for something to say, Puckett asks Nicklaus a question that occurs to anyone who wins something they were supposed to lose: “What’s it like to do this every week?”
Right when Damon’s second ball cleared the wall, I realized I needed a Yankee fan to tell me how to feel, to tell me what it’s been like to do this 26 times. Like their fans, the Red Sox have no talent for lordly disdain, which should be fairly plain by the team’s appearance. Damon looks like someone who flunked the audition to be part of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Kevin Millar had until recently a very strange beard that made him look like the croupier in an Amish casino. (It was Damon * who coined the team’s collective identity by calling them, in all good fellowship, “a bunch of idiots.”) The heart of the team comes from its three Latin stars—Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, and Pedro Martinez—all of whom are constitutionally incapable of being serious off the field for longer than 20 minutes. Last night’s pitching hero, Lowe, is a guy the team gave up on in September, and who then gave up right back on the team, spending the latter days of the season being publicly very less than gruntled. At one point, bridling at the widely bruited notion that he was emotionally fragile, Lowe accused the local media of making him out to be “a mental gidget.” All in all, they are as far from imperious as any ballclub could be.
Which may make them the perfect Red Sox team to shatter the accumulated eight decades of encrusted failure that clings to the franchise. In 1986, when a clean-cut Red Sox team came back to Boston after sweeping the New York Mets in two games at Shea Stadium, they arrived at Fenway Park as the tightest baseball team I have ever seen. That was the World Series, of course, that ended with the Bucknerian grand opera and a boom in the bad juju cottage industry that has sprung up in Boston.
Now comes this bunch and, as an opponent, either the Houston Astros, who would bring Roger Clemens back to Fenway for yet another downpour of derision, or the St. Louis Cardinals. (If you’re looking for even more Red Sox karma in which to wallow, both starting pitchers in the seventh game of tonight’s National League Championship Series—Clemens and St. Louis’ Jeff Suppan—are products of Boston’s farm system.) In fact, the Cardinals have more to do with the extended futility of the Red Sox than the Yankees do. It is a historical oddity that, except for a brief period at the end of the 1940s and the frenzied 1978 season, this is one of the few periods in which the Red Sox and the Yankees are both good teams at the same time. Boston’s “Impossible Dream” pennant in 1967 coincided almost exactly with the beginning of the swift pre-Steinbrenner collapse in New York. But the Cardinals? Well, it was St. Louis who beat the Red Sox in seven games in 1946 and again in 1967, the former as an underdog and the latter as a Bob Gibson-fueled favorite. I very much doubt if any current Red Sox players are aware of this, and I say, “Amen” to that. History is, and ought to be, irrelevant to this reckless crew. I feel on safe ground arguing that the Bambino would agree, having been something of a mental gidget his own self.
Correction, Oct. 21: This article originally stated that Kevin Millar called his Red Sox teammates “a bunch of idiots.” In fact, Johnny Damon originally said the phrase. (Return to the corrected sentence.)