Friday, February 04, 2005

Why I Bleed Red Sox Red

Unlike my pal Nathan, I didn’t have a specific incident or experience that swayed me one way or another. I also grew up in Upstate New York, but I come from a Boston family (on my Mom’s side). I inherited the recessive Sawx gene, so it’s physically inside of me. IT’S IN MY DNA.

I didn’t know anything about this until 1970. I guess that year I became old enough to be entrusted with the family jewels. That summer, at my grandparents house in South Wellfleet, Mass., we listened to Ken Coleman (a believer) and Ned Martin (a doomsayer) describe every game on a little transistor radio. We would prop up the radio in the window sill, facing it west across Cape Cod Bay, toward Boston, for better reception. The Sox were out of the race early but Yaz was in the batting race down to the last day. He lost by percentage points to Alex Johnson of the Angels.

Grandma and Grandpa Gartner told stories about Ted Williams and Jimmy Foxx and Babe Ruth. (My Mom was partial to Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr: “He always got the hit you needed. If you need a double, he got a double. If you needed a home run, well, he hit a home run!”) I heard all about the 1967 Impossible Dream team, which was still fresh in everyone’s memory. We listened to the vinyl record that had all the ’67 highlights and the so-square-it’s-cool song about Carl Yastrzemski. Grandma taught me about lefty-righty matchups and how to keep score by numbering the fielders 1 thru 9.

We talked about how the park opened as the Titanic sank (yet they won the Series that year!), about Dom DiMaggio (better than his brother Joe!), and about 1918 (when Ruth was the star PITCHER!). The stories about DiMaggio and Williams were filled with such heroics and mutual respect – I found out the truth later on - that I really couldn’t imagine a whole lot of tension in the Rivalry. Not on the Varitek/A-Rod Richter scale anyway. That changed in a couple of years...

They were just stories. There was no REAL pain and suffering associated with any of this – although there were a lot of JOKES about pain and suffering. It was just a love of the local team and its legends. (Remember this was before 1978, ’86 and ’03, each of which twisted the knife to the point of absurdity.)

So I was hooked. Stricken. Starting in 1970, we made the pilgrimage to Kenmore Square every year. The following summer, I started playing Little League. LIFE HAD A PURPOSE! I showed up at spring training with the Yaz batting stance: back straight, bat vertical, and elbows up around my ears. And I actually hit the ball now and then. And I wore #7: Reggie Smith, of course, who had cool sideburns (and 7, serendipitously, rhymes with Evan). Eventually, I even chose to attend college in Boston because, in June 1978, the Sox had a 12+ game lead on the Yankees and I figured I’d be able to go to some games. I did. More on that later. (Or come to think of it... NOT.)

And for the record, Grandma Gartner lived to be 101. She wasn’t long-suffering or in any way scarred by the Sox. Her life was 100% complete. Don’t believe the impressions of Red Sox Nation you read in Sports Illustrated – THAT’S NOT HOW IT WORKS! Yes it’s bad. Yes we’re addicted. Yes 86 years reflected a ridiculous number of generations with increasingly cruel close calls. And yes, 2004 was one of the best things that ever happened to us.

But for the love of God, everybody - people in New England actually DO understand the difference between losing at baseball and losing at nuclear war. Whenever the Sox blew a lead or fell behind in the standings, Grandma would just shake her head and tsk-tsk them. She would ask me what I could do to fix Ken Tatum or Bill Lee or to get Rico Petrocelli to start hitting. Then she would quietly assert her position that Roger Moret (or whoever) should be assigned to the bullpen (or better yet, Pawtucket). And then she would go back to her real life. THAT, my friends, is a New Englander.

BTW – Back in the early ’70s, Syracuse was the AAA team for the Yankees (now they’re the Blue Jays). The Yankees were pretty benign in those days, always 2nd division. The scariest team by far was the Orioles. Four 20-game winners, F. and B. Robinson, Boog Powell, a couple of World Series. The other big teams were the A’s, Pirates and Reds. The A’s were by far the coolest (with more than a few similarities to the ’04 Sox).

After four decades of clear dominance, there was a glorious Yankee drought from 1962-’77 (and remarkably - after back-to-back titles - another drought that lasted until '96*). Looking back, except for the brief flare-up in ’78, the Rivalry itself had been on the side burner since the Summer of ’49. So I would go to Yankee day at MacArthur stadium and cheer on Bobby Murcer, Mel Stottlemyre and Felipe Alou without reservation (well... maybe with SOME reservation). Our local TV stations showed the Yankee games, and I used to get a kick out of the Scooter’s broadcasts.

I didn’t REALLY start to hate the Yankees guts until Steinbrenner took over and brought in buffoons like Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson. (To be fair, they brought in some cool guys too, like Catfish Hunter). But the point is, it seemed like all their guys were bought, and all our guys were home-grown. And then they started to win again...

And of course, by any definition the Yankees of 1996-’05 are again a dynasty and the team to beat. The more things change...

Footnote (*) - The 1980s shall be heretofore referred to as TBDE - The Best Decade Ever.

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