"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Thursday, March 31, 2011

"Why We Hate the Yankees" (Sunday, October 19, 2003)

“Hopes deferred maketh the heart sick,” the psalmist tells us. It breaks our hearts, this game. Especially here, in New England, in Red Sox nation, baseball becomes metaphor for life; more particularly, once again, it becomes testimony to the tragic side of life; a clear reflection of the first Noble Truth of Buddhism: All life is suffering.

How many games must this team finally play before they finally win the Big One? For how many generations must Red Sox fans hold on before they finally abandon all hope? When will whatever gods might be finally—finally—rescue us from the sins of commission (like Bucky Dent in ’78 or Buckner’s dribble in ’96 or Aaron Burr—I mean Aaron Boone—last Thursday night)? Or from the sins of omission (like Pesky’s hesitation at shortstop in ’46 or Grady Little’s failure to be a manager a couple of days ago), that doom us to reliving this Greek tragedy time after time?

Now, I really like baseball. I have been a Red Sox fan all of my life. I don’t remember 1946 (I’m not that old—yet), but I can remember the “Impossible Dream” team of 1967 like it was yesterday. (I’ve been thinking a lot about that team recently; this year’s Red Sox really reminded me of them in some ways.) I remember hurrying home from junior high school—literally running almost the whole distance along the railroad tracks in Woonsocket (and I’ve never been one to run much)—well over a mile—so I could get home in time to watch at least part of Game One of the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.

I remember in 1975, telling my father not to go to bed yet—even though it was late—even though the Cincinnati Reds led the Sox 3 games to 2 in the Series and even though the Reds were leading 6 to 3 in the bottom of the eighth. But he didn’t listen to me; he had to get up early for work the next morning; so he went to bed—and missed Bernie Carbo’s three-run homer that tied it—and even more— he missed Pudge Fiske’s 12th inning homer at 12:34 AM, just barely fair, into the nets atop the Green Monster in left field. Everybody remembers Fiske’s home run; fewer rememeber Carbo’s; but I even remember who the Red Sox winning pitcher was for Game 6 in ’75: Dick Drago. (Now that was a scary bullpen!)

And I remember 1986. Do I remember 1986… I remember the 5 to 2 lead against the Mets, going into the ninth… the announcement that Red Sox Second Baseman Marty Barrett had been named World Series MVP (not yet, I remember saying out loud in our living room in Maine, don’t say it yet)… then: disaster—three Mets runs, with two outs, to tie it, and then the dedication of the Bill Buckner tunnel, just inside the first base line, which gave the Mets the victory.

It all sounds heartachingly familiar, doesn’t it? Which is why—this past Thursday night-- October 16th, 2003, a night that will live in infamy—when the Yankees came to bat trailing 5 to 2, with Pedro Martinez on the mound—and the television announcer was gushing on and on about how “dominating” Pedro had been, and how he was one of the most “dominating” pitchers in the American League, and how this was the pinnacle of a brilliant and “dominating” career—I said, out loud in my living room on Bassick Circle—“Uh oh. Here we go again.”

And sure enough: we were sucked once again into the vortex of that maelstrom from which the Sox seem destined never to escape. We were fated to relive, once again, that bit of Red Sox history that keeps repeating, like an old film that gets caught in the projector and keeps showing the same sad scene over and over again.

Once the Yankees had tied the score, and the game went into extra innings, we knew what the end result would be, didn’t we? It was only a matter of time. In the 11th, the Yankees came to the plate, with Tim Wakefield on the mound. Wakefield had been brilliant in the Series up to this point, but he’s a knuckleballer, and a knuckleball is the rogue element of baseball: even the one who pitches it doesn’t really know, for sure, what it’s going to do. The leadoff batter was Aaron Burr-- I mean Aaron Boone. And talk about coincidence, his brother Bob Boone was one of the commentators in the booth—and he just gets done saying: “Well, I’m just having fun watching the game…” And Wakefield unleashed a knuckler to Boone (a lifetime .220 hitter, or something like that)—one stinking pitch—and bam!—Boone smashed it high into the New York night, high into the upper deck in left field. Game Over. Yankees win the Pennant. More hopes deferred. More defeat plucked from the jaws of victory. More legions of the sick at heart in Boston and surrounding communities.

Now, as I said, I really like baseball. And maybe I’m dwelling a bit too much on the tragedy of October 16th. To listen to so many of the callers on the sports radio talk shows (which I did in the days following Game Seven), you’d think that the family dog had died. “How are you doing?” the show’s host would ask each despondent caller, with unaccustomed sensitivity in his voice. “It’s hard,” one of them responded. “But I’m gonna be ok. How are you doing?” You’d think that we were in the midst of a genuine national tragedy or something.

I really like baseball, but there are fans much more fanatical than I am:
Bob and Ted had been friends since childhood, and they were both lifelong Red Sox fans. They loved going to games together at Fenway. It was, really, their church. But then, sadly, Ted died one night in his sleep, after staying up to watch the Red Sox beat the As in Oakland, on the West Coast.
Bob was pretty sad at first, of course. He missed his friend greatly, all the good times they’d had together. Fenway just wasn’t the same without Ted. What was worse that he’d never gotten to say good-bye, and that weighed heavily upon him.
But then, one night, a wonderful thing happened: Bob was visited in the night by Ted’s spirit. Ted appeared to him, as though he were alive, and told him that all would be well. The two friends talked for hours, and had a wonderful visit. Finally, it was time for Ted to go back. And as he left, Bob said he had just one more question—“Tell me Ted,” he said, “is there baseball in heaven?”
Suddenly, Ted’s face became very serious. “Well,” he said, “there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that yes—of course—there’s baseball in heaven. It’s like World Series time every day—wonderful games, all the time, forever, a season that never ends.”
“That sounds fantastic,” Bob exclaimed. “What could the bad news about baseball in heaven possibly be?”
“You’re pitching tomorrow night,” Ted responded.
Now, that’s tragedy.

Seriously, in the face of the genuine human tragedies this world of ours faces—war and famine; people displaced by the thousands; people losing their homes; people losing those they love—let’s keep some perspective about baseball. It’s only a game. The Red Sox lost, but life will go on. The Yankees may win the World Series (to the joy of New Yorkers who aren’t Mets fans) or the Marlins may win it all (to the joy of their ten fans in Miami). But even more importantly: the sun will rise and set tomorrow; we will be given chances to be kind to one another; we will witness great beauty; we will experience great joy; we will all know great sorrows. Some will be born, and others will die; and the great wheel of life will sweep on.

There is more than a bit of the Stoic in me (more than I might want to admit sometimes), and I can be philosophic about the Red Sox loss the other night (I really can). It was a great season; this was a team with great heart; they made so many amazing comebacks to get as far as they did.

It wasn’t, really, that they lost that makes this an especially bitter pill to swallow. It was how they lost, for one—and more: it was to whom they lost that wounds us most deeply.

Let me tell you a story:
On a tour of Florida, the Pope took a couple of days off to visit the coast for some sightseeing. He was cruising along the beach in the Popemobile when there was a frantic commotion just off shore. A helpless man, wearing a New York Yankees jersey, was struggling frantically to free himself from the jaws of a 25-foot shark.
As the Pope watched, horrified, a speedboat came racing up with three men wearing Boston Red Sox jerseys aboard. One quickly fired a harpoon into the shark's side. The other two reached out and pulled the bleeding, semi-conscious Yankee fan from the water. Then using (autographed Nomar) baseball bats, the three heroes in red beat the shark to death and hauled it into the boat also.
Immediately the Pope shouted and summoned them to the beach. "I give you my blessing for your brave actions," he told them. "I had heard that there was some bitter hatred between Red Sox and Yankee fans, but now I have seen with my own eyes that this is not the truth."
As the Pope drove off, the harpooner, who wasn’t a churchgoer, asked his buddies "Who was that guy?"
"It was the Pope," one replied. "He is in direct contact with God and has access to all of God's wisdom."
"Well," the harpooner said, "he may have access to God's wisdom, but he sure as heck doesn't know anything about shark fishing. How's the bait holding up?”
Why do we hate the Yankees?

Now, of course, let me assure you that I have tried, more often than not, to live out my dear mother’s admonishment to me not to “hate” anyone, and that if you don’t have something good to say about someone, that you shouldn’t say anything. If 99% of the cases I have tried to practice what she preached (and what she practices far better than I). The exceptions have usually revolved around the representatives of a particular political party—and a particular baseball team. I do not claim that this is right. It is just who I am.

We hate the Yankees because they always seem to win. And we don’t. The Yankees have won 26 World Series since 1919; the Red Sox—zero. Zed. Nada. Neechevo. Nihil.

Something in our sense of equity and balance and even justice recoils at that statistic. It just shouldn’t be that way… We should have our chance, too.

Of course, the Red Sox have had their chance. Most notably, this past week. But who is it, usually (not always, but all too often) who slams the door on the Red Sox’ chances? The Yankees of course! Losing is one thing; sad, painful, but transitory. Losing to the Yankees is a Greek tragedy, carving deep wounds into the New England psyche, conjuring up demons of all the wounds we have ever known. Had the Red Sox lost to Oakland in the Division Playoff it would have been no gran causa—no big deal. We wouldn’t be talking about it in church today. It would have been baseball, not calamity. Say the Red Sox had lost in Game Seven of that dream series to the Chicago Cubs that everyone wanted (except the fans in New York and those 10 stalwarts in Miami), that wouldn’t be tragedy. No, it would have been divine justice, squared—and we’d just know that our chance would be next. (For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about: the Red Sox last won a World Series in 1919; Cubs fans have had to wait since 1908 for their team to win, and the Cubs haven’t even played in one since 1945).

But it’s “always” the Yankees (it seems) who keep us from reaching our heart’s desire—who hold us back from our dreams—who make us fail to reach our full potential and assume our rightful place.

The Yankees have come to seen in the eyes of many of us as a cold, hard machine, without the warmth or the heart of “our” Red Sox. I swear, as I was watching this past series, I kept mixing up the Yankees players and coaches with the characters from Star Wars. I’d look at Joe Torre, the Yankee manager, and I’d see Darth Vader (I’m not kidding). Whenever I saw Derrick Jeter, I saw the serpent from the Garden of Eden—and I haven’t had a drink for a long time!

The Yankees were just too good—too perfect (or at least thought they were)-- as good a team as $ 164 million dollars a year could buy. And it would be “our” homespun, down-to-earth Red Sox (with a payroll of “only” $ 93 million a year) who would teach them a thing or two about humility—and justice—and the American way!

To many of us, the Yankees exude “privilege”—not “white” privilege necessarily anymore-- although their record in crossing baseball’s color line was no better than that of the Red Sox, which was pretty dismal: Do you know that the Sox had the chance to acquire Jackie Robinson three years before the Brooklyn Dodgers did —but didn’t, just because he was black? Jackie Robinson playing for the Red Sox in the ’47 Series—who knows what might have happened? It very well would have been bye-bye “curse of the Bambino” if he had. Watching the Yankees-Red Sox game the other night, the cameras kept panning to all the celebrities in the stands—all Yankees fans (this was in New York, after all): former Mayor Giuliani, and Mayor Bloomberg, and Governor Pataki (they’re both Republicans and Yankees fans—you can imagine where they are on my list); then all the movie stars and glitterati. So I thought to myself: We will bring these “beautiful people” down a peg or two tonight.

But then, it didn’t happen.

The Yankees won. The world was still unjust. The gods of baseball mock us once again. And at 12:03, I turned off the tv, brushed my teeth, went upstairs to bed, and was sound asleep by 12:15, muttering to myself that some things will never change.

But then, the other day, yesterday I think it was, after the initial shock had worn off, I had a revelation of sorts.

I was thinking about my father, of whom I often think, especially, during the baseball season, especially during the playoffs and the Series. He was a dedicated Red Sox fans for all of his 76 years, but because he had the misfortune of being born in 1921 and dying in 1997, he never once saw the Sox win a World Series. (I am beginning to worry about the parameters of my own life in this regard.) The Sox sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees the year before my father was born, so through all his life, the so-called “Curse of the Bambino” held sway.

My father was a good man, a hardworking man, who worked in the mills in Woonsocket most of his life, and led a largely unremarkable life. But one of his loves was the Red Sox (even though he went to bed too early in ’75). And he taught me well, and like my love for reading and certain other traits, good and bad, that love of the Red Sox he bequeathed to me.

He was born in Rhode Island, in Woonsocket. But you know, I thought the other day, had he been born in New York, he probably would have been a Yankees fan. So I probably would be now, too. I would have been exulting the other night at yet another magnificent and exciting Yankees victory.

For the bottom line, of course, is that my dear mother is right: We shouldn’t hate anyone. For we could be them, had this strange concoction of fate and history which each of us is been shaken a little differently by that Great Bartender in the sky.

We could be them, and they could be us. And until we learn to share each other’s pain and rejoice in each other’s victory, there will be no hope for us or for our human race.

There is no “curse” on the Red Sox. There are good plays and bad ones; good decisions and bad decisions; and there is just luck, sometime good, sometimes bad.

There are just all those amazing stories of heroic exploits—and stupid decisions—and victories unimaginable—and defeats unbelievable. So another baseball season for the Sox fades into the realm of myth…

And there are these silly diversions—like baseball—which make us human—and keep us human, with all the glory and splendor, and heartache and absurdity which that sacred title implies.

May God grant us the wisdom, in our own lives, to tell a ball from a strike, and to remain true to our path, as we make our own way around the bases of our lives and back home again.

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