Topic: Sports & Entertainment
The Red Sox and Our Values
I don’t want to temper the joy in Boston, not one bit. If I were still living there, as I did for the first 25 years of my life, even my balky hip would not have kept me out of the city-wide celebration after the Red Sox completed their spectacular charge to a World Series victory, the team’s first (as everyone in America not living in a cave knows by now) since 1918.
I yield to no one in my passion as a Red Sox fan. I was in the stands at Fenway Park when Carlton Fisk hit his famous 11th inning homerun in the Sixth Game of the 1975 Series, and I was also in the stands the next night, as the Cincinnati Reds celebrated winning the Series on a little pop fly single by Joe Morgan. I was there in 1967, when the team won the first of two season-ending games from the league-leading Minnesota Twins, setting the stage for its miracle “Impossible Dream” pennant. And at the risk of my job, I walked out of a mandatory attendance business meeting in the Fall of 1978 so that I could watch the Red Sox battle the Yankees in a televised one game play-off when they ended the year in a flat-footed first place tie . When the Sox lost, courtesy of a fluke home run, I went to bed and stayed there for 18 hours. And when the ball rolled through Bill Buckner’s legs in 1986, ten Boston stores cancelled their orders for my Red Sox trivia board game, sticking me with an inventory that took ten years to sell off. Yes, I have paid my dues.
But I have also watched and listened for too many years as the media has relentless warped the history of the team to fit a pre-packaged storyline, and in the process made the Boston Red Sox involuntary participants in the polluting of American values while brainwashing the team’s fans into revisionism. It is time to set the record straight. The Red Sox have persistently and uniquely embodied important ethical values, with the metaphorical power that is part of the magic of baseball. American pop culture, which has pulled farther and farther away from those values since the last Sox pennant, now wants to match the team’s exhilarating triumph to its own shallow aspirations. The Red Sox have a lot to teach us, and nobody’s listening.
Ethics, after all, is not about what you achieve, but how you achieve. Yet the national media, by representing the history of the Red Sox team since 1918 as “86 years of misery and torment,” pushes us to embrace a contrary message: those who fail to achieve the pinnacle are losers. By this standard, of course, virtually all of us are losers.
The culture of the Boston Red Sox for more than three decades has been one of unparalleled success at doing what professional sports teams are supposed to do: divert us, entertain us, and make us care. It is remarkable how so many of the media’s stories about the team mention the “misery” of Red Sox fans while commenting on the fact that Boston’s emotional commitment to the team far exceeds that of any other major league baseball city. The writers of these tedious pieces never comprehend that such a combination would defy human nature. People do not embrace misery, especially in a diversion like sports. What welded the Boston Red Sox to the region’s soul was an almost yearly display of passion, courage, sacrifice, fortitude, perseverance and character by a team with an ever-changing cast of rich and intriguing personalities, from Ted Williams to Pedro Martinez.
From 1967 to this season, Boston fans only had to endure six losing seasons, easily the best record in the major leagues. In the process, they gave their fans far more thrills than disappointments, many of which came from spectacular displays of sportsmanship and courage. In 1967 the team defied 100-1 odds by going from last place to being the unlikely winners of a four team pennant race, taking so many games in come-from-behind ninth inning rallies that they were dubbed “The Cardiac Kids.” In ’72, far behind in the race, they mounted a late season surge that fell one-half game short, the smallest margin in baseball history. As pennant winners in 1975, they played what was widely regarded as the most exciting World Series ever against the favored Cincinnati Reds. We were disappointed when these teams finally lost, but we were also proud. Did the final loss in those years cancel out six months of excitement, and dozens of nights going to bed happy and thrilled because of a memorable victory from a clutch Carl Yastrzemski home run, or a brilliant pitching performance by the acrobatic Louis Tiant? The revisionists would have it so, and it is a lie. We are not so shallow, and our memories are not so easily devalued.
In 1977 and 1978, the Sox narrowly lost season-long duels with the New York Yankees, with the ’78 climax a one game play-off made necessary by a Red Sox eight game winning streak after the world had conceded the race to New York. Today that classic game is reduced to a four second clip of Yankee shortstop Bucky Dent hitting his famous home-run, but it was one of the most suspenseful and exciting contests ever played. As much as the final result hurt, I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. Nor would I have missed the glorious pennant race of 1986, even if I had known in advance that that year’s World Series would forever be symbolized by the dribbled ball rolling under Bill Buckner’s glove. That team, like the 2004 Sox, was down to a final strike in the ninth inning of the American League Championship Series, and the loss would have sent them packing. But the wild swinging Dave Henderson hit a dramatic two run homer that turned defeat into victory. I saw that game in a Pittsburgh airport bar stuffed with Red Sox fans, and we had a spontaneous and joyous celebration of our team’s grit and resilience that I will never forget.
There are literally too many such seasons and moments to recount: 1988 and 1990, a division championship clinched in the final game, Sox right fielder Tom Brunansky making an impossible catch to make the last out and stop the go-ahead run from scoring; an amazing late season charge falling short in ’91; more exciting seasons and division championships in ’95, ’99, 2000 and 2003: if these seasons were so traumatic, why did the winter months seem so empty, and why did we welcome the beginning of each new Red Sox season which such anticipation?
We are told that all that matters is winning. Certainly that has been the credo of the Red Sox rivals, the New York Yankees, for almost a century; it is why that team has prospered by looting other organizations and using its superior financial muscle to almost always begin play with the deepest and most talented roster. The Yankees got Babe Ruth from the Red Sox because the Sox owner was deep in debt to Yankee owner Jake Ruppert, who used his leverage to extort a deal that netted his team the greatest player of the era. Decades later, when a young Yankee fan illegally interfering with a fly ball transformed it into a pennant-winning homer against the Baltimore Orioles, the team publicly rewarded the fan with gifts. So when Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriquez attempted to avoid being tagged out on a crucial play in this year’s play-offs by illegally striking the arm of the Sox pitcher, it was the continuation of a culture and a tradition. The Yankees believe that all Americans care about is winning, and how victory is achieved is of no consequence. In this they are like Enron, like both political parties in this election, like Paul Hamm and Donald Trump’s apprentices; like the NFL teams that pay millions to felons, like the business school graduates who inflate their resumes, like the pop stars who fake their music and the millions of Americans who idolize the trivial, the crude and the self-absorbed as long as they are rich, beautiful and famous.
And like all of them, the Yankees are wrong. There have been times when I have been ashamed of the Red Sox, those times when media and fan pressure caused them to try to beat the Yankees by using Yankee methods. But for the most part, the Boston Red Sox have stood for the great values of sport, with a secure belief that the decisions you make and the actions you take in pursuit of success are ultimately more important than success itself. This is because the final victory often depends on occurrences beyond our control. Indeed, a ball not bouncing into the stands or an erroneous umpire’s call could have easily derailed this year’s team’s triumph, joining the bad hops, the ill-timed injuries, and the inexplicable managerial decisions that stopped so many of its predecessors.
And what if they had? Should we be any less proud of pitcher Curt Schilling, gallantly pitching as his injured ankle seeped blood? We wanted these players, this team, to have the joy of the ultimate victory because they have given us so much to thrill and excite and admire through the years, just as any of us would be thrilled to see our most cherished friends achieve their life’s goals. But not achieving our greatest goals does not make us losers, if we pursue those goals with diligence, principle, courage and grace. That is what I have watched the Boston Red Sox do for 42 years. They have always been winners. Let’s not use their greatest victory to demean what made us care about them all these years.