Thursday, February 5, 2009

Love is Loss: A Baseball Fan's Lament

During a first round game of this year's playoffs between the Angels and the Red Sox, I sat at a bar in Cambridge and tried to explain the facts of baseball life to my friend Max. I told him that being a true baseball fan was sort of like being in a really, really bad relationship, one where you knew that nothing good could ever come of it, that you'd end up dispirited, defeated, deflated, disparaged. Oh, the love is there, all right, but, as the song says, sometimes love just ain't enough. You know what sort of pain you're setting yourself up for, but, regardless of all your attempts to make it work, you will be lost, bitter, hard, and increasingly cynical. You will vow never to let yourself get sucked in again. Then a few months will go by and, before you know it, it's spring training, and all the sleepless nights, the inability to speak your team's name without choking up, the tears, the agony, the knowledge that you gave your heart freely only to have it ripped from your chest and thrown into a fiery pit will somehow seem less dramatic and you'll remember the good times, the big wins, the nights of laughter and toasting, the shared dreams of a happy future, hope for another post season, the inevitable tug of "this is the year," and the cycle will begin all over again.

Max was a new baseball fan, though, which meant he was skeptical of my analogy. But as this post season started to hold a tighter and tighter grip around his sanity, his and all of Boston's, really, he began to understand exactly what I meant.

This is not my first year in the clutches of October Fever. I am a seasoned baseball fan, one who's watched her team suffer heart breaking injuries, losses, late-inning slip-up, pitching catastrophes, errors heard 'round the world, batters doing nothing but whiff wood through empty air, moronic managers, scapegoats, and careless umpires. I grew up in the Cleveland area, so I know the full-range a franchise can showcase. At one point, the Indians were such an awful team, Hollywood made a film about it that included lines like, "Here in Cleveland? I didn't know they still had a team!" Of course, there was a resurgence of power for about six or seven years in the mid-to-late 90's that rallied the city together to chant in one voice, "Goooo Tribe!" With the construction of Jacob's Field in 1994, the people of Cleveland came to the House that Dick Built with a necessary fever of baseball enthusiasm. The team was a roster full of spark plug youngsters, like Manny Ramirez, Carlos Baerga, Albert Belle, and Sandy Alomar Jr., and seasoned veterans like Eddie Murry, Dennis Martinez, and Orel Hersheiser. Jacob's Field was a sold out arena for a record-breaking straight 455 games from 1995-2001, and the team's five consecutive Central Division Championship titles from 1995-1999 and two ALCS Championship titles, one in 1995 and one in 1997, strengthened Cleveland's spirit. The Browns had left the city without its beloved NFL team from 1996 to 1998 and when the Cavaliers left the Coliseum to play in the Gund Arena, Cleveland basketball was considered to be a corporate ticket. But baseball, baseball united the city.
I'd been going to games at Cleveland Stadium with my family ever since I was a little girl, although I didn't start out loving the sport. As my brother Josh recently reminded me, I used to attend Tribe games decked out in a huge straw hat that I wore so I could duck my head and read a book. It wasn't until I was in high school that I began to let baseball into my blood, to cloud up my judgment, and, in general, usurp my soul. When the Indians lost in six games to the Braves in the 1995 World Series, I cursed Chipper Jones' sneaky .400 on base percentage, Tom Glavine's MVP pitching performance. When they lost to the Marlins in the 1997 World Series, I raged when Jose Mesa allowed the game to go into extra innings and lamented the fact that Charlie Nagy was pinned with the eventual loss. And the most depressed I've ever been in my life was following the devastating first round of the post season in 1999 when my guys were up two games over the Red Sox only to have the boys from Boston take the next three, including one game where the Sox spanked the Tribe 21-7. Oh, the football score. It still shivers my timbers.

After years of watching the team rise and fall and rise again, only to fall again, of spending summers glued to the television or the radio, rarely missing a pitch, of sitting in seats all over the Jake, I am proud to say that I am a Cleveland Indians fan. To the core.

Two years ago, I moved from Cleveland to Boston and have endured the snide comments about my Jim Thome bobblehead doll, the odd looks when I walk down the street with my Chief Wahoo-plastered travel mug, the eye-rolling from friends when I sport my Indians t-shirt. At the Logan security checkpoint one Christmas, I even had an airport personnel point at my Indians winter hat and say, "Really?" I simply shrugged and said, "They're not a good team, but they're my team." True baseball fans know what I mean. Loving your team means putting up with taunts, jeers, pointing, heckling.

But baseball fans the world around know this, also: if you can't be with the team you love, you better hope you get to be with the Red Sox. Because, despite their effect on my mental health in October '99, the Sox are a team to be respected, not only because they are perennially fierce competition, but also because they are stuck in the Eastern Division. The crummy East. Unless you like pin stripes, ain't nothin' to love about your team being in the AL East. I mean, the Indians grew from an underdog position to reign over the likes of the Tigers, the Royals, and the Twins, but, c'mon, beating the Motor City Kitties isn't exactly a David and Goliath situation. The Western and Central Divisions are up-for-grabs every year because payrolls are fairly even which means each organization can afford the same level of talent. They put together teams that may be lacking in some respects, but the goal is to find equilibrium both in the clubhouse and on the field. Outside of the Indians' five-year dominance in the Central, no recent team has been a guaranteed division victor until late in the season. In the West, especially, fans up and down the coast have no idea who will dominate from year to year. And with the MLB's decision to emphasize divisional play, fans gear up for the games between rivals, games that will offer a crucial two-game swing in the standings.

No one knows this better than the Red Sox. Those poor, cursed bastards locked in more head-to-head combat with the Yankees than seems fair. Oh the Red Sox. They have to play catch-up all season and it's a game they simply cannot win. Because the Yankees aren't just any team. They are both God's Chosen Ones and the Evil Empire, the ideal and the bizarro-world version of a baseball team. George Steinbrenner simply has more money than anyone else invested in the sport so he can build the baseball master race, put a potential gold glove at every position, even lure one of the best short stops in the game to come play third base simply by showing him his very own pin striped jersey. No argument: the Yankees didn't need Alex Rodriguez on the team. Derek Jeter is an elite short stop, not to mention one of the prettiest jewels on the Yankee crown, so the acquisition of A-Rod cannot be taken seriously. Why sign A-Rod? Eh, why not? That's the attitude of the uber-team.

But it's not Alex Rodriguez' fault. It's not any of the Yankees' fault that they are The Team To Beat every year. No one can argue with the seven straight divisional titles, not to mention the thirty-nine ALCS victories and the twenty-six World Series rings since the inception of the American League in 1901. Despite numerous Bostonians roaming around wearing "Yankees Suck" t-shirts, the Yankees do not suck. Or, rather, the mechanics of their team do not suck. They have a lineup of seasoned hitters, a solid rotation, and one of the best closers in the history of the game. No, the Yankees do not suck. The fact that they have such a high salary capacity sucks. The fact that everything about them spells unfair advantages to the rest of baseball sucks. But that's not the Yankees' fault. They aren't breaking any rules. They're making the system work for them. Hey, if George Steinbrenner owned your team, wouldn't you think the never-ending string of Cy Young-caliber pitchers and Babe Ruth-like sluggers were just what your team, your city deserved? Of course you would.

As it stands now, you're either a Yankee fan or you're not. If you're not, you are, like Max and me and millions of others, guaranteed to suffer for your sport. And if you are a Yankee fan, you're not a baseball fan. If we go back to my original relationship analogy, I would contend that if your love has never been challenged, you're not really in love. It's not until you fear the worst that you can see the best. And while that mean seem cliché, it's simply fact. Prior to this year's history-making pennant-race meltdown, the worst that's happened to Yankeefan over the last ten years is the three times they failed to advance in the post season all the way to the ALCS. Boo hoo.

What about the Red Sox? The last time they won the East was in 1990. Since then, they've had to battle their way into the post season five times as the wild card and have scratched their way to the ALCS three times. What fans have it harder than the Red Sox? And over the last few years that I've lived in Boston, nothing, not two Pats' Super Bowl victories, not Bruins playoff runs, not free Shakespeare on the Common, nor the Democratic National Convention has brought this city to life like a Red Sox post season. It's all anyone talks about in October. And, up until this year, it's always ended the same -- the run has come down to a face off with the dreaded Yankees with the same result: the Sox come up short while the Yankees steam roll through with the players' faces frozen in a bored grimace. Then what do the Sox fans do? They brace themselves for the wicked New England winter and vow that next year will be different.

Meanwhile, Yankeefan, who has expected this outcome from the beginning of the season, simply turns its attention to the World Series. The rest of the baseball world hibernates. Because who cares who wins the World Series? The fact that the Yankees are there, yet again, is a turn off. I would go as far as to say that ALCS games between Boston and New York are more anticipated, more watched than the World Series because what's exciting about the same old team representing the American League? Nothing. Last year, I remember the networks pulling for a Red Sox/Cubs match-up in the World Series and when neither underdog team advanced past their league series, it was a severe disappointment to everyone outside of the Yankees and Marlins organizations. Who even won? I'm sure I didn't watch a single game.

Of course, this year, things ended quite differently. Not only did the Red Sox de-throne the almighty Yankees, they did it with a dramatic flair. With the Sox down three games to none, they did the unthinkable: the won four in a row to become the first baseball team in the history of the game ever to do so and won the American League pennant in the process. Oh, and they also capped off this comeback during a road trip to the Bronx.

During Game 7, I was in a bar in Boston's South End listening to a few guys heckle Johnny Damon. Damon was having one of the worst offensive series in his career, hitting less than .100, true, but his defense had been spot-on and he was a player who deserved fan loyalty and support. His numbers during the regular season were more than solid. Boasting a .304 batting average and a .380 on base percentage, not to mention his 20 home runs and 94 RBIs, Damon's struggles in the ALCS were simply out of character. But these guys, well, they were groaning about Damon being up to bat with the bases loaded. "Just who we want in there!" one of them jeered. Finally, I swiveled around to face them and said, "Ya'll need to have some love in your heart for Johnny. He's having a rough time right now, but he's a great player and should lay off." The words were barely out of my mouth before Damon hit the first pitch he saw over the right field wall at Yankee Stadium. Gettysburg Address. Four score.

The Sox were already on top, thanks to a David Ortiz home run in the first inning, but Damon's grand slam in the second and two-run homer in the fourth were more than good enough to get immediate apologies from the guys at the bar and prove to everyone that clutch plays can come from anywhere, slumps can be snapped, good players will rise to the occasion.

Clearly, the 2004 Red Sox clubhouse is full of clutch players. Curt Schilling's performance in Game 6 was beyond inspiring. Tim Wakefield's "What's good for the team..." mentality should be highlighted in all youth sports. And as my brother said last Monday after Big Papi kept his team alive for the second game in a row, "So is David Ortiz just going to be the new mayor of Boston or what?" Well, the new ALCS MVP, for sure!

There was a moment during Game 4 at Fenway that defined the entire series for me, a moment where I decided it didn't matter what happened because, regardless of the final score, I knew the Sox and their fans were the scrappiest sons of bitches who'd ever enjoyed the game. In the third inning, Alex Rodriguez hit a two-run home run off Derek Lowe that sailed over the Green Monster and out onto Landsdowne Street. Before he'd even run all the way around the bases, a fan outside Fenway flung the ball back over the wall with enough force to land it right by Johnny Damon in center field. Damon took one look at that ball and chucked it back out onto the street. And just as quickly, a fan returned the favor. Finally, an umpire went over and pocketed the ball. Because that, ladies and gents, could've gone on all night, and it probably would have without interference from the officials. Nothing says defiance like the Red Sox. The team, the fans, they didn't care the Yankees were close to sealing the deal with another ALCS victory. They didn't care about stats or scoreboard. They cared about getting rid of that home run ball. Don't leave it on my front porch. Don't leave it outside my door. We won't have it. Not any of it. We won't take that crap, not here in Boston.

That's the attitude that won the Red Sox their first American League pennant in eighteen years and earned them a spot in sports history. That's the attitude that should make baseball fans all over the world redefine what it means to believe.

***

Recently, I pulled out an old tape of a game from August 2001 where the Indians overcame a 12-0 deficit against the Mariners to win in 11 innings. 2001 was the year where the Mariners temporarily stole the Yankees' thunder as The Greatest Team in Baseball because of their amazing 116-45 record, the power of their small-ball game strategy, and a bullpen that seemed impenetrable. And while the Mariners were on their way up, the Indians were on a fast descent. Even though they had some powerful bats in the lineup and the best double-play combination in the game with gold glovers Roberto Alomar at second base and Omar Vizquel at short stop, the pitching staff was full of holes. Maybe that's because then-manager Charlie Manuel was most successful in his major league career as the Indians' hitting coach, not as a guy who understood how to use pitcher most effectively or maybe it was because the staff consisted of tiring pitchers like Chuck Finley, Charlie Nagy, and Dave Burba and relative greenies like C.C. Sabathia and Bartolo Colon, but it was fair to say that the Tribe's precarious season could be visually represented by the jerky motions of reliever John Rocker.

But that day in August 2001 lives in my memory as the game to which all other games should be compared. By the third inning, the Mariners were pile driving the Tribe 12-0 -- and they were doing it at the Jake. By the time the remaining fans stood to sing, "Take me out to the ball game," the score was 14-2. But then something happened. Little by little the Indians chipped away at the Mariners' shatterproof lead until Omar Vizquel hit a two-out, 3-2 count triple off Kazuhiro Sasaki down the right field baseline and into the corner. The loaded bases cleared and the game was tied.

Whodathunkit?

That goes to show that no game is over until the last out because the Indians, the same team the ESPN commentators had chuckled over during the entire broadcast, the same franchise that inspired the film Major League, had scored five runs in the 9th inning. Oh, and they scored all five of those runs with two out.
When I re-watched that game, I decided it is these sorts of inspirational stories that make loving the game so worthwhile. The Red Sox' unbelievable come-from-behind victory in four straight games against the Evil Empire is even more of a reason to remain committed to the sport. These glorious moments are what make our hearts surge, our bodies shake, our mouths go dry. We cheer because we love. We boo because we love. We bear witness because we love. And even if our love comes up short "this" year, there will be "next" year. Miracles really can happen. Heroes can emerge. The impenetrable can be penetrated. And fans across the country have clung with equal abandon to their team's success and failures.

Now. Yankeefan. You've just been handed the worse loss in baseball history, the curse has been reversed, and it happened in your house. Right now, you're hurt. You feel betrayed. You are stunned. These are all new feelings for you, I know, but don't worry. Daddy Steinbrenner will go out and buy baby a shiny new pitching staff in the off-season, maybe a few new pretty faces for the outfield. Whatever baby wants. Daddy can buy back your love.
Has the Evil Empire been destroyed? I'd like to say yes, but I have to say no. Next year the American League East will still be the same bitch of a division it always has been. But maybe the Yankees won't step onto the playing field with the same smugness, the same lip-glossed pout, the same bored predetermination that they are The Team to Beat.

But, then again, they are the Yankees. It'll take more than this year's humiliation to destroy that team. And in the meantime, Yankeefan will go through the post-season withdrawal so well known by the rest of us and come back next year as obnoxious as ever. So, Yankeefan, let me say this: you don't know what you're cheering for. You don't know what it means to win. You've picked an easy team to lust after, a sure thing. Do yourself a favor and become a Twins fan for a season or a Mets fan, for the love of God. And until you do that, until you expose your heart to the real thing, don't you dare try to say you love baseball. Because you don't. You don't know what love is if you're not grown-up enough to make yourself vulnerable. But my guess, Yankeefan, is you're not mature enough to know how right I am. The rest of the baseball fans around you know I'm right, though. And we feel sorry for you, we lament your flashy sets of World Series rings, your team's God-blessed success. Red Sox fans, Indians fans know what you don't: you learn more often through failures, through heartbreak, through hard times, which, I guess, gives the average Yankeefan an emotional baseball IQ of about a two-year-old. None of your wins, none of your rings will ever mean as much to you as this series has meant to the Red Sox. Cradle your ignorance, if you must, but you're missing the entire point of love.