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Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Pledge Allegiance to Red Sox Nation.

So goes the header for today's column by Bill Simmons, ESPN's invaluable Sports Guy.

I think I might be getting it now--Boston fandom, that is. In a recent phone conversation with Bryan, one of my best friends, an occasional commenter and full-bore BoSox fanatic, he mused about what would happen if--wonder of wonders--Boston actually managed to pull it off and win it this year. What could possibly replace pulling for--living and dying with--the eternal Greek tragedy that is the Boston Red Sox?

Mulling it for a moment, I said: "How about Poland?"

Really--he's suggested that I may be gravitating toward rooting for Boston, given the consistently dire play of Motown's Tigers. But, he warned--beware: rooting for Boston comes with a heavy toll. Sure, you're part of a nation of true believers stretching across a continent, but oh, the agony. The litany of glory almost within reach, but lost through the intervention of the Furies, Fates, or dark gods of baseball.

Simmons captures this brilliantly:

You couldn't ask for a more insane week. Now they're only two and a half behind the Yanks. Who knows? And yet, with October looming ... I mean ...

I'm just not sure that I'm ready to go through this again.

Nobody is. And that's the rub. It's the best Red Sox team of my lifetime, a well-rounded machine with quality pitchers and big bats, a good defensive squad with a deep bench, a likable group of guys who care about one another. They deserve the benefit of the doubt, a clean slate with a fan base that won't panic every time something goes wrong. It's just that we can't help it. Last October nearly broke us. You can only heal so much.

During that Deja Vu game against the Yanks on Friday, even before the gut-wrenching eighth, you needed Leatherface's chainsaw to cut the tension at Fenway. Ever attended a wedding where the best man was hammered beyond belief? Remember that peculiar tension after he grabs the microphone and starts rambling, when everyone pretends to enjoy the speech -- a seemingly captive audience -- but deep down, they're dreading the eventual F-bomb or inappropriate story about the bride, so they're hanging on every word?

That was Fenway on Friday night. When Pedro yielded that bullpen shot to Matsui in the eighth, it was like the best man dropping that F-bomb. The place went silent, save for a few brave Yankee fans, everyone else paralyzed by the moment -- even the manager, who inexplicably left Pedro out there for a few more batters, losing every Red Sox fan for life.
This wasn't just another loss. People were crushed. Everyone filed out of Fenway like we were leaving a wake, and maybe we were. It was happening again. My Dad and I had tickets for Saturday night's game ... I'm ashamed to admit this, but we gave them away. Neither of us wanted to go. We just weren't ready to go back to Fenway. It was too soon. We ended up seeing the Shawshank Redemption -- which was playing downtown, a limited two-week re-release -- the cinematic equivalent of Keith Richards having his blood changed. Three hours later, Andy and Red were hugging in Mexico and we were ready to continue following the 2004 Red Sox. You know, because hope is a good thing. And no good thing ever dies.
(Well, unless that good thing is being managed by Terry Francona.)

Like I said at the outset--I think I get it now.

And the reply is: no, thanks--I already have a sports albatross, and it is called the Michigan Wolverines football program. Last year I compared the Sox to the Red Wings as a sign of hope, but that comparison doesn't really work. No, the Wolverines are more like it--
a whole passel of mythical championships before 1948, tilted toward the first quarter of the 20th Century, and bupkis since. But 1997...? Wait for it, it's coming.

You see, my first clear sports memory involves sitting in the finished basement of our old house with dad and one of his pals, watching happily as Michigan whipped up on Ohio State in 1976. My second is crying after Michigan lost to USC in the Rose Bowl, less than two months later.

I was being initiated into Wolverines fandom, with all that entails. It's been more agony than joy since the bronze age of Fielding Yost--
a deadzone in the fifties and sixties with two bowl victories and growing mediocrity. Then the 1970s, a revived program led by Bo the Woody-Chopper, which is where I joined up. The Wolverines managed to beat the Buckeyes more often than not, but fell flat against more agile opponents, and endured routine bowl humiliation. The kind that cost you National Championships.

Sure, the occasional major bowl win was nice, but it never let Michigan grasp that brass ring--the Best in the Land. National Champion. Because they'd tripped up along the way before getting the bowl win.

And the horrors--like Charles White "scoring" the decisive touchdown in the '79 Rose Bowl against UM despite securely depositing the ball on the two yard line first. Steve Smith getting his shoulder wrecked in the '83 Rose Bowl, leaving a superior team rudderless. Another superior team blowing a 12 point lead to ASU in the 1987 Rose Bowl. Blowing leads against Miami and Florida State in defining contests in 1990 and 1991, wrecking seasons early. Inexplicable losses to the Freakin' Irish. The 1994 game against the Colorado Buffaloes, watching Kordell Stewart heave a desperation pass with five seconds left...
The BS losses to Sparty in 1990 and 1999, the pass interference and Longest...Second...Ever games.

And the piece de resistance: the early morning hours of January 2, 1998, watching ESPN like a meth-addled lab rat following Michigan's victory over a tough Washington State team, cementing a perfect season and an undisputed National Championship--Joshua, We Have Crossed The Jordan!

Only to watch as a sack of brain donors (a/k/a the ESPN/USA Today Coaches' Poll) decided to give Tom Osborne's Police Blotter U. team a share of the title.

Funny--they didn't do the same favor for JoePa in 1994, or Lou Holtz in 1991. What should have been perfect joy, now forever tainted.

And nothing close to it since, nor, I'm afraid, does it look likely to come around again for a long, long time. If ever. Because I still refuse to watch sports news or read the paper after a Michigan loss on Saturday. [Notre Dame--GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!] Can't stand it.

If I barely function with that, why would I want to add the admirable BoSox to my portfolio?

Still, BoSox fans, FWIW: I'll root for you against all comers, especially the evil Yankees.

But I won't get emotionally involved.

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