Up until 2003, my feelings about the Boston Red Sox were pretty much summed up by Leonard Cohen in “First, We Take Manhattan”: “You loved me as a loser, but now you’re worried that I just might win.”
I didn’t exactly love the Red Sox, but over the years I liked some of them: Did any team ever have so many players that someone who was not a fan of the team knew just from their nicknames?
– “The Kid.” I wasn’t old enough to see Ted Williams play, but he was wonderful in person at a card show in Atlantic City to me and my cousin Derek. When we saw him leave the building, I was happy to let him hear me saying what he always said he wanted people to say about him: “There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.” He turned to us, smiled and waved.
– “Yaz.” Did any hitter have a wilder corkscrew swing than Carl Yastrzemski?
– “The Spaceman.” Bill Lee made a case for pot as a performance enhancing drug. He once claimed that smoking dope while he jogged to Fenway Park “made me impervious to bus fumes.”
– “Pedro.” Well, actually Pedro was Pedro Martinez’s name, not his nickname, but he was still another player who didn’t need a last name to be instantly identified. Like in the 2006 Spike Lee movie, “Inside Man,” when bank customers who are held hostage and one complains, “I had tickets to the game tonight and Pedro’s pitching.” He was exactly the kind of guy whom you love when he’s on your team and hate when he’s on another team – but always admire.
– “Big Papi.” How can you hate a guy who wears a flak helmet in the dugout and who, if you hit him with a fastball, grins picks up the ball and tosses it back to the pitcher? You can stack all the arguments that say there’s no such thing as clutch hitting on one side and David Ortiz on the other and win; he batted only .688 in this Series.
I never really hated the Red Sox over the years because, though I rooted for the Yankees, the Red Sox were never really rivals. For there to be a genuine rivalry, there has to be some competition, and the Red Sox didn’t really appear as real competition to the Yankees until the early years of the 21st century.
From 1946, when the Red Sox won the American League pennant but lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals to 2003 – what a difference 67 years makes! – they appeared in just four World Series and lost them all, each by the slimmest of margins. Over the same span, the Yankees won 25 pennants and 16 World Series.
What rivalry? While working on a biography of Yogi Berra a few years ago, I asked the only man with 10 World Series rings whether the Red Sox were, during his golden years, the Yankees’ chief rival. “Nah,” he said, “that was something that people started saying a few years ago. When I was playing, we never thought about the Red Sox any more than we did about the Indians when they won a couple of pennants or even the Dodgers because we played them so much in the World Series. There wasn’t anything special about playing the Red Sox.”
Not only did the Red Sox lose the big games, they found sensational ways to lose them: Ted Williams going without a home run in the 1946 World Series, Bucky Dent’s home run in the 1978 one-game playoff (over his career he hit just 40 home runs in more than 4,500 big league at-bats), Bill Buckner’s muff of Mookie Wilson’s grounder in he sixth game of 1986 Series (though the real goat should have been Boston manager John McNamara for leaving the sore-kneed Buckner in the game), a nonentity Aaron Boone’s home run in the 11th inning of the ALCS off Tim Wakefield to win the pennant for the Yankees …
For years, Red Sox fans rolled all these and many other spectacular failures into one big tar pit of memory and passed them on to the next generation under the heading “The Curse of the Bambino.” What bullshit. The Red Sox curse should have been called “The Curse of Willie Mays.” Boston had a chance to sign him in the late 1940s when he was playing for the Birmingham Black Barons. Few teams ever allowed racism to shoot them in the ass as blatantly as the Red Sox in those years.
If passing on Mays wasn’t enough, consider that in 1952 Boston’s other franchise, the Braves, signed a young Negro League star named Henry Aaron. There’s your curse. But how long are you going to hold against a team and a city a sin for which everyone was guilty?
These Red Sox, the ones who brushed off so much pressure to defeat the Cardinals so easily in this World Series (just as they beat the Colorado Rockies easily in 2007 and the Cardinals in 2004) are the closest thing baseball has to a … Well, I was going to say to an All-American team, but let’s make that an All-World team. The states are represented by: Shane Victorino, Hawaiian; Jacoby Ellsbury, from Oregon, is the first player of Native American descent to reach the major leagues. Jarrod Saltalamacchia is a Cuban-American from Florida (he also has the longest last name of any player in major league history).
David Ross and Stephen Drew are both from Georgia; Jake Peavy is from Alabama. Clay Buchholz, John Lackey and Will Middlebrooks are Texans. Jonny Gomes, Daniel Nava and Dustin Pedroia are from California. Jon Lester is from Washington, and relief pitcher Craig Breslow is from Connecticut.
The rest of the baseball playing world is represented on the Red Sox by the last two members of the Sox “Chain of Pain” relief corps, Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara, who were both born in Yokohama. David Ortiz is Dominican. Two players are Venezuelan – Felix Doubrant and Franklin Morales, and talk about diversity, Ryan Dempster is Canadian.
You can hate the Boston Red Sox in the abstract, but how can you really hate the 2013 Red Sox? They’re not a team of superstars. No 20-game winners, not a single player with as many as 30 home runs. Hustling on the bases and in the field, throwing to the right pass, hanging in against the curve when they were behind in the count, refusing to be moved out of the base line on the double play, and coming up with the big hit.
For years, Yankee fans have been scoffing at the notion of a “Red Sox Nation” — in fact, “Red Sox International” might be more accurate.
It’s no coincidence that the Red Sox turnaround began when they hired Bill James in 2003. As Jonah Hill’s character puts it in “Moneyball,” “Players are overlooked for a variety of reasons. Bill James and mathematics cuts straight through that.” The Red Sox are the real inheritors of the so-called “Moneyball” revolution. They want hitters who can get on base, fielders who can cover ground, and pitchers who have specific, easily identifiable talents. And they want them all fairly close to their physical prime. (Note to Yankees: The Red Sox do not give extended contracts to players in their late 30s.)
Yes, they have lots of money, but they’ve spent it wisely. The Red Sox have not displaced the Yankees as the most iconic franchise in baseball, but unlike the Yankees, they are the model for all Major League Baseball to follow.