The last great American rivalry

The Red Sox may finally be on the verge of ending The Curse and beating the Yankees. But even if they don't, their fans have been blessed with that rarest of gifts -- passion. An exclusive excerpt from Steve Kettmann's "One Day at Fenway."

Published September 24, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

"I'm not a religious person, but spiritual. That was a religious experience, that Game Seven. When that Aaron Boone homer went out, I don't care who you were, you were hugging your fellow Yankee soulmate. I was like in a trance. I was cursing up a storm. They all looked at me like I was crazy. The cops looked at me like I was crazy. I was foaming at the mouth. I wasn't talking to anyone in particular, just screaming at the top of my lungs about how the Red Sox were never going to win."

-- Spike Lee

No one who set foot in the Red Sox clubhouse just after Aaron Boone's Game Seven, eleventh-inning homer at Yankee Stadium will ever forget what it was like to be there. It almost hurt to be in the room with the Red Sox. It almost hurt to step into the line of sight of hunched-over players staring galaxies away. They all sat around morosely, replaying the mental pictures of that Tim Wakefield knuckler that did not knuckle, the crack of Aaron Boone's bat and the instant certainty that the ball would land in a throng of bouncing, grinning Yankee fans.

All around the close quarters of the room, men who were paid millions of dollars to play a boy's game looked as lost as children. They had no idea just how bad the disappointment would be when it kicked in with full force that they had lost Game Seven of the American League Championship Series to the Yankees, and lost it in a way no one in baseball would ever forget.

Their millions could not help them. Call it their dirty little secret: Almost all of them cared far more about winning and losing than they let on. Even for spoiled, pampered, big-league players, a loss like this stung and stung deeply. None of the players moved. Neither did any of the reporters ushered into the room fifteen minutes after the game. It seemed indecent to probe these psyches. It already felt redundant to voice the obvious questions that would reverberate in New England throughout the long, long winter.

Only one man was moving. He went from player to player, and to some he gave hugs, to others a slap on the back. To all of them he offered words of gratitude, delivered with the understated conviction of a man who had accomplished enough in life to save his thanks for special occasions. John Henry did not join some of his players in shedding tears. He had cried joyfully back at Fenway Park when a David Ortiz deep fly fell behind Oakland right fielder Jermaine Dye, sending that playoff series back to Oakland for a deciding Game Five. But for Henry, this was no time for tears; this was a time for duty. He hugged infielder Lou Merloni, red-eyed and disoriented, and drifted toward the clubhouse door, moving like a sleepwalker.

Outside, Henry did not know what to do with himself. He took a few steps toward the dark tunnel leading to the visitors' dugout, and suddenly stopped. He turned back toward the clubhouse, and thought better of that, too. I approached Henry and asked in a low voice about his circuit around the room. He started to move his jaw, ready to form words, but none came.

Henry and I had spoken often that memorable fall, and I sat with Henry in his private box during the early innings of that wild Game Three with the Yankees, the infamous game where Pedro Martinez stiff-armed Don Zimmer to the ground and all hell broke loose. But now Henry was staring right through me. He was staring right through the concrete walls behind me, like a man who just wanted to know when this sudden dizziness and disorientation would let up enough for him to feel his feet touching the ground again.

The answer, of course, is that it might never. Henry was five outs away from taking the Red Sox to the World Series and having a great shot at becoming the man who killed the curse. It was a Red Sox owner, Harry Frazee, who sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees on January 5, 1920, offering an intoxicating story line to stitch together more than eight decades of Red Sox teams finding colorful ways to fall short of winning the Series. The idea that the Red Sox have been cursed ever since is a romantic notion, a story that gets told and retold until the retelling is the whole idea. To argue over whether the curse exists is to miss the point: It exists if enough people feel that it does. It exists if Aaron Boone of all people can hit that homer to put the Yankees back in the World Series and talk afterward about the importance of ghosts.

John Henry thinks he is a man of fate. He has believed ever since he bought the Red Sox in early 2002 that it was up to him to end the curse. He has known that the only way to do that is to win a World Series. Once Grady Little stuck with Pedro Martinez in Game Seven and it all unraveled for the Red Sox, a prevailing view took hold in New England that 2003 was in the end mostly about adding a fresh entry in the long, long roster of disappointments to pull out and work like worry stones. That is how Red Sox fans have been brought up to react, and how they will always react, until their team finally wins another World Series.

Peter Farrelly was probably not alone among Red Sox fans when he said that, six months after the Game Seven disaster, he could not even recall where he was that day, even though he can describe in detail each of the Five Most Painful Sporting Events of his life. "I swear I can't remember where I was when Grady Little left Pedro in too long," he said. "I may have been in L.A., maybe Massachusetts, possibly Texas, maybe at a bar, or a hotel room, or home. I really can't recall. And that's good. Because it means I've learned to block this shit out. I did watch the game. Somewhere. But this is all I recall: I remember never thinking for a moment that they were going to win. I remember being proud that I wasn't getting sucked in, feeling grown up."

Farrelly actually picked up the phone late in the game to call one of the nephews he had brought to the August 30 game at Fenway.

"Tommy, protect your heart," he said.

"They're gonna win," his nephew told him.

"Thomas," Farrelly said. "Protect your heart."

"They're gonna win!" Tommy said, louder now.

"Tom -- they're not," Farrelly said.

"Shut up!" Tommy said. "They are too!"

Farrelly gave it one more try.

"I'm not breaking your balls here," he said. "I'm doing this for your own good. I've been hurt real bad by these guys before, real bad, and I promised myself that they would never, ever again hurt me and or anyone I loved, so I'm telling you, protect your heart."

Tommy was not persuaded.

"They're gonna win!" he screamed, and then hung up and went back to sit through a last few minutes of pleasure and hope before Aaron Boone dashed them all with that home run.

John Henry may never take Sox fans closer than they were that night, five outs away from the World Series. The topsy-turvy Game Seven with Pedro Martinez on the mound might have been his one and only shot. But I don't think so. Based on what I saw during the several months of the 2003 season I spent studying the John Henry Red Sox from up close, helped in the preparation of this book by unprecedented access, I believe the Henry ownership group is really going to do it. That is just a guess. But one thing I picked up in nine years covering professional sports for the San Francisco Chronicle was a conviction that when you have a hunch about a team, or an organization, you're right often enough to trust your hunches. Bostonians would be unwise ever to go on record with such a prediction, but as an outsider, a Californian of all things, I'm willing to say it here in black and white: The Red Sox will win a World Series on Henry's watch. It may be this October. It may be next October. It may take several more years. But it will happen.

It will happen because the Henry group, led by fiery Larry Lucchino, has shown an inspired understanding of what the George Steinbrenner-era Yankees are all about. Lucchino came right out and called the Yankees the Evil Empire, and people around the country know what he means. The Yankees are not just a rich organization with the delusion of the rich that the things they buy are all about character. The Yankees are an organization very comfortable using any and every advantage to rub out real competition. One of these advantages is influence over how events on and off the field are presented in the national media.

Flash back to that crazy Game Three at Fenway Park. Pedro Martinez had lost it out there on the mound and thrown at Karim Garcia's head in a situation that made it way too obvious just what he was doing and why. Don Zimmer had lost it and gone after Martinez, throwing a wide, wobbly left hook before Martinez stiff-armed him and sent him toppling like a pillow in a pillow fight, as Harvey Araton memorably put it in the Times. A group of Yankees probably including Jeff Nelson and Garcia had lost it, and beat up an overzealous member of the Boston grounds crew. A Yankee executive named Randy Levine had lost it, and made the mistake of venting his frustration to reporters without first checking his facts.

"There's an attitude of lawlessness that's permeating everything and it needs to be corrected," Levine said. "The events of the entire day were disgraceful and shameful and if it happened at our ballpark, we would apologize and that's what the Red Sox should do here."

This was pure gamesmanship. The Yankees had taken a lead in the series, and they wanted a lead in public opinion, too. They saw a way to deflect some of the attention and sympathy the Red Sox get as the lovable losers everyone wants to see knock off the big, bad Yankees. They knew it would be to their benefit to position themselves as victims. They fully expected the national press to bury the Red Sox, and in the avalanche of negative stories, Red Sox players would have even more trouble shaking off a difficult loss and making a series out of it. The Yankees have won so often before, they use inevitability as a weapon.

That was where Henry, Lucchino and Werner rolled the dice. Baseball's commissioner, Bud Selig, had issued a gag order directing teams not to comment on the mess that Game Three became. Henry, Lucchino and Werner ignored him. They took the podium for a press conference and fired right back at Levine's charges. Henry, a man with a dry sense of humor, good-naturedly mocked the Yankees. "I spoke with Randy yesterday," he said. "I didn't feel it was necessary for him to apologize for his remarks or for the attack. ... I essentially asked him to retract his statements -- statements that I thought were irresponsible and probably made in the heat of the moment -- and he declined to do so."

Most papers played the owners' press conference as a fiasco. The general sentiment was: How dare they? But the calculated bold move was one of the most important developments in the series. People are supposed to be afraid of George Steinbrenner, and many are. Many let themselves be influenced and intimidated by his whims in ways they barely notice. But John Henry showed he had no fear. He served notice that under his leadership, the Red Sox are proud and fierce and, most important of all, undaunted. Teams have ups and downs, and the skeptics might have been right when they said it would take the organization years to dig out from the psychic wreckage of the great disappointment of 2003.

But John Henry and Larry Lucchino didn't see it that way, and they just might have been in a position to know. They went out in the offseason and upgraded their team by adding bulldog starter Curt Schilling and closer Keith Foulke, and when they fell short in their bid to acquire Alex Rodriguez, George Steinbrenner took great glee in rubbing it in later, once Aaron Boone's pickup basketball injury prompted the Yankees to swoop in and add Rodriguez as their new third baseman. Henry had once been a part-owner of the Yankees and a friend of Steinbrenner's. Henry was known for being low key and mild-mannered. But he released a statement reading in part, "Baseball doesn't have an answer for the Yankees. ... Although I have never previously been an advocate of a salary cap in baseball out of respect for the players, there is really no other fair way to deal with a team that has gone insanely far beyond the resources of all other teams."

This from a billionaire owner of a team with baseball's second-highest payroll behind the Yankees. Steinbrenner fired back immediately and unforgettably.

"We understand that John Henry must be embarrassed, frustrated and disappointed by his failure in this transaction," Steinbrenner said. "Unlike the Yankees, he chose not to go the extra distance for his fans in Boston. It is understandable, but wrong that he would try to deflect the accountability for his mistakes on to others and to a system for which he voted in favor. It is time to get on with life and forget the sour grapes."

This was, in effect, a knee to the groin. Talk about a tabloid headline waiting to happen! But if anything, the exchange confirmed that the Red Sox were setting the tone. They were turning this into a street brawl against the best street brawler around. They were trying to out-Yankee the Yankees, even if it meant turning off a lot of people in baseball, who could stomach one Steinbrenner but not these new Steinbrenneresque upstarts in Boston thumbing their noses at everyone else. The strategy might have struck some as foolhardy, but it reaped instant benefits: Interest has never been higher in the rivalry between the Red Sox and the Yankees.

Brian Cashman, watching the offseason theatrics with fascination, and from one of the best seats in the house, preferred to think of the Henry outburst as mere emotion, rather than part of an "Evil Empire" strategy.

"I wouldn't turn up the heat," Cashman said. "You mess with a beehive, you're going to get stung."

He let the words sink in.

"I think they are too smart for that," Cashman added. "The great thing about the fans of Boston is they now have fans running that team, real passionate fans that are smart. But on the short-term stuff, the negative reactions toward things that we might do with an emotional response, that just gets us more emotional. That's not healthy for everybody else. This is like Russia and the United States -- we're being the United States, they are Russia -- it's the two big superpowers, and now it's like: How many missiles do we need? We're going to increase our missiles, and you're going to increase your missiles. Oh, you got another one? We're going to increase ours now."

It's easy enough to see why Cashman does not like the drift of events. Who can blame him? But his vision of mutually assured destruction, baseball-style, makes a lot of sense. That is just what the Henry group wants. John Henry may once have been a shy and awkward boy too timid to come out and ask the neighbor kids if he could play in a ball game in his own yard, but he's not making that mistake again. He could not be more involved in this rivalry, and he's willing to roll up his sleeves and get a little dirty if that's what it takes. He's putting himself on the line in just about every way imaginable. If Steinbrenner challenged him to go at it mano a mano, right there between home plate and the pitcher's mound, John Henry just might surprise people and take him up on it. Imagine the ratings that would get.

Henry and Lucchino know that the old story line of perpetual disappointment had a potency and power that could always find a way to snatch success away from them at the last possible moment. They believe in the power of story. They believe in a narrative's ability to keep moving itself forward, even when it seems to have spent its force. So they have assembled a baseball club with great pitching and great hitting, and yet they know that the battle cannot be only on the diamond. Their verbal sparring and their Steinbrenner-like spending have helped turn this rivalry into something it never was before: A national happening. Fans in other markets may get tired of the unfairness of it all, but everyone senses that this is building toward a fascinating conclusion. The twists and turns in the rivalry have an off-the-map feel to them, and anything seems possible. As with any media spectacle, people are simultaneously annoyed to have their attention grabbed so aggressively and curious to discover whether the events themselves will live up to the hype.

"That's what sells our game," Cashman said. "Now that reality TV is so successful, people are like: Turn on a baseball game, that's reality TV."

The off-the-charts intensity and fan interest give the Red Sox just what they have been craving for decades: A fresh context. So the crazier this gets, the happier they are. After all, they know they are the ones willing to steer this rivalry off the road and go smashing through windows and shopping malls like Jake and Elwood Blues. The added intensity pays dividends for the Red Sox. Among other things, it guarantees that if the high-priced Yankee lineup falters against the Red Sox, a Steinbrenner back-page tongue-lashing will never be long in coming. Steinbrenner got the better of Henry in the "Sour grapes!" exchange, but sometimes losing is winning and winning is losing. The "Evil Empire" strategy of throwing everything toward the goal of beating the Yankees might or might not pay off for the Henry ownership, but they are having one hell of a time playing their hand as if they are sure they were going to get the last laugh on Steinbrenner.

Red Sox fans who talk about the decades of pain and disappointment they have suffered are really talking about something else. They are talking about the luxury of caring about something deeply. Nowhere has a deep and abiding attachment to a team been passed from generation to generation the way it has been in Boston. Most sports fans aren't so lucky. Passion like that has become rare in American life, where allegiances tend to last weeks or months. People move from state to state, picking up new teams and new loyalties and leaving others behind. Fans outfit themselves head to toe in the loud colors of their new team and scream their lungs out -- on cue -- at state-of-the-art stadiums and arenas. They celebrate their new teams' victories like a personal entitlement. But do they really know anything about passion without living through bleak times that test their loyalty? New England fans do. Oh how they do.

Reprinted by permission of Atria Books. Copyright © 2004 by Steve Kettman

By Steve Kettmann

Steve Kettmann, a regular contributor to Salon, is the author of "One Day at Fenway: A Day in the Life of Baseball in America."

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