Of all the delightful surprises of the 2006 baseball season so far, none has given more pleasure to this corner than the burning down, falling over and sinking into the swamp of the Boston Red Sox.
The Bostons woke up Thursday morning seven and a half games from the nearest playoff spot with 29 to play. They are a pile of crumbs.
The Detroit Tigers have been nice. The emergence of a killer rookie class in both leagues, the surprising competence of the Florida Marlins and Cincinnati Reds, the traditional second-half surge by the Oakland A's, the monster year by Travis Hafner, the New York Mets running away with the National League with a rotation of Trachsel and Maine and pray for rain.
Well, not quite, but I like how that sounds.
Fine, fine, fine. Like it all just fine.
But the Red Sox losing five straight to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Kansas City Royals, then following that with two six-game losing streaks, the first including that five-act meltdown against the New York Yankees, the second still going as this is written -- and if I type fast enough the losing streak will still only be six when I finish: It's not a Yankees swan dive but we'll take it around here as the next best thing, the fall of the Evil Empire Mini-Me.
This is fun because, aside from watching your own team win and luxuriating in the schadenfreude of witnessing a Yankees loss, nothing is more fun than watching the Red Sox disintegrate.
If you're not a Red Sox fan, that is. And most of us are not. That might come as a surprise to you if you've ever sat in the stands at a Boston road game west of the Mississippi, but we're not.
Enjoying the Red Sox's failures because nobody roots for Goliath is a new thing. It was only two years ago when the Sox were the ultimate underdogs, losers for decades on end, the stuff of high literature and low schmaltz, Curse of the Babe 1918 Mad Dash Jewel of a Ballpark Dent Buckner inkadinkadoo.
Rooting for the Yankees has been like rooting for Microsoft, or before that for U.S. Steel, since two decades before Red Smith characterized it that way in the '50s. The Red Sox were easy to root for in 2004. They were a fun team, high scoring and with a flair for the dramatic, and they came across as a fun bunch of guys. The Idiots, Big Papi, Johnny Damon's hair.
And gosh, who wouldn't want to root for the various flinty centenarian New Englanders the TV people kept finding to finally see their beloved Sawks win a World Series for the first time since they were teenagers and the best hitter on the team was a pitcher?
And, bonus, the Sox got to the World Series in the first place with a historically improbable comeback over the Yankees. Loved those guys.
But I wrote back then, if I may quote myself, "One day soon this orgy of relief and joy, these tears shed for relatives who lived and died without seeing this moment, it's all going to seem a little silly ... Don't be surprised if a decade or so from now the Red Sox are looked upon as Evil Empire II, the Yankees North."
A decade? It seems to me it's already happened in two years. It's how I feel about them, with their huge fan base, their cash register of a stadium, their massive payroll, their all-around junior Yankeeness. And judging from the message boards and radio shows I've seen and heard and my own in box, I'm nowhere close to being the only one.
It doesn't take long to go from David to Goliath. I should have known that. You know how the Atlanta Braves seem like imperial overlords in the National League? They already seemed that way in 1993, when they fought off the San Francisco Giants in a division race and then were upset by the Philadelphia Phillies in the playoffs.
This was two years after they'd been an out-of-nowhere, worst-to-first World Series team following two decades of nearly constant losing. Two years. That's what it takes to cement a reputation, I guess.
But speaking of the Braves, which I just was doing so I could make this smoove transition, they've finally stumbled this year and will miss the playoffs for the first time since 1990. Why isn't that as much fun as the pratfall of the Sox, and have I mentioned that the Sox are 8-21 in August, 18-29 since the All-Star break?
It probably is if you're a Mets fan, and your team is finally eligible to win something other than a wild card. But I'm not feeling any great national dancing on the grave of the Braves.
There's more to it than just being overdogs. It's fun to watch the Red Sox lose because the Boston media is brutal toward them when they're winning, and it turns downright savage when they start losing, and by losing I mean two or three games in a week.
Six in a row -- I mention that? -- and it's a veritable orgy of negativity in Beantown. Nothing short of perfection pleases the Boston commentariat, and in the last 88 years the Red Sox have been perfect for all of two weeks, in October 2004.
It's also fun because of Red Sox Nation. I know there are Red Sox fans who read this column -- there's even one who sometimes edits it -- and I love you all. [Thanks but no thanks, fathead. -- Ed.] Heck, my mom's a Red Sox fan and I love her. But, now that they've got their World Series win, it's just a downright gas to see Red Sox fans disappointed.
There's this unique quality to Red Sox fandom that got built up in all those years of futility. The Chicago Cubs and White Sox have had similar fruitless runs, but they're different. They're sad sacks.
The Cubs and White Sox routinely go half centuries without winning a pennant. The Red Sox haven't gone consecutive decades without one since the '30s. Being so close so relatively often and never getting there has created a mystique. Red Sox fandom has its own literature. It's practically a religion.
That was mildly annoying when the team hadn't won in a long lifetime. Now, with a 2-year-old World Series trophy and the expectation that another should be forthcoming before Manny Ramirez gets old in a few years, it's downright irritating.
Now that the Sox no longer deserve our sympathy, they're just another big-market, high-budget team whose fans have a sense of entitlement. They've been done in by a hideous and unfortunate series of injuries and medical conditions, which aren't to be crowed over but which are a part of most teams' seasons most years.
Every once in a while, a team that's good enough to win stays healthy enough to win. That happened to the Red Sox in 2004 and the White Sox in 2005. Good for them!
But now the Toronto Blue Jays, who have swallowed up ground on the Red Sox since the All-Star break by going what in normal times would be a dismal 20-26, are talking about whipping Boston in their four-game series at the Fens this weekend and eventually finishing in second place in the American League East, a position owned by the Red Sox since 1998.
Knock the Red Sox out of second place? The insolence!
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Day off Friday [PERMALINK]
This column will take a break Friday and return Tuesday after the holiday. Enjoy the long weekend.
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