It’s Only a Game, but……

Published on: July 31, 2012

“The New York Yankees beat the Boston Red Sox 7-3 to head into the three-day All-Star break with the best record in major league baseball.”

 

How much worse could it get? Quite a bit worse, actually. Since the All Star Break, the Sox have sunk below .500 and into last place in their division, 10-1/2 games behind the Yankees, as of this writing.

For Sox fans, still reeling from last season’s appalling end-of-season collapse, this feeling (acute depression) is all too familiar. That the economy seems to be following the same trajectory as the Sox doesn’t help. And there is certainly little comfort to be found in the political landscape.

But there may be comfort in memory. There was a time when we didn’t expect the Sox to win, only hoped fervently that they might. That hope survived an 86-year-long drought, between 1918 and 2004, when the Sox finally won another World Series. They won again in 2007, but it’s the 2004 victory that stands out – that whole improvable, exhilarating, magical season. It lifted spirits then, and perhaps its memory – captured in the article we posted at the time – can do the same now.

Life is cyclical. The economy will improve – eventually. Congress may solve a problem or two. And the Sox will win again. They’re only 10-1/2 games behind, after all. And the season isn’t over yet.

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We all know that baseball is only a game. We’ve certainly heard that said often enough, although perhaps more often by those who have lost the game than by those who have won it. But for the three million plus fans from all over New England who jammed Boston’s streets to cheer the world champion Red Sox, baseball is clearly more than “just a game,” and the Red Sox, clearly, are far more than “just a team.”

For two, giddy weeks in October, everyone was a Red Sox fan. Well, maybe not everyone. There were, no doubt, some New York Yankees players and Yankees fans who wouldn’t have included themselves under that broad umbrella. And the St. Louis Cardinals, understandably, weren’t waving Red Sox banners either, having designs on that World Series trophy themselves.

But it wasn’t only die-hard, perennially frustrated Red Sox fans who remained glued to their television screens as the Red Sox avoided what had seemed certain to be yet another post-season disappointment. After losing the first three games of a seven–game playoff, they came back, improbably, to beat the odds and the Yankees by winning the next four. And when the Sox went on to sweep the Cardinals and win the World Series, who (excepting the Cardinals themselves and those previously mentioned Yankees and Yankees fans) could resist the urge to cheer as the players and their fans tumbled onto the field, hugging everyone and everything in sight, to celebrate the franchise’s first world championship in 86 years?

A Huge Victory

It was a victory so huge it had to be shared. The team’s storied history, marked by “the curse of the Bambino” and punctuated by decades of near-misses, “if onlies,” and “not agains,” had achieved near mythic proportions, so the victory, when it finally came, had to be outsized, too. Colleagues, friends, and relatives from outside of New England, distanced (at least geographically) from Red Sox Nation and its madness, called to congratulate us, as if we had played the games ourselves.

In truth, it almost seemed as if we had. Bleary-eyed, exhausted, and emotionally drained, we had ridden the post-season roller coaster that had, so many times before, propelled us almost but not quite to baseball’s heights, only to plunge us to its depths once more. So we had braced ourselves for yet another fall, never feeling any lead, however large, was comfortable, waiting for the other shoe (the one worn by the likes of Bill Buckner and Bucky Dent) to drop, and finally, amazingly, seeing that shoe fall, for once, on the other team rather than on ours.

At the end of disappointing seasons in the past, as we had watched victories that seemed within our grasp careen suddenly beyond our reach, we would chant the mantra that became a credo for Red Sox fans: “Wait until next year.” And we would remind ourselves that baseball is, after all, just a game.

Life Lessons Taught

That reminder is no less true today, although recited in the shadow of a World Series trophy, it takes on a decidedly different tone. Still, win or lose, baseball is just a game. It is not real life. But that doesn’t mean it can’t teach some real life lessons, and the Red Sox victory provided many of them, starting with:

  • Dreams do come true, if you hang on to them (and if you have a very long life expectancy).
  • Forgetting may be too much to ask, but forgiveness is possible. At the end of the final game against the Cardinals, the television camera spotted fans carrying a sign that read: “We forgive Bill Buckner” (the Red Sox first baseman who, in 1986, allowed the final out against the Mets and what could have been a World Series championship that year, roll between his legs).
  • Money is not destiny – at least, not always. It wasn’t the Yankees, with their gargantuan payroll, who prevailed in the playoffs; it was the Red Sox (with the second largest payroll, behind the Yankees), who had a will to win that money alone could not buy.
  • Team spirit is a powerful and potentially unbeatable force. Manny Ramirez, the Sox power hitting left fielder, was named the most valuable player in the World Series, but in fact, everyone on the team was a most valuable player at some point and in some way. Think of Curt Schilling pitching brilliantly on his tattered ankle. Consider the masterful pitching of Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe, and the Red Sox bull pen that held up consistently in the late innings. Don’t overlook the strike-out bedeviled Mark Bellhorn, who hit multiple clutch home runs, or designated hitter David Ortiz, who boosted the score and his teammates in game after game, or Johnny Damon, pounding his way out of a post-season hitting slump to ignite the offense and put key runs on the board at crucial points.

A Team for All Seasons

There were many highlights and many standouts, but what the players said about their victory was almost as impressive as what they did to achieve it. When asked by reporters to comment on an individual hit or fielding play, almost without exception, they talked instead about what they and the other players had accomplished as a team. That “all for one and one for all” sensibility seems almost anachronistic today, harkening back to a time before baseball became big business and before baseball “teams” became a misnomer for groups of players who more closely resemble a collection of well-compensated moving parts than a cohesive, organic whole

Red Sox manager Terry Francona talked repeatedly about how much his players cared about each other and how much they loved playing the game. Those sentiments were evident both off and on the field, in how they talked about the game and how they played it. They called themselves “the idiots,” but they played, at least when it counted, like “the brilliants,” with a combination of skill and energy, determination and exuberance that made their victory seem not just well-earned, but exquisite. It was that spirit as much as the winning season that captured imaginations in Red Sox Nation and beyond.

Those who say baseball is just a game miss the point. They underestimate the power of the game to transport people outside of themselves and in the process, to create a shared experience that bridges differences and carves out, if only briefly, a few inches of common ground. Red Sox angst spanned generations, creating a “nation” in which fans with otherwise varied allegiances claimed citizenship. For a short time this October, young and old, rich and poor, Black and White, Republicans and Democrats, Muslims, Christians, and Jews could recognize what was special about the Red Sox achievement and applaud it. And in a nation as polarized as the presidential election suggests that ours is, this is neither a small accomplishment nor an insignificant one.

Baseball is a game, and the Red Sox victory, however extraordinary, will not bring peace to the Middle East, eliminate poverty, nor defeat terrorism. Baseball is not a substitute for “real life,” but as distractions go, it’s not a bad one. Whatever happens next year, what the Red Sox accomplished this year is the stuff that memories and dreams are made of – a reminder that impossible obstacles can be overcome and that distant goals can be set and won. If the Red Sox can win a World Series after 86 years, who knows what the rest of us might be able to achieve.