Thursday, October 28, 2004

I'm not quite sure exactly when I realized that the Red Sox were going to win the World Series. After all, I'm the first to admit to being a fair-weather fan (after years and years of foul-weather fandom when I lived in Connecticut and Massachusetts). I hadn't followed baseball at all this season. I'd vaguely followed online news of the ALCS as the game tally ran from 3-0 to 3-1 to 3-2 to 3-3. And then we watched Game 7 of the ALCS, and Rick figured it out on the spot. The Sox were going to win the whole thing, because this team was different. Other Red Sox teams had possessed as much talent, but this one had something special in terms of attitude.

A few years back, I played for and later coached a college quiz bowl team that had stellar collective ability but only minimal resilience. This is an oversimplification, but only a slight one: If the team took an early lead, it was likely to grind its opponents into the dust, but if it fell behind in a close game, it would plummet in a blaze of panicky neg-fives. (Readers unfamiliar with QB scoring can request clarification via the e-mail link.) It drove me completely nuts, especially during the year that I quasi-coached the CBI squad and listened to my players, over the spaghetti bar at the mid-tournament dinner, speculate on which of the other teams was going to win the finals. When I asked them if they'd ever considered winning it themselves, they assured me that they couldn't. At this stage of the tournament, this team had a perfect 5-0 record. By the next afternoon, they'd folded in the finals, utterly intimidated by another team which they rivaled in depth and should have outclassed in speed.

Just like the old Red Sox. Rick, more accustomed to Midwestern sportsmanship, was appalled by the rough treatment afforded a hapless relief pitcher by vocal Boston fans one night at Fenway in the late 1980s. The poor guy had been through a few bad outings, and the heckling started as he left the bullpen. By the time the pitcher reached the mound, he wasn't walking any more; he was slinking. He was promptly shelled to within an inch of his life, a perfect microcosm of the bad old days.

Not any more. The talent was all there, but this time it was properly shielded by a healthy resistance to adversity. Down three games in the playoffs? Sorry, it's not over. A few bad fielding errors in the first few games of the Series? We'll let them, if you'll excuse the expression, bounce off and get on with the game. Rick announced by midway through Game 1 of the World Series that he knew the Sox were going to sweep. No seventh game swan song this time. Game 5 is not necessary, and we now return to our regularly scheduled programming.

After all the years I spent in graduate school, I developed an eye for which of my fellow students were going to stick it out to the end and which ones were going to bail. The ones who panicked and sulked when the cells wouldn't grow or the caterpillars went prolegs up usually didn't make it. I could understand this especially well because, in my pre-graduate school years, I used to be such a person myself. The ones who went back to the field or the lab again and again, who tweaked the reactions at the bench for hours and days and weeks until the bands finally showed up on the gel, who reared a new batch of plants or bacteria every time the old ones inconsiderately died -- they were the ones who made it through. Incidentally, it didn't matter whether they complained or swore or spent the rest of the day composing themselves at the bar or the mall after a setback; those diversions are coping mechanisms, and as long as you eventually suck it up and come back, a little drama isn't a big deal and might help you blow off steam. I could understand all of this too, because this was the kind of person I became only as I approached forty and realized what an amazing second chance I'd been given. It's not a miracle and it's not hard-wired fate; you might be born with it or you might learn it, but it's all a matter of attitude.

So the 2004 Red Sox are the champions of major league baseball; a group of guys who work hard and play hard and seem to know how to laugh at themselves. (Funny; if you can't laugh at yourself, someone else is only more bound to do it for you.) At the point where you can shrug off the bad throw or the hand-wringing spectators or the neg five or the dead bugs, something has changed for the better and can take you to amazing places. What the team couldn't do in the days of Williams or Yastrzemski or Fisk or Rice or Boggs, they could do with a bunch of wryly self-proclaimed idiots who understood their own immense talent but couldn't stop having a good time with it. Along the way, they added one more secret ingredient to the mix -- the tenacity of mound ants. Speculation on whether or not they can soon repeat the feat is premature, but no one can ever call them cursed again.


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