If the Red Sox lose the World Series, are we still Boston strong?
Playoff madness grips New England. Boston, still reeling from the Marathon bombings, has found salvation in Fenway Park. Sports may be a metaphor for life but this year, it seems, baseball is life.
It seems over the top. And yet there is truth to it as well.
I’m not immune to the madness. For some time I’ve shared season tickets with a group of friends and was lucky enough to get seats to the opening and sixth games of the American League Championship Series. Game 1 was disheartening, Jon Lester’s strong pitching overshadowed by a near no-hitter stitched together by a parade of Detroit pitchers. Game 6, on the other hand, was an explosion of joy, with everybody in the stands suddenly new best friends, New England reserve cast off amidst high fives and hugs among total strangers. Yet after the postgame ceremonies were over and I walked along Yawkey Way in the early hours of the morning, I remembered that it really was only a game. Good entertainment, yes. But my life hadn’t changed at all. Or had it?
This year is a saga of two stories intersected: the remarkable turnaround of the Red Sox and the Marathon Day bombings.
The Red Sox ended 2012 in last place, not only with a dismal record of 69 wins and 93 losses but also with a dismal reputation among fans. The team itself seemed broken, a bunch of malcontents led by a manager who seemed tone-deaf to his players and the city. There was widespread disgust. Some ticket-holders gave up their seats. The city’s longtime love affair with the Sox seemed at an end. And indeed, the record sellout streak of 820 games finally did conclude on April 10, although everyone knew it had stopped much earlier. The stands were visibly empty, crowds were subdued and almost every baseball analyst predicted 2013 would be another disaster.
Five days after the sellout streak ended, bombs exploded on Boylston Street. Those blasts had a tremendous physical cost, but the psychic damage was deep too. There were the inevitable “what-ifs?” as well as the protracted manhunt, live on TV, that extended beyond Boston’s borders into Cambridge and Watertown. It was horrific and frightening.
The city, like the Red Sox, was in the abyss.
The Red Sox went on to a remarkable record of 97 wins and 65 losses. Meanwhile, Boston residents reacted to terror attacks not with despair but resilience, optimism even. Rather than stay away from public events, they flocked to them, their actions saying they would not be intimidated. And the Red Sox played an outsize role in that as well. David Ortiz, in a clearly unscripted moment, bellowed, “This is our [expletive] city and nobody is going to dictate our freedom.” The team reached out to victims and their families, helping and honoring them in myriad ways. I’m enough of a cynic to suspect that some of this was just brilliant marketing, a smart way to worm the team back into the affections of its disillusioned fans. But I’m also sufficiently credulous that it worked. Football is supposedly the number one spectator sport in New England. Yet baseball, clearly, still has the strongest tug on our hearts. In helping to redeem the city, the Red Sox redeemed themselves.
Others have gone through the same thing. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the pennant-winning New York Yankees helped heal a shattered city. Following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the improbably successful New Orleans Saints gave hope to a city that some gave up for lost. On the other hand, these parallels aren’t always there. Superstorm Sandy devastated New York last year. But none of its teams managed to put together a season of solace.
The Red Sox have. And should they lose the Series, Boston will still be strong. Because the lesson from this season isn’t that winning matters. Rather, it’s about perseverance and grit; it’s about getting kicked to the curb and standing back up again. Yes, it’s only a game. Perhaps that’s true of all of life. But the lessons of the game ring true.
Tom Keane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org