No game is as welded to the American saga as baseball. No other game could be. It suits us. Beginning in February when pitchers and catchers report, and we see placid scenes of professional athletes "training" by jogging or politely playing catch in southern climes, to the fevered battles in October, just ahead of the oncoming winter, the game is always with us. It moves in great arcs, each rising out of the one before. The hopeful beginnings in April, to the shake-out month of May, to the end of the beginning in June, to the now-it-gets-serious month of July, to the ramp up in August, to the fiery conclusion in September and the I feel like I'm eating nails October. There is a vast sweep to a season, with each individual series moving the story along a little at a time.
The game moves along with us, as we move along in our lives. The game comes to us through a radio in a garage as we put together little Billy's first bike. The game is on the tv in the background as little Susie practices her first scale on the piano. We listen to the game on the car radio as we drive home from the hardware store on a Saturday afternoon. We check the boxscores in the morning newspaper. They are always there, the comfort of familiarity.
The other sports have their appeal. The NFL is a spectacle of crashing thunder, but with only 16 regular season games, each game is a staccato burst of emotion that impacts hard and quickly dissipates. The Super Bowl is a single, mighty flash. Hockey could never let go of its senseless gladiator element, and now is determined to kill itself off in labor struggles. The NBA has become a marketing gimmick, with overamped music and shallow tricks of entertainment. The game itself is played largely by rich punks who care little for lasting traditions and history.
But baseball, now there's a sport with history. How could it not be so? The long seasons demand an awareness of the past, and the use of statistics in the game is a spigot of history.
It is a game of perfect dimensions. The distance to first base, for instance, is not so close that the baserunner can be rewarded with a hit even for a meager tap to an infielder, but it is not so far either that an infielder can be sloppy and lazy and still have time make the throw to first. There is a balance there in the infield, the constant tension between whether a well-hit ball will triumph over a well-made defensive play. How many times do we see the ball just nip a runner at first, the ball entering the glove just as the runner's foot is poised over the bag? Change the dimensions of the infield a few feet one way or the other and we never see those plays. Likewise, the outfield walls are not so close that a hitter can bunt the ball over the wall for a home run, but the walls are not so far either that no one can reach the seats. There is balance in the outfield, too, where only a solid, mighty swing results in a home run. In pitching, a human being is not capable of throwing the ball so hard that no one could ever hit it. Yet, only the very best pitchers can throw it well enough to defeat the best hitters. There is balance at the plate.
This balance in the game is in keeping with our American character. We like the fact that someone can work hard and become that pitcher that is just a little better than the hitter, or become the hitter that is just a little better than the pitcher, or become that fielder that makes the tough play to take away a hit. We like the fact that success does not come easy in this game, it has to be earned. And it will come, if deserved.
Last night, the Boston Red Sox earned their success. They won the World Series for the first time since 1918. The length of time between these championships has become the stuff of legend. For those of us how are not RedSox fans, it's hard for us to understand how going so long with winning had drilled itself into flinty New England souls. But those of us on the outside looking in, we do understand history, and we do understand how this game is a river running back into our past.
In 1918, World War I was about to end, as the European powers had exhausted themselves in bloody trenches. Only a few years before, over 50,000 veterans had returned to Gettysburg to mark the 50th anniversary of that battle. Can you imagine? The last RedSox championship might have been witnessed by someone in the stands who had once stood on Cemetary Hill watching Pickett's men begin their charge.
Since then, the RedSox futility in their chase for another championship become part of American history, not just baseball lore. Consider: (with some help from this article)
In 1946, in their first World Series appearance since 1918, the RedSox lost to the Cardinals in seven games, falling behind in the 8th inning of Game 7 when "Pesky held the ball". Pesky was on hand last night, gray hair and all, to witness the celebration he didn't get to participate in 58 years earlier.
In 1948 Boston lost a one-game playoff to Cleveland for the pennant.
In 1967, in their next visit to the World Series, Boston again lost to the Cardinals in seven games. Bob Gibson won three games in that Series. One his teammates was Tim McCarver, who was in the tv booth last night.
In 1975, the RedSox battled the Reds in the World Series. Game 6 ended with Carleton Fisk famously hitting a home run down the left field line, waving in fair, willing it fair, leaping into the air when it hit the pole. Alas, the RedSox lost Game 7 the following night, even after getting ahead 3-0 till the sixth inning. Joe Morgan rapped a single in the top of the ninth to put the Reds up 4-3. Morgan was in the radio booth last night, calling the game.
In 1978, in the only other one-game playoff for the pennant, the RedSox, who had had at one point a 14 game lead in that season, lost to the Yankees. Bucky Dent, who was not a home run hitter, hit a three run home run in the 7th inning, leading to a 5-4 Yankees win.
October 25, 1986. Perhaps the cruelest blow of all. After all the anguish of the preceding decades, the RedSox were up 3 games to 2 against the Mets, in Game 6. In the tenth inning, up 5-3, Boston retired the first two batters. What happened next is legend. After three straight singles, to make it 5-4, with a man on first and third, Boston brought in pitcher Bob Stanley. Stanley's wild pitch scored the runner from third to tie it at 5-5, and the runner on first advance to second. The next batter, Mookie Wilson, hit a routine grounder to first baseman Bill Buckner, who was hobbled with bad ankles. The ball went through his legs, the Mets won Game 6 6-5. But the Sox still had another chance. They were even up 3-0 going into the sixth inning of that game, before losing 8-5.
In 1996, Roger Clemens was granted free agency after Boston's then-general manager Dan Duquette said the pitcher was in the "twilight" of his career. Over the next eight years, Clemens went on to post a 136-53 record while earning three more Cy Young awards and two World Series rings with the Yankees.
In 1999, Boston blew a three-run lead in the bottom of the eighth and stranded 11 runners in a 6-1 loss to New York in Game 5 of the ALCS.
In 2003, in the ALCS against the Yankees, in Game 7 Boston was ahead 5-2 in the 8th inning. Manager Grady Little left Pedro Martinez in too long, despite the fact Boston had strong bullpen, and the Yankees tied the game at 5-5. The Yankees then won in the 11th inning on a home run by Aaron Boone.
And now, in 2004, after being down 3-0 in the ALCS against the Yankees, faced with the fact no team was ever come back from that deep a hole, the RedSox did the impossible. Against the mighty Yankees lineup and the best closer in the histor of the game, Boston won 4 straight, then beat St. Louis 4 straight to win the World Series.
After 86 years, after Prohibition, penicillin, the Depression, World War II, the Korean War, JFK, Vietnam, Watergate, enforced busing, Reagan and the Cold War, Clinton, 9/11, Iraq, after all that, we once again get to touch our past. Because of baseball.