Dear Pink Hats, 69 Wins Is Perfect

“There’s a difference between being a really talented group and being a winning group”     -Cody Ross, Red Sox OF

“Attention Red Sox fans, you can breathe now”

No one wanted to win this way. No matter how hard we tried to justify it, how many jerseys (or bricks) we sold, and how cool it was to go to Fenway on any given night and get on ESPN because these Red Sox could have been the best team ever, something just wasn’t right. I used to dream of seeing Adrian Gonzalez hit at Fenway Park, and boldly predicted he would easily hit 60 (yes, six-zero) home runs in his first season with the team. I envisioned the Carl Crawford/Jacoby Ellsbury tandem to be one for the record books. Sure, I hated the John Lackey signing. Yes, we were writing more checks than ever before and, no, there didn’t seem to be enough room for all the zeros. But Theo Epstein was the Messiah. Certainly, he could no wrong…right?

And then it hit me.

“You’re just as bad as us,” one close, Yankee-fan friend told me. Frankly, I couldn’t disagree.

~

I can’t throw a baseball properly. No matter how hard I try, the mechanics of simply throwing it over-the-shoulder don’t quite work for me, and I end up icing my entire arm for three times as long as I was on the field. That’s because growing up, although I didn’t fully appreciate baseball until about eleven years old, I worshiped Nomar Garciaparra. Nomar epitomized everything I was taught growing up: be passionate about what you do and do it to the best of your ability, day-in and day-out. Typically, I didn’t get to watch Nomar play because the Red Sox came on past my bed time.

“If you looked up ‘hard work’ in the dictionary, Nomar would be standing there asking what took you so long.”

Heck, if I got to watch Rugrats at 7pm, it was a hell of a day. Regardless of how many hours I didn’t spend glued to the TV, I knew everything about my favorite player. Anthony “Nomar” Garciaparra, whose name came from his father’s name, Ramon, spelled backwards, was born on July 23rd. He’d been the shortstop since 1996, was the 1997 American League Rookie of the Year, and his signature, off-balance, side-armed throw (the reason I can’t throw a baseball today) almost never missed its target. Most importantly though was how he played the game. Nomar had a routine for everything he did – how to take the field, how to get ready for an at-bat, and how to properly field a ground ball. If there was a ball hit within a mile radius of his position, you bet he’d get there and make the play. More often than not you could find Nomar sacrificing his body to get an out or kicking in a little more hustle to cleverly snag an extra base. Despite all the nuances that made him unique, one thing stood out the most: he loved the game. If you looked up ‘hard work’ in the dictionary, Nomar’s picture would be standing there asking what took you so long. He didn’t care about money or fame, he simply respected the game he played and wanted to give it everything he had every time he stepped onto the field.

That kind of player – the gritty, hard-nosed dirt dog who would give anything for his team to win and for his fans to smile – was what baseball players were to me. They loved the game, saw everything it had given them and so many others, and wished only to repay the game in some way for all it had done for them and so many before. Those players – the ones to whom it mattered and who had fun playing – were who the Red Sox were supposed to be. It’s why in 2003, enduring my first stomach-punch loss, I cried with Tim Wakefield after that eleventh inning bomb knocked my Red Sox out of the playoffs. It’s why in 2004, despite lacking Nomar on the final roster, the Red Sox were World Champions for the first time in 86 years. The self-proclaimed “idiots” had a fiery passion for the game of baseball and, like Nomar in years prior, gave everything so their team could win and their fans could smile. They just wanted to say “thanks” and have some fun along the way, so they did. That was what made a baseball team. So while I didn’t endure 86 years of hardship, after having my heart ripped out and falling in love with the game and an incredible, historic team, I knew what it meant to be a Red Sox fan.

Or so I thought.

~

The Red Sox have never been bad as long as I can remember them. Down on their luck? Usually. Loveable losers? Almost certainly. Cursed? No doubt in my mind. But bad? No. They were never bad. In fact, most would argue they were anything but that. For months after they won, all you heard about was new signs, babies named “Curt” and “Papi”, and something about finally dying in peace. For the first time in 86 years, Boston took a collective sigh of relief and all was right in the world.

The Red Sox came back strong in 2005, making the playoffs but swiftly losing in the first round to the eventual American League Pennant-winning Chicago White Sox. This time though, no one groaned. It was disappointing, sure, but they’d be back. After all, they had just won the year before. The next year the Red Sox struggled late once again and missed the playoffs for the first time in several years. Then in 2007, they did it all over again, winning the World Series for the second time in four years. Then it happened.

“This is what happens with defending champs: They kill themselves to win…celebrate all summer, let down a little, regroup, prove they’re great again, and then, it’s really up to the whims of the season itself. Sometimes they go your way, sometimes they don’t.” – Bill Simmons

Priorities: set straight since 2004

Suddenly we expected the Red Sox to win. Now it was no longer a grand prize so desperately dreamed of and longed for, but a marketable brand that we tried to buy and sell. Now being a Red Sox fan wasn’t about agony or desperation or dreams, it was about being a card-carrying member of the Nation and buying your commemorative brick. Now all that mattered was the number in the “W” column and, ironically enough, now we couldn’t seem to get that number to go up. Now the “players” didn’t come to the park to “play” anything, but instead to complain, whine, fake injuries and make excuses to sit around and collect a pay check. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure my boss would fire me if that was what I did at work. The 2012 Red Sox put the history of baseball to shame, the one thing no player should ever do. The lazy, lethargic and largely apathetic clubhouse could rarely muster a victory here, there or anywhere. When Major League Baseball was first founded, the men on the teams all had real jobs – businessmen, butchers, firefighters, fathers, etc. that kept them busy most of the time. Baseball was simply their passion, not their day job. They played every night because they loved the game and wanted to entertain the people around them.

I love baseball. It’s my own personal recluse (right next to basketball and the Celtics) from the bustling world I live in. These guys absolutely make a difference in my daily life, but they aren’t doctors. It’s one thing to get paid fifty times as much money as the “normal” guys at the top of the food chain, but it gets ridiculous when you won’t even try. Sports give us something to put our hope into and, to be perfectly honest, in the words of Ben Wrightman, “I like being part of something bigger than me. It’s good for your soul to invest in something you can’t control.” In a world that glorifies athletes as the people who give us those little bits of hope and bring us something bigger to invest ourselves in, the very least you can give is your best. In 2012, the Red Sox never came close.

That’s why we ended up with losers like Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez on our team – guys who have all the talent in the world, let you think they’ll give you everything they’ve got forever and then wait until you give them everything you’ve got forever and rip the seat out from under you. It’s why Josh Beckett made nearly $16 million this year being a terrible pitcher on an even worse team, eventually got traded to a decent team, and became a bad pitcher on a serious playoff contender that crashed and burned as soon as he got there. The Red Sox were a talented group, but they certainly weren’t a winning one.

Charles P. Pierce sums it up rather perfectly:

The franchise needed a year like this. It needed a year like this not just because it was forced to clear out the lumpy deadwood in the clubhouse, though it certainly needed that. It needed a year like this not just because it was a humbling experience that let the air out of the inflated hubris that had been keeping the franchise’s collective ego aloft since the wonderful autumn of 2004, though the franchise certainly needed one of those, too. The franchise needed a year like this because people like me are getting older and we missed the days when being a Red Sox fan wasn’t so much work…Those were good days, and isn’t that what the baseball people tell us the game is all about?

In their end of the season press conference in which they let manager Bobby Valentine go, Red Sox President and CEO Larry Lucchino said of the 2012 season “it begs for changes, some of which have already transpired.  More will come.” Chairman Tom Werner then added “We’ll be back.”

While I appreciate their comments, I think Larry and Tom have got it all misunderstood. The last stop on the Red Sox bandwagon tour finally arrived the day the “Sell Out Streak” ended. All the fogies are gone, and the men of Fenway Park can once again rejoice in knowing the women who will be heading to the Fens know they look much sexier wearing their Boston Blue and Red than they do in obnoxious pink. The tourists have packed up their bags, satisfied for the next 100 years. 69 wins feels oddly familiar, and losing suddenly feels great. The culture surrounding this team has changed. The ‘good old days’ are here and Boston can once again take a collective sigh of relief. The Red Sox are back.

So let’s give Nomar a call and a uniform, tell him to lace up the glove and cleats, and invite him to come on out for one last magical victory tour, showing the new guys how it’s done.

Hey, most Red Sox fans had 86 years to dream. If they could do it, so can I.

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