Like so many other young children, I was introduced to baseball by a relative. Only in my case, it wasn't my father who introduced me, it was an aunt on my mother's side of the family. Who'd've thunk it?
As a young child, I never really had any interest in sports. Sure, there was kickball, and the occasional wiffleball game, and sometimes we'd play football in Brandon's yard until the point came where it degenerated into a bunch of yelling and someone bounced a football off the neighbor's house to emphasize a point, which was usually the signal for everyone to run away, but the thought of actually sitting down and watching other people play never really had any appeal to me.
One day in 1986, probably in early spring, I made some comment lost in the mists of time to the effect that I'd never been to a sports game, and my Aunt Ginny asked if I'd be interested in going to a Phillies game. I remember that moment, at her house, standing on the back porch, while she made the offer, in the shade of the apple tree, on her way to the car. I was uncertain at first, but ultimately I agreed, and so it came that on a Sunday afternoon—I just checked through my old boxes of long-forgotten crap and found that the exact date was June 1, 1986—I found myself attending a baseball game at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia.
I remember a lot about the game, actually. I remember approaching the enormous stadium from outside, and ascending lots of concrete ramps that were stained with age by an assortment of various things I'm probably still better off not thinking about. I remember catching my first glimpses of the green Astroturf field and the crisp white chalk lines as we headed for our seats, the brown of the cutouts around the bases, absolutely breathtaking, caught in bits and pieces, brief glimpses through the openings from behind the seating as we passed concession stands and restrooms along the way. I remember emerging into the sunlight and staring across the stadium to the far side, which seemed miles off, and the field itself, which seemed miles down. I remember it was Phanatic Beach Towel day, and I had that towel for quite a long time, using it with the wading pool in the backyard on summer days, the image of the Phanatic on it increasingly faded and incomprehensible as the years passed, until eventually it must have gone completely threadbare and was turned to rags or thrown out by mom.
Our seats were in the 500 level, front section of the upper deck, behind home plate. (It turns out these seats cost $7.50, the top price for any seat in the stadium at that point. Eight years later the same seat would cost $12, not the top price in the stadium, and the cheapest seats in the house ran $5, and would climb much higher before they imploded the place. Not that any of that mattered at the time.) I sat there, with Aunt Ginny, and Mark and Dave, family friends, brothers, one of whom, Mark, lives near Philadelphia and acquired the tickets for us. I didn't get baseball real well at that point—I remember asking Dave at one point for clarification on the difference between balls and strikes, though I remember later hearing that he had commented he was impressed by my questions, which he felt were fairly intelligent. The Phillies scored four in the first and five more in the second before being held to just one in the third. I thought something was wrong, and asked about it, when the Phillies later managed to not score for three innings. Hey, I'd just seen ten runs in three innings at my first game. I thought that was typical. The Phillies won 16-5, and everyone told me I'd gotten a great game for my first trip to the ballpark. None of us realized at the time that we had just witnessed Steve Carlton's last win in a Phillies uniform. I myself didn't find out until 19 years later.
I had a good time, and for a number of years these trips to Phillies games were an annual tradition. One in 1987—Phillies lost to the Dodgers, 6-1, and I remember wondering why you didn't get your money back if the team you paid to see lost. Two in 1988—they split, and I forget who they played. More in later years, some of them with stories of their own. I really got into baseball starting in 1987, right as the Phillies stopped being a good team, following games and collecting baseball cards and the like. I was hooked. I loved baseball. I didn't see anything about the game I didn't like.
At the time, I didn't know about the New York Yankees.
It's 2004, and baseball has changed a lot in eighteen years. More divisions. More teams. More post-season slots. More steroids. A lot more money. The Phillies have winning records semi-regularly now.
In the National League, Atlanta wins a division title for the fourteenth year in a row, unless you count 1994, which Braves fans rather arbitrarily do not. St. Louis put together the best record in baseball and Scott Rolen is in his second postseason since forcing the Phillies to deal him for a couple average pitchers, a bucket of old baseballs, and an autographed photo of Lorne Green. Houston rallied from way back to take the wild card, and Los Angeles edged the Dodgers to take the West. All of this is just the warm-up act.
The main show is in the American League, where the New York Yankees have won the AL East ahead of the wild card Boston Red Sox for about the thirtieth year in a row. New York gets the Minnesota Twins, and Boston faces the Anaheim Angels. People don't really care about the first round, outside of Minnesota and Anaheim. Everyone is waiting for the Boston/New York rematch.
They faced each other in 2003 in the American League Championship Series. It went the full seven games, and was won in extra innings in game seven on a home run by third baseman Aaron Boone, a recent acquisition who struggled badly for the Yankees that year. But he hit the home run that put them in the World Series (which they lost to the Florida Marlins), then promptly injured himself in the offseason doing something that violated his contract, so they released him, and made a trade to pick up Alex Rodriguez to play third, after the A-Rod to Boston deal fell through. Boone was around with the Yankees only long enough to break the hearts of Red Sox fans everywhere, and to join a club that included Bucky Dent; namely, people Red Sox fans have assigned the middle initial F, and then his injury created an opening for the Yankees to acquire one of the top players in the game.
Where I work, there are a few Yankees fans. Too many, really. Most of them are okay about it. Robin has some newspaper photos of Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter, which is fine. Jessica is a Yankees fan, but I didn't know it until a few weeks ago. She's very low key about it. Judy claimed to be a Yankees fan, but never seemed to know who had won the night before or how many games each team had won up to that point in the series. Whatever.
Nanette is the type of baseball fan that only the Yankees seem to spawn, especially in such large numbers. She's not a Yankees fan, like the others I've mentioned are. She's a Yankees Fan, which is an entirely different creature.
For what it's worth, I like Nanette, and I feel a little bad that she's coming off as such a pain in the ass in this article. Sure, she's a Yankees Fan, and I've heard her make comments like "We should just bomb all the ragheads" early in the current war in Iraq. But when she's not spouting Yankee rhetoric or making racist comments, she's actually a fun person to talk to, and she can intelligently discuss a lot more topics than many people I've known. She's also the only person at work I can discuss "NYPD Blue" with, though I expect that'll end in the spring, when the show goes off the air. I just hate her righteousness when it comes to sports.
Earlier in the 2004 season, the Cleveland Indians beat the Yankees, at Yankee Stadium, by a score of 22-0, which was not only the worst loss in Yankees history, it was the worst loss in American League history, which dates back to 1901. I printed out a picture of a scoreboard taken in Yankee Stadium that night and hung it up at my desk, along with a quote from someone at ESPN.com that said the amazing thing about Yankees fans is their innate sense of superiority, as though they're better human beings because they grew up near Yankee Stadium, jumped the bandwagon because they wanted to be associated with a winner, or have no soul, adding that rooting for the Yankees is "like rooting for the house in blackjack."
Now, this caused some discussion among the various Yankees fans, none of whom were overly thrilled by it. But only Nanette took it upon herself to steal the printout of that picture from my desk. Never mind the fact that she's got a Yankees mousepad and a Yankees "2000 World Series Champions" banner hanging at her desk and so on, none of which anyone has ever disturbed. It's anti-Yankees? Consider it stolen. The sad thing is, by this point I had become familiar enough with Yankees Fans to have prepared for this. I had several copies of the image. I replaced the one she stole.
She stole it again. She was bold as brass about it. I was at my desk working, and she reached up, ripped it down, and crumpled it into a ball, commenting "Stop living in the past." I'm sure that would have flown with her if I'd stolen her 2000 World Champions banner and crumpled it up. Another time I came to work on Monday and found it replaced with "Penn State: Losers," because I'm also a fan of Penn State football, and they've been pretty bad the last few years, and had lost badly that weekend. I was okay with that, because if I'm going to hang anti-Yankees stuff, I should expect to be met in kind. What got me was that she stole the Yankees score. Again. I chucked the note at her, saying, "Stop stealing my stuff." She commented to the people sitting around her that apparently I could dish it out but I couldn't take it. I told her that I was upset because she stole the picture again.
"What picture?" she asked smugly.
I took another copy of the photo out, walked over to her, and put it right in her face, saying, "This picture!" Really, that qualifies as me losing my temper. She had no shame at all about it. She eventually stole it four times, ultimately stopping only, I suspect, because I had made it clear that I could print out as many copies as she could steal.
I was going to have to deal with her as the Yankees went through the 2004 postseason—which, I will freely admit, my team, the Phillies, did not qualify for. I announced early on that my dream scenario for the postseason was seeing the Boston Red Sox beat the Angels, then the Yankees, and finally win game seven of the World Series in Fenway Park by beating Houston's Roger Clemens, who was once Boston's star pitcher.
"Yeah, right," Nanette scoffed. "Like Boston is going to beat the Yankees."
Boston was the home of baseball's first great team, a team so great, as it turned out, that it nearly killed the sport before it could truly get started.
The first professional baseball league was the National Association, which existed from 1871 through 1875. The National Association suffered from erratic scheduling, with teams regularly coming into and going out of existence mid-season, and teams playing wildly different numbers of games in a season. For example, in 1875 Keokuk finished 1-12, 37 games out of first, which put them 14 1/2 games ahead of last-place Brooklyn, 2-42 on the season, but left them behind all three teams from Philadelphia. It was a difficult level of chaos for any professional organization to endure, and it had another side-effect. The few teams that had any degree of stability about them were able to trounce teams that only existed for a week or two (one team's all-time record was 0-5).
The dominant team was called the Boston Red Stockings. They finished two games out of first in 1871, then won the league crown each of the next four years, topping it off with a 71-8 record in 1875. No one could compete with them, and it seriously eroded fan interest in the fledgling sport. Your team might be fun to watch, but not if they were playing Boston. And there was little point in watching the standings when you knew Boston was a mile ahead of everyone—not that there was enough stability for fans to really follow the standings the way we do today. Harry Wright's Red Stockings were just too good. Realizing that the situation as it existed was both bad for the fans and bad for the sport, the National Association ultimately folded.
Its breakup and the associated improvements—structure was created, rules were solidified, official schedules were drawn up—led to the formation of the first official major league, the National League, which still exists today. Several of the teams from the National Association even made the transition, as did most of the players. Harry Wright managed Boston to first-place finishes in 1877 and 1878, but the new structure didn't allow the domination of the past. Wright later managed the team now known as the Phillies for ten years, joining them in their second season. Boston went through a number of name changes before becoming the Braves, and after a stopover in Milwaukee they now play in Atlanta. The old name Red Stockings was eventually shortened and taken in homage by the Boston team in the American League, and for nearly two decades, they dominated baseball like their earlier namesakes had.
Boston's baseball history predates even the National League, which at this writing is coming up on its 130th year of existence. And yet Yankees Fans consider their team to have the richest history in all of baseball, that their team is the team of tradition. Perhaps so, unless you're actually a fan of the sport instead of just a team. Or if you base your opinions on factual evidence rather than drawing your conclusions first and then twisting the facts around them. Or if you count tradition as something more than games won. There's more to life than wins and loses.
Unless you're a Yankees Fan.
I'm not a braggart, and I'm not one to gloat. I'm also not one to boast or make bold predictions about what is or isn't going to happen. I don't like that. It's just not my style.
Besides, there are already plenty of people who behave that way.
The trash-talking begins as soon as the regular season ends. Jeff, who's always starting things (I mean that sort of in a good way), starts in on the Yankees fans early. He can't stand the Yankees. That earns him five bonus points in my book, more than enough to counter the points he loses for his enthusiasm about NASCAR. Karen, who is rather a Boston fan, helps out on that front. Jeff frequently stops by to bother Robin about how badly the Yankees were going to lose. Robin never seeks out these confrontations, but defends her team determinedly. Nanette is making grand predictions about the Yankees and yet another championship.
The ball doesn't really get rolling yet, though. There's still that annoying first round of the playoffs to get through first. Boston has to beat Anaheim, and New York wants to get through Minnesota. It eventually happens, as if scripted. Both teams win their series, Boston sweeping Anaheim in three and New York beating Minnesota in four, setting up the event everyone wants to see. Boston vs. New York. Red Sox vs. Yankees. Wild Card vs. Division Champions.
Good vs. Evil.
In grade school, there weren't too many Phillies fans. Most people liked the Yankees. In retrospect, this was tolerable largely because I attended grade school from autumn 1982 through spring 1995, and the Yankees did not qualify for the postseason between their World Series loss in 1981 and their first-place finish in autumn of 1995. I had no idea how lucky I was.
The Phillies were no great team during this era, mind you. As a matter of fact, from the time I became a fan until the end of the 20th century, thirteen years in total, the Phillies put up a grand total of one winning season. I was too young to really worry about it at the time, or wonder why the Phillies couldn't come up with something better at shortstop than Steve Jeltz.
I had nothing against the Yankees at this point. They were just another team. In fact, when I was still learning about baseball and wanted to see more games and take in all I could, I would occasionally put on a Yankees game. I would never do that now, but at the time it was all new to me, and I was soaking up as much baseball as I could.
In 1988, a tight race in the AL East ended with Boston finishing in first place. New York finished only three and a half games back, but in fifth place. A friend, Mike Lello, was devastated by this. "Fifth place," I remember him repeating one morning in the middle school lobby before classes started. I tried to tell him that three and a half back was really not that bad. The Phillies, after all, had finished a slightly more distant 26 games back and lost Mike Schmidt to retirement and had Ken Howell as their staff ace, though they had at least replaced Steve Jeltz with Dickie Thon. It didn't matter, though. Mike was inconsolable. All he saw was fifth place. I thought it was just the way Mike was. I late found that an attitude like that was characteristic of Yankees Fans. Two years later the Yankees finished with the worst record in the AL and second-worst in all of baseball. I don't recall Mike's reaction to that season, though I truly wish I had enjoyed the situation more at the time. "Hey, they at least did better than the Braves," is the sort of consoling thing I now would have said then. Maybe the laugh would have been on me, though. Atlanta—descended from those who dominated the National Association 130 years ago—hasn't missed a postseason since.
The rhetoric at work is flying fast and furious. Nanette and Karen have a deal going over the Series; the fan of whichever team loses will have to wear a jersey of the winning team for a day at work. Things don't look so good for Karen. The Yankees take games one and two, and then the ALCS shifts to Boston. I'm hoping that the return home will help the Red Sox.
As it turns out, it doesn't. After a rainout pushes the game back a day, I follow game three from the next room, not really wanting to keep up with the blow-by-blow account that's showing on the television. Every time I look, the Yankees have put more runs on the scoreboard. The final score is an appalling 19-8. I think even Lou Gehrig scored three runs. The next night, the Red Sox win game four to avert a sweep, and it's a great victory, a game tied off Mariano Rivera and won on a two-run home run by David Ortiz in the twelfth inning, but it's kind of a hollow victory, a case of too little too late.
At work, Nanette is in rare form. She spews that self-important statement that she loves so much: "There's two types of baseball fans: those who are Yankees fans, and those who wish they were Yankees fans." Which is kind of like saying, "There's only two types of the religious people: Those who are Catholic, and those who wish they were Catholic," while standing in the streets of Bahgdad. Kind of arrogant. Less arrogant, but just as presumptuous, is her claim that she hopes the Yankees lose game five in Boston, "Because we want to win the series at home."
Nanette also adds something about how she understands that fans of other teams are used to feeling ashamed of their team because they're not Yankees fans, or something to that effect, I don't recall exactly because her attitude annoyed me so much that I simply gave her the Finger and went back to my work. I'm not proud of that, but it was the simplest and quickest way to express my feelings. I would have tried to explain it a bit more clearly, but you know what it's like trying to intelligently discuss issues with far-right conservatives. They won't listen to what you say and they won't let you finish.
Sometime the summer before, she had expressed the opinion that there was nothing wrong or unfair about the Yankees' phenomenal cash flow and how they can use it to acquire players other teams can't, not just established players, but also prospects from foreign countries. She said to me that the Yankees should be able to pick the cream of the crop, because they're the best team, "and if they're not good enough for the Yankees, then the Phillies can have them." In conclusion, she said that George Steinbrenner's ability to do things like that on a regular basis make him a man to be admired.
Because she's never willing to engage in protracted discussion, I've never been able to tell her the story that that brings to mind. It's a true story, and part of me wishes it wasn't, because if it wasn't, I could make up better names for the brothers who are at the heart of it. But, it's a true story, and the brothers really were named Dick and Maurice.
In the 1950s, Dick and Maurice decided to open a restaurant. The automobile finally was reaching the point where it was affordable, and a status symbol, and readily available to teenagers. The brothers had the foresight to realize there was a good business opportunity here, and they designed a restaurant where these people could drive up, and have food served to them in their car. They had to come up with a name for their new establishment, and they eventually settled on their last name, which is how this restaurant came to be known as McDonald's.
The restaurant was a huge success, and in short order they had opened several other locations around San Bernadino. Each restaurant needed to be equipped with certain items, some of which were not typically ordered in large amounts. One of these was called a five-spindle multimixer. Each one could make five milkshakes at one time. The fact that the McDonald brothers ordered eight of them piqued the curiosity of the man they were buying them from, Ray Kroc. He took a personal interest in their orders, trying to figure out how anyone could need to make forty shakes simultaneously, and what he found intrigued him. Young people with disposable income lining up for a meal delivered in less than a minute for under fifty cents. Kroc was a businessman who recognized opportunity when he saw it, and he realized that Dick and Maurice had found a way to tap a market that few people yet knew even existed.
Ultimately, he made an offer to buy the franchise from the brothers. The brothers, for their part, were happy to sell. They had other things going on in their lives and weren't interested in running a fast food franchise full-time. Still, they had some concept of the value of what they had, and demanded about two and a half million dollars for the franchise, enough that each brother would gain one million dollars after taxes. This was a huge chunk of money, even for a businessman like Ray Kroc. He wanted McDonald's, but he resented having to pay that much. He also grew to resent the brothers in general, seeing their unwillingness to pursue the business and consequent decision to sell as lazy and unmotivated.
Though it took some work, the McDonald brothers got their million dollars each. Part of the deal was that the name McDonald's, now established and firmly associated with the franchise, had to be retained. The McDonald brothers sold the rights to their own name to Kroc, along with all but one of their locations. The original one. Not being allowed to use their own name, they changed the name on that location to Big M.
The first thing Ray Kroc did with his new franchise was open a new location less than a block away from Big M. He lowered the prices at this location to undercut the brothers, and he put Big M out of business. The original McDonald's location closed, bankrupted by the franchise it spawned.
And Kroc was proud of this. He bragged to people about what he had done. He thought it was great the way he used his power and money to crush the brothers out of little more than a desire for retribution against them, because he didn't like them. He had the power, and he used it, proud of the wreckage he left in his wake. He didn't need to do it. He just did it because he could. And because he was petty and vindictive.
Now, I ask, does this make Ray Kroc a man to be admired?
Of course, Ray Kroc never reached the level of George Steinbrenner in baseball terms. He did try. He owned the San Diego Padres for a time and is best known for the time he got on the PA system during a home game and gave the legendary speech in which he berated his own players and apologized to the fans for how bad the team was ("Ladies and gentlemen, I suffer with you. I have never seen such stupid baseball playing in my life."). Steinbrenner has never done that. But he has gone through managers like toilet paper and destroyed a number of careers because he was upset that they had committed an error while he was watching or struck out at a key time. He used to send players down to the AAA team in Columbus so often after mistakes that the trip became known as The Columbus Express. Steinbrenner also got banned from baseball for life at one point, but it didn't stick, because money talks. Now his Yankees are about to go to the World Series by beating the Red Sox for the second straight year.
It's a bad time to be a baseball fan.
I was a baseball fan for eight years before I saw my team put together a solid season, or even a winning one.
The 1993 Phillies didn't offer much promise. Some predictions had them finishing last in their division, behind the first-year expansion Florida Marlins. I didn't expect much, either. Pete Incavaglia? Jim Eisen-who? The shortstop position was now Juan Bell's. I was hopeful for a winning season, but then, I was always hopeful for a winning season. There was never any reason to aim higher. The team was never good enough.
That year, though... That year was something special. Not only was the team good, it was great. The personalities that came together that year were incredible, and even manager Jim Fregosi said after the year was all over, "We'll never see a group like this again." Long hair, unshaven, overweight guys simply having fun and winning baseball games. A team everyone could love, players everyone could relate to.
The Phillies clinched the Eastern Division that year by winning in Pittsburgh, and I remember actually being congratulated by a number of Yankees fans at high school. Mike Falcone's extremely grudging congratulations in trig class stands out in my mind, for some reason. Maybe it was the fact he didn't, or couldn't, make eye contact. I also remember Mike Lello and Donnie Collins saying a few words to me. I doubt that full-blown Yankees Fans would do this. I wasn't sure how to take it. It was such an unusual feeling, being associated with a winner.
Philadelphia played the favored Braves in the NLCS. The Braves and the San Francisco Giants had the last great pennant race in baseball history, with Atlanta clinching on the last day of the season with 104 wins, edging San Francisco, which had 103.
There will never be a race like that again, now that baseball has the Wild Card. There would be no drive for those teams to keep winning, because they'd know they were both going to the playoffs. There would be no thrill in watching the teams head down the home stretch in late September, knowing that every game mattered. Now the best you can hope for is a second-place team, often ten or more games out of first, to finish 90-72 to edge another team's 88-74 record. People who defend the Wild Card (which is not without its merits) point to the 1993 race in the West and say "Both of those teams deserved to go to the postseason." Yes, they did, but what made it exciting was knowing that no matter how well they played, one of them wasn't going to make it. It was a real pennant race. The bar used to be set high, where not every team that deserved to go to the postseason would make it. Now it's been lowered, and every team that deserves to go makes it, which means that a few that don't deserve it make it, too. Someday, with the extra divisions and Wild Cards, baseball is going to see a sub-.500 team sneak into the postseason. That's SOP in the NHL and NBA, but it will be a dark day for baseball.
The Phillies beat the Braves in six games, with the tone set in game one, where Curt Schilling struck out the first five men he faced. Curt didn't get the win, because an error led to a run off Mitch Williams, who got the win in the tenth. Curt didn't get the win in game five either, because he put two on in the ninth and Mitch let them score, then got the win in the tenth again. Schilling was named MVP of the series without getting a win. The Phillies moved on while the heavily-favored Braves went home.
The 1993 World Series saw Curt Schilling get clobbered by the Toronto Blue Jays in game one. The Phillies tied the Series with a win the next day, but then lost two straight at home, including the famous game four. I went to bed before it was over, having school the next day, with the Phillies in the lead. I think it was 12-7 at that point, but I don't recall for sure. I still remember the crushing disappointment I felt when I looked at the front page of the sports section and saw the Phillies had fallen, 15-14. They blew a huge lead late, giving up six runs in the eighth.
At school, everyone said they were done. I didn't disagree, but I couldn't accept that it was a done deal. Sure, the Phils were down three games to one instead of tied at two.. They probably wouldn't come back. But, it could happen, and I couldn't give up on the team.
In game five, Curt Schilling threw a five-hit shutout.
And then, in game six, the Phillies rallied late, but lost on the famous home run by the incredibly evil spawn of Satan, Joe F. Carter, not there's any bitterness or anything.
My first taste of winning. My first chance to understand the excitement of being associated with a winner. It was a heady sensation, one that I will never take for granted. I had high hopes that the Phillies could be winners again in 1994. As it turned out, baseball's 1994 season didn't produce any winners, anywhere, as Bud Selig decided in mid-summer to explore the vast marketing benefits of canceling the entire season.
And to think I had considered Joe Carter evil.
Nanette gets her wish. The Red Sox win game five behind Pedro Martinez, though it takes them until the fourteenth inning this time, bringing the series back to New York. At this point, it looks like the team that wins will be the team that gets some decent innings out of its starters, because after two long games both bullpens are exhausted, and with a rainout in game three there's no off day before game six.
Robin has set up a little something for the series back by her desk. She printed out banners that said "Yankees" and "Red Sox" and hung the up, and underneath them she put the number of games each team had won. She also cut out newspaper articles about the series and hung them up. After game five it's getting a bit crowded back there, but Robin finds room to stick more articles in, even the ones about the Red Sox victories. I didn't complement her at first over the work she did on the Yankees/Red Sox series for the first few days, and now I hesitate to, because I don't want her to think I'm only being gracious because Boston's doing well.
Curt Schilling, who got clobbered in game one, pitches game six for Boston. This doesn't bode well for the Red Sox if the previously-mentioned importance of having the starter go deep turns out to be valid. He's got a torn tendon sheath in his ankle, so with each pitch the tendon snaps across bone. It cost him control, velocity, and a loss in game one. This time, however, he's pitching with the tendon sutured down using a new procedure developed pretty much exclusively for him over the last few days, tested to date only on cadavers. The sutures were put in along with some painkillers, and Schilling takes the mound with blood seeping out of the ankle, staining his sock red as the game goes on.
And damn if Schilling doesn't have it. He blows through the Yankee lineup pitching on a bad ankle held together with spit and bailing wire and some adrenaline and a fervent prayer. He later admits he was gassed, just had nothing left, by about the fourth inning, but he pitched through seven, giving the exhausted bullpen some much-needed rest. Boston hangs on and wins, tying the series at three games apiece. It's a good line for Schilling, though hardly the most impressive pitching line in history—seven innings, one run, a handful of hits—but in this context, in this series, in Yankee Stadium, in his condition, it has to be one of the greatest performances baseball has ever seen.
Game Seven is played Wednesday night, and I have Thursdays off, so either way I'm not going to get to see the bulk of the gloating for whichever side wins. When Jeff leaves work on Wednesday, Karen says to him, "Go Boston," and Jeff says, "Shhh! Don't say that," pointing out that he was in the Yankees fans' faces the first three games, and New York won all three, so he shut up, and Boston won the next three. "When I talk big, they lose, so I won't say anything" is his strategy. Good as any, I suppose. Nanette talks a good talk about how the Yankees are going to trash the erratic Derek Lowe, but you can see it in her eyes. She's worried. Boston's on a roll and her team is reeling.
I can't help but wonder about something. I can see why Boston fans hate the Yankees. Boston hasn't won since their star player went to New York and redefined the entire game—he was more dominant and influential in his prime than Michael Jordan was to the NBA in his prime (and anyone who says otherwise has no understanding of anything that didn't happen in their lifetime). Boston has played second fiddle to the Yankees ever since, and they've borne the brunt of Yankees Fans' abuse and self-righteousness.
But why do New York fans hate the Red Sox? When has Boston ever kept New York from anything it's wanted? In the last 85 years, New York has won 26 World Series to Boston's zero. New York rallied from way back to take the division from Boston in 1978. New York has taken Red Sox stars such as Roger Clemens and Wade Boggs and helped them to World Series victories that they never managed while they played in Boston. New York has had everything go their way for four generations. What has Boston ever done to the Yankees to earn their antipathy?
Whatever it may be, it's not going to matter if Boston can do the previously unthinkable, something no rational person would have given them any real chance of accomplishing just five days earlier. No team in baseball history has ever come back from 3-0. None has even forced a game seven, until now. Boston is in uncharted territory. The Curse Of The Bambino holds that Boston will never win a World Series, so it's not yet in any danger here. But everyone is talking as if it is. Boston is one game away from going to their first World Series since 1986, and they're one game away from doing it by knocking the hated Yankees out of the playoffs.
In the fall of 1995, I was at college for the first time. I was in temp housing, and had a number of roommates, one of whom was from the Bronx, and was a fan of the Yankees. The Yankees made the postseason for the first time in over a decade that year, the first year that we actually got to see the Wild Card in action. When the Yankees lost in the last game of the series on a home run, my roommate calmly said, "Excuse me," walked over to the window, opened it, leaned out, shouted, "FUUUUUUCK!!!" at the top of his lungs, closed the window, walked back over to us, calmly apologized, and life went on. The new dark ages soon rolled in.
The Yankees won the World Series in 1996.
They missed the World Series in 1997. I remember my girlfriend at the time was not a baseball fan. She was aware of major league baseball in the same way that fish are aware of the stock market. She called me from Florida in the ninth inning of game seven of the World Series. Had no clue it was game seven. Might not have even been aware the Florida Marlins were in it. Other than the fact the Yankees weren't in it, that's the memory that stands out in my mind most of all from that Series, with honorary mention going to my appreciation that Darren Daulton finally got a World Series ring with Florida after years of playing for the Phillies.
The Yankees won the World Series in 1998.
The Yankees won the World Series in 1999.
The Yankees won the World Series in 2000.
Yankees Fans were completely insufferable at this point. You'd think god had come down wearing a Yankees cap and sent a bunch of Red Sox fans to hell just for kicks. About my best baseball memory of this span came in 1997, when the Phillies were easily the worst team in baseball for most of the season, and rolled into Yankee Stadium for a three game set in September, and swept them. Mike Grace faced the minimum 27 batters in a shutout, Curt Schilling struck out a career high 16 in eight innings in another shutout, and the Phils allowed a few runs in game three but still won. I called some of the Yankees fans I knew who were attending college with me to brag. It was all I had at that point. Most of them took it well. I am so glad I was out of high school at that point.
In 2001, the Yankees were heavy favorites again. They made it to the World Series, and were facing the Arizona Diamondbacks, only in their fourth year as a franchise. Frankly, Arizona didn't have a great team, but they had the pitching duo of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, who had forced the Phils to trade him some years earlier.
A lot of sportswriters wonder why overwhelming dominance such as the Yankees displayed during this stretch is so rarely appreciated at the time it exists. The reason why is so simple, so obvious, it's almost not worth saying it out loud: It's boring.
Dynasties are boring to fans of the sport. Doesn't matter what sport. Nothing kills interest faster than an uneven playing field. Fans of the team love them, of course, and they can help the industry side of the sport in a big way, but in the larger picture, they tend to turn off the fans of the sport.
Look, no one denies that the Yankees are a great team historically, the best that major league baseball has ever seen. No one denies that Michael Jordan's ability to play basketball is incredible, so far head and shoulders above everyone else that there was no one else you could compare him to. During this time, his Chicago Bulls held a stranglehold over the entire NBA, winning championship after championship. (And why doesn't the NBA have a name for that? The World Series, the Super Bowl, the Stanley Cup Finals, and... the NBA championship. Sad.) Jeff Gordon has been a force in NASCAR for years, but when you see the same name winning race after race, title after title, you don't care how good he is, you just want to see him lose to someone else, anyone else. Arizona had a lot of people pulling for them in 2001 simply because people were getting really tired of the Yankees winning every year and their fans gloating every year.
I remember sitting in my living room, feeling some gloom and doom as the Yankees led in the ninth inning of game seven, with Mariano Rivera on the mound. The Diamondbacks' backs were to the wall. But they got some pitches, got some hits, managed to tie the game up, had them loaded... And then Rivera threw a pitch I will never forget, because it was hit for a single over the drawn-in infield, giving the Diamondbacks the victory over the New York Yankees. Johnson and Schilling were named co-MVPs of the World Series. The Yankees were stunned, and their fans were stunned. The Yankees had lost! They'd been toppled by these upstarts from Arizona who had assembled a team by throwing a good amount of money around and buying up talented players. How dare some other team steal the Yankees winning formula?! It was around that time that New York's payroll went astronomical.
Naturally after these payroll increases, the Yankees completely missed the World Series in 2002. They made it back in 2003, but were stunned by the Florida Marlins, which I had slightly mixed feelings about. It was great to see the Yankees lose, and at home no less. I did find it kind of tacky that as the Marlins were celebrating, the sound system started blaring New York, New York, and the Marlins had barely finished the jumping up and down part of the celebration when security showed up and started chasing them off the field. The Yankees ooze class, just like a festering wound.
The only downside was the fact that my team, the Phillies, the losingest franchise in sports history, had only one World Championship in their 121 years of existence up to that point, and the Marlins, only eleven years old, already had two. Boston fans whine about The Curse Of The Bambino as the reason they haven't won a World Series since 1918. The Cubs have The Curse Of The Billy Goat, and haven't won since 1908. They haven't even been in a World Series since 1945. The two tragic tales of long-suffering baseball fans.
The Red Sox 1918 World Series win was their fifth. The Cubs have won two. If J.R. Richard hadn't suffered a career-ending injury in the middle of the 1980 season, the year of Philadelphia's only championship to date, the Phillies would likely be the only team to play the entire twentieth century without a single championship.
Phillies fans have very little sympathy for the plight of Boston's and Chicago's baseball fans.
Game Seven at Yankee Stadium. Derek Lowe is pitching for Boston. He's been erratic, in and out of the rotation, and has been kind of bitter about it. He's going up against Kevin Brown, a solid pitcher throughout his career who is liked by absolutely no one except possibly his mother.
Johnny Damon is kind of a poster child for the Red Sox. He has long hair and a scruffy beard, leading the team's parade of memorably bad hair. It reminds me of the 1993 Phillies, actually. He's struggled all series, rarely getting on base, rarely even getting the ball out of the infield. But tonight, he leads of the game with a home run. The Red Sox jump out to the early lead. The next time he bats the bases are loaded. He jumps on a pitch and hits a grand slam to rightfield.
As unbelievable as it seems, the rout is on.
It's 8-0 in the fourth inning and the Yankees are going through everyone they've got in the bullpen, trying to stop the bleeding. It doesn't help. The Red Sox have the huge lead, and the fans are sitting there, 50,000 of them in Yankees Stadium, silent as a morgue. You can see it on their faces: This can't be happening. We're the Yankees. They're the Boston Red Sox, for god's sake! They don't win games like this. They never win games like this! But it's happening anyway.
My mom later comments that she's seen and heard a lot about how arrogant the Yankees and their fans are, but this series was the first time she'd actually seen it firsthand. The way every time Evil's posterboy Derek Jeter scores a run he's got this strut like he just discovered a cure for cancer, the way the fans look down at the Red Sox with this innate sense of smug superiority, the whole nine yards. She takes it a little too personally, though. Late in the game Derek Jeter chases a popup to the outfield and catches it with his back to the infield.
"Showoff," my mom says to the screen.
Then they show the slow-mo replay.
"Smug bastard," my mom spits.
It's a lot of fun, trying to watch something with someone who curses at the television the entire game. She's even worse when it comes to football. (I, of course, am perfect.) But it doesn't matter today. I am enjoying this way too much to let the little things bother me.
The only thing that really annoys me is the baffling move to pull Lowe and put Pedro Martinez in for the seventh inning. Lowe had dominated with a low pitch count, but he got pulled, and Pedro went in. The fans woke up instantly. Pedro had made the terrible mistake of calling the Yankees his daddy after losing to them in his last regular-season start against them. The moment he comes in, fifty thousand people start chanting "WHO'S YOUR DADDY? WHO'S YOUR DADDY? WHO'S YOUR DADDY? WHO'S YOUR DADDY? WHO'S YOUR DADDY? WHO'S YOUR DADDY? WHO'S YOUR DADDY? WHO'S YOUR DADDY? WHO'S YOUR DADDY? WHO'S YOUR DADDY? WHO'S YOUR DADDY? WHO'S YOUR DADDY? WHO'S YOUR DADDY? WHO'S YOUR DADDY? WHO'S YOUR—" SHUT THE HELL UP ALREADY! I'M TRYING TO WATCH A BASEBALL GAME HERE!!!!
Yeah, the chant was really annoying. And Pedro gave up a bunch of hits and two runs in his one inning of work. That move still baffles me. But after that inning a new pitcher came in, and the crowd went back to sleep.
The result was a foregone conclusion. The Red Sox beat the Yankees, 10-3, in the House That Ruth Built, eliminated New York, and advanced to the World Series for the first time since 1986, for the first time since the error that led to the first references to The Curse, to face the St. Louis Cardinals.
After how great that series was, it was hard to imagine that the World Series could match up in terms of drama and excitement. As it turned out, it didn't. It didn't even come close.
The Red Sox were the hot team, but St. Louis had a powerhouse lineup that had gone through Houston's solid pitching staff pretty easily, and they were facing a team that was still exhausted, physically and emotionally.
The Red Sox absolutely demolished them.
This wasn't just a one-sided affair. This was a drubbing for the ages. The only time Boston didn't have the lead was when the score was 0-0, and the only times that happened were the first innings. Boston scored in the first inning of every game of the series, and never relinquished any of their leads. St. Louis never had the lead at any point in the Series. Their pitching staff largely relied on teams chasing bad pitches, and Boston wouldn't do it, so they had to throw strikes, and Boston hammered them.
Curt Schilling had the ankle surgery repeated so he could pitch game two. He woke up the morning barely able to move his leg, because one of the sutures had gone directly through a nerve, which I have to think is even more painful than it sounds. The doctors removed that one suture, the pain settled down, and Curt duplicated his performance from the week before, winning easily. This wasn't just overcoming adversity. This was a man creating a legend.
In game four, it was clear that St. Louis was toast. It was just a matter of getting it over and done with formally. My favorite image from the series came in the bottom of the ninth. After the second out, they showed a shot of the players in the dugout. And there on the top step was Curt Schilling, a big smile on his face, bouncing up and down like a kid on Christmas morning. Grown men playing a boy's game. (The other great image from the Series was a fan at Fenway with a sign that read "Yankees Fans: How's the view?")
And then the grounder back to the mound, the underhand toss to first, and the Curse is broken. No, not just broken. Trounced. Demolished. Utterly annihilated. The Boston Red Sox are the World Series Champions.
The next day on Dan Patrick's radio show, he was asking callers two questions. He wondered which felt better, beating the Yankees or winning the World Series, and whether this changed the whole perception of the team and their identity as hard-luck losers. I didn't call in, but I have my opinion on both of those issues.
The ALCS against the Yankees had so much drama, and the World Series against St. Louis had so little, that it's hard to make an objective call. Beating the Yankees felt better, because there was the feeling that they'd really had to fight tooth and nail for that, while the World Series felt more like it had been dropped in their laps. In time, the World Series title will feel better, but in the short term, the victory over the Yankees was far, far sweeter.
Whether or not the team's identity changes depends on the next few years. If the Red Sox slip back, make a few postseasons but don't do much beyond that, and the current team splits up without ever making it to the Series again, 2004 will seem like a fluke, the charmed season for an otherwise hapless team. However, if the Red Sox build on this, finish in first while the Yankees are forced to take the Wild Card or even miss the postseason entirely a few times, if the Red Sox can knock the Yankees out of the postseason again once or twice, and especially if Boston brings home a few more trophies, their identity will change forever. The 2004 team will be seen as the team that turned it all around and changed the Red Sox forever. They'll be considered winners, not losers, and the perception of the team as it exists now will be impossible to explain to the next generation of fans twenty years from now, who won't be able to understand how a team like Boston can be compared to the Chicago Cubs. One can only wonder what Nomar would think.
Which way will things break? Time will tell.
I don't need to wait for the passage of the years to know what time will tell about one issue, however.
Curt Schilling left Philadelphia for Arizona in 2000, forcing a trade because he didn't believe in management's commitment to winning. The front office loved his arm but hated his mouth, and were quite clearly forced to make a deal they weren't happy with. He was the start of the team, the best pitcher they'd had since Steve Carlton. He'd even broken Carlton's single-season team record for strikeouts. Phillies fans considered him a Phillie through and through.
Even after he was traded, most Phillies fans never really gave up hope he'd come back. He was still "our pitcher." Curt admitted to keeping up with the Phillies and caring about how they were doing, which irked some of his teammates in Arizona. But he was the consummate professional, and his first full year in Arizona he led them to the 2001 World Series title. Arizona fans certainly considered him to be their pitcher. He'd helped bring their team a World Series title in just their fourth year of existence.
Didn't matter to Philly fans, though. Curt was still "our pitcher."
Before 2004, it was clear Curt was leaving Arizona. He was working to force a trade the same way he had in Philadelphia, and Philly was one of the few teams he was willing to allow himself to be traded to. The Phillies tried, but couldn't make a deal that satisfied Arizona's front office, and they ended up moving him to Boston instead.
That season, the Phillies gave his old uniform number to someone else for the first time since he'd left for Arizona. He had a solid regular season, winning 21 games and ultimately finishing second yet again in the Cy Young Award voting. The hopes of Curt ever coming back to Philly, of being a star pitcher for the Phillies, dimmed considerably. Still, there was the sense that he was "our pitcher."
After the 2004 postseason, after the legacy of the ankle injury and the surgeries to help him pitch through it, after the dominating performances on that patched-up ankle, after leading Boston past the Yankees, after gutting it out against St. Louis, after becoming the poster child for perseverance for the team that finally broke the 86-year-old curse, there's no talk of "our pitcher" anymore. He was ours for a while. Then he was Arizona's for a few years.
Now he's Boston's, now and forever.
I don't approach anyone but Karen and Jeff with discussions about the Red Sox's victory. I don't want to come off like I'm gloating, and I'm afraid I might look like I am. I hate people who gloat, and I hate hypocrites, and I'd hate to personally cross both those lines at the same time.
Nanette does wear the Red Sox jersey that Karen brings in, a blue jersey with RED SOX on the front and the name Martinez and the number 45 on the back. It's not a design that the team actually wears, but that's not a big deal. Nanette does wear it. At one point she walked past and commented with a laugh, "No one said how I had to wear it," and then we noticed it was inside out.
That would have been the perfect ending for this essay. The last paragraph would read simply, "She wore it inside out," another shot at arrogant Yankees Fans and their lack of respect for fans of any other team. But unfortunately for the purposes of this essay, and for fans of snide remarks and cheap shots everywhere, Nanette had more class than that. She was just kidding about that loophole and wore it the right way most of the day. As she went on her first break, she was even heard to mutter, "I sure hope there's no one in the break room right now." She wore it until the end of Karen's shift, and was quite relieved to take it off. I think Karen ended up selling the jersey on eBay in case Martinez signs with a new team during the offseason.
So in the end, I didn't get to make that snide remark. Instead, I just get to reflect on one of the most memorable postseasons I've ever seen, and the memories of the year where, at long last, the story of the Yankees vs. the Red Sox had a happy ending. Finally, it actually happened.
Who'd've thunk it?