Thursday, June 19, 2008

Sox Education: Reflections on Teaching and the 2004 Red Sox

Well, it's on: about a week ago, I "threw my hat in the ring" (whatever that means) and applied to become the Connecticut Governor of Red Sox Nation.

It's all part of a promotion put on by the Red Sox: they already have a president and vice-president for Red Sox Nation (the official name for the Red Sox fanbase), and now they want to pick "Governors" for the six New England states. All interested fans could apply online.

I have no idea what my chances are, but to promote my candidacy, I thought I'd post something I started writing last summer. In this piece, I compare my own experineces as a high school teacher with the Red Sox World Series victory of 2004-- or, more accurately, the World Series victory plus the near-meltdown of the team that preceded it. Because, the way I see it, you really need to have both.

Even if you're not a Red Sox fan, keep reading. I tried to make this user-friendly, so even a non-fan wouldn't get lost in terminology. Besides, the Red Sox saga is really a metaphor for my own experineces as a first-year teacher. (Come to think of it, can't baseball be used as a metaphor for pretty much anything?)


"Another column about the 2004 Red Sox?"


"I mean, after the 2007 series, hasn't the topic of 2004 sort of been played out?"

Answers: Yes. Yes. And not on your life, bud.

After all, only a complete Ebeneezer (or a Yankee fan) would tire of this ultimate "against all odds" saga. Besides, this might be the only column that relates the 2004 Red Sox to teaching, so bear with me, non-believers.

First, an image: my wife's Uncle Peter, lying in his casket at his wake, a Red Sox baseball hat on his chest. His entire life, all seventy-plus years of it, he was a Red Sox fan. And he died never having seen his favorite team win a World Series.

Before 2004, the Sox had not won a World Series since 1918. Eighty-six years. A lifetime-- or more, for many fans. Even devout members of Red Sox Nation-- Boston's ever-loyal, vaguely masochistic fanbase-- doubted if they would ever see the Sox would ever win another World Series.

Not that the Sox didn't have some very good chances over those eighty-six years, not that they didn't come close, but somehow they just couldn't seal the deal. And on October 17, 2004, the Red Sox and their fans were three outs away from watching yet another opportunity for greatness slip through their fingers.

I'm talking about Game Four of the seven-game American League Championship Series. Red Sox vs. Yankees. The winning team goes on to the World Series. And it looks like that team's going to be the Yankees. They just needed to get three more outs.

The Red Sox had entered ALCS five days before, on October 12, full of swagger and fire. This was going to be their year. But they ended up dropping Game One. Next day, they lost Game Two. Then came Game Three, on October 16th, which they didn't just lose-- they got decimated, 19-8.

The Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein later called it a "colossal defeat." The Boston Globe's Dan Shaughnessy said that in Game Three the Yankees "stripped the Red Sox of all dignity." Pretty much every reporter covering the series made it a point to remind the Fenway Faithful that no team in baseball history had ever been down 3-0 in a postseason series and came back to win. (And some reporters took considerable glee in doing so.)

For a Sox fan, Game Three was the pits. And I'm not using a colloquialism there; I mean it was like being in a pit-- a deep, dark, seemingly inescapable pit. The rockiest of rock bottoms. A nadir. The belly of the whale.

Then came the next night, October 17th. It's Game Four, bottom of the ninth, about 11:30 pm, and the Sox are trailing 4-3. They have only one half inning to keep the series alive. At-bat: Red Sox first baseman Kevin Millar, facing Mariano Rivera, quite possibly the best reliever in baseball at the time. (How good is Rivera? Put it this way: at home games, he exits the bullpen to Metallica's "Enter Sandman"-- because he can.)

After eighty-six years, the members of Red Sox Nation almost got used to the taste of defeat, embarrassment, disillusionment. They resigned themselves, almost, to permanant residency in the belly of the whale. But this was different: it wasn't just that they weren't going to the World Series. It's that they weren't going to the World Series because they got swept. In the ALCS. By the Yankees. Can you imagine a more crushing blow?

(Well, I suppose they could have lost Game Seven of the ALCS in extra innings, thanks largely to a boneheaded managerial decision, which is what happened in 2003. Or I suppose they could have blown the actual World Series, after a routine ground ball plopped through the first baseman's legs, which is what happened in 1986. But you have to admit: getting swept by the Yanks is pretty devastating.)

Then, a flicker of hope, as Fenway Park becomes the site of the first half of a minor miracle: Millar draws a walk of Rivera. As soon as Millar reaches first, Red Sox manager Terry Francona immediately pinch-runs Dave Roberts. Legend has it that, on his way out of the dugout, Francona gives Roberts a wink. Roberts knows what that means: he has to steal second.

Unfortunately, everyone else knows it, too, especially Mariano Rivera. Stealing second with the most accomplished reliever in baseball on the mound can't be easy, but somehow, somehow, Roberts does it. He gets there safely-- the second half of the minor miracle. (Am I going overboard with this "minor miracle" stuff? OK, a little... but only a little. That's what's so great about this story. You don't have to milk it for drama. The drama spills over on its own!)

Roberts got himself in scoring position, but it takes a Bill Mueller single to get him home and tie the game at 4-4—a score that would remain for the next two hours. Finally, at 1:30 am, David “Big Papi” Ortiz clobbers a walk-off homerun in the twelfth. Final score: 6-4, Sox.

At that point, Fenway completely comes unglued. From the way the players and fans were celebrating, you almost would have thought they had won the World Series already. In fact, all they had done was prevent the sweep. All they did was force a Game Five. But it was a start.

Clocking in at five hours and two minutes, Game Four was the longest game in ALCS history—until Game Five, a grueling fourteen-inning battle that went five hours and forty-nine minutes. But the end result was the same: a Red Sox win thanks to the bat of David Ortiz. After being down three games, the Sox forced a Game Six.

Two famous visuals from Game Six represent—for me, anyway—the mindset of both teams. The first visual is the bloody sock of Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, who had a “so-crazy-it-just-might-work” operation on his ankle (something involving sutures and a tendon and a jerry-rigged sheath) that allowed Schilling to take the ball.

Big Schill gutted out six solid innings—an amazing performance, and one that you know had to come at considerable personal cost. (I mean, the ankle was dripping blood, for crying out loud! How could that not hurt?)

Now juxtapose the Schilling visual with the other famous picture from Game Six, of Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez, running down the first baseline, literally slapping the glove of Sox reliever Bronson Arroyo to prevent getting tagged. That’s right: “slapping.” Like a five-year-old girl. (No offense, of course, to five-year-old girls.)

So, on one side, you have the stigmata sock, representing the grit and heroism of not just Schilling but the whole Red Sox team. On the other, you have the poor sportsmanship and desperation of the A-Rod sissy-slap. That pretty much says it all.

(To be fair, maybe I’m being too hard on A-Rod. Maybe the Yankees’ collective frustration at their inability to win just one more game was getting to all of them, and A-Rod only put a face to it—a pouty, weasel-y face.)

Remember in Rocky IV, near the end of the climactic fight, when Rocky gets Ivan Drago with a punch that draws blood? And then Rocky’s manager Duke yells to him, “You cut him! You hurt him! You see? You see? He's not a machine, he's a man!”? At that point, the audience knew the tide had turned.*

Well, Game Six was the game when the Red Sox finally “cut the Russian.” No, they hadn’t won the series yet, but it set up the final victory. You knew, you just knew, the good guys would finally prevail. (I know the “good guy’ stuff sounds biased, but… come on: even the Yanks themselves had to sense they were the bad guys in this scenario, right?)

And the tide did indeed turn in Game Seven, a lopsided affair that saw the Yankees go down, unceremoniously, 10-3. No team, remember, had ever lost the first three games of the ALCS and then came back to win it all… until 2004, that is. And the cherry on top: the Sox did it in Yankee Stadium.

Oh, yeah… the Red Sox ended up sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals—the team with the best record in baseball—in the World Series.

So why am I re-hashing all of this, four years later? To me, the story of the Red Sox 2004 postseason is not just about victory and curse-reversing. It’s about adversity and darkness. It’s not just about a team clawing its way out of a pit; it’s about the pit itself.

Say if the Red Sox weren’t down those three games? Say if they didn’t lose Game Three by eleven runs? Sure, Red Sox fans at the time would have savored any victory over the Yankees… but snatching these particular victories from the jaws of certain defeat made them a thousand times sweeter.

Don't believe me? Then compare the ALCS against the Yankees to the World Series against the Cardinals, who offered virtually no resistance as they went down in four straight games. No pit, no adversity, no whale belly, no seemingly unconquerable obstacle... and consequently, no compelling story.

Sox fans have endless stream of words to describe the feeling of finally winning a World Series after eighty-six years: unforgettable, historic, redemptive. But when describing the actual 2004 World Series itself, one word keeps coming up: "anti-climactic."

Still don't believe me? Consider this: the Florida Marlins were established in 1993. In the first decade of their existence, the Marlins won two World Series, in 1997 and 2003. But, outside of their core fans, who really cares? Where's the struggle, the tenacity? How can you care when it comes so easily?

And closer to home: the Red Sox's 2007 season and postseason, let's face it, didn't have anywhere near the drama of 2004. Not to sound unappreciative-- they are the reigning World Champs, after all!-- but for most of the season they were in first place. Hard to get a story out of that, you know?

Recently, I saw a Red Sox TV spot about the New England Sports Network (NESN) that went something like this: "In 2004, we had no idea. In 2007, we kinda did." As fans, we applaud the players' accomplishments and thank them for giving Boston another World Series title... but in this case, we kinda knew.

So again: why am I talking about this now? What does this have to do with teaching? Hold on. Almost there.

Remember my thesis from a few paragraphs ago: Red Sox fans can appreciate the 2004 victory so powerfully precisely because they knew "colossal defeat." Philosophers call it the "dialectic": you know good by knowing evil. You need darkness to see light. You need to comprehend defeat before you can truly appreciate victory. And sometimes, you need to hate something first in order to love it.

And for me, that "something" was teaching high school. It's strange to say that now, because teaching has done so much for me. I've met so many great people, learned so many great things, had so many great opportunities. But after during that first first year, I wanted to walk away, try my hand at something else.

I just couldn't take it. I don't think I was clinically depressed or anything like that, but I was definitely miserable--as if my life was one long Game Three. I so desperately wanted to quit.

I didn't. I stuck it out. And I'm so damn proud of myself for sticking it out. And thankful, too, because if I bailed on teaching, I would have missed out on everything-- all the students, all the friendships, all the insights, all the learning and laughter, all of it. I know how close I was to leaving, and that makes me love it more.

I swore I wouldn't give any teacherly advice on this blog, and I won't, except to say this: to all the first-year teachers out there, don't worry if you're hating your job right about now. In fact, I can only hope that you hate it now as much did then. Strange as it sounds, someday you'll look back and realize that surviving that hate helped make you a good teacher. That hate you're feeling now, your time in the belly of the whale, could save you someday. Trust me on this.

* Incidentally, the Rocky IV reference is a veiled shout-out to my friend Bill Simmons, who is not only quite possibly the biggest Red Sox fan the universe has ever spawned, not only the most famous writer I know personally, but also someone who has always championed my own writing.

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