Friday, September 28, 2012

Red Sox and Silver Linings

As the 2012 Red Sox go gently (or maybe “limp shamefully”?) into that good night, fans are left trying to salvage something positive out of this season.  It’s not easy.   In fact, I had to rely on Aristotle to do it. 
Here goes: the 2012 season is part of a larger story.  It’s a low and humbling and soul-crushing part of the story, sure… but it’s also an essential part.

To get what I mean, we have to go back eight years ago, to the waning minutes of October 17, 2004.  Red Sox vs. Yankees. Game Four of the seven-game American League Championship. The team that wins this series goes on to the World Series.  And it looks like that team's going to be the Yankees.
They just needed three more outs.

The Red Sox had entered ALCS five days before, on October 12, full of swagger and fire. But they ended up losing Games One and Two. Then came Game Three, on October 16th, which they didn't just lose; they got decimated, 19-8.

Former Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein 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." Every reporter covering the series made it a point to remind Red Sox Nation that no team in baseball history had ever been down 3-0 in a postseason series and came back to win.

For a Sox fan, Game Three was the pits. And that’s not a colloquialism; 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, and the Sox are trailing 4-3. They have only one half-inning to keep the series alive. If they don’t, they go home.
But then Kevin Millar draws a walk off Mariano Rivera—and everything changes.  Pinch-runner Dave Roberts steals second; a Bill Mueller single gets Roberts home to tie the game; and two hours later, at 1:30 am, David Ortiz clobbers a walk-off homerun in the twelfth. Final score: 6-4, Sox.

That was just a start, of course.  But a start that lead to a Sox victory in Game Five.  And Game Six.  And Game Seven. And so, the Red Sox, after being down 3-0, won the ALCS and headed to the World Series—where they reversed an eighty-six-year “curse” by sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals in four games.

So what does this have to do with the 2012 Red Sox?  Simple: it’s all about the story.  You see, to me, the story of the Red Sox 2004 postseason is 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 first three games? Say if they didn’t suffer the “colossal defeat” of Game Three, the one they lost by eleven runs?  Would the Game Four victory, and the three wins that came after it, be as sweet?

Sure, “a win’s a win.”  But a win snatched from certain defeat, right from the hands of your most hated rival—that’s a WIN.
Here’s where Aristotle comes in. The concept of the "dialectic" says that you can’t fully understand something unless you also know its opposite. You know good by knowing evil. You need darkness to see light. You need to comprehend defeat before you can truly appreciate victory.

Compare the 2004 ALCS against the Yankees to the 2004 World Series against the Cardinals, who 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 term keeps coming up: "anti-climactic."

Or how about their next visit to the World Series? Let’s face it: the Red Sox's 2007 season and postseason didn't have anywhere near the drama of 2004. For most of the season, they were in first place. Hard to get a story out of that, you know?

Once again, what does this have to do with 2012?  Basically, the 2012 season, taken as a whole, is like Game Three of the 2004 ALCS, with innings 1-8 of Game Four thrown in. In other words, it was the pits. 
We landed in the pit at the end of 2011, when the Red Sox flitted away their comfortable lead in the standings and failed to make the play-offs, and never left.  The 2012 season introduced us to a much-maligned new manager. On his watch, old friends left, and then new friends left—to the point that the team currently crawling to the finish line hardly resembles at all the one that took the field in April.  And for the first time in fifteen years, the Red Sox will end the season with a losing record.

The season that started out with all the “Fenway Turns 100” hoopla didn’t live up to the hype. Not by a long shot.  Instead, we had an entire season in the belly of the whale.   
But this is just part of the story.  A heart-breaking but necessary part.

If this season looks like Game Three of the 2004 ALCS, then we have to remember that from the “colossal defeat” of Game Three came the miraculous, one-for-the-ages Game Four.  And we will have another Game Four. Maybe it will be next year, maybe it will be the year after.  But it will come.  Boston will surge back, someday, and when it does we’ll appreciate the accomplishment all the more.
Since we didn’t have too many walk-off victories this season, Sox fans may have forgotten how those games make for great stories.  But you can’t have the “come-from-behind” victory unless you were first behind.  You have to have eight lousy innings before you can have a redemptive ninth.  You have to lose all hope before you can get it back.

The story of the Red Sox isn’t finished.  Yeah, they’re still in the pit, but they’ll crawl out.  And when they do, we’ll love them all the more because of it.  Aristotle, after all, said so… and I’m pretty sure he was a Sox fan.

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