The Boston Red Sox last won baseball's world championship fourscore and one years ago, in 1918, and as baseball folk like to say, you can look it up. They did not win in 1919 and, though they came so very close, they did not win in 1946, '48, '49, '67, '72, '75, '78, '86, '88 and, in this decade, 1990, '95, '96 and '98. This record can be seen as one of remarkable consistency or futility — your pick — but it's certainly one that marks the Red Sox as a companionable second or third banana. They've been so often near, yet always as far as the distance between Bill Buckner's feet.
Bill Buckner was a first baseman who let a ball slip through his legs in 1986, giving the New York Mets life and, ultimately, the championship. He's a player in this long psychodrama now, as are Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams — some great baseball names. But this isn't about them. It's about Scott, my brother-in-law and father of my niece. Scott is not from Massachusetts and until recently wasn't even much of a baseball fan. His wife, Gail, my sister, is fiercely from Massachusetts, as are my brother, my father, my mother and myself. Scott married Gail and therefore married Massachusetts. He also married the Red Sox, if he wants to be invited for Thanksgiving.
On Tuesday morning he said to my niece, Callie, who is 15 months old: "They just may win it in your lifetime." Pedro — that's Martinez, of course — had, the evening previous, pitched six hitless innings against the Cleveland Indians to cap (as they say in baseball) a near-miraculous comeback and lift the Red Sox into the American League Championship Series against the reviled Yankees. Scott tickled Callie under the chin and said, "They just may win it in your lifetime." They both giggled. Scott was making sport. He thought he was being funny.
When did my dad first declare, "I hope they win it in my lifetime"? I can't recall. Long time ago. For some few years now I've been telling fellow Sox fans, "I sure hope they win it in my dad's lifetime." They nod knowingly. They either have dads, had dads or are dads — or moms, this applies to moms, too — and no notion can be voiced in New England that gives as immediate and sobering a view of mortality as "I hope the Sox win it in our lifetime." So many lifetimes that, during which, the Red Sox have already failed to win it.
It's a painful joke: winning it in our lifetime. Morose. A related joke is that the Red Sox have taken years off our lives. Each spring we warn each other against getting wrapped up in their June successes, as September's swoon or October's shortfall will burden the heart unnecessarily. My mother, for one, tries very hard to stay aloof each year. May, June, July she will counsel Dad, me, Kevin and Gail not to care. Dad will have the game on NESN and Mom will emphatically read her mystery novel on the other couch, paying no attention until the final out is made and she can get a "Law and Order" rerun on A&E. August, she'll start to be be aware.
This year, by August she knew who Pedro and Nomar were, of course, and by Labor Day she knew that some rookie — "Doobie?" "It's Daubach, Mom" — was having a fine campaign. Shortly thereafter the Sox went into Yankee Stadium near the tail end of a tremendous late-season road trip and swept the reigning world champions three straight, finishing by beating Roger Clemens. (He's a player in this saga, too. Is he ever.) I was vacationing on Nantucket with my wife and daughter, listening to the Clemens game on my mother-in-law's 30-year-old transistor radio as Caroline napped in the stroller and Luci shopped the Main Street boutiques. I was telling my sleeping daughter, "Clemens used to be with us. Tremendous arm, but never won a big one for us. He cleaned out his locker once, like a kid taking his ball home, because he was mad at management. Big baby. Big baby's a Yankee now. I'd like to see him fall on his fat..."
Anyway, when the Sox nailed the coffin shut that day, pulling within three of the Yanks and sending a shiver back in Manhattan, I called the folks from a pay phone. "I told your father you'd be calling," Mom said in answering the phone. "Isn't it unbelievable!" So she's aboard again, riding with us to whatever it is that fate and the Yankees have in store this time.
Fate. I didn't mean to use that word. I tend not to be fatalistic or superstitious about these things. I don't think the Sox are cursed because they sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920, or that the wobbly 1978 home run in a Sox-Yanks one-game playoff by a guy whose name rhymes with lucky was simply meant to be. To believe such hogwash would be dishonor our fathers. What were they believing in, all those years, if it was impossible? Were they idiots?
As I say, I'm a father now myself. My father, for his part, is fourscore years-plus, hasn't missed a game all season on TV and has himself in fine post-season shape for this series against the Yanks. My friend John's father, who lives in Providence, is pretty sick, and has us all praying the Sox do it this year. Another John, in Andover, Mass., lost both his parents in the past few years, so it didn't happen in their lifetimes. But his wife Anne's mother, in Winchester, is going crazy over Pedro, and John and Anne have a son and daughter old enough to appreciate — and share — their parents' excitement. Barry's father, an artist up in Boothbay, Maine, is a fair-weather fan, but it is fair weather these days and he's aboard. Jane's mother in Wellesley told her daughter late last night, during the ritualistic right-after-the-final-out phone call, "I think it may happen in my lifetime." My friend Jim in New Hampshire has a brand-new daughter, and has already assured her that the Sox will do it in her lifetime.
"Pedro," he whispered.