Column By David Howard
My grandfather was a broad-shouldered Irish man with reddish brown that turned a pristine white in his 50s. He was a lifelong Boston Red Sox fan. You can draw your own conclusions about how much these two facts are related.
What I do know for sure is that the same bug bit both of us. Baseball spanned the multi-generational divide between us, and through the long summers of my childhood we hashed out whatever was happening with the team. Maybe he knew there was something about me: I was born in mid October, 1967. Had I arrived on schedule, I would have emerged into the world just as the regular season was winding down for the Red Sox’s Impossible Dream team-the miracle bunch of Yaz, Gentleman Jim Lonborg, and Rico Petrocelli. But I arrived three weeks late, hiding in utero until after the crushing seven-game World Series loss to the Cardinals.
It’s as if I knew what was to come. I was at my grandparents’ house in 1986 when Dave Henderson hit the dramatic home run in the playoffs against the Angels-prior to this season, one of the top 5 Red Sox moments of my life. But-of course-my grandfather and I and my brothers, and various other family members were usually frustrated. To this day I remember my grandpa agonizing over a control-challenged relief pitcher named, of all things, Mark Clear.
My grandfather died in 1998, but it was only in the last few weeks-as the Red Sox completed a thoroughly surreal postseason with eight straight wins, including the back-from-the-grave, the-monster-that-won’t-die-in-the-horror-movie bit against the Yankees, and the World Series title-that I actually did the math. He was born in 1909, but bounced back and forth between Ireland and Connecticut’s tobacco fields in his childhood. He would’ve been 9 or so for the Red Sox’s 1918 title, and it’s highly likely he didn’t know about it-at least, he never mentioned it to me. That means when he died in 1998, he’d spent decades of summer nights in an exquisitely unrequited love affair, never once reaching the mountaintop.
So you’ve heard about folks from all over New England. One of my favorite Red Sox Nation quotes comes from the bartender somewhere who said: “They killed our fathers, and now they’re coming for us!”
Which really is true. There’s no way around it: In New England, the Red Sox invade family DNA. My brothers and mother and I all caught the bug one way or another, falling hard for Jim Rice, Dwight Evans and Carlton Fisk-those killer, inexplicably title-free teams of the late ’70s. Most of our aunts and uncles, same thing. (My father is an unrepentant Cardinals fan-long story.) The franchise is unlike any sports institution I’ve known or heard of: It ensnares entire families, winding itself around genes, imposing itself from birth, a scarlet letter passed along through generations.
It’s a fairly unique thing, and hard to explain. The obvious explanation is that each generation picks up the torch and carries it for those passed. I think there’s more. Some of my theories:
- • There’s something intrinsically magical about baseball in New England: the way it starts down South in the final throes of winter, making people in the frozen, miserable North giddy with thoughts of spring and the promise of warm, gorgeous summer nights. And then in fall, in the last of the warm days, it winks out in a spectacular showing, like forests of sugar maples turning crimson before dumping their leaves and finally ceding to winter.
- • This is a region that has always been fascinated with superstition, going all the way back to the Salem Witch Trials. The Sox and their legendary foibles at key moments just fit the worldview. (This year, even with a 3-0 series lead on St. Louis, I didn’t dare go and buy champagne, an act that the gods would surely view as tempting fate.)
- • It’s about being part of something big and fascinating-something that transcends sports, reaching deep into literature, theater, and cinema.
- • Most of all, it’s about the slender chance that there could be a year like this one, when over 11 nights they systematically blew up all of their demons. There were the four stardust-sprinkled wins over the Yankees (I still can’t figure out how Kevin Millar, who was doing nothing at all with his bat, managed that walk off of Mariano Rivera in Game 4) and the four more smothering games against the suddenly impotent Cardinals. For those of us who always dreamed of October glory, this was a kind of magic the likes of which Spielberg and his Dreamworks studio could never duplicate.
The greatest baseball story ever told, they’re calling it now.
When it all shook out, I was sitting far from the place I grew up in eastern Connecticut, in a house quiet with a sleeping wife and baby boy. In other places from Danbury to northern Maine, and at points all over the globe (including Iraq), people were honking horns, falling to their knees, and releasing primal screams for the ages. I was buttoned up and muted, with no one to high-five.
And watching the post-game madness unfold-seeing the celebration with Damon and Ortiz, Schilling and Pedro and Foulke, and the rest of the shaggy architects of the one of the great comebacks ever-I felt, for a few minutes, alone, a little frustrated.
And then the feeling kicked in. There’s been so much said about the ghosts swirling around Fenway, thwarting the Red Sox. It makes for great copy, but I never believed.
But in those moments, sitting on my couch in my darkened living room with the lights of my tiny TV set flickering, I’d swear they showed up, they arrived to be there with me: My grandfather; his sister, my late great aunt Flo, who never missed a game but also died within a couple of years of this; and my mother, who used to get so knotted up by the suspense as we watched or listened on the radio that she had to leave the room, and who also missed this by just four years.
The people whose passions curled and threaded around mine for so many years stopped in to dance around the room, hug, and celebrate as only they could in a place of light sleepers, to fill the space inside my head with electricity, and a buzz of memories.
Upstairs, my wife said she knew something was up, and came down to give me a sleepy embrace. I went to bed late, not expecting any dreams. For two weeks, I’d lived my share.
(Dave Howard is now an editor at BackPacker Magazine and lives with his wife, Ann, and son, Vaughn, in eastern PA)