Of Beards And Baseball

I remember the moment with amazing clarity given that I recall very little else about that time in my life. At eight years old the world is too big to really know which memories to start cataloguing as “significant”. But this… this was important. Peeling off the plastic wrapper, I quickly popped the stale pink gum into my mouth and, as I would do several hundred more times over the years that followed, began sifting through the little cardboard men. Names and faces I did not yet really know passed by; the heroes and also-rans and in-betweens who at their worst were still lucky enough to call themselves “Major Leaguers”. Bump Wills was in that first pack, a middling second basemen from the Texas Rangers who I remember only because, really, what kind of a name is “Bump”? But that’s not why the memory remains. No, it was the last card, the one at the back of the pile that stopped me cold. I bought my very first pack of baseball cards without really knowing why and fifteen cards in I was given a reason: Yaz.

At eight years old I knew very little about baseball or its history, but I knew Yaz. I knew he was important, not just to my hometown Red Sox, but to baseball. And there he was staring up at me from the bottom of the deck of that first pack. It was an omen of sorts, the beginning of an obsession with a sport that over the years would threaten to consume me. My older brother would take me to my first game a couple of years later. In September 1983, when Yaz played his last game, I watched on TV as he was showered with gifts and attention before making one final teary-eyed trip around the Fenway Park field, lightly slapping hands with every fan he could reach. I wasn’t alive long enough to have really appreciated how good Yaz was, but that moment, the way the fans reacted to him and he to them, let me know all I needed to know about sports: the connection between an athlete and a fan base was mystical.

Then came 1986. Dwight Evans, my favorite Red Sox player at the time, hit the very first pitch of the season for a homerun and things just got better from there. Roger Clemens became a superstar on a rainy night in April and gave me my inaugural “I remember where I was when” baseball moment when he set a Major League record and struck out 20 Seattle Mariners in a single game. Six months later I got my other “first” Red Sox moment, that excruciating kick in the crotch called disappointment that it seemed was a rite of passage for any true fan in those days. At fourteen years old I finally knew the flip-side to that mystical Yaz feeling, the kind of heartache that can only be delivered by a guy named “Mookie”.

Throughout my teenage years I continued to collect baseball cards, continued following the Red Sox, and continued to love everything about the game of baseball. I became obsessed with statistics, with the history of the game, with everything about it. I formed fake leagues with my friends and played out entire seasons using a simple spinner game and a lot of imagination. We played wiffleball in the driveway, emulating the batting stances of various Sox players and dreaming of how fun it would be to play in the big leagues someday. Morgan’s Magic came in 1988, followed by another near-miss season in 1990. Then the dark ages hit. I became an adult with little time for a sport that was suddenly giving me next-to-nothing on my investment of time and the local team seemed as disinterested in me as I in them. It was a mutual albeit temporary parting of ways, as I followed along at a distance, aware of what was going on but unable to really invest in it. In the late 90’s I even tried to switch allegiances, throwing my support for a few months behind a pathetic Florida Marlins team that was at least fun to watch, which was more than you could say for the overpaid whiners the Sox were trotting out each day. Then we got Pedro and Nomar and against my better judgment I got back on the bandwagon. The 1999 squad became my favorite, with over-achievers like Troy O’Leary and Brian Daubach, Darren Lewis and El Guapo. An injured Pedro came out of the bullpen in a crucial playoff game against the Indians and pitched 6 perfect innings and it seemed the time had finally come for the Red Sox to claim that ever-elusive championship. That dream ended however, as it always seemed to do, at the hands of the dreaded Yankees.

2003 brought us another near miss and the entry of Aaron “Bleeping” Boone into our collective misery banks. Of course, that was all just a prelude to 2004, the year of destiny when a collection of idiots ended an 86-year “curse” by staging the single greatest come-from-behind post-season performance in baseball history. Manny, Papi, Pedro, and Schill. Millar, Pokey, Broyo, and Bellhorn. The cast of characters was as colorful as it was successful and on one glorious October night they chased the ghosts of a tortured fan base into the closet where the belonged. It’s difficult to imagine a single group of players ever meaning more to so many people as that particular menagerie meant to the whole of New England in 2004. It wasn’t a victory, it was an exorcism.
Three years later they did it again, this time with a little less color and a little more ruthless efficiency. The second title, while perhaps less significant when it came to history, was satisfying in its own way, proving that 2004 wasn’t just a fluke. We discovered that it was possible to enjoy a championship for the pure excellence of the accomplishment without all the whispers and shadows. Winning simply for the sake of winning was a novel and unfamiliar feeling.

For over 25 years I had followed the fortunes of an ever-changing assortment of men who I would never meet and yet whose daily successes and failures would alter my moods and guide my behaviors. Even when I tried not to care they wouldn’t let me get away and in the end my patience was rewarded. There was no getting around the fact that I simply loved baseball. Nowhere was that feeling more clear than in the spring of 2008, when on the heels of the second World Series title in four years I was able to sit with one of my best friends in a near-empty ballpark in Ft. Myers, Florida and watch a bunch of grown men play catch. The meaningless spring training game wouldn’t begin for a few more hours, but that didn’t matter. Men were doing baseball things on a baseball field and the sound of ball hitting mitt over and over again was a symphony to us. To try to explain to someone, even a casual baseball fan, what joy can be attained from watching guys simply play a game of catch, is to try and explain the secrets of the universe. If you don’t get it, you won’t get it. No amount of explanation will ever make it clear. Like love, the beauty of baseball is in the little details, the quiet between crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd. It’s in the peculiar intricacies of the game, the “wow, I’ve never seen that before” moments, the tension of the anticipated next pitch.

All of which, I think, puts a little perspective on why the events of 2011-2012 were so devastating. It’s not just that the winning stopped and the championships dried up. I had seen mediocrity and sub-mediocrity before. I had lived through Butch Hobson and Carl Everett and Bagwell-for-Andersen. I’d seen dark times as a Red Sox fan, and as frustrating as it was, it never diminished my love of the game. I still rooted, I still hoped. Even my temporary allegiance switch to the Marlins a decade before was born from a need to still follow a team, any team, that made baseball fun. But the Beer & Fried Chicken Club of 2011 and 2012 did what I thought couldn’t be done: they made me loathe the game I had loved ever since I first saw Yaz peering up at me from the back-end of that stack of baseball cards in 1981. They made me stop caring.

Perhaps in a few years, when the perspective of time has worked its magic, I’ll have a better grip on how I really feel about the events of the 2013 baseball season. Basking in the fresh glow of an unexpected World Series title makes it a little too easy to throw around superlatives and it’s possible I’ll be of a different mind on the subject in a few years. But for now my heart is filled with love for a bunch of bearded buffoons named Gomes and Napoli, Salty and Carp. Love for an overly enthusiastic high-fiver from Japan. For a stoic field general with a powerful jaw. For Pedey and Lester, Tazawa and Breslow. For the promise of Middlebrooks and Xander and Jackie Jr. Love for a guy like Stephen Drew who’s own brother was almost run out of town and yet who said not only am I willing to play there, I want my brother’s old number. And above it all, love for the ring-leader of the whole crazy circus. The guy who dropped an F-bomb and got away with it. The guy who hit the grand slam that saved the season. The guy who gave me what might wind up being my favorite Red Sox moment of all-time…

David Ortiz was there in 2004. He was part of that mythical team of heroes that broke the curse and delivered Red Sox Nation from baseball purgatory. What they did, they did not for themselves but for an entire fan base. They knew the burden they carried and they will forever admit that what they did that season they did with the weight of history firmly entrenched in their minds. He was also there in 2007 when a second championship gave legitimacy to the first. If ’04 beat down the demons of the past, 2007 kicked dirt on them for good. No matter what happened from here on out, whatever new heartbreaks befell the Red Sox, it would not be the poison of past failures injected into the bloodstream of a taunted franchise. David Ortiz helped make that possible.

So in 2013, with two rings already to his credit, he had nothing to prove. His place in baseball folklore was already engraved for eternity. He didn’t need another title to make his case for being one of the greatest to ever don a Red Sox uniform. And yet there he was, top of the 6th inning of game 4, his team tied 1-1 in the game, but down 2-1 in the series. There he was gathering the entire team together on the bench, barking at them in ways that only he can, passion pouring from his veins like a lifeblood. It was something we see in football every week. Even in basketball and hockey, huddles around a coach are commonplace. It is not something we see in baseball, and certainly not with a player at the center of the circle.

David Ortiz can say that “this one is for you Boston”, as he did after being presented the World Series MVP trophy last night, but I know better. I can tell by the relentless way he played this post-season and by the way he implored his teammates to snap out of it during that dugout meeting. This one wasn’t for Boston. He had already helped deliver us the World Championships we so desperately needed. No, this one was for him. David Ortiz wanted one more title and he went out and grabbed it. Because he loves baseball.

And now, once again… so do I.

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