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MY TURN AT BAT

Congratulations, I'm Sorry
By George Mitrovich

It was a Sunday night in late October at Fenway Park in Boston, the fourth game of the ALCS, and things were not going well for the Red Sox. The game had reached the bottom half of the seventh inning and the Sox were losing 4–2 to the New York Yankees. The night before the Yankees had destroyed the Sox, 19–8, to go ahead three games to none in the series. The Red Sox were about to be swept by their hated rivals, the "Evil Empire." To diehard Red Sox fans––an oxymoron if there ever was one––the "Curse of the Bambino" was still alive.

The mood in the private box of Red Sox President Larry Lucchino was fraught with frustration, bordering on despair. There was a palpable anger, too. John Henry and Tom Werner, principals in the ownership group that controls the team, were in the box with Mr. Lucchino that Sunday night. It is not pleasant to be in a confined area with men who have spent $650 million for a baseball team that is about to be swept, once more, into the dustbin of history. This wasn't just a game between two baseball clubs; this was the Yankees and the Red Sox, perhaps the greatest rivalry in baseball. The league championship and the World Series were at stake. The whole world was watching––and what the world was witnessing wasn't pretty.

The night before, while the Sox were having their brains beat out by the Bronx Bombers, I had made the mistake of saying to Mr. Henry, "It will be okay." He looked at me as if I had taken leave of my senses. "No it won't!" he pointedly responded. I then thought, "Why would I say something so dumb?" Of course it wouldn't be okay. The Sox were getting trashed at home. That same night, as the Yankees kept scoring runs against the seemingly pathetic Sox, I witnessed an angry Larry Lucchino get up from the stool where he sits looking out on the playing field of Fenway, walk over to a nearby wall, take the palms of his hands and slam them as hard as he could against the wall, which visibly shook. I have been around Mr. Lucchino a fair amount, but I had not seen that kind of emotion before. Once he had expressed it, though, he seemed okay, the turmoil within his person seemingly spent. He appeared to have resigned himself to yet another New York victory, another Yankees World Series appearance. The Sox would prepare for 2005.

Dr. Charles Steinberg, the Red Sox vice president for public affairs (and a dentist by profession), has been with Larry Lucchino for twenty-five years and is a certifiable genius in the art of marketing baseball teams. In the seventh inning of game four, he came up to me and asked if I would write for Mr. Lucchino a congratulatory statement to the Yankees. No one was saying, "It's over," but you could see it in their eyes and in their body language. Dr. Steinberg thought I might bring an outsider's perspective to the unfolding denouement; one that would provide Mr. Lucchino with an elegant and gracious concession statement; remarks that would congratulate the Yankees on winning while saying to heartbroken Red Sox fans, this isn't the end, broken in body and bereaved in soul though we are.

I sat down at the computer behind where Mr. Lucchino sits and tried writing what I thought Dr. Steinberg was looking for. Sitting there, staring at the computer, I thought of a line from Winston Churchill, written at the bleakest time during World War II: "We are passing through a deep, dark valley, but broad sunlit uplands await." I'm not one to confuse war and sports, for to do so is to engage in a deceit of both mind and soul, but I love Mr. Churchill's words. I knew Mr. Lucchino wanted to say something of hope to Sox fans—this is a dark moment, but the sun will rise tomorrow.

When I finished I handed Dr. Steinberg the suggested statement. He read it over, sat down at the computer, added some of his own distinctive touches, then handed it to Mr. Lucchino, who began looking it over, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the Sox had pulled to within a run of the Yankees. At one point, John Henry walked over to the computer, looked at the statement, and asked, "What's this?" Dr. Steinberg sought to assure Mr. Henry that being ready with a concession statement was the prudent thing to do. And, of course, it was. There may have been some people in Red Sox Nation who still thought the team might come back, but they weren't in the box that evening. Besides, if the unlikely did occur and the Sox came back to win, the statement could be used for game five, because fatalists knew the ALCS was not going back to Yankee Stadium. Yes, the sign that rises above the fabled Green Monster in left field at Fenway, the one that reads "Keep the faith," was in Larry Lucchino's clear view; but faith is not defined by a moment in time, but by continuance of belief. And what greater evidence do we have of that remarkable faith than fans who would wait eighty-six years for the seemingly improbable to happen?

Joan Newth, a lifelong Red Sox fan, thinking of that night and the 2004 season, would recall the lines from William Wordsworth's poem, "Alas! What Boots the Long Laborious Quest?"

 

One in whom persuasion and belief has ripened into faith,

And faith becomes a passionate intuition.

 

Of course, you know the rest of the story: The Red Sox, after tying the fourth game 4–4 in the bottom of the ninth inning, won it in the twelfth on a towering home run off the bat of David Ortiz. They also won games five, six, and seven––then swept the National League Champion Cardinals in four games to become World Champions. In the process they achieved what some have judged "the greatest comeback in the history of sports," a sentiment so wholly plausible in its fairness that even the most obdurate of individuals will not rise to challenge it (George Steinbrenner notwithstanding).

There is here a parenthetical about comebacks in sports. It concerns Dr. Charles Steinberg's view as to when the "comeback" of the Red Sox really began. He argues it started on the eve of the Democratic National Convention in Boston, at a late Saturday afternoon game when once again the Yankees and the Sox were set to play at Fenway. It had rained hard that day and the playing field at the ancient ballpark was soaked. Some people in Red Sox management thought the field unplayable. They were prepared to call the game, as was their right under baseball's rules. Some of the Yankees who had already dressed for the game took off their uniforms and made plans to return to the team's hotel. But it was decided that Joe Torre, the Yankee manager, and Terry Francona, the Red Sox manager, would inspect the field. As they did so, Mr. Francona got a message that his players were not pleased about the prospect of canceling the game. In the team's clubhouse they vented their frustration. The players wanted to play. David Ortiz, the game's best designated hitter and a large factor in the team's remarkable chemistry, said of the Yankees, "We want these guys!"

The night before the Yankees had won, 8–7. For a team with a lot of great players, the Red Sox's record that Saturday was only 52–44; they were nine and one-half games behind the Yankees. To say this was a huge disappointment is to greatly understate the case. If you went looking for Pollyanna that day at Fenway, you wouldn't have found her. The Sox's season seemed to hang in the balance.

Management eventually decided that the game would be played after all. To accomplish this, they delayed the game's start by an hour. In the third inning a most unlikely event occurred: a fight broke out between Alex Rodriquez, the New York third baseman, and Jason Varitek, the Boston catcher and team leader. A-Rod, as he is universally known––and thought by many to be baseball's greatest player––took exception to being hit by a pitch from Bronson Arroyo, the young Red Sox right-hander. Varitek told A-Rod to shut up and go to first base. Rodriquez took umbrage at such impertinence by Varitek. Suddenly, the catcher's glove was bruising the handsome visage of Rodriquez. Varitek, no dummy he, kept his face mask on while A-Rod sought to pummel him. All hell broke loose (or what passes for hell in baseball brawls). When order was finally restored, the Yankees piled on the runs, and by the time the Sox came to bat in the sixth inning, they trailed 9–4. The skies may have been gray, but the mood in Fenway was dark, dark, dark.

Yet the Sox battled on, and they trailed by only 10–8 when they came to bat in the bottom of the ninth. Quickly, the margin was cut to one. They then proceeded to put a runner on second with two outs and Bill Mueller coming to bat. Mueller, the American League batting champion in 2003, hits a lot of singles and doubles. He is not thought of as a home run hitter. But he did what no one was expecting. There was a momentary stillness at Fenway, the fans holding their collective breath as they watched the arc of the ball climbing higher and higher in the late twilight, uncertain as to where it would land. The ball kept carrying and carrying until at last it sailed over the wall. A thunderous roar arose from the Fenway faithful. The ballpark was in bedlam. The fans were delirious in their unbounded joy. Sox win, 11–10! In Larry Lucchino's box the smiles were as wide as the distance between San Diego and Boston. There were shouts and hugs all around.

Dr. Steinberg contends this was the game that determined what would become for the Boston Red Sox their most glorious season––a game that would initiate the tortuous and draining process whereby the team would find itself ultimately becoming the champions of the baseball world. But his argument, rapturously presented, doesn't change the circumstance of the fourth game of the American League Championship Series at Fenway Park, a date that will hereafter resonate in Red Sox history––Sunday, October 17, 2004.

To have been fortunate to have witnessed the raising of the dead—because surely the Sox were dead in that fourth game—was for me a special moment. It was a moment, as precise as one can ever define when life and sports intersect in what becomes an evolving mystery of transcendence, when you both know the moment but also know that the moment's ultimate mystery is beyond your ability to understand in any rational context. In your intellectual hubris you may take pride in your cold analytical skills, but there comes a time when the force of an event exceeds your comprehension and its truth shatters your smugness. You can say you were there, you saw it happen, but being there and witnessing it and understanding it are not the same thing. It is one of life's great enigmas, how something can be both mythic and real at the same time. But it is.

It's true, as we are often reminded by cynics of the sport, that baseball is a business––and every day when free agency is rampant and players go to the highest bidder, the business of baseball cannot be denied. But if that's the beginning and the end of one's understanding of the world's greatest game, it reveals an elementary ignorance of something so uniquely American that our national experience cannot be understood independent of it (as the literary critic Jacques Barzun reminded us many years ago). But what we cherish about the game, its beauty, poetry, and nuances, is, in the end, what separates the business of baseball from the game of baseball. We may be indifferent to the first reality, but we hold to the second as surely as we cling to any fundamental essential in the American character; for it defines us and elevates us to a level higher than what is otherwise the commonplace of our existence.

The Boston Red Sox are World Champions. Hail to the champions!

—EFQ

GEORGE MITROVICH is president of the City Club of San Diego and the Denver Forum, two of America’s leading civic institutions.

© 2005 George Mitrovich

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