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Sox Fever Redux: It Fits Like a Glove

October 31, 1986|DAN SULLIVAN | Sullivan is The Times drama critic. and

WORCESTER, Mass. — I had come back to New England for a family wedding, not to see the World Series. But with Vin Scully and Joe Garagiola coming at you from every TV set, who could avoid the Series? And I was beginning to feel it all over again: Red Sox fever.

I had suffered from it for years as a kid, when the Red Sox meant Ted Williams and Bobby Doerr and Dave (Boo) Ferriss, who had sent me a picture autographed with one of the new ballpoint pens. The Sox had taken the '46 pennant, but lost the World Series in the seventh game to the Cardinals (whose catcher was Joe Garagiola). That set the pattern for the next few years. They would look terrific all summer long and then blow the pennant on the last day of the season to the Indians or, worse, the Yankees.

Eventually I couldn't take the strain. I turned my back on the Sox and, logically, on baseball in general. So why, back in New England, was I staying up until after midnight to cheer on the Sox against the Mets? Red Sox fever, reborn. I could tell it was the real thing, because it included the certainty that the Red Sox were going to lose.

New England people believe in fate, you see. (Look at our writers: Hawthorne, O'Neill, Stephen King.) And everyone knows that the Red Sox have been under a curse since their greedy owner, Harry Frazee, sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees in the early 1920s in order to finance a string of Broadway musical comedies. Until this sin is expiated, no Red Sox team will win a World Series.

Rooting for a team that is fated to lose gives Red Sox fans a sense of the tragedy of life that is denied the followers of ordinary clubs. Being New Englanders, they also have a sense of decorum. (Henry James and John Updike are the appropriate references here.) You will never hear a song as crass as "New York, New York" over the Fenway Park P.A. system. "If you can make it there, you'll make it anywhere. . . . " If that's what it takes to win, we'd rather lose.

This connects with the Red Sox fan's horror of hubris, the danger of taking prosperity for granted. It can even be an outsider's hubris. I personally knew it was over for the Sox in the sixth game when Scully started to make his wrap-up announcements at the bottom of the 10th, figuring that one more out would put the Mets away. Naturally, the roof fell in.

Red Sox fans are never surprised to see the roof fall in. This doesn't stop them from cheering for their heroes or from hoping that maybe this time the gods are looking the other way. Sox fans never really blame their boys for screwing up. After all, it was written that they would lose. Some Harvard scholar on PBS the other night was reminded of the myth of Sisyphus. The Red Sox do seem to inhabit some kind of purgatory, with the image of victory always in view, but never in grasp. People in New York or Houston might brand them as "losers," the worst possible thing one can be in the 1980s.

But that just shows you the values of New York and Houston. New England people identify with the Sox, suffer with them, and will never discard them. When your dyslexic kid goes out to play Little League, what do you do--stay home? As for losers, who isn't a loser in this economy? Under today's pressures, who doesn't pop-up? What do you think life is, a Harry Frazee musical?

Forget Greek myths. The Red Sox show us the particulars of modern defeat--the frustration of having it and then losing it, for no reason at all. One minute you're mowing them down in order. One bad hop and it all starts to fall apart. The Sox remind us what it's like to be out there on the limb, and Oil Can Boyd reminded us what it's like not to be out there. I'm not sorry I came down with Red Sox fever again. I was too young, the first time, to see what baseball was about.

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