Everybody remembers the bloody sock.
Even people who don't follow baseball remember the bloody sock, the most enduring image from the most improbable comeback in baseball history, last October, when the Boston Red Sox overtook the New York Yankees and put an end to 86 years of misery by capturing the 2004 World Series.
Few people, however, know about the man behind the bloody sock. Few know what befell him after the Sox won. While the bloody sock was preserved, hand-delivered to the Hall of Fame, mounted and placed under special light-shielding glass in a humidity-controlled room, the man behind the bloody sock was casually thrown away.
Maybe it's gone unnoticed because it defies belief. During the last eight months, while Sox players have become the toast of the nation--writing bestselling books and recording pop songs, appearing on talk shows and reality shows, starring in commercials and films--the quiet hero behind their victory, the man without whom their victory would have been impossible, the man behind that bloody sock, has been spurned, banished, forgotten.
Worst of all, no one will tell him why.
No, that's not quite true. The team told him. It's just that he can't make sense of the answer.
His story would be a classic baseball fable, a kind of Ring Lardner yarn about the occasional cruelty of the national pastime and the amnesia that afflicts fans and owners--except that fables tend to have morals, and it's hard for the man behind the bloody sock to find any moral in what's happened to him.
So instead of a fable, maybe it's a mystery.
Does anyone care? Does it matter that some poor guy in Boston saved a baseball team, then found himself thrown away by the team he saved? Does it matter that a professional sports team was guilty of being disloyal, in an era when disloyalty on the part of teams, players and fans has become an everyday fact?
Yes, it matters if you believe that the Boston Red Sox were supposed to be different, that Boston is one of the most beloved franchises in all of American sport: On the eve of baseball's annual convention, Tuesday's 76th All-Star Game in Detroit, Sox players dominate the fan balloting. It matters because Boston's long struggle to break the chains of its "curse" and reach the Promised Land is American cultural history as much as baseball lore. It matters because the Sox were said to be cursed in the first place because the last time they won a championship, in 1918, they threw away the man who helped them do it--Babe Ruth.
Also, it matters if you realize that non-fans as well as fans derived inspiration from the 2004 Sox, a sense of hope and uplift that transcended baseball. Boston's against-all-odds triumph served as a thrilling reminder to millions that a history of failure doesn't prefigure an endless future of failure, that sometimes the lowliest underdog actually rises up and wins.
But when that underdog turns around and bites, how are we to feel?
Above all, the mystery of the man behind the bloody sock matters if you believe that baseball is always about something more than baseball. "So much does our game tell us, about what we wanted to be, about what we are," said the late baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti. Summer, fathers, America, race relations--baseball is a small, concrete way of talking about vast subjects. It's about loneliness, says John Updike. It's about hard work, says George Will. And right now in New England, baseball is all about gratitude. Elsewhere, when the home team wins, fans tell players, "Congratulations." But for these last eight months New Englanders have been telling their Sox, in person and in hundreds of thousands of letters and e-mails to the team: "Thank you."
That's why it's so odd to see the man behind the bloody sock--Dr. Bill Morgan--going around Boston with a long face, as though he feels profoundly unappreciated.
See if you can make any bloody sense of it.
The man inside the bloody sock was Curt Schilling. Tall, imposing, supremely confident, a right-handed ace with a nasty repertoire of unhittable pitches, the 38-year-old Schilling was signed by Boston in late 2003 for one simple reason: to beat New York. Boston put their faith in Schilling, along with 37 million of their dollars, because he'd beaten New York once before, pitching for Arizona in the 2001 World Series, and because he all but promised that he could do it again. From the start, Schilling talked like a gunslinger, a proven winner who would succeed where other Bostonians--nine decades of others--had failed.
"I guess I hate the Yankees now," he said the first day he met the media as a member of the Sox. He didn't sound as if he was kidding.