Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Nomar, the Bad Old Days and the New Red Sox

I went to my first Red Sox game at Fenway in 1993 (a win over Detroit, but don't ask me the score--I'm not so much of a baseball fan that I can recall the details of games) and became a Red Sox fan that night.

So, I'm no Pink Hat. I'm no 2004 bandwagoner, no fan who wasn't a fan until the Monster seats went up, no singer of the horrid "Sweet Caroline" during the eighth-inning stretch. I remember the playoff loss to Cleveland in 1995, Pedro getting revenge on the Indians in 1999, the inevitability of the '99 Yankees series and the pain of the 2003 Aaron Boone home run. I was living in France in 2004, but I was there, up early, before dawn, following the Yankees series and the World Series live online as best I could back then.

Then again, I'm no Red Sox lifer, either. I cared nothing about the team until 1993. I cheered heartily for the Mets--my favorite team growing up, even though I come from Texas--in 1986. In fact, the 1986 World Series remains one of my all-time favorite sporting events. I don't remember 1967 at all, much less as a Red Sox fan living an Impossible Dream. Plus, I'm not that big a baseball fan. I like going to games and experiencing different parks, but I rarely watch baseball on TV, and I honesty kind of check out of baseball sometime in May and don't really check back in until September or maybe even October. I don't live and die with the Red Sox or any other team every day, all summer.

So, keep all of that in mind as you read this.

Sometime in the mid-'90s, I walked out of the Oak Grove T station in Melrose, Mass., and happened upon a kid who was collecting money for his little league baseball team. I dropped a dollar in his can and told him that if he practiced hard enough (what a completely patronizing and ridiculous thing this was to say--something a 55-year-old man would say, not a 20-something dude), he could become the next Nomar Garciaparra. He looked at me with a look of confusion. He had no idea who Nomar was.

He would, I'm sure, not long after that. Nomar's first year as an all-star shortstop with the Sox was 1997, and as the team moved into consistent contention in the AL East, he became the mainstay of the franchise, "Nomah," the heir apparent to the throne of Williams and Yaz. He was the hope of the Fellowship of the Miserable, the guy who was going to lead what was becoming Red Sox Nation (a fairly genuine movement before it was a marketing slogan) to the promised land.

In the long run, though, he ended up being the sacrificial lamb, the false messiah who left the team in a trade almost exactly five years ago and wasn't around when the Red Sox broke their 86-year hex by winning the 2004 World Series. Sometimes messiahs aren't really messiahs at all; they're just shortstops. Great shortstops, sure, but not much more than that.

I never particularly liked Nomar, nor did I dislike him. I was fairly ambivalent toward the saviour who wasn't. But that's not the point of this post (and there will be one, eventually). When Nomar came back this week for what, incredibly, was his first trip to play at Fenway since he left the Sox, he brought back with him--for me, anyway--bittersweet memories of a long-gone era in Red Sox history.

The bitter part of bittersweet is easy to understand--the losses to the Yankees, the playoff failures, the frustration of watching the evil empire from the Bronx dominate baseball again, the sense that the Sox would never quite get over that last hump...anybody who knew anything about baseball understood that stuff and knew why it hurt and annoyed and angered Boston fans. Fair enough.

But the sweet part is what nobody likes to think about, what everybody forgets and what I miss just a little bit. It was the chase, the pursuit of that first title in more than a lifetime, the fire Sox fans had every summer and the intoxicating promise of hope that rose as the snow melted every spring. It's easy to remember what the final out of the 2004 World Series was like, but the real fun happened before that, not just during the Yankees series but during that season. (I was sitting in the Newes from America pub in Edgartown on Martha's Vineyard when Jason Varitek mitted A-Rod in the kisser.)

And it wasn't just all about 2004. It was about 2003, 2002, maybe even that 2001 team that ended up being a real drag. The feeling I miss was the hunger the fans had for victory, the hatred they had for the Yankees and the sense that this could be the year...! Wags used to say that the worst thing that could happen to Red Sox fans would be for the team to win the World Series, and that wasn't true. But it did change the way the fans lived each season. Now, every year is the year (as 2007 actually was, again) and every game is like a celebration of the fact that the Sox aren't eternally behind the Yankees anymore, that they're as good a team as baseball has produced this decade, that Boston isn't a city for losers and heart breakers anymore. And it's...boring. It's very boring.

A few weeks ago, when I went to see the Sox play the Nationals at the marvelous Nationals Park, I found myself at Fenway South, full of Boston fans who hardly spoke to each other and walked around with a sense of contentment stemming from the fact that they'd all seen their team win the Series in their lifetimes. I cheered for the Sox, of course (and they lost), but I felt quite a bit of sympathy for the Nats and their fans, given that DC's multi-franchise history hasn't produced a champion since well before World War II.

If I understood well enough the Steve Carell character and his analysis of Marcel Proust in Little Miss Sunshine (as you can tell, I'm quite literate--and the worst part is that I could actually read Proust in French if I wanted to), it's the suffering that makes the person, not the outcome. We are who we are because of all the lousy stuff we've been through, or something like that.

Well, I'll extrapolate that to Red Sox fans. Yeah, it's better to be a fan now that the Sox have guaranteed us all good memories. But the thrill of the chase, the quest for alleviation of pain and frustration, the endless battle to finally conquer the Yankees--that stuff is gone, and it's not coming back. It's gone forever, and although I don't really want it to come back...I actually kind of do.

The Red Sox now are just a team that wins a lot of games and has a big fan base. They're not that fundamentally different anymore from the late-'80s or early-'90s Twins (except that the Sox have more fans) or from the Cardinals of the '80s or the A's or Reds of the '70s. The drama is gone; the forlorn calls to WEEI are gone; the horrible Dan Shaugnessy columns that indulged in the Sox' plight are gone...and Nomar is gone.

It's better this way. I know that. But it's kind of not...sometimes. Seeing Nomar stride around Fenway this week reminded me of how things used to be and how they'll never be again.

Of course, there's always my first love in Boston sports, my unhealthy obsession for a decade-and-a-half and a team that's still a relative loser (although I think that it's getting better...). There's always...oh yes...undoubtedly...the Boston Bruins. But there will be many, many, many long, long, long posts on them to follow. Oh yes. Get ready. Hockey starts up again in the fall. Not soon enough.

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