Bearded Heroes of a Resurgent Boston


I watched the Rolling Rally on NESN Saturday with pride and emotion as it wound its way along Boylston Street, over to the Common, then into the Charles (quite literally).   Two million strong, Bostonians lined the streets, often forty deep; stood on steps, looked out windows; and, yes, gazed from roof tops, cheering wildly as their Red Sox heroes passed by in duck boats normally used for touring, waiving back, sometimes slapping hands. Duck boat diplomacy! Certainly, assuredly, unlike so much in life, everything conspired to make this day a success, not least, an unusually warm day in November Boston, a day that will replay itself in memory long after.

Who would have thunk it: that last year’s record 97 losses and last place finish in the American League East would give way to World Series winners?  This was a  motley team in some ways stiched together remarkably, if not cunningly, by general manager Ben Cherington into a flamboyant weave that included a new skipper, John Farrell, articulate, knowledgeable, and able.

Even then, it seemed a no go for the Sox as relief pitching woes mounted up what with sore arms and inability to put out fires.  Ominously, ace pitcher Buchholtz, after a 9 and 0 start, developed a clavicle problem, removing him from the mound till September.  Even in the Series, there was the bullpen collapse of normally reliable Breslow (the Yale biomed whiz).

Chalk up their success to maybe the overachiever syndrome that sometimes compensates for handicap and wins through?  Well, maybe.  For sure, they didn’t get to the winner circle from any embedded superiority.  You might even say this was a David vs. Goliath scenario, replaying itself nightly throughout the season and into the post season against all odds.

The American League playoffs proved better than their hype, the Sox facing an always menacing Tampa Bay, followed by a heavy hitting Detroit team replete with two of the games superior hurlers. Finally, the perennial winning St. Louis Cardinals with, again, fine pitching and, on paper, a knock out bullpen.

It didn’t matter.  The clues, if you think about it, had a way of happening, and kept happening, from the very outset, with the Sox finding ways to win, coming from behind, usually in late innings; each game, a new hero: Big Pappi, Victorino, Gomes, Napoli, Nava;  sometimes Ellsbury on the bases, setting the table; often, a leaping catch by an ever nimble Pedroia or Drew of a smash drive or a diving, in-the-web grab by Gomes.  Slowly I began to believe.  And so did Boston.

They did it so often, thirty times, that it seemed a given–just wait.  Hey, they scratched out one run wins, thrilled us nightly with walk off scenarios, and then there fell into place, as  it were, our secret weapon, passionate, diminutive Koji Uehara, who hitters couldn’t hit.

And how about Lester, fading, only to find himself again, winning games, and anchoring our rotation in the playoffs and Series? Not far behind, Lackey, back from Tommy John surgery, pitching gem after gem right through the Series. “A beautiful thing,” as colorful commentator Dennis Eckersley likes to say.

So many stories here. So many heroes!

But for me, the most important story is that of April’s human wrought mayhem on Patriot’s Day at the finish line of the world’s favorite marathon.  Once again, as in all such misdeeds, I’m reminded of the human capacity to enact evil.  But I also have faith in the resident goodness of the vast majority to confront and transcend such evil.  As Big Papi famously put it, “This is our … City.  Boston needed to be strong and as the President said, “Boston would celebrate again.”

sox5And that’s where the Red Sox came in, showing the way past adversity to renewal.  That’s what the huge crowds were all about.  They identified with the sleeve patch each player now wore:  “Boston Strong.”

Sadly, in this day of free agency and change as one of life’s non-negotiables, we’ll not see their like again with their bearded idiosyncrasies. Peavy ended up buying the duck boat on which he rode.  (He had previously given us the cigar store Indian, which became a dugout fixture, home and away). Saturday evening, the celebration seemingly carried on, captured in a photo of Napoli, apparently inebriated, bare chested, wandering the streets.  I doubt few Bostonians care.  He earned his indulgence and drinks on the house.  I do know we’ll miss that nightly tugging of the beards!

Every now and then I come across some who disdain sports as a volatile vanity out-of-place in a troubled world.  But I don’t see it that way.  Here we can learn something from wise Vergil, who also knew the depth of suffering first hand.  In one episode of his great Aeneas, he writes entirely of several sport contests.  In his prescience, he knew their analogy with life.  Sports give diversion, and what’s wrong with a time out anyway?  But they are more than that, testing and teaching character, a word whose meaning we’ve largely lost to our own detriment.  Tell me how athletes play the game and I’ll tell you if you can count on them in life.  Their true value lies not in victory, but in pursuit.

This was a team of bonded brothers who went everywhere together.  They loved one another and how we loved them!   They helped Bostonians refocus. The poet Dante defined hell as a place of lost souls who had abandoned hope.  The Red Sox taught Bostonians how to climb out of hell and hope again.  Not least, a whole nation.

sox2How moving their stopping in Copley Square, the singing of God Bless America. Team and city united.  City and team become one.

What a wonderful day.  What a beautiful thing.

Boston Strong.

Thank you, guys!


Baseball fever!

The crack of the bat; the thud in the mitt; smells of peanuts and cracker jacks; mustarded hot dogs washed down with cold beers.  The fever of it!  Baseball, America’s brain child, after a long winter, true harbinger of Spring, you’re back and I’m a young boy again, with dawn’s early light, heading for alleys, looking for buddies, looking for game.

Like eating Cheerios, I fed on baseball, the daily radio broadcasts pouring out their litany in days when TV was but a rumor.  Pa, ensconced in his leather chair, two virtues in exchange for his addiction to booze, a love for the game and a love for the news, rituals of redemption taking root in his child.

Growing-up in Philly’s waterfront Fishtown, tedious streets of inert row houses and white stoops; scarcely a tree, never a park, we gave it no thought,  adopting stick ball and banging our hits off factory facades, in the same way Ruth and Gehrig began their own long journey, Boys of Summer, with every stroke, tapping our dreams of something better than asphalt heat and danger-laden streets.

Philly sported two teams then, the A’s and Phillies.  I knew the player names readily, reiterated by baseball cards we’d get with our bubblegum and trade with each other, sitting on stoops on sultry summer evenings.

I remember the Whiz Kids winning the pennant in 1950, the euphoria sweeping Philly like an exuberant wind.  They played the World Series afternoons back then.

When I was twelve, I learned how to take the El and find my way to Shibe Park to watch the A’s play and usually lose.  After the game, I’d linger around the gate for autographs and recall, as if yesterday, wide-eyed like a boy hooking his first trout, the  thrill of Dave Philley being my first and, crazy kid that I was, grabbing his arm to touch one of the gods.

Baseball had an innocence back then–an absence of big money, drugs, and player mobility.  It was everything good that we’d like to be good again.  I liked the high mounds, the pitchers around for most of the game, so different from the formula of 100 pitches in vogue today.  It’s hard to win twenty games now, and we’ll never see 30 wins again.  Back then, teams like the Yankees sometimes sported three pitchers with twenty wins by season end.

Ted Williams batted 406 in 1941.  He did it without the sacrifice fly added later, which means he batted for an even higher average, going by today’s rules.

I remember Jackie Robinson’s coming into baseball and democratizing the game.

With sadness now, there’s been a sharp decline, after the long struggle, in African-American players these days.  Thank goodness for the Caribbean ball players who keep baseball from reverting to a white man’s game.

But there are changes that have made baseball better such as the playoffs and, in my opinion, the designated hitter.

What keeps my loyalty is the nature of the skills baseball demands.  Every position features its own requisites not easily acquired.  Baseball has few prodigies ready right out of high school.  Generally you hone your skills over several  seasons, playing college or minor league ball.  You learn by doing to play the game well.

If every position has its own repertoire, no less challenging is swinging the bat, with fast balls clocking 90 mph and more, mixed with curves, sliders and off speed pitches.  There are eight players in front of you and you need to hit the ball where they aren’t, a tall order  the very best players achieve only a third of the time.

What I like better than anything else is the stardom in reach for any player in any game at any moment:  the clutch hit, the stolen base, the home run, the pitcher’s shutout, the fielding gem; the sheer democracy of it, unlike any other sport I know.

Every at bat is the old West renewed, batter against pitcher, in strategy based on probability.

I relish the end game with its relief scenario.  Can the “fireman” put out the fire and save the game?  A duel indeed.  Good relievers require ice in their veins.

Baseball, more than any other sport, comes down to numbers, or record-keeping, with the Hall of Fame a pantheon of its greatest, and a way of measuring.

Football and basketball, today’s popular action sports, may enjoy the public eye but, for me, I revel in baseball’s ritual, the mindness in it, the individuality of it; the the crack of the bat, the thud in the mitt; smells of peanuts and crackerjacks, mustarded hot dogs washed down with cold beers. The sheer Americana of it!


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