October 21, 2004


I am not what you would consider a Red Sox fan in any serious way, and most Sox fans would deny any sort of association with me on that front. But I kind of adopted the Red Sox as a co-favorite team (along with my eternally disappointing Tigers) during their ALCS against the hated Yankees last year. All I can say to this in my own defense against the inevitable bandwagoning accusation is guilty as charged, more or less, but I really didn't adopt them until after they had lost game 7 of the 2003 series. So call me what you will.

BUT. I said last year that the ALCS was probably the best postseason series I'd ever seen, despite the win of the hated Yankees, and the one just concluded tonight tops it hands-down. For anyone not listening to the filth flowing from John "Manny Ortiz" Kerry lately, the Sox had fallen behind 3 games to none in the best-of-seven series, leaving most of Boston and New England more generally in something approaching despair. They had come so maddeningly close last year against their hated arch-nemesis and yet come up short, and Fate(?) had allowed them the opportunity to play the series all over again a year later. As a lifelong sports fan, I recognize how rare it is for a team to get a second shot at such an opportunity just a year later, and it was frankly kinda sad that they appeared to be heading for an ignominious defeat. Such a rare opportunity, so pointlessly wasted.

Then the strangest thing happened, and Boston clawed out a 12-inning win in game 4 when they were facing elimination. Then they manfully outlasted the despised Yankees for a gutsy 14-inning win in game 5. Then they somehow closed out the Yankees in the ninth inning of game 6, despite a massively overworked and exhausted bullpen, and--lo!--the series was tied at three.

This had never happened in all the storied history of baseball, to recover from an 0-3 start to force game 7. But with all the cruel twists of fate since the Sox won a series in 1918 to thwart their efforts, and especially since they had never--never!--won a postseason series against their arch-rival, surely all they would manage was to make the series respectable and memorable for their scrappy doggedness.

But then they did the damndest thing and they won. Won in a rout which was apparent by the second inning, when Boston had amassed a 6-0 lead and chased the Yankee starter. This preposterous storybook conclusion to the series, which even Hollywood would consider so implausible that the suspension of disbelief could never be maintained, is good for baseball. Good for the game itself, much like Ohio State outlasting Miami in two overtimes in the desert for the 2002 national championship was good for the game of college football.

I unearthed the little temper tantrum of an essay I scribbled right after the Red Sox's loss to New York in 2003, which was one of the very first posts I made at Electronic Countermeasures. I offer it here for fun, and as a partial explanation of how it is I think tonight's miraculous conclusion is actually good for the game.



10/18/2003 Why I Hate Baseball. I love baseball. I have loved baseball since I was introduced to it in 1984, when I first became interested in sports in general. I first became aware of the game listening to Tigers games on the radio with my mom and dad, usually in the living room or on the back porch, and I became a Tigers fan simply because my parents were. They may have been fans for similar reasons, and that the Tigers were the only team whose games could consistently be heard on Toledo radio certainly disposed us in that direction. I think most kids become fans like this, of the teams their parents support, except those kids who become fans of the rivals of their parents’ favorite teams. But those are the bad kids, and I certainly wasn't one of those.

In 1984 the Tigers started the season a preposterous 35-5 and never looked back, so my very first season of baseball started out with my newly adopted favorite team holding a commanding lead all season, with a World Series title seeming inevitable after about the end of May. In October the Tigers delivered on that promise when Kirk Gibson hit a three-run homer in the seventh inning of game 5 against relief ace Goose Gossage of the San Diego Padres; Lance Parrish followed his at bat with a solo homer, adding insult to injury. Larry Herndon made the game's final put out in left field, and the Tigers had made it look easy despite using only a three-man rotation in the series: Jack Morris, Dan Petry, Milt Wilcox. As a new 12-year-old baseball fan, I was completely spoiled, and was inclined to suspect that “my” team was a juggernaut which might never be seriously challenged in my lifetime.

Now this whole baseball thing was kind of a new endeavor for me, as I had been mainly a football fan for several years prior to that—mainly NFL ball, with only the lightest interest in the college game to leaven the mix. In the runup to the 1982 Ohio State-Michigan game, when I was in the sixth grade, I recall distinctly one of my classmates asking me whether I was for Ohio State or Michigan. All the cool kids seemed to have an opinion on this matter, and I became conscious that I really didn’t; it seemed I should have some nominal alliance in the matter, just so I wasn’t—you know—weird. So, acting matter-of-fact about it, I selected Ohio State then and there as "my" team forever, since, after all, I lived in Ohio. So why not? Simple as that, I was a Buckeye.

Although Ohio State beat Michigan that year, I don’t think I actually watched the game; I was really still not that interested in college ball. The first time I remember watching OSU-UM was in 1984, a month or so after the Tigers won their World Series title. Ohio State won that game and went on the Rose Bowl that year, leaving me to generally feel some vague expectation that no team I ever liked would really ever suffer disappointment. I was rather shocked to see Ohio State actually lose that Rose Bowl game to USC by the score 20-17. But OSU had won three of four from Michigan, and the program was stronger than UM—and everyone knew it. It surely would be only a matter of time before they won a Rose Bowl and a national title. Their last national championship had been (gasp) sixteen years ago.

Then the most puzzling thing happened as Ohio State began a long slide. Earle Bruce was fired after the 1987 season for failing to produce a national championship, despite a string of competitive and reasonably good teams (“Old 9-3 Earle,” so called from his consistent annual record). And Michigan began in 1988 a string of some 450 consecutive conference victories, just as John Cooper began his reign of terror at Ohio State. It got so bad, in the midst of a span where Ohio State won but three games from Michigan in a sixteen year period, that when the teams played to a tie in 1992 Ohio States's university president gushed that that had been one of the "greatest victories" in the history of the school. A tie, described thusly.

I graduated high school in 1989, and spent a pleasant vacation week in Chicago the summer before starting college. Cubs fans will recall 1989 well, and two months before Will Clark broke the city's heart, my friends and I decided to attend a Cubs game. I wasn’t a Cubs fan, but I figured that any self-respecting baseball fan needed to experience Wrigley at least once. It was standing room only, as the Cubs were leading their division, and though the game itself was a rather forgettable loss to Montreal, I fell in love with the whole experience—the atmosphere, the enthusiasm, the old-school ball park (still with no lights then). It was all infectious, and I adopted the Cubs as a co-favorite team. I’ve attended several additional games in Wrigley even though I live in Ohio, and I still find the Wrigley experience to be the finest in all baseball. And I realize that a true Cubs fan would in no way consider me a fan, and I can live with that.

I concluded that summer by moving, naturally enough, into the Den of Thieves that is Ann Arbor, MI, to attend Eastern Michigan. I settled in an apartment around the corner from the University of Michigan's "Big House," from where I could hear the crowd and the band on football Saturdays. I could barely leave home on Saturday during the season with all the traffic. All my new friends (such as they were) found my Ohio allegiances amusing and rather touching, and reminded me of this daily as I went about my business between annual season-ending embarrassments. In 1989, 1990, and 1991 Michigan beat Ohio State three times, by a combined score of 277-0, or something like that. Even my friends taunted me, to say nothing of the way the general population of Ann Arbor regarded me as I'd wear my block O Woody Hayes hat. I considered myself a pilgrim in an unholy land.

Once Cooper returned the program to some state of proficiency, the team flirted with national championships (or at least Rose Bowls) almost every year, before again crashing and burning like the Hindenberg against Michigan in the season’s final game, which they did with maddening frequency. In 1993 OSU went into the Michigan game ranked #5 and sporting a 10-0-1 record and was slapped down, with extreme prejudice, in a 28-0 debacle in Ann Arbor. Cooper did actually beat Michigan in 1994 in sort of a consolation game, as both teams had had disappointing seasons and Penn State had beaten them both en route to its first Big Ten championship.

In 1995 Ohio State took Heisman winner Eddie George and the nation’s best rushing attack into the Den of Thieves itself, possessed of an 11-0 record and national #2 ranking. I was sure this was the year for OSU to return to the Rose Bowl, maybe win their first national championship in 27 years. And I had the thrill of watching my first major college game in person, with middling seats in the northeast corner of the stadium. I got to personally witness Michigan’s Tim Biakabatuka run for 360 yards and fourteen touchdowns, dropping a 31-23 turd in Ohio State’s championship punch bowl yet again.

But 1996, finally, would surely be different. New coaches, new approach, much more solid defense, many returning veteran players. The defense allowed only 9 points a game—possibly the best Ohio State defense ever. There really was no question that this team was superior in every way to the 1995 squad. And the game would be played in the Heart of the Holy Land, Columbus, OH. Ohio State had even clinched a Rose Bowl berth by beating Indiana in the penultimate week of the season, eliminating some of the pressure to beat Michigan. This was good, because the string of season-ending chokes against what was often an objectively lesser team had become embarrassing, and Cooper had started to look afraid of Michigan; his 1-7-1 record against them did nothing to dispel that fear.

Ohio State was 10-0 and ranked, again, #2 nationally. The Rose Bowl was already assured, and possibly even OSU’s first national title in 28 years was in the making. Then the best player on the best defense in the land, Shawn Springs—a cornerback who boasted that “two-thirds of the earth’s surface is covered by water, the rest is covered by me”—had a Bill Buckner moment as he slipped and fell in the third quarter, allowing Michigan’s Ty Streets an easy catch for the game’s only touchdown. Michigan won 13-9.

Again, in 1997, #4 Ohio State took on #1 Michigan, with the winner to go to the Rose Bowl. Ohio State again stumbled, losing 20-14 as Michigan went on to claim the national championship. The program more or less fell apart after that, and spent the next four years playing .500 ball. All my Michigan friends found my sufferings endlessly amusing, of course, and I became quite a bitter little man until I finally managed to graduate college and move back to Ohio post haste.

Now somewhere in the middle of all this I stopped watching baseball, and that somewhere was in 1994. It didn’t help that the Tigers sucked all the air out of their own stadium when they took the field, and lost twice as often as they won. But the player strike that year, and the cancellation of the World Series, iced it. It was my first real look as an adult at pro baseball players. I recalled the heroes of baseball of my youth, and the heroes and legends who populated my baseball card collection which dated back to the 1960s. I had thought those guys from the ‘60s were legends, more-or-less rightly idolized, and I had looked up to the modern players as much as I had adored my team. I suddenly looked at modern baseball and saw a bunch of spoiled prima donnas, making a million fucking dollars a year, and walking off the job because they either wanted more money, or essentially had perceived some subtle slight or vague threat in the way the owners were making money, or some similar greedy bullshit. While they were making a million dollars a year to play a child’s game.

Meanwhile the players on the college football teams I liked—I no longer watched NFL ball at all either—were sort of heroes from their play. The annals of college football, it turns out, are nearly so rich as those of baseball, and heroes of sorts are not hard to find. And they did all this while writing term papers, studying for finals, and occasionally finding a few spare moments to date the ladies. Pretty much like my life (minus the ladies, naturally) but with some awesome athletic prowess mixed in. A guy who could run for 2000 yards in a fall semester while carrying a full time class load: now that’s some heroic shit.

Now, John Cooper was eventually fired, and two years later Ohio State—joy!—won their first national championship in 34 years. The drought was over, and even if Red Sox and Cubs fans would scoff at 34 years as a drought, that interval had seemed pretty rough to most of us Buckeyes, peppered as it was with late-season inconceivable collapses. Which both the Red Sox and the Cubs can relate to. The Ohio-Michigan rivalry was back; it was back even though it had once been so one-sided that Michigan fans denied it was even still competitive enough to be a rivalry, which the Red Sox can relate to from the attitudes of unsufferably arrogant Yankees fans.

And so I somehow found myself this year taking my first tentative look back at major league baseball since the 1994 strike. The Toledo Mud Hens had been in the playoffs in 2002, had a lovely new “Junior Wrigley” park downtown, and I had taken in a few games. And then I had done a bit of reading during the off season about the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, and found myself identifying with the Red Sox fan’s pain when I read one smug Yankee commentator who wrote something to the effect that “the Yankees have 26 world championships since 1920, Boston has zero. Red Sox fans may not like us, but this really isn’t a rivalry anymore. Please.”

The whole snarky tone sucked me back into my college days as a resident of the Den of Thieves. I hated the smugness, and immediately recognized it as what typically came out of Michigan fans, and I kind of wanted something vaguely bad to happen to the author of that sentiment. Or at least his team—I’ve always hated a sore winner. I hate losing like you wouldn’t believe, but I’ve always been a reasonably good winner, finding no need to taunt my opponent. Once your team has won a game, it’s a small small man who can’t feel good enough about the victory without rubbing salt in the disappointment of the other team. Michigan fans, and evidently Yankee fans, don’t share this sentiment of sportsmanship. And while all teams have obnoxious fans, few teams have won so much as to allow their fans the opportunity to be such sore winners, as have Michigan and the Yankees.

So I watched the whole 2003 season, sort of a mild Red Sox fan. I was pulling for them to win the AL East, and loving the Cubs’ run to win the NL Central. And both of “my” new teams ended up in their respective League Championship Series. As anyone who watched knows, we fans were rewarded with probably the best two playoff series in memory. And if ever a team deserved to win the pennant and return to the World Series, it was the Cubs. Or it was the Red Sox. Or, best still, it would be both, and I’d be able to enjoy a World Series matching two great teams, content in the knowledge that at least either the Cubs or the Red Sox would finally end their drought; not both, of course, but at least one group of suffering fans could finally rejoice in the end of their drought like I had when Ohio State topped Miami in last year’s Fiesta Bowl.

But no. Despite the tantalizing prospects for both teams, and the eighth-inning leads which could have clinched the Cubs in game 6, and the Sox in game 7, somehow both teams pulled a John Cooper and dropped games—and prospective championships—they should have won. At least some metaphorical justice could have been done, had either team won their first World Series since the Great War. (Yes, it helps to view sporting events through such a prism of Principle and Justice; considering them otherwise tends to make one less passionate of a fan. And the resultant reduced stress for everyone would kind of defeat the purpose of competition to begin with, so what fun would that be?)

So I finally watched some baseball this year, just enough to make me care about it, have it encourage me to invest some emotionally in it. Baseball repaid me by entertaining me with the two best series I’ve ever seen. But they both ended with frustrated franchises and their fans still stuck in the funk they’ve suffered through their long droughts. I wouldn’t pretend I’m enough of a fan of either the Cubs or the Red Sox to personally share this frustration, but as a long-suffering Buckeye I feel something of a bond with what fans of both teams have endured. It’s just unthinkable that neither team finally achieved their long-awaited championship, and that the Corporate Yankees and the twice-a-decade Marlins go to the Series instead. And that’s why I hate baseball.

Can't wait till April.

Posted by JKS at October 21, 2004 06:23 AM
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