Like many citizens of the Commonwealth, I often wonder what would happen if the Red Sox were to win a World Series. Images dance in my head of celebrants, insane with elation, burning down the Back Bay and reducing the Green Monster to ashes. Of a vengeful Babe Ruth reappearing in the form of a giant marshmallow, Ghostbusters-style, hurling hailstones and roasting himself in the flames. Of George Steinbrenner looking back at Fenway Park and turning into a pillar of salt. � Old Testament stuff. The Red Sox are a religion in these parts, and to cheer for them is to enter a world of floods, parting seas and woes of Biblical proportions. We've seen the plague brought on by Bucky Dent. The famine caused by Bill Buckner. The affliction visited by Grady Little's whacko decision to stick with Pedro, five outs from the World Series.
In Massachusetts church and state are inseparable when it comes to the Red Sox: Sisters pray for them; clerics sermonize about them, segueing from the trials of Job; politicians bet (and lose) lobster dinners because of them. MIT professors teach the physics of Tim Wakefield's knuckler. News anchors talk tough about bringing down the Yankees—in March. The Sox are the state's common bond, its cross to bitterly bear. Victory may be sweet, but epic collapse is unifying.
I came late to the party, having grown up near Chicago, where I cut my baseball teeth watching the travails of the Cubs. Good folks, Cubs fans. Been waiting patiently since 1908. Cheerful. Faithful. Grateful for one pennant race a decade. Happy to sing Take Me Out to the Ball Game and spend a pleasant afternoon in the Friendly Confines, win or lose.
Not so in Fenway. Bostonians are with you, win or tie. They are jaw-droppingly ardent, knowledgeable and tough. They'll boo a lack of effort no matter how many runs you drive in. (Ask Manny Ramirez.) I've lived in the Boston area for 22 years, and I still marvel at the depth of their passion. Their desire to win has a smell to it, like sweat. John Henry, one of the Red Sox' owners, calls Boston's pursuit of a world championship "a real-life Arthurian quest." Success, he knows, would bring immortality to everyone involved.
The players feel the weight of expectations. It makes them edgy, snappish. The icon, Ted Williams, refused to tip his cap to the fans. Carl Yastrzemski wore a perpetual scowl. Jim Rice, Carlton Fisk, Roger Clemens—all of them feuded with Boston sportswriters. Nothing warm and fuzzy about those men. Not like Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub, adored in my childhood despite never getting his team to a World Series. They'd have run him out of town in Boston. Not enough grit.
The sports heroes of Massachusetts are as loaded with grit as the roads around Concord in April. No pretty boys here. Rocky Marciano, the Brockton Blockbuster, undefeated heavyweight champ, would walk through three lefts to hit you with his right. Bill Russell, the proud, glowering guardian of the paint, perennially outplayed the magnificent Wilt Chamberlain. Bobby Orr, shy and huge-hearted, both flashy and gritty, skated with such abandon for the Bruins that his body was ruined by the time he was 29. Larry Bird, both taciturn and blunt, insisted on the ball whenever the game was on the line.
Hard men. Strong. Long on substance and short on style, like frumpy old Massachusetts itself. And into this pantheon of legends now walk the Patriots, a team that, under coach Bill Belichick, perfectly reflects the state's sensibilities. Lean and resilient. Smart and unselfish. Not dependent on superstars and high-priced free agents. Forty years Pats fans waited, patient, ardent, loyal. Now they've been rewarded with two Super Bowls in three years.
Red Sox fans know that their faith will be rewarded too. It's why every spring they gather, renewed and recharged. Despite everything they've seen, everything their fathers and grandfathers have told them, they know that the Curse of the Bambino, in place since 1918, will end. Not some year, as Cubs fans believe. This year. This will be the Red Sox' year.