A father and his son came to Fenway Park last week to watch the Red Sox play baseball. "We listen on the radio all the time back home," the father said. "Back home" could have been Millinocket, Maine or Brattleboro, Vt. or Woonsocket, R.I. He did not say and it did not matter. It was only important that they were there, pilgrims at the shrine. The son could wear his mail-order batting helmet and the father could fill out a major league scorecard and together they could cheer New England's own.
"This is the year," said the son.
"Let's not set our hopes too high," said the father.
Ah, summer in Boston! Office workers strolled through the Common. Joggers beat a path beside the Charles. Tourists walked the Freedom Trail. And in Fenway Park fans held their breath, hoped for the best and expected the worst.
After the All-Star Game the Sox reopened their pursuit of the first-place Baltimore Orioles, and when they beat Seattle 7-1, while the Orioles were losing the first game of a doubleheader to California, they were only one game off the lead. Their 57-32 won-lost record was the second best in the major leagues and would have put them roughly four games ahead of the Angels, 5� ahead of Montreal and 6� ahead of Houston, the leaders in the other three divisions.
But, having given Fenway fans visions of overtaking Baltimore and moving into first place on the weekend, the Red Sox instead offered sickening memories of past disappointments, losing 8-0 to Seattle on Friday night and 13-5 on Saturday before rallying on Sunday to beat California 6-5 in the 10th, after a game-tying Dwight Evans home run in the ninth. Meanwhile, Baltimore, having beaten California in the second half of that doubleheader, rattled off three more quick wins, so that by Sunday night the Oriole lead was up to 3� Throughout New England, Red Sox fans braced themselves for still another case of the worst.
Of course the granddaddy of all nightmare seasons was last year. It was a four-act drama worthy of a Greek tragedy: The Big Lead. The Great Collapse. The Stirring Rally. The Ultimate Defeat. Interestingly, the team and the fans reacted to the experience quite differently. "Everybody thought I was disappointed," says Manager Don Zimmer. "I wasn't. When a team can win 99 games, that's not a big disappointment. I can name 21 other managers who would love to have been in a playoff."
Outwardly, at least, the team's supporters took the defeat much harder. Second Baseman Jerry Remy recalls, "If you had listened to the fans on one of those radio phone-in shows after the one-game playoff with the Yankees, you'd have thought we finished last. The next day a guy at a gas station told me I had cost him $10. I reminded him it probably cost me $25,000. But it shows that the players aren't the only ones who care."
Boston fans probably care more about their team than any other partisans in baseball. Attendance at Fenway Park the past six years has averaged 1.85 million, the best in the league, and this year the Sox are drawing 29,000 a game with a seating capacity of only 33,538. That obsessive interest is the reason why 77 radio stations in seven states carry Red Sox games and why some 40 radio, television, newspaper and wire-service representatives cover most home games. In addition, fans can damn or praise their heroes on any of half a dozen phone-in talk shows whether they know what they are talking about or not. Very often, of course, they don't. Last week one caller took Jim Rice to task because " Reggie Jackson looks better striking out than he does." Better work on that, Jim.
"From my standpoint, this kind of interest is the greatest thing in the world," says Bill Crowley, the Red Sox' director of public relations. "It fills the joint up. We don't need giveaway promotions or guys in bird costume or dogs that catch Frisbees. Here, the game is the product, and we drew 2.3 million people, which is beautiful. Still, everybody seems to think he owns the club or knows how to manage better than Zimmer."