I’ve never stepped on a major league pitching mound.  My name is not Curt Schilling, but my Sox are bleeding anyway.

I’ve written a number of times about my love of baseball.  The beauty I see between the white lines, the sweat and prep and luck it takes to reach the majors, the joy of watching people play.

I also appreciate baseball.  During the 1980s I discovered Bill James, a writer/statistician who significantly changed the traditional paradigms of evaluating an individual player’s talent, and team statistics.  He analyzed baseball from a perspective so different it opened my eyes to an entirely new way of seeing the game.  And you know he had to be one hell of a writer for me to understand what he was saying since I still count on my fingers.

But there is another side to the love of the game: being a fan and rooting for a particular team.  Truth is, I have many team allegiances, but I’ve lived in Boston longer than anywhere else so I’m first and foremost a Red Sox fan.

Hell, at one point I lived close enough to Fenway Park to hear the voice of announcer Sherm Feller, through my open windows.  Or to walk over before an afternoon game and score a ticket.  In those days, tickets were available and affordable.

Neither are true today–though you can still get tix through re-sellers.  If you don’t mind turning your pockets inside out.

Just one of many downsides when you finally field a championship team.

Before the Sox were winners, they had a different karma–heart breakers.  I remember a World Series game that was one out away from winning the whole enchilada.  It was the middle of the night so I ran around the house waking up Sue, Matt, and even Jake who didn’t know a baseball from a Big Wheel.  I wanted them to see history.  They did; they saw a ground ball dribble through our first baseman’s legs instead of the championship out.

But that was then.  New century, new ownership, new general manager, new attitude.  Theo Epstein, the youthful GM, even hired Bill James as a consultant.  Still, it took a while for the karma to change.  There was one last hammer to the head season when, during the definitive play-off game that would send us to the Series (and a game we were winning), our manager sent pitching great Pedro Martinez back to the mound in the eighth.  Everyone in the stands, watching on television, listening on the radio, knew Pedro was gassed.  Done.  Nothing left.  Need I say more?  We’re talking another heartbreaking season.

2004 changed Red Sox fever.  We felt the decades of heartache and hatred–even the Curse–were in the past.  We could actually hope.  And succeed.  After 86 years and a record-breaking three game comeback during the play-offs against our arch rival Yankees, we actually won the World Series.  How sweet it was.  How sweet it was.

There was a new attitude.  Big-time spending on players by the new owners (Baseball economics creates a huge differential in terms of wealthy and less wealthy teams.  For years the Yankee’s were vilified about “buying pennants” but, though true, a number of teams are now in that club including the Red Sox).  Management hired a fresh manager, Terry Francona, who bought into the relatively new statistical analyses that James and Epstein believed in.  (Read Money Ball by Michael Lewis for a lucid explanation of these new tools.)

Our bright view was rewarded.  Another World Series ‘W’ in 2007.  Fan life was good.  Fan life was good.  Very, very good.

But now it’s 2012 and something is rotten in Red Sox Nation.

After last season’s historic September collapse, Francona was sacked, Theo Epstein left to try to replicate his magic or luck with the hapless Chicago Cubs, our new GM crapped on by ownership when they rejected his managerial choice.

And ownership’s choice for manager is looking like a pitcher who lost his fastball.  For a team that still relies upon statistical analysis, when the manager doesn’t know whether the opponent’s pitcher is left or right handed, you gotta raise your brows.

(To be “fair” around $70,000,000 of talent is injured so you could argue the teams’ dismal end to last season and beginning of this is out of their control.  You could, but it sure doesn’t feel that way.)

Drought has dug in and suddenly the old break your heart fear (come close but no cigar) is sliding into the 60’s mindset of “they stink,” with a litany of reasons and numbers.

But there are other indications that don’t fit into baseball’s stat game.  Snakebites.  And while I’m not a superstitious person, when the fan has hold, then hold the damn phone.  Everything is a sign.

Which all point to the cellar.  Which makes me hope I’m very wrong.  (I’ve said “the season is still young” a ton of times.  True, but not really reflective of my gut.)

Sue, whose best sports moment is Hoosiers, watched and suffered through the Pedro pitching fiasco.  As is our custom, she fell asleep while I worked the clicker.  About an hour later, she burst out of a very deep sleep, lifted up onto her elbow, turned toward me, eyes closed, and said; “If this is what it means to be a sports fan, then I say fuck it.”

I say, good for her, ’cause I can’t.  I’m gonna bleed until my Sox are in the washer.  Or not.

“Being defeated is often a temporary condition. Giving up is what makes it permanent.” Marilyn vos Savant

Not About Baseball

In 1968, Robert Coover wrote a novel called The Universal Baseball Association about a character named Henry Waugh, who created his own board game with imaginary teams and seasons that ran in concert with the real deal.  Although the book was published long before sabermetrics, Henry brought a statistical analysis to his game that mirrored real professional baseball.

Year after year he played throughout the regular season, his dice-rolling stats generally falling within his, and baseball’s, norm.  Then, one season the entire system began to crumple, dice roll by dice roll.  Henry couldn’t understand the statistical insanity that was occurring and the rest of his life fell apart in his desperate attempt to “get it.”  Something he was never able to do and for which he paid a dear price.

Well, I’m happy to report that despite Boston’s horrific Wednesday night collapse and Tampa Bay’s incredible extra inning victory, my life isn’t headed toward Henry Waugh’s mental dumpster.

I’ve been a baseball fan for as long as I can remember.  Sitting on a stool at my grandfather’s (then father’s) tavern, waiting for the arguments about which game to show on novelty of all novelties—the bar’s television.  I was a Dodgers’ fan, but when they and the Giants deserted New York for sunnier pastures, I became my Aunt Jeanette’s (who bartended at the tavern) Yankee disciple.  She took the time to introduce me to the game’s subtleties and the different nuances of each Yankee player.  She also had the uncanny ability to foresee when a Yankee batter was “due.”  “He’s due,” she’d announce to customers and the bets would begin to fly.  She won a hell of a lot more of them than she lost.

Jeanette was so entranced with the Yankees, I never had the guts to tell her about my infidelities.  At night, under the covers, I’d huddle up to my transistor radio to listen to the San Francisco Giants games—or, at least, New York-based Les Keiter’s version of it.  Using a ticker tape, a recording of crowd noise, two sticks, and his fluid patter, he made you think you were listening to the real thing rather than his reenactment.

But then baseball at the bar and under the covers came to an abrupt end.  It slid to the back burner as I attended yeshivas where emotional survival became my game, and University of Wisconsin, where we ran the bases of politics and protests.

I quit school, joined Volunteers in Service To America (VISTA) and was assigned to Chicago where the two team city reignited my love for the game.  Although I lived and worked on the North Side, I became a White Sox fan since they had one of my favorite players, Richie Allen.  And, like other two team cities, you either rooted for one or the other.  In Chicago, to this day, The White Sox were and are “the other.”  Despite their historically low status on the rungs of winning, the Cubs are, and always have been, Chicago’s “darlings.”

Now I’ve lived in Boston for close to forty years.  Which means I’ve lived for close to forty more years.  I now have more room in my psyche—I can do “and,” not just “either/or.”  My heart belongs to Sue and I still have affection for past loves.  And my heart belongs to the Red Sox with affection left over for the teams I rooted for in past.  Maybe that’s maturity, or maybe it’s because I just love the damn game.

Hell, sometimes I think it has mystical powers. Sue, her brother Jeff, sister-in-law Donna, and I took shifts caring for Sue’s dying mother, Tsiv, who lived outside of Detroit and was hospicing at home.  Sue and I were there together during the 2006 World Series and danced around Tsiv’s bed, singing, “Go Tigers, go Tigers.”  As sick and weak as she was, Tsiv invariably waved her arms and sang along with gusto.  Gusto which ‘til my dying day I will always believe added to her life and was fueled by baseball.

It’s the game that holds me captive.  I enjoy rooting of course, but it’s baseball itself I find beautiful and fulfilling.  The grass, (even the new turf), the grace of a second baseman leaping, twisting, and throwing the ball to first for a double play, the subtle but real strategies, the individual competitions within the larger struggle, the timelessness both in the game’s history and within any specific contest.  The late George Carlin has a bit where he compares and contrasts football and baseball’s vocabulary and the degree to which the words reflect each game’s values.  I’m not willing to say that any game is a metaphor for life or reflects our cultural ideals, but even cynical me would like to think that the game played between the white lines and within the diamond reflects the best of the American us.  The individuality, the collectivity, the energy, and perhaps most importantly, the hope.

Even this last Bad Day In Mudville when three minutes after the Red Sox blew their lead and Tampa Bay (a team I viscerally dislike) overcame a seven-run deficit to win the last spot in the playoffs, there was a rightness, a justice to it. My team had spent the month sliding down a cliff, Tampa Bay spent that same month climbing a mountain.

Sure I was disappointed.  But my cousin and I, who had been texting throughout night closed shop by writing almost simultaneously, “baseball is sure one amazing game.”

Ex-Commissioner and sadly departed “Bart” Giamatti On Baseball: “It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.”