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It’s often said that baseball is a metaphor for life. I’m not sure if this has ever been broken down scientifically. I guess I’ve just always assumed that the base path is supposed to represent life’s journey, with first, second, and third base representing youth, middle age, and retirement, respectively. This would explain why you start at home plate and spend the rest of the game trying to return there; you slide through the dirt because that’s what you do when you die. And who cares if you get dirty, really? In the end, all that matters is whether you do what you set out to do.
That’s one theory, at least.
But then again, when people say baseball’s a metaphor for life, it could also just be that life—like baseball—boils down to staying up late to watch the Yankees drop Game 7 of the American League Championship Series to Satan’s minions (who, in this politically correct era, prefer to be called the Boston Red Sox). That’s a theory I came up with last Wednesday, when I… well, stayed up late to watch the Yankees drop Game 7 of the American League Championship Series to Satan’s minions (I’m sorry, the Boston Red Sox). That’s when I found myself asking the existential questions that’ve plagued mankind for centuries. “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” “What am I doing up after midnight?” “How the hell is this Yankee baseball?”
I’m still not sure which theory to ascribe to. They both make sense.
You know, it’s not an easy time to be a Yankee fan. In fact, I’m not sure it’s ever been harder—not even during the ‘80s when they were New York’s second best team. People are calling their loss in this year’s ALCS the biggest collapse in baseball history. And I suppose they have a point. A few days earlier—on Saturday night—the Yanks took a 3-0 series lead after trouncing the Red Sox, 19 to 8. Things were looking up. No team had ever lost a seven game series after winning the first three. I remember thinking that evening how bittersweet a Yankee sweep would be; to look forward to this series all year, and to have it end so anti-climactically, sort of felt like getting Mr. Potato Head for Christmas, with a lump of coal instead of a potato. But there was only so much sympathy for the devil in my house. The Yankees were going to win. And I was going to enjoy it.
Then something happened.
Three outs from extinction the following evening, the Red Sox turned everything upside down in Game 4. They beat the Yanks, broke their spirit, and never looked back at the mess they’d left behind.
Then they won Game 5.
And then they won Game 6.
The next thing you knew, the series was tied 3-3. And it ended anti-climactically, all right, just not in the way I’d expected: Boston took the field unopposed last Wednesday evening, easily winning Game 7 by a score of 10 to 3. The Yankees’ uniforms were empty. Their souls had gone home for the winter.
And another year had gone down the drain.
I suppose I should’ve been stunned by the Yankees’ poor Game 7 performance, but I wasn’t. I’ve seen Yankee championship teams before. Those teams made the impossible possible. They had that little something extra that can’t be defined by a fantasy baseball stat. These Red Sox have it, but the Yankees no longer do. So Game 7 wasn’t the clincher here; Game 4 was. Boston’s victory was in the Cards, so to speak, from the moment David Ortiz set foot on home plate in the 12th on Sunday. The only thing that shocked me was the fact that I saw it coming. I’m a Yankee fan, after all. And Yankee fans never expect defeat.
What a strange reversal of roles.
Back in 1920, Boston was baseball’s winningest team, and New York hadn’t won a single title. Then something happened: Boston sent George Herman Ruth to New York for a fistful of cash and a ghost to be named later. New York went on to win 26 championships; Boston hasn’t won one since. This is the so-called Curse of the Bambino. It is the world of sports’ ultimate urban legend. It’s cult-like. Fans of both teams define themselves by it. And so the teams are defined by it, too.
The Bronx faithful, for our part, play the role of true believers. We’ve developed a blind faith in the Yankees. Except it isn’t quite blind. It’s backed up by empirical facts. We expect the Yankees to field the best teams, to beat up on Boston, and to do the impossible at least eight times a year. But why do we expect this? Because those are the things the Yankees do. New York has made a name for itself by being better than everyone else—in life and in baseball, for better as well as for worse. But it’s not about putting others down. It’s about lifting yourself up. New York is the most important city in the most important country in the world. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. But you’ve got to believe in yourself before anyone else will believe in you. That’s why we believe in our baseball team. Yogi Berra once said, “It ain’t over till it’s over,” and the Yankees, like Yankee fans, live and die by that advice.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have Red Sox fans. Red Sox fans are whipping boys. Their hearts have been broken more times than Michael Jackson’s nose. If these people had given up on baseball altogether after 1986, no one would’ve blamed them. “That’s all right, Boston. You go home and get some rest now. You gave it your best shot.” Back then, they knew their best shot wasn’t good enough. They knew it before ‘86 and they’ve known it every year since. The reason they’ve never given up is because this heartbreak defines their relationship with the Red Sox. They will become different people—and their team a different team—when the championship drought is over. You see, for Boston, it’s not about winning. No. In fact, it’s all about losing. It’s about the beauty of the struggle. And that doesn’t mean they don’t want to win. They do. And they’ll cheer like mad when it happens. But in a way, they will mourn the loss of a friend.
Of course, it’s easy to say this as a Yankee fan. And I’m sure many Red Sox fans will disagree with me. But the point I’m trying to make here is that their championship drought was never about Babe Ruth’s ghost. It was about the self-doubting demon they needed to face inside.
When the Yankees signed Alex Rodriguez last winter, Boston led the bitch-and-moan brigade, going so far as to say they needed a salary cap to compete with their rivals. But the Yankees’ success was never about their bottomless bank account. They won four championships between ‘95 and 2000 because they were a well-oiled machine on every level, from the players and coaches straight down to the hot dog vendors and fans. I’m no fan of teamwork for teamwork’s sake; I believe “working together” is pointless when the people you work with suck. But all the same, baseball’s a team sport, and the late ‘90s Yankees were a real team. Nowadays, they just throw money at their problems. They’re a bunch of dots that no one can connect—the fact that Yankee fans like me stopped believing in them proves it.
Boston didn’t need a salary cap to beat the Yankees this year. They didn’t need to lift the Curse of the Bambino, either. Luck is a secular religion. To believe in a curse suggests little faith amongst the faithful. What they needed, quite frankly, was to believe in themselves. They needed to believe they could address Yankee weaknesses better than the Yankees. And they needed to believe that nothing, not even A-Rod in pinstripes, could stop them from doing what they set out to do. And so they did it. They reversed the roles for the first time in nearly a hundred years. Suddenly they were the ones who beat their archrivals by simply believing that history was on their side.
As much as I hate to say it, we could all learn a lot from these Red Sox.
A day after Game 7 last week, MSNBC informed me that, as a Yankee fan, I shouldn’t try having sex anytime soon. This is because fans of losing teams experience a drop in testosterone. I also learned that evening—via Primetime Live—that 33 percent of Democrats have faked orgasms, as opposed to only 26 percent of Republicans. I’m not sure what any of this means. I’m not even sure it means anything at all. But in a roundabout way, it brings us back to the issue up top.
Sometimes we define ourselves by the company we keep. Sometimes it’s the other way around. And while some of us say there’s no “I” in “TEAM,” others point out that there’s a “ME.” But whoever you are, and whatever the case may be, we all have our own Curse of the Bambino—each and every one of us. And maybe for you it’s a boss or a teacher. Maybe it’s poverty, bad eyesight, or a bad attitude. Maybe it’s none of these things. Maybe it’s all of them. Or maybe your Curse of the Bambino is the Curse of the Bambino itself. Whatever. The point is, baseball isn’t a perfect metaphor for life, but if nothing else it teaches us this: If a man can hit a round ball with a round bat and send it sailing 500 feet through the air, just about anything is possible.
Except maybe a Cubs World Series.