Mass. Hysteria
Issue   |   Fri, 10/18/2013 - 00:47

Sunday, Oct. 13, 2013 wasn’t a day for the record books. Well, actually, it was — the Red Sox became the first team to be no-hit through five innings in consecutive playoff games. Even with that dubious footnote in sports history, however, that Sunday became a day unlike any other.

It started around 7:30 p.m., when the banged-up Patriots, who had been battling the unbeaten Saints all afternoon long, got the ball for the last time. They were trailing by four with just over a minute to go. With renewed focus, Tom Brady marched the offense down the field and into the red zone. The game clock ran down to six or eight seconds; Brady had time to take two more shots across the goal line, but he ended up only needing one. He found rookie Kenbrell Thompkins in the back corner of the end zone on a perfectly executed throw, and, just like that, the Patriots had themselves a 30-27 win. Besides Brady, the Patriots basically had none of their best players on the field in the second half (Vince Wilfork and Rob Gronkowski were already sidelined and Aqib Talib and Danny Amendola were both knocked out with injuries in the third quarter). It was an improbable victory against one of the toughest teams on their schedule.

When it comes to improbability, however, almost nothing I’ve ever seen beats Game 2 of the ALCS. The night before, in Game 1, the Red Sox were shut out and didn’t manage a hit until Daniel Nava’s bloop single in the ninth inning. On Sunday, Max Scherzer again kept the Boston bats hitless through five, setting the record to which I referred earlier. With a seemingly insurmountable 5-1 lead, Scherzer yielded in the eighth to a bullpen that had shut down the Red Sox for three innings in Game 1. The hometown team looked dead in the water, and the prospect of facing Justin Verlander in Detroit while down two games to none didn’t help things much. But it would never come to that. After two singles and a walk, up stepped the dangerous David Ortiz — many times over a hero in postseasons past — with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the eighth. He took the first pitch from Tigers’ closer Joaquin Benoit, a hanging splitter, deep to right-center. Torii Hunter disappeared over the short outfield wall. A bullpen cop became an instant celebrity. And you know the rest of the story. The following inning, a rare Jose Iglesias error and a Jarrod Saltalamacchia single sealed a win for the ages. Now, regardless of Thursday night’s outcome, the series is heading back to Fenway over the weekend. And we’ve certainly seen our fair share of Fenway magic over the years.

To me, Sunday served as a reminder of the privilege of growing up in a city whose teams are consistently competitive. In most sports markets, the presence teams that not only perform so well but also are so exciting to watch would certainly satisfy the fans. So would having three of the city’s four major teams — the Patriots, Red Sox and Bruins — make their respective league championship series in the same year. Come to think of it, so would winning seven championships (three for the Patriots, two for the Red Sox, one for the Bruins and one for the Celtics) in a ten-year span.

But — only in Boston — it usually doesn’t. Even with the Red Sox on the brink of glory, talk radio hosts and callers still lament their every weakness, seeming to savor postulating what’s most likely to go wrong in that night’s game. And you should have heard them in 2012, when the Red Sox were, uncharacteristically, legitimately bad — I won’t even go there. On those same shows, you are likely to hear an argument that Tom Brady is overrated and that his two Super Bowl losses disqualify him from the list of top all-time quarterbacks. A Celtics’ winning season is called a “rebuilding year.” The Bruins are referred to as being “overmatched” in the 2013 Stanley Cup Finals. And, again, this rabid negativity comes after the most successful sports decade any city has ever had. Can you imagine how it was before 2004, when the Red Sox broke “the curse,” when anything that could go wrong did? I wasn’t old enough to follow much sports media back then, but, unfortunately, I can imagine exactly how it was.

It’s true that, right around 2007 and 2008, the doom and gloom vanished for a fleeting second. The Celtics had just put together an exhilarating championship run, and the Red Sox had just won their second Series title, again featuring a brilliant ALCS comeback along the way. Even the Patriots’ stunning Super Bowl loss in February of 2008 was momentarily brushed aside as an aberration. So was the Red Sox’ heartbreaking seven-game loss to the Rays in the 2008 ALCS. For an instant there, the fan base’s attitude actually seemed to reflect the accomplishments of their teams, and, for the first time in forever, the Boston faithful actually carried an air of invincibility about it.

It didn’t last long. It may have been the agonizing September collapse of the Red Sox in 2011 that tipped the scales, or it may have been a second Super Bowl loss for the Patriots five months later, but the balance was precarious to begin with. In any event, that pre-2004 attitude seems to have returned with a vengeance. And, in my opinion, it’s unique among the major sports markets. Sure, New York and Philadelphia are plenty rabid; if you don’t win there, it’s off with your head. But New York and Philadelphia fans also have a swagger about them, and, even in the midst of some down years, they never hesitate to remind others — especially us Bostonians — who’s really the best. Almost ten years after the fact, I’ve still had Yankee fans mockingly ask me, “Oh, and how many Series did the Red Sox win before ’04? That’s right — none!” There’s a resilience there that is largely absent from pessimistic, self-deprecating Boston. I’ve often described being a Boston sports fan as similar to being in a cult. Outsiders just don’t get it — and, really, why should they?

After Game Four of the 2007 ALCS, with the Red Sox down, 3-1, Manny Ramirez told the press, “If we don’t win tomorrow, it’s not the end of the world.” There was a vicious backlash. The Red Sox did, in fact, win the next day, and then they won two more, followed by four straight in the World Series. Halfway through the next season, with the Red Sox back in a pennant chase, Manny was traded to the Dodgers. Carefree attitudes, even when they bring good results, are frowned upon in the Hub. Ask Adrian Gonzalez, one of the best hitters and first basemen in baseball, about that.

Anyone who’s heard me talk about the Patriots or the Red Sox knows that “carefree” is probably tough for me to attain. As I have gotten older, however, I have realized that, if we don’t win tomorrow, it is, indeed, not the end of the world. It’s been a long road, but the agony of watching Boston sports I used to feel has started to turn into [gasp] genuine fun. No matter how the ALCS ends this weekend, and no matter whether the Patriots’ season ends in January or February, I have spent yet another year watching championship contenders. And it’s been fun.