A Grateful Nation Rejoices
Review: Nowlin B, Prime J. Blood Feud: The Red Sox, the Yankees, and the Struggle of Good versus Evil.Cambridge: Rounder Books, 2005, ISBN 1-57940-111-2, $16.95.
Massarotti T, Harper J. A Tale of Two Cities: The 2004 Yankees--Red Sox Rivalry and the War for the Pennant. Guilford: The Lyons Press, 2005, ISBN 1-59228-704-2, $14.95.
As the overused yet true cliché reveals: There is nothing constant except change. Nevertheless, we strive for permanence, something familiar, certain, and solid in the rushing chaos of time. For many in the more fashionable corner of Our Great Red Sox Nation--and parts of Canada, with some recent prospects escaped from Cuba, not to mention Japan--this permanence promised that, eventually, the Noble House Red Sox falls to the Evil Empire of the City of New York. Or as the foul knaves that infest a wretched backwater known as "the Bronx" belch, "1918."
Much has been said, written, and filmed about the rivalry between the Noble Boston Red Sox and some team from New York. More will certainly arrive as the aftershocks fade from the Event: the sudden cataclysm of last fall that threatened the fabric of the Universe. This Editor shall not dwell on the controversy between various theologians as to whether or not the Event signified a coming eschaton, but He will note that physicists from MIT have been described as "very concerned." String theory calculations performed in 2003 demonstrated that the impending World Series between the Sox and the Chicago Cubs would have either resulted in a simultaneous Series defeat for both teams, the collapse of the entirety of space-time into a quantum singularity, or George Lucas formulating an original idea. However, until the Event, this heralded rivalry has proved about as valid as "Wrong Said" Freddie Mitchell's rivalry with Rodney Harrison, or with, well, anyone. When one side of a "rivalry" has zero World Championships and the other has twenty-six, when one side has lost more than the other has had opportunities to either win or lose, then who is kidding whom?
The reality of the situation means little to its victims, of course. True or not the New York Yankees seemed to succeed where the Sox failed. The Yankees seemed to obtain the "best players," often from the Sox. While the Yankees obviously never beat the Sox in a World Series, this Editor is certain someone can find some way to blame them for Johnny Pesky "holding the ball," Danny Galehouse, Ted Williams having a bad post-season, and even Bill Buckner. They were playing in New York after all. Belief often develops from such simplistic and erroneous explanations: Pesky did not "hold the ball," Buckner did not blow the lead, nor did he lose the seventh game of the '86 Series. Even Bucky "F-in'" Dent did not destroy the Sox's fourteen game lead.
Grady Little did keep Pedro in that extra inning.
Yankees fans can point to disasters, not all of them named Ortiz or Schilling. They have coped with horrible seasons, even bad decades, but 25+ Championships provides quite a psychological cushion. While Sox fans have created a rivalry, Yankees fans have nurtured it: "No matter how bad it gets," they rationalize, "we ultimately beat the Red Sox." Misery loves company, particularly if it is even more miserable. They could always taunt "1918" while Sox fans could only whimper a weak "2000." Yankees fans in moments of despair could look back on what has been, while Sox fans could only look back on what "coulda" been. Sox fans could not even gain solace in the misery of others. As one friend well-versed in the lore of The Curse proclaimed, "at least the Sox will win a World Series before the Patriots ever win a Super Bowl!" It has been a tough decade for him.
With the Event comes a flood of books seeking to exploit the Joy of Our Fair Nation and the Misery of the Evil Empire--and some inhabitants of a small town in the Mid-West. This Editor was fortunate to find two that are not just hype-driven pulp. Both compliment one another by serving two different purposes. The first examines the history and meaning of the rivalry while providing an honest history of the Red Sox. The second examines the 2004 season from the perspective of a Boston and a New York sportswriter.
Blood Feud should stand as one of the best basic and honest histories of a sports organization. Extremely well-written and organized, it opens with a fiery introduction from Bill "Spaceman" Lee and concludes with a touching assessment from Johnny Pesky who really does not hate the Yankees. Lee does. While the authors proclaim proudly their bias towards the Sox, they actually give a fair treatment with criticisms of the Sox and even recognition for New York. Yankees fans may disagree, but the opinion of losers really does not matter.
The authors open their story with a detailed and devastating description of the first three games of the 2004 American League Championship Series, guaranteed to leave any reader in the same state as all of the Great Nation were left when A-"F-in'" Rod, Jeter, Matsui, and the Yankees batboy finished decimating the Sox in their home: suicidal. For Sox fans, it was not bad enough to have watched Bucky "F-in'" Dent "bloop" disaster or Aaron "F-in'" Boone do the same after a blown lead, this final indignity lacked even the honor of a "decent try." There is really no way to put a "positive spin" on a 19 to 8 violation capping a 3 to 0 ALCS lead other than to hope it fatigued the Yankee batters. As this Editor groused to Yankees haters at the time, "the Red Sox will be lucky to have the opportunity to lose the seventh game!"
The authors then explore a number of issues of Red Sox history. Where they succeed is in organization. Some fan love statistics. They care that on Tuesdays of the third week of a month in which the President warns of "nuculer threats" David Ortiz hits such-and-such against Democrat pitchers. The authors separate the statistics into sections so those who care may enjoy and those who do not may skip without losing the flow. If the reader is interested in reviewing the debate over "who benefited more" in Sox-Yankees trades, there is a chapter devoted to it. How did Sox players who became Yankees players fair other than they won a few more rings? The authors provide the statistics in a separate section. They also provide humor such as an application to transfer loyalty from the Yankees to the Sox which asks how many times the Yankees have won a World Series in the last decade, century, and millennia. Hint: the answer is the same.
Other topics include reviews of past horrors of failed Series, how Sox and Yankees loyalties divide in New England, and even interviews with families divided. They reveal islands of Sox Fans in New York and expose traitors in Boston. Their treatment of The Curse of the Bambino rivals the same titled work of Dan Shaughnessy. The authors review the actual history and correct some of Shaughnessy's critics. For those unfamiliar, The Curse refers to the belief that the sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees cursed the Red Sox to failure. While even Shaughnessy contends, despite what his critics claim, that it is just a way to bring meaning to unfortunate circumstances and excuse errors of the Sox own making, events such as the '86 choke and the 2003 ALCS loss may challenge even the most skeptical. They cheerfully review some of the more bizarre attempts to remove The Curse from hunts for a sunken piano to Fr. Guido Sarduchi's attempts to bless Fenway Park. Ironically the "Official Salem Witch," Lori Cabot, gave up her efforts to remove The Curse just prior to the 2004 season. Score one for rational thought.
While certain that more knowledgeable fans may find errors, this Editor could only find one: They misquote comedian Steven Wright by combining his words with another from the wonderful HBO documentary Reverse of the Curse of the Bambino. In other words, there are no significant criticisms. The book provides a fantastic introduction to Red Sox history, the feelings of their fans, and the meaning of it all. In paperback, it is well-constructed and appropriately priced. One can obtain it from the publisher and other on-line booksellers at a reduced price. This itself places the work above far more expensive and superficial hardcover efforts. After presenting the pain that is Red Sox history compared to the joy that was Yankee history--just how does a team blow a fourteen game lead?--with both humor and empathy, it concludes with the proper transformation of tragedy into comedy.
A Tale of Two Cities serves as a good companion because despite its titled intent to examine the Sox-Yankees' rivalry, it does not contain the same information. The book consists of the observations of a Red Sox reporter, Massarotti, and a Yankees reporter, Harper, on the 2004 season. While touching briefly on the foundation of the rivalry, they provide more "in house" detail of the season. The book opens with the season's true beginning: the Aaron "F-in'" Boone home run that sent both teams to their traditional fates. They detail off-season efforts of the likes of Theo Epstein to correct weaknesses. As they note, the most obvious first change was the sacking of Grady "Just One More Inning, Pedro" Little. The efforts of the Sox to secure Alex Rodriguez serve as a good example of such efforts. While many members of the Great Nation have granted Rodriquez with a middle name previously bestowed upon Bucky Dent and Aaron Boone, the authors remind that it was not A-"F-in''" Rod's fault his trade to the Sox failed; the Player's Association refused to allow the player to accept the required pay-cut. That Steinbrenner produced the funds to acquire A-Rod could only irritate Sox fans and management. Meanwhile, Manny Ramirez sat on wavers.
Derek Jeter, who has thus far avoided elevation to the "Red Sox Honor's List," serves as another example. He should serve as the focus of Sox hatred; as the authors note, he is even good looking. They compare the admiration Sox players developed for Jeter when he injured his face diving into the stands to make a play with their reaction to the behavior Nomar Garciapara. Jeter could have ended his season if not career. Sox players actually applauded. They, management, and fans had to wonder about Nomar, who would not play when asked, and whose arcane "rituals" required him to sit alone in the dugout while his teammates cheered and tried to rally. While they note Nomar would argue he simply followed his known "rituals," others had to wonder if Nomar refused to risk himself for the team prior to becoming a free agent.
The "inside gossip" has a purpose; it attempts to explain the motivations of players, management, and fans. In describing the excruciating violation that was the first three games of the 2004 ALCS, they reveal how Sox frustrations spilled over to their spouses. Harper gives an interesting perspective on Steinbrenner and Joe Torre's success working under him. Apparently, Steinbrenner's brief experience with college football causes him to approach baseball as if it could be played like football. According to Harper, Steinbrenner often demands his management to devise "plays." While the difference may seem obvious to most readers--just how does a pitcher "pump fake" and can batters "blitz" the pitcher?--Harper explains some of the actual strategy in baseball. Torre has the ability to let such distractions pass through him while previous managers allowed the frustration of such meddling to build. This discussion compares well with Massarotti's discussion of Terry Francona and Theo Epstein's understanding of "stratometrics" which runs counter to "tradition." Fact remains pitchers do fatigue after a personal number of pitches, a fact lost on Grady Little. Ironically, Francona challenged these statistics by keeping Pedro Martinez in over his number to disastrous results! As with Blood Feud, the authors succeed in presenting the statistics without dryness or tedium.
This Editor has one serious criticism. The authors do not reliably identify who is contributing to which chapter. Sometimes it is obvious: Harper will refer to his counterpart by name, for example. Where irritating confusion enters is from the curious changes in type. One would assume each writer has a different type. This is not the case, which makes the changes more inexplicable and distracting. This does not ruin the work, but it remains an unnecessary irritation. Otherwise, the book is well-constructed and very reasonably priced. As with Blood Feud, one can obtain it reduced prices through on-line bookstores.
One might wonder if asked, "which book should I choose if I could only get one?" how this Editor would reply. He would simply recognize the question as puerile ignorance and have Staff work-over then cast the simpering questioner into the darkness inhabited by Chicago fans. While he did not expect or intend both books to compliment one another, they do. Besides, since few truly extraordinary historical events occur, the 2004 Red Sox Season and the 2004 Yankees Choke deserve to be savored, revisited, and hallowed. As far too many cretinous Yankees fans claim, it may be another eighty-six years before we can do so again.
Roy G, Bernstein R, Producers, Roy G, Director. Reverse the Curse of the Bambino. Home Box Office Sports, 2004.
Shaughnessy D. The Curse of the Bambino. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.