Thursday, August 2, 2012

Shades of Gray (and Red Sox)

Each loss makes the game so clear.

For both the players and the fan defeat is the great test of this game. Every player from Little League onward must become accustomed to that fact that in almost every instance failure is the norm. In baseball success is not measured by never failing, but by the ability to ignore failure, to integrate and mitigate its’ lessons in the next attempt.

So, too, for fans. When it’s summertime and the winning is easy, everyone is a front runner and climbs aboard that raucous, drunken jalopy that gloriously teeters and tumbles toward the finish drenched in champagne. The occasional defeat, while inevitable, seems almost artistic in its regularity, the missed stitch in the Persian rug put there on purpose to reveal better the perfection elsewhere.

For more than a decade Sox fans have been riding that bus, more or less, without cessation. Of course they have not won every year, but they have come close. The last season they seemed truly overmatched was 2001 (82-79 and finishing the season with Joe Kerrigan trying to find out who stole the strawberries). The last season they finished below .500 was 1997 (78-84, a fourth place team in every way imaginable, Sele, Suppan and Steve Avery in the rotation). And the last time they were truly horrible, terribly awful, a season long time fans once considered a peculiar badge of pride in the curious accounting that once marked the tribe, was 1992, (73-89 , seventh out of seven in the old two-division system, the future apparently Scott Cooper and Phil Plantier).

Pretty nice run, isn’t it?

Then there is this year. A team best described as a collection of consonants (Ciriaco and Kalish, Lillibridge and Nava, Posednik and Punto) and disabilities (the Gods Achilles, Ibuprofen, and Cruciate), that lurches and lurks around .500, winning games it shouldn’t and then losing games it should, running up a mud soaked hill in flat soled sneakers, slipping and sliding and staying more or less in the same place and looking up at almost everybody else.

The decision is yours, and it tells you who you are. Game time each night is a gut check on your relationship. Are you in, or are you out? Is your hat pink and perfect and pristine, pre-distressed and perfectly faded to look battle weary, or truly stained with sweat and stain and tears that come from years of use? Are you a fan of only winning, an addict to the morphine pump of highlights and high fives, or is there something else, deeper and more profound, that brings you back?

There is, because the farther away you get from winning the closer you get to what baseball really is; hundreds and thousands of small events and occurrences. To end in victory each must follow a convoluted line over the course of an at bat, an inning, a game, a series and a season, mixing the improbable and the implausible with the accidental and the intended, innumerable adjustments encountered and made on the way. There is the call not made, the twin killing not turned, the wind that blows it fair when it should drift foul and foul when it should stay fair, the mess of statistics that no matter what are rarely much better than a coin toss. The best teams win six of ten and the worst teams win only four. All that effort and time and money is expended to change the line score of the two games in the middle, the ones that mean either championship or disaster.

That is why losing seasons have something that the winning years do not – nuance and tone and ambiguity. You cannot watch and yet you cannot turn away. The box scores may still be black and white, the results irrefutable, but the game is all shades of gray. “Almost” and “nearly” and “what if” are torturously bound together. She is bad for you but you cannot help it.

Losing seasons force you to decide, to confront why you are here and why you submit to the game each day, taking the pain because, if you have lived long enough you know it makes the pleasure more intense, and there is nothing, ever, any better than that, than when the ball drops in and the bunt stays fair and short hop in the hole finds the glove and the catcher holds onto the ball and you rise from your seat and roar together as one.

At least that’s what you tell yourself as you grit your teeth and prepare for another flogging.

Glenn Stout is a Contributing Editor for, author of Fenway 1912.  This column appears in the August edition of Boston Baseball. 

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