Also in Slate: Brian Palmer consults hex experts to see if the Curse of the Bambino has returned.
Being a Red Sox fan is all about superlatives. This is what makes us so annoying. Before the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004—in a postseason that included the Greatest Comeback Ever—we were the Most Deeply Suffering Fans, enduring losses in the Greatest Game Ever Played and the Third Greatest Game Ever Played. We are all taught at an early age about the Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived, and our home field is America’s Most Beloved Ballpark despite its reputation as having the Most Uncomfortable Seats. So it’s only natural that Thursday morning’s 4-3 loss to the Baltimore Orioles, which knocked the Red Sox out of the playoffs, was the Greatest Choke in Baseball History, the culmination of the Worst September Collapse Ever.
But here’s the thing (and here is where I will uphold the reputation of Red Sox fandom): None of these claims is hyperbole. The Red Sox really have lost a lot of momentous games in uniquely painful fashion. Ted Williams really was the best hitter of his lifetime. Fenway Park is unparalleled in its greatness (and its seats really are narrow). And Red Sox fans will continue to be annoying, not despite this season’s epic collapse but because of it.
I witnessed this epicness firsthand Wednesday and early Thursday morning, so allow me to dwell on it for a moment. It works on so many levels, as Homer Simpson would say. Let’s deal with the game itself first. Ahead by a run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and no one on base, the Red Sox had a 95.3 percent chance of beating the Orioles. Meanwhile, the Rays were down by seven in the bottom of the eighth against the Yankees, giving them a 0.3 percent chance of victory. Taking a somewhat longer view: The Red Sox led the Rays by nine games on Sept. 3, giving them a 99.6 percent chance of making the playoffs (graph at link may be NSFW or RSF). Even after losing 19 of the next 26 games, they still controlled their fate, with a win-or-go-home-unless-Tampa-Bay-also-loses-in-which-case-we’ll-play-one-more game on Wednesday night.
Yet the Red Sox managed to lose, ending their season, while the Rays came back to win, extending theirs. The chances of “all these events coming together in quite this way,” says no less an authority than Nate Silver, are about one in 278 million. Of all the great advances in technology in baseball over the last decade, one of the most underrated is the way it allows us fans to know precisely how crushed we should be after any given defeat.
I watched the game at Camden Yards, sitting a row in front of some loyal fans of the Orioles (and Christopher Hitchens). During the 90-minute rain delay, in an admirable refusal to give us thousands of Red Sox fans what we wanted, the Orioles put the Braves-Phillies game on the Jumbotron. So we followed the Rays-Yankees through Twitter or MLB.com or texts or status updates—or, if we wanted to feel like we were at a 1950s political convention, by watching the lazily updated electronic scoreboard. Then the game resumed, and the Orioles on the field took over the task of stomping out the hopes of Red Sox fans everywhere. When the Orioles won, Robert Andino’s soft liner tucking itself just under Carl Crawford’s glove, I felt a mixture of pain and embarrassment I hadn’t experienced since Oct. 16, 2004.
If I were Stephen King or John Updike or even Dan Shaughnessy, I would now pause for some poetic reflections on the terrible beauty of this boys’ game played by men, on the heartbreak and suffering in town squares and commons across New England, on the colossal stupidity of trying to stretch a single into a double with one out and your team up by only a run in the seventh inning of the most important game of the year. I might even come up with a new curse—the Curse of the Andino!—to replace the Curse of the Bambino.
All of which brings me back to why so many people find so many Red Sox fans so insufferable. It’s not because, or just because, we won the World Series in 2004 and 2007. It’s because we tend to imbue every season, every game, every at-bat, every speck of paint on the Green Monster, with religious significance. We mythologize. We exaggerate. We lay it on pretty thick.
Before 2004, the rest of the world indulged us. We had been through a lot, we Red Sox fans, and that Updike sure can write, and besides, who could deny this nice old lady her happiness? Since 2004, though, the Red Sox have been just another pretty-good-to-great team. Winning a world championship is by definition a superlative accomplishment, so there’s that. But really: Is this one of the most heartbreaking losses in Boston sports history? Or this? Or this?
While I was at the game, furiously texting my brother in Chicago for Rays-Yankees updates, my wife—a lifelong Yankees fan—was sleeping soundly at home, oblivious and smug in the knowledge that her team’s slogan (I can’t find this anywhere, but she claims it is, “the greatest team of all time”) would remained unchallenged. It is true that the Yankees’ superlative has an admirable simplicity. Rooting for the Red Sox is slightly more complicated; we have to be more resourceful.
With this year’s September collapse, however, the Red Sox have achieved something truly historic. No one will be able to take this away from us.