This is in honor of the "What If?" show that's on tonight, and also in honor of the fact that I can't watch either it or today's afternoon game.
October 16, 2003 was certainly a night to remember.
At the end of the game, long after Pedro had finally been lifted, my friends Andy and Michele and I were still in the living room at my parents' house (where I lived at the time, not yet a year out of college). All the lights were out, so the TV was the only thing casting a glow in the room.
I was in the recliner, where I had been for every other game of the series, convinced that was good luck. I was wearing my Nomar number tee for the eighth straight night, convinced that, too, was good luck. I was nervous because I wasn't listening to the WEEI radio broadcast of the game over Walkman headphones with McCarver and Buck muted, as I had taken to doing by Game 3--and had become convinced was also benefiting the team.
When the ball came off Aaron Boone's bat, I reached for the remote immediately. It hadn't even hit the seats beyond left field before I turned off the television.
Andy and Michele and I got up, wordlessly, from our seats. We wandered from the living room to the hallway area. I turned left to go to my bedroom. They turned right to go through the kitchen out the back door and to where their cars were parked in the driveway. None of us said a word, not even "goodbye."
But those moments were like the split second after you hurt yourself--the breath of time between hammer and thumb and a shriek of surprise and pain; the instant between a cut with a sharp knife and the first sign of blood. I lay there in the dark, in bed, eyes wide open, feeling nothing.
It was the next day, October 17, 2003, that really hurt.
I said this at the time, and I'll say it still: the collapse by the Red Sox in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS against the Yankees was the single most painful event of my life in which I was not directly involved with the proceedings.
The next morning, when I opened my eyes, it took me a few minutes to swim back to reality, as it normally does. When I did, though, it felt like I'd been punched in the stomach.
That feeling, a deep, dull ache in my gut, didn't go away for the rest of the day.
It was a Friday. Just one day till the weekend, but sadly, a day in which Boston had to go work.
The other people in cars on the road, on the street and in the coffee shop, all looked like me: hollows under their eyes and a hollow look inside them.
Just the day before, I had driven home listening to the WEEI Whiner Line, as was my habit at the time. Amidst all the little one-liners from blue-collar callers, I can still recall two to this day. The first, the one I remember every time I think about the entire Game 7 phenomenon, was a caller saying seriously, with gravitas, even, though the place was usually reserved for humor, "Boston--this will either be our greatest victory...or our greatest defeat." The voice was a man's, and it was dripping with Boston accent: "ahh grayd'st vict'ry...oah aahh grayd'st d'feath."
The second was a message from regular caller Ray from Lynn (who, as far as I know, is still calling). Ray from Lynn gave statistics on Aaron Boone, his career batting average, his homers and batting average this season...all mediocre numbers. And then Ray from Lynn--no word of a lie, call WEEI if you don't believe me--predicted that in the grand tradition of Bucky Dent, Aaron Boone would hit a home run late in the game into center field to win the game for the Yankees. He was off on the location, but not much else. He ended the call with his usual sign-off: "Ray from Lynn...right again."
At the time, the hosts of the Big Show protested the fact that their producer had allowed the call into what was supposed to be a feel-good Whiner Line. The next day, I, along with anyone else who had been listening, remembered the call and wanted to throw up.
At my office at the time, which was at a small company of about 50 people total, only about 15 of whom worked in the office (the rest were on a manufacturing floor), I was the resident Red Sox fan. My cubicle was plastered with pictures of Nomar, Pedro, Kevin Millar, Trot Nixon, and all the rest. But mostly Nomar. When I got to the office on October 17, 2003, I took every single picture down.
Undeterred by this signal that it was perhaps not the right time to approach me to shoot the breeze about the game, one of the engineers, a small Indian man who reminded me of Ghandi and was almost as sweet and gentle a presence, stopped in front of my desk and started to tell me all about the World Series game he watched once where the teams had been scoreless through nine innings and then one of the teams had finally won in extra innings, and how that had also been a heartbreaking loss.
He really was the sweetest, nicest man. But that day, it was all I could do not to tell him, "Fuck Off." I just said repeatedly that I really didn't want to talk about the game until he shrugged and left.
I didn't want to talk about the game with my coworkers, but that didn't stop me from thinking about it. All day long I'd be doing my dead-end clerical work as usual, and that stomach-punch feeling would come back, and I'd remember...
It wasn't even that I didn't really want to talk about it. Some group therapy could probably have done me some good. It was just that I couldn't articulate it. To this day I struggle to articulate the feeling of watching Grady Little walk back toward the dugout in the eighth inning--it was so much more than a loss to me, so much more than a baseball game.
It had been in July of that season, July 28, to be exact, that I had suddenly fallen in love with the Red Sox again. This was a year or so after I had become an ardent Patriots fan, during and following their Super Bowl run in 2001, and so was more interested in sports than I had been probably in my whole life, but definitely since I was a ten-year old with a modest baseball card collection, a knowledge of a baseball scorecard, and a few trips to Fenway under her belt.
Still, I had argued with my dad about watching the Red Sox, knowing even as a casual fan their track record of heartbreak. "The human capacity to learn from pain has to kick in sometime," was my line.
And then all of a sudden, that night...Andy, who would be with me when Boone hit his home run several months later, was over, and he wanted to watch the game...and we did...and that was it. After that I was hooked again. I was on the bandwagon.
As the weeks wore on, and I spent more time at a job I would grow to despise, spent more time in that post-college funk of wondering where the hell I was going in life and if any of the dreams I had for my future would ever happen, the Red Sox filled a profound void in my life. Unlike this daunting world of paychecks and 401(k)s and wondering if I'd ever get out of my parents' house, Red Sox games had clear rules, and clear strategies for winning.
As someone suddenly plunked back down in my quiet hometown after more than four years in a place where I was constantly surrounded by around 25,000 people, watching the Red Sox brought back a sense of community, first abstractly, and then more concretely as I started reading Bambino's Curse, and discussing the previous night's game in the comments section there with several people I have since come to befriend in real life.
It wasn't that I missed UMass, much of which had been an ordeal for me--but I found, in that post-college quandary, totally unwilling to be identified by my occupation of the moment, that I lacked identity. I also lacked structured extra-curricular activity. Sports, and being a sports fan, filled both needs nicely. Every night I drove home from work with WEEI on the radio, the arguments there distracting me nearly immediately from my utter loathing, most days, of what I'd just spent the last eight hours doing; when I got home, I escaped immediately into the night's game.
Meanwhile, like any Red Sox fan, my relationship with my father factored in heavily to my relationship with the team. My Dad and I spent most of my teenage years in a Cold War of sorts; things had eased once I was in college, but we hadn't really been friends since I was a little girl who was a tomboy and played softball with him in the backyard. The Patriots, and then the Red Sox, were an inroad to the closer relationship we've enjoyed since.
It's safe to say that by October 16, 2003, I was pretty "into" the Red Sox.
I had begun to follow them with the passion that can only be reserved for the thing which helps you escape--I had, for all intents and purposes, become an addict.
When they made their first trip to the postseason in four seasons, I could barely contain my excitement. The drives home every day grew more and more blissful, as I listened to in-depth arguments about the pitching rotation for the Division Series against Oakland. The small gap between the end of the regular season and the start of the postseason was one of delicious anticipation. Sucky job and all, I was happier than I'd been in years.
The first two games of the Division Series were unpleasant, to say the least. Two straight losses put our backs to the wall. But then the teams flew back to Boston. After they landed, it was reported that most of the team had shaved their heads at Kevin Millar's urging on the flight back. This "Cowboy Up" ethos made those of us watching simply giddy. By that point, this goofy band of brothers felt like family to me. I knew all their faces and habits, the way each of them kicked the dirt on the mound or at the plate. I knew the bench players, the role guys, the Dirt Dogs and superstars alike. When they came back to Boston, we were all convinced that the magic of Fenway would do them some good. When we were right, that first night, it was as if we had all personally contributed to the victory.
The next day, Oakland held a 4-3 lead into the eighth inning. Nails were bitten to the quick all over New England. But then Oakland's reputedly indomitable closer, Keith Foulke(!), gave up a game-winning 2-RBI double to David Ortiz, scoring Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez. On second base as the entire six-state region exploded (including fans at Gillette Stadium, watching the Patriots' tilt against the Titans but listening to the Red Sox on the radio or watching for updates on what was happening at Fenway on the scoreboard, and who erupted into cheers when the Sox took the lead, despite the fact that the Titans had just scored a touchdown against the home team), Papi made a "raising the roof" gesture. And then, someone took the following picture:
That picture went up in my cubicle the very next day, and remains one of the most enduring images I associate with the Red Sox. Because that was it, pinned down and captured like an insect in a scientist's collection, the entire feeling of the 2003 postseason, the magic of it, the raw, primitive triumph of it, the sheer, somehow brutal joy of watching this team struggle and claw its way to win after win after win, each more incredible than the last...
If I had been "into" the Red Sox, the 2003 Division Series is what made me a fan forever. I had never felt joy quite like it before.
By the time it got to Game 6 of the ALCS, with those strange winds blowing trash around the outfield, the weird coincidences like roads being closed and several members of the Yankees forced to take the subway to the park, Hideki Matsui's wild throw into the stands...it had been dicey for a few games, there, but it was so easy to believe after that game that the tide had turned in the Red Sox' favor. All year long, whether I had wanted to listen or not, my father had been telling me that the Yankees were "ripe for the picking", and that was how it felt the afternoon of October 16, driving home on the highway, listening to the excited callers on the Whiner Line. I was merging onto Rte 3 North from 128 South when the "greatest victory" caller came on. It was a soft autumn afternoon, still mostly light out, a chill in the air. I remember it so clearly. I wanted to remember it clearly.
All that background gives some idea of what was lost that night, at least for that year. It felt to me like as soon as I had fallen in total, soul-deep love with this Red Sox team, they were gone. From July 28, 2003, right up until the eighth inning of that ballgame, I'd been riding that tide of joy and anticipation and giddy magic. And then it was just...over.
That was a long way to fall in the few seconds it took Grady Little to slap Pedro on the arm, turn, and walk back to the dugout alone. It was a long way to fall, indeed--a lot to watch slip through the fingers--as Jorge Posada's unforgettable bloop double fell into center field. That's the closest I can come to describing how it felt--like stomach-turning free-fall. I felt sick the whole next day.
So to come back to the present--I'd be lying if I said I hadn't thought, as the title of the show asks, What If? All of us did, and swiftly came to a conclusion about it, which is why Grady Little was lucky to get out of Boston before the lynch mobs could find him.
Still, I'd watch the show if I could, which I can't, since I have other plans tonight. Because Game 7 is a bitter piece of history to relive, but it was also my fiery baptism as a Red Sox fan. It was the moment they let me down, sure, but also the moment I realized just how much I loved them.