Each year, it comes at a different time--my flip of the switch from football back to baseball, and from baseball back to football. Sometimes a particularly mind-blowing finish for the Red Sox has delayed my serious interest in football until late in the season, Christmastime in the dark post-Grady days of 2003. This year is the first time I have experienced a similar bittersweet combination in reverse.
I haven't been unenthused through as good a chunk of the Sox regular season as I was with the Patriots in '03, but then the end of baseball season also overlaps well into the beginning of football season. And I've still spent a good three weeks now in a funk about the Patriots, when not in a fury over some of the crazier invective being thrown around vis a vis Bill Belichick being the son of Satan, the stripping of trophies, etc.
I know a lot of people, like my dad, for instance, whose immediate response to the Patriots loss was "pitchers and catchers in ten days." I couldn't make the transition so fast, though. I couldn't take my mind off the loss, the same way I couldn't take my mind off the Red Sox for a while when they had lost, no matter how delightfully the Patriots might have been doing. The only way I can describe the feeling of such a loss, whether in 2003 at Yankee Stadium or 2008 in Phoenix, Ariz., is to quote one of the fans on the HBO Curse of the Bambino special talking about the '86 World Series: "It was like staring into the sun."
I've been accused of trying to rationalize certain things about the Patriots, and I may be guilty of giving them too much of the benefit of the doubt, but when it came to the game itself and the way it slipped away in the final seconds, that stuff I was facing full on, struggling to stare into that sun without blinking.
Ironically, I had braced myself for being mocked over the details of the game: how Tom Brady had been shown up by Eli freakin' Manning, legendary Super Bowl capping scoring drive for legendary Super Bowl capping scoring drive (because if the Pats had won that game, we'd have all been talking about how he threaded the needle to Randy Moss in the end zone to take the lead with 2 minutes and 40 seconds). How thoroughly the Giants defense had overwhelmed the offensive line. How cruelly they'd punished Brady throughout the night. How even with a lead and as early as halftime, I'd had a sick feeling in my stomach watching the Giants' D flat-out outplay the Pats, regardless of what the scoreboard said.
Instead, what I got was a whole lot of highly judgmental blather about cheating because of something that had happened months earlier and people wanting to offer their own personal condescending psychoanalysis of me as a Patriots fan, and of Patriots fans in general. I'd been expecting people to attack the team; I wasn't expecting them to attack me.
So there were two dimensions to the agony of the Patriots' fall from grace this year, which kept me for the first time moping about football this far into Spring Training--the gut punch of the loss and the swarmed-by-gnats feeling of the philosophical debates with my fellow fans afterwards.
But earlier this week, Thursday to be exact, I turned the corner. Football has begun to recede mercifully into the background and the Red Sox have caught my attention again.
The moment that first really got me going about baseball this year took place at the beginning of the SportsDesk highlights of the Sox thrashing the BC kids the other night. I know what you think--that it must've been seeing Josh take the mound like Godzilla compared to those college pantywaists (or so he'd be thinking in his head). But oddly enough, it wasn't. Instead, it was Manny, digging in at the plate.
It was, objectively speaking, a throwaway moment--not the outcome of the at-bat but this random image at the beginning of it, Manny with his hand to his helmet, settling it down over his dreadlocks, then planting his right foot and leaning back. But in just a few seconds, it made me turn the corner back to baseball again.
In that moment, a new nuance of contrast between football and baseball stood out to me, as usually happens during these transitional times: in baseball, you get to know the players' facial expressions and body language down to the last little tic and quirk, unencumbered by padding and face masks. And so in baseball, you have a particular kind of delight not found in football--watching Manny work his way into his stance during a meaningless at-bat in spring training can touch off the memory of the other times you watched him in meaningful games. Just seeing that particular angle of his foot to his hip to his shoulder made me start to get excited about baseball again.
So far, this weekend, the Red Sox have rewarded my attention with a win over the Minnesota Twins, a shelling for Jon Lester, a solid appearance for Papelbon wearing Manny's jersey, a shelling for Clay Buchholz, and the lovely relaxed sensation of watching games that mean nothing.
Welcome back, baseball. It's such a strange feeling for you to be my salvation this year.