Tuesday, July 22, 2014

To The Red Sox Borne

When I was studying the history of ancient Greece at San Diego State University in the 1970s, we learned about people the citizens of ancient Athens called "perioikoi." That meant "dwellers round about." These were Greeks who did not live within the Athenian polis, or city, were not Athenian citizens, but nevertheless enjoyed certain rights and protections because they lived nearby.

When it comes to the Boston Red Sox, I am something of a perioikos. I have spent only about a day and a half in Boston in my entire adult life. For that matter, I have spent only about two days in Massachusetts in my entire adult life. But I'm a Red Sox fan.

Now, my father was a Massachusetts native, and late in life when we discussed this, he recalled, "When I was growing up, to be a baseball fan meant the Red Sox. That was all there was to it." One of my uncles on my father's side, "Amy," was actually scouted by the Red Sox in the 1930s. He wasn't recruited, but still...even to be scouted by the Red Sox? A hell of an honor for a member of the Dupuis family.

But I don't really have any birthright to the Sox. I was born in New England, yes, but that was something of an accident. My father just happened to be stationed in Vermont as a Border Patrolman when I happened along. I'm New England born, but California raised. California is my home.

Still, I'm a Red Sox fan. I have been for years. Why? Well, aside from my Uncle Amy's having been scouted by them (and something else you'll read about below) there's the most obvious reason: I hate the New York Yankees. With. A. Passion. All right-thinking people do. For decades the Yankees won more championships than anyone else because for decades the Yankees had more money than anyone else. That's not "championship." That's "flaunting it when you got it." And I will remind any loudmouth Yankees fan -- and all Yankee fans are loudmouths -- that for 18 years, between 1978 and 1996, the Yankees got to the World Series exactly once....and lost. (In 1981, to the Dodgers. Go Dodgers.) I say let's bring back that lovely period. 1978-1996. No World Series rings for the damned Yankees.

Neither is it any coincidence that all major media outlets have their headquarters in New York. All my life and before it, America has been constantly told that New York is the only city that matters and the Yankees are the only baseball team that matters. (Except for the 1980s, when the Yankees were perpetually in the toilet. Hence, during that decade we were constantly told that the Mets were the only team that mattered.)

Money, money, money. Under the old reserve clause system, which kept baseball players in serfdom until it was chucked out and replaced with free agency in the 1970s, the Yankees could buy all the best players and then hold them to service for life. And slaves seldom get raises. When the great Joe DiMaggio tried to get a raise in 1941, not only did he not get his raise, but he got publicly humiliated for wanting one. Those truly were the bad old days. Ballplayers were paid peanuts and the Yankees usually won because they spent money on buying ballplayers, not paying them. Two very bad things. It was bad for ballplayers to be underpaid, and it's always bad for the Yankees to win.

And of course I hate the Yankees and their hot-air fans for their nauseating sense of entitlement. They think they should win the World Series because of who they are. Yogi Berra made the famous remark that rooting for the Yankees was like rooting for General Motors. There's one big difference: in its heyday General Motors actually made something useful: automobiles. There's nothing useful about noisy arrogance and hubris, the stock-in-trade of all Yankee fans.

Okay, now you know why I hate the Yankees. Why do I love the Red Sox?

Thereby hangs a tale.

There's just a slight possibility that I might owe my very life to a great Red Sox player.

You heard me right.

In the winter of 1959, no doubt in response to my mother's badgering, my father got himself transferred from Burlington, Vermont to San Pedro, California. My mother's home town was Chula Vista, California and she did not like being taken away from there. San Pedro isn't Chula Vista, but it's closer than Burlington, Vermont.  Dad bought a house in nearby Torrance, and the family packed up and returned to the west coast. I was three. My sister Carla was five, and my sister Lynn was less than two.

The family station wagon, a red-and-white 1953 Ford, had to be gotten west, so my father and my half-brother Garry drove across the United States. My mother had the harder task: flying across the U.S. with three small children.

Why do I say that hers was the harder task? Hey, road trips are fun. I've taken my share. But in those days air travel meant propellors, not jets. Crossing the continent on an airplane was a 14-hour ordeal, not the five-hour hop, skip and jump that it can be now.

And Mom had three small children in tow, one of whom was hyperactive, ADD-afflicted, three-year-old me.

Did he save my ass? 
I don't know, but it would 
be cool if he had. 
This should surprise nobody who has ever known me, but during that flight from Boston to Los Angeles in February of '59, I would not sit still. I don't remember much about the flight; I was only three. I vaguely remember finding another kid my own size and marching over to where he was sitting, probably to see if I engage him in  play. The point is, I was all over the plane. My mother had two other small children to worry about, so she couldn't be watching me every second. 

So, they tell me, while my mother's attention was elsewhere engaged, I wandered over and began to fiddle with the safety catch on the airplane's door. 

That is correct. Three year-old dumb-ass me, at an altitude of probably 15,000 feet, was playing with the safety catch on the airplane door.

I wonder if there's any coincidence between this episode from my early childhood and the fact that throughout my life, falling to my death from a great height has been my greatest fear.

In any case, an alert fellow passenger saw me playing with the safety catch on the door. He got out of his seat, scooped me up and carried me back over to my mother. Her told her what had been going on with me and the door. 

My mother, ever polite, thanked the man and asked him his name.

"I'm Frank Malzone," he said. "I play for the Red Sox."

If not a single other Red Sox-related thing had ever happened in my life, I think this alone would have justified my becoming a lifelong Sox fan. Did Frank Malzone, legendary Sox third baseman (1955-1965) prevent me from popping open that airplane door and falling 15,000 feet to my death? I don't know, but it sure is nice to think about. 

OK. So far we have hating the Yankees, an uncle who was scouted and being picked up by Frank Malzone when I was three. There's more to it. I'm one of those suckers who roots for the underdog. And let's face it, for a long time that's exactly what the Red Sox were, particularly in regard to their longtime rivalry with the neighborhood bully down in the Bronx.

This is the year 2014. It was 100 years ago last spring that my father was born: April 15, 1914. It was also 100 years ago last spring that a pudgy kid from Baltimore named George Herman Ruth came up to pitch for the Boston Red Sox. Babe Ruth, as he came to be called, was in fact a very fine pitcher. 

Had he stayed in Boston and stayed on the mound, he probably would have set some pitching records. But the world knows the rest of this story. In 1920 he was sold to New York's Evil Empire. 1920 was also the year that the "dead" ball was replaced by the "live" ball, wound tighter and able to carry further. The Yankees promptly discovered that Babe Ruth could hit gigantic home runs with the new "live" ball. They moved him from the pitcher's mound to the outfield, built a stadium for him and watched the cash roll in as New Yorkers packed Yankee Stadium to watch Ruth hit all of those homers.

And so...for 86 years, a period starting in 1918, the last year the Red Sox won a World Series, they were in the desert. And of course the legend of "The Curse of the Bambino" got started. As the story went, the Sox were condemned to limbo for pulling the bonehead move of selling Babe Ruth right after World War I.

I never believed in The Curse. But the Red Sox did embark on a remarkably long streak of bad luck. Decades of it.  And I do tend to root for lovable losers, although nothing would ever tempt me to root for the biggest losers in the history of baseball, the Chicago Cubs. They aren't lovable. What I don't understand about the Cubs is their fans. Here's a team that last appeared in a World Series in 1945, hasn't won a Series since 1908 (that's right--106 years in the desert so far) and their fans are every bit as loud and obnoxious as Yankee fans. Go figure the human species.

While born in New England, I grew up in my mother's home town of Chula Vista, which is part of the greater San Diego area. The greatest Red Sock of them all, Ted Williams, hailed from the same neck of the woods as I did. He grew up in San Diego, attended Hoover High, and played two seasons with the Pacific Coast League San Diego Padres (1936-38) before signing with the Red Sox.
This fellow grew up just a few miles from where
I did. 

Amazingly, some people in Boston don't know this. The only time I ever visited Boston as an adult, in the late summer of 2001, I was with a girlfriend who, being Russian, knew nothing about baseball. The Yankees were in town that night, but there was no question of trying to get into Fenway Park. We drove to a Pizzeria Uno in Cambridge, ordered pizza and as we watched some of the game on the big screen, I tried to explain to Tatiana what was going on.

After we had eaten, she wanted to go to a kiosk and buy some magazines. We found one quickly enough, and the two guys inside were classic Boston -- they talked like my late Uncle Louie Dupuis (you know, "pahk the cah?") and of course they had the Red Sox game playing on the radio. I was wearing my San Diego Padres ball cap. One of them noticed it and said, "We don't see many of those around here." I then explained that perhaps they should, because Ted Williams had played for the Padres before he played for the Sox. They were surprised. They hadn't ever heard that.

On September 10, 2004, my younger sister Lynn died. She was 47. We found her dead in her bed that day. The cause of death, as we learned when the toxicology report came back two months later, was an overdose of methadone. My sister did not take heroin, (methadone is often used to help heroin addicts kick) but she was addicted to painkillers. Methadone is sometimes prescribed as a painkiller, and my father had a prescription. She took 15 milligrams of it, went to sleep and never woke up. I was devastated. My little sister, for all of her problems, was my best friend in the world. I plunged into a mourning so deep that I had to seek professional help.

Ultimately the grief counselors did not do much for me.

But the Red Sox did.

October, 2004. My sister had been dead for just a few weeks and I was still in deep mourning. Then one night I missed my "grief counseling" session and came back home. The American League Championship Series was underway, and we had all given up on Boston. The Yankees had won Game #1, Game #2 and Game #3. No one had ever come back from a 0-3 deficit to win the pennant before. And no one expected it to happen now. Since 1918, the Red Sox had come THIS CLOSE plenty of times and then blown it. Everyone remembered the 1986 World Series, when the Red Sox came THIS CLOSE and then the famous "Bill Buckner" moment in Game #5 (not really Buckner's fault, by the way: he was a fine ballplayer and was having pain in his legs, which affected his play that night) ended it all. Again. The consensus was that the Red Sox were, once again, finished. Even I had written in my journal the day before that perhaps baseball had better pack up and leave Boston for good.

Then the Sox exploded. They came off the ropes like Sylvester Stallone in a "Rocky" movie. You remember those moments. Rocky takes 14 rounds of pounding from his opponent, then comes alive and destroys him.

That's what the Sox did over the next few nights. New York was already crowing over its pennant (New York loves to crow.) But Boston won Game #4, Game #5, Game #6 and Game #7. American League champions: Red Sox. American League crybabies: Yankees. New York was sent home to blubber in its beer.

And I was happy. I was still reeling from my beloved sister's death, but the Sox' comeback miracle, humiliating the Evil Empire, put a bounce back in my step.

It was so incredible. After the joyous destruction of the damned Yankees, the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals that year was an afterthought, almost an anticlimax. I've always rather liked the Cardinals, but was pleased to watch the Red Sox plow them under in four games, revenge for the 1967 World Series, in which it had gone the other way.

That was ten years ago. I still mourn my sister, but the pain of that late summer fades as the years go by. Pain always does. Joy, however, stays fresh in recollection. And the joy of watching the 2004 Red Sox miracle will remain with me always. This season the Sox aren't doing so well. As of July 22nd, the American League East stood at Baltimore in first place, the Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays three games out, and the Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox tied for last place, both 7.5 games out. But the wonderful thing about baseball is that the season is long: 162 games, not sixteen, as in the NFL. It's only July and there's still hope.

I will always be a Red Sox fan, as long as there is such a thing on this earth as hope. 

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