On Wednesday night, for the third time in nine years, the Boston Red Sox won the World Series, defeating the St. Louis Cardinals 6-1 in front of a delirious Fenway crowd. The game felt over in the fourth inning, when a two-run single by Shane Victorino put the Sox up 6-0. By the ninth, with victory a foregone conclusion, the place was rollicking. But as I watched Matt Carpenter swing and miss at a diving, disappearing Koji Uehara sinker, with my wife curled up, asleep, in my lap (those late games made a mockery of our bedtime), my attention left the ballpark and wandered to the basement of a house on a quiet, wooded street in Falls Church, where my grandfather, a lifelong Red Sox fan, was almost certainly sitting in his brown armchair, smiling.
In many ways, this year’s World Series matchup was uninspiring compared to what could have been. These playoffs featured the Pirates, who were coming off of 20 consecutive losing seasons, with Pittsburgh in the throes of baseball fever; the A’s, a perennial underdog made famous by Michael Lewis and Brad Pitt; the Indians, who haven’t brought a World Series title to Cleveland since 1949; and a host of intriguing teams, like the Rays, Dodgers, and Reds, who’ve been out of the World Series picture long enough to have made their appearance in it a noteworthy event. By contrast, the Sox and Cardinals were old news. They’d won, between them, four out of the last nine Fall Classics (now five out of ten). The Pirates and A’s would have been a novelty. As it happened, we got a rerun.
Not like that mattered to fans of Boston or St. Louis. Fans like my grandfather, as loyal a Red Sox fan as they come. He grew up in Boston in the ‘30s and ‘40s, loving Ted Williams and hating the Yankees (I inherited the latter trait). He went to Tufts, played in the College World Series, and eventually worked as a sportswriter for the Washington Post. Like many sports-obsessed families, where loyalty carries over (at least when it doesn’t compromise your primary allegiances), his fandom meant that I, too, was fond of the Sox.
And I wasn’t alone in my delight when the Sox broke through in 2004. Their comeback against the Yankees was legendary and cathartic and great for baseball. But after another Series win in 2007, something about the Sox seemed irrevocably changed. They had lost their weirdness; their edge; the moxie of Kevin Millar; the can-you-believe-it unpredictability of Dave Roberts. They had become, in other words, just like any other immensely successful sports franchise: no longer interesting. Then, last year, there was Bobby Valentine, who completed the evolution by upending the franchise en route to a 93-loss season. People like me, who had cheered them on in 2004, now gazed smugly from afar.
Carolyn and I moved to Baltimore in August. We’re Orioles fans these days, but the O’s fell out of the race in mid-September. Meanwhile, as the Sox ran away with the division title, I began to notice that these were not the band of malcontented free agent signings of post-2007 vintage. No, these guys were a little . . . odd. Gone were Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett. Gone (thank God) was Daisuke Matsuzaka. In their place were Jonny Gomes, Matt Carp, Clay Buchholz, and a resurrected John Lackey. Slowly something was dawning on me: I kind of liked these guys.
I liked Koji Uehara, the slender 38-year-old closer who once studied to be a gym teacher in Japan; a guy who emerged from relative obscurity to become a force as untouchable as any pitcher has ever been (seriously: look at the stats).
I liked Daniel Nava, who has quietly become one of the game’s more graceful left-handed hitters; who, when he was in college, spent two years as an equipment manager at Santa Clara; who dropped out of Santa Clara after those two years because he could not afford tuition, only to be invited back for his senior season after walloping the ball all over the ballpark at San Mateo Junior College; who was so overlooked coming out of the independent league that the Red Sox purchased his rights for exactly $1.
These were the (mostly) unknown players. But there were the stalwarts, too. Guys you took for granted in the bad times. Like Dustin Pedroia, who, as Joe Buck said, could play and thrive in any era, with those wide eyes and huge swing and joyfulness and energy. And Jon Lester, the man who came back from cancer, the lefty who pitched 34 2/3 innings this postseason and gave up only six runs. And the singular David Ortiz, who cemented his place as one of the great World Series performers—and characters—of all time; who swung the bat, as he put it, “as if he were swinging in his mother’s womb.” (You could write an essay about that quote.) He hit .668 in the Series, got on base more than three-fourths of the time, and struck out a single time in six games.
Heck, I even liked those silly beards, a high school stunt blown way out of proportion which endured and became, somehow, charming. I like the questions that are now being posed by gleeful Sox fans: Now that they’ve won the World Series, will they ever shave again? Should they ever shave again? I can’t wait to know. I guess we’ll have to wait till next year.
But as the champagne came out and Ortiz, wearing that ridiculous-looking motorcycle helmet and goggles, lifted a euphoric Uehara over his shoulder like an ebullient sack of flour, I was thinking about my grandfather. He was watching this fun, hairy mess of a team win the World Series, with a smile on his face. They’re his team, after all. I don’t begrudge him one bit.