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Wild Hopes, Wild Dreams

Michael J. Ring

Is this their year?

Fans across Red Sox Nation have been asking themselves that question for eight decades now. The answer, of course, is always the same. But hope springs eternal.

With the Boston Red Sox clinching the American League playoff wild card, fans across New England are holding their collective breath, crossing their fingers, and praying for divine intervention. The boys of Yawkey Way will be playing baseball in October. So across New England, we ask again, is this their year?

I'm not a great sports fan. I don't follow professional football, basketball, or hockey. But the Red Sox are different. I try to follow them religiously, and although time usually doesn't allow for that, I at least take a look at the daily box score and statistics in the morning paper. Millions across New England watch the Sox with the same interest and anxiety. We don't hesitate to make our opinions heard and heard loudly. People from sales clerks and factory workers to Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Seiji Ozawa all share the same energy for the Red Sox. When they win, they are a great source of civic pride in this region. When they lose, they offer us a reason to share our sorrow.

But what about that all-important query? While our minds tell us one result, we convince ourselves that the one from our heart is right. Visions of that long-elusive World Series championship dance through the minds of the citizens of Red Sox Nation. Finally, after eighty long years in the wilderness, we tell ourselves justice will be done.

It's been a long eighty years for us Red Sox fans since the halcyon days of the early 20th Century. The Sox actually won the first World Series, played in 1903. In the fifteen years following the Olde Towne Team brought another four championships back to Boston, the last coming in 1918. The rest is history. The legendary Babe Ruth was sold to the New York Yankees, and the Yankees quickly became the preeminent team in all of baseball, winning Series after Series, decade after decade. Relegated to the cellar of the American League, the Red Sox were the most lowly and pitiful of American League franchises. After a long 28 years, the Sox finally battled back into the World Series in 1946. They appeared again in the fall classic in 1967, 1975, and 1986. All four times they lost in seven games.

All of these 80 years have not been stark punishment, to be sure. We've had some of the greatest players and greatest moments in baseball here in Boston. Ted Williams, the last player to bat over .400 for an entire season, is enshrined in baseball immortality. Carl Yastrzemski's Triple Crown in 1967 is also to be cherished for the ages. Carlton Fisk's home run in the 12th inning of Game 6 of the '75 Series is probably the greatest sports moment in all time.

But for each of these triumphs, we have had a terrible tragedy to replace our glory with pain and anguish. The Babe has cursed our team for forsaking him. The Red Sox are infamous for coughing up big leads in the playoff races. In 1978 they led the Yankees by 14 games at one point, only to give each and every game back to the Bronx bums. In a one-game match to break an end-of-season tie, Yankee Bucky Dent hit a weak fly ball, an out in most parks, but a home run at Fenway. Eight years later, the Red Sox were inches away from clinching the Series victory against the New York Mets. And then Mookie Wilson came to bat. The rest is just too distressing to print here.

This year, the Red Sox did not choke and held on to their wild card. That's not to say they tried; they put together several nice losing skids in September and ceded many games of their lead to the Toronto Blue Jays. But the Jays' charging streak snapped, and the good guys were able to hold on.

The scenario of the Blue Jays overtaking our beloved Sox was especially eerie, since the star pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays is the modern-day equivalent of Babe Ruth. Roger Clemens, the best pitcher the Sox have had since Cy Young, pitched for the Sox for over a decade, massing incredible numbers of strikeouts while challenging for the league lead in wins and earned run average almost every year. But an egotistical and cheap general manager chased Clemens north of the border in 1996. In Clemens' first year with the Blue Jays, he won his fourth Cy Young award. This year, his second in Toronto, should bring him his fifth. In the back of all Sox' fans minds lies the fear that Clemens will add several more decades, or (shudder) even a century, to the curse of the Babe.

In addition, the odds are good that Mo Vaughn, the Sox' all-star slugging first-baseman, will be purchasing a one-way ticket to the Bronx at the end of the year. As the new millennium approaches and we can finally think about being rid of the curse of the Babe, we may be vexed again by an all-star first baseman ran out of town by incompetent, ignorant management.

Back in Boston, we have a new pitching star, Pedro Martinez, who was brought in as Clemens' replacement. Martinez is a great pitcher: this season he has notched 19 wins and averaged over one strikeout per inning. But Martinez is no Clemens. Pedro went on a three-game losing skid this month, at the height of the wild-card chase, while Clemens continued his mastery of the American League. The Sox' chances of playoff success are diminished by the exchange of Clemens for Martinez.

That's not to say the Sox have much of a chance at playoff success anyway. They have lost 13 consecutive playoff games, a streak dating back to the '86 World Series. The team the Red Sox will likely face in the first round of the playoffs, the Cleveland Indians, swept the Red Sox out of the playoffs in 1995. As always, fate is not on the Red Sox' side.

But we've known fate has not been on our side for nearly a century, and yet we don't care. We cling to a microscopic sliver of optimism, an irrational, unjustifiable belief that once, just this once, the Red Sox will beat the odds and the karma. Somehow we're always able to convince ourselves that this is their year. Hopefully it won't be long now before the boys of summer are tasting champagne on Yawkey Way.