A terrible sensation of helplessness gripped all of New England last Wednesday night. The Red Sox entered the final night of the season tied in the standings with the Tampa Bay Rays with the wild card playoff spot up for grabs. At the last possible moment, everything went awry.
For some, it was the same feeling of 1946, 1978, or 1986 — years when talented Red Sox squads succumbed to bad luck and endured heartbreaking losses. However, for a new generation of Red Sox fans, it was different. These Red Sox fans have only known the tremendous successes of 2004 and 2007. Sure, there were minor failures in 2006, 2009, and 2010, but they were justifiable. These fans have never been to a game at Fenway Park that was not sold out; some surely believed that the Red Sox were exceptional, infallible in the face of adversity. It was their unyielding faith in the Red Sox, their steadfast support that empowered the Red Sox to rally from improbable deficits and win world championships. This entire belief system was upended as they watched Nolan Reimold’s shot into right-center bring the Red Sox from the brink of victory to the precipice of defeat. Then, they watched as Robert Andino, batting .263 on the year with five home runs, hit a soft line drive that sent Reimold home and the Orioles into euphoric celebration at home plate.
By the time the Orioles were celebrating their victory, Scott Proctor was on the mound for the Yankees. The name was familiar to Red Sox fans; he had given up a 14th inning home run to Jacoby Ellsbury just a few nights ago. The optimistic interpretation of Ellsbury’s heroics was that these Red Sox had secret reserves of the same late-inning magic that the swashbuckling 2004 squad used to topple the great Mariano Rivera en route to the World Series. The other interpretation of Ellsbury’s three-run shot was that 34-year old Scott Proctor, owner of a 7.14 ERA on the season, would simply never be confused for the great Rivera who, at 34 years old in 2004, held a 1.94 ERA and was virtually unhittable outside of Fenway Park.
It is curious to imagine these same circumstances playing out in another era, when Red Sox fans would not feel the same miserable obligation to open up their laptops and follow the Rays-Yankees game on one of any number of sites or worse, watch the events unfold live through the magic of satellite television. I changed the channel to find Rays fans at Tropicana Field cheering the outcome of the Red Sox-Orioles game, news of which arrived on their smartphones before the scoreboard at Tropicana even showed the outcome. Several years ago, it would have been surprising just to find Rays fans at Tropicana Field, with or without smartphones. “The Trop” was once no more than a climate-controlled vacation home for Red Sox fans. Now, they had emerged and were experiencing an overwhelming case of` schadenfreude.
Moments later, Scott Proctor coughed up a walk-off home run to Evan Longoria, sending the Rays to the playoffs and the Red Sox back to Boston. What unfolded over the next few days in Boston was almost as surreal. Terry Francona, the only manager that this generation of Red Sox fans has ever known, left office on Friday. He managed Manny Ramirez for four years, stuck with Dustin Pedroia when the fans wanted Alex Cora, revived David Ortiz through slumps and steroid allegations, coexisted with Curt Schilling, and let Jacoby Ellsbury grow into an MVP-caliber player.
Now he’s gone. Will the next manager play cribbage with Dustin Pedroia, eat bacon and drink Red Bull for breakfast, or wear the same red fleece every game as Francona did? New England is going to be spending a lot of rainy April evenings and hot August nights with the next guy, listening to him talk about his lineup in the pregame interviews on the radio, and watching him on TV as he goes face-to-face with an umpire who has incurred his wrath. However, in time, no one will care too much about what he says or does. As long as the fans are still watching Boston baseball well into October, he’ll do just fine.