Ahhh…Baseball season is upon us once again. There is something innately American and proud about our passion for this beloved sport. Try explaining it to someone who didn’t grow with it, or worse yet, try bringing him to a game, and you are bound to be met with boredom and restlessness.
And yet, we the proud flock to ballparks by the millions every year. There is nothing that can compare with the crack of a bat in a silent, tense stadium, or the unifying roar of the crowd as a ball clears the outfield fence. And the smells! Think popcorn, hot dogs and beer, with a touch of freshly cut infield grass. Mmmmm! I still get a huge rush of excitement and a tingle down my spine every time I exit that small concrete tunnel onto the main grandstand of the stadium.
There are vignettes in the rich story of baseball that never cease to inspire and motivate. Growing up in a quiet town within an hour of Boston, my brothers and I were avid, if defeatist, Red Sox fans. And then, in the fall of 2004, history was made. But some background is in order here.
The long and dynamic history of the Boston Red Sox had always been marred by a supposed curse. In the off season of 1919, the Red Sox organization made a bold and controversial decision to trade baseball legend Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. That trade, legend has it, was the catalyst of a curse creating a World Series championship drought for the Red Sox since 1918. The “Curse of the Bambino” has wrought havoc for decades, leaving Red Sox fans wringing hands and sobbing violently at tens of near misses in the playoffs and countless lost opportunities. It was the underlying premise of one of the most famous and personal rivalries in the history of American sports. Red Sox and Yankee fans are notorious for their taunts and fights, and Boston developed a culture of hatred for the city of New York even outside of baseball. The spirit of underdog permeated the air of Fenway Park for decades. Loyal fans sat clinging to their hopes and prayers year after year.
That was all set to change in the postseason of 2004.
Having lost a nail-biter to the despised Yankees during the previous postseason in a walk-off homerun, the Red Sox were revved up for another chance in the ALCS, once again against the Yankees. Fans were looking to their beloved team to avoid a déjà vu experience. But all too soon, the familiar disappointment set in.
With the Sox down three games to none and facing elimination in the fourth game of the series, the horizon suddenly looked bleak even to the idealistic. Once again, the Red Sox Nation prepared to be let down. When the Yankees were ahead by one in the bottom of the ninth, all seemed lost. Dedicated fans sat in the bleachers with their rally caps on backwards screaming their hearts out. Many averted their eyes, not able to witness the all-too-familiar disappointment, and the tears of long-standing frustration set in. Red Sox fans are made of tough stuff, hardened by decades of hope, and Fenway Park was surprisingly alive with electricity, clinging to a tiny strand of faith. Then, as if in a direct answer to the fans’ prayers, something magical unfolded.
Yankee superstar pitcher Mariano Rivera walked the lead-off batter, putting a man on first. The Red Sox immediately reacted by inserting a pinch runner, a relatively no-name player by the name of Dave Roberts. Valuable for his unusual speed on the bases, the entire season rested on his ability to advance to second base, and the Yankees knew that. Rivera tried three times to pick him off of first base, coming dangerously close to succeeding on the third attempt. On the following pitch, Roberts took off like the wind, stealing second base and keeping the Red Sox’ dreams alive. Two pitches later, batter Bill Mueller drove a ground ball through the middle of the infield, scoring Roberts from second. The ballpark went wild.
Three innings later, the Red Sox walked off the field in victory, courtesy of a two-run homer from David “Big Poppy” Ortiz. And that, my friends, was the beginning of the greatest comeback story in baseball history.
The Red Sox won the pennant in seven games, and moved on to sweep the Cardinals, winning the World Series in four games and propelling the Red Sox into history. Never before in baseball had a team come back from such a large deficit in the postseason. There was even a movie filmed about the dramatic story. They had finally reversed the curse, and they had done it with finality.
In life, there are times when we feel all hope is lost, but we never know what small deed can trigger our own personal “comeback”. I like to think that Mr. Roberts had a dynamic comeback in mind while standing on first base, and that while making the sprint toward second, he had his fans in mind. Regardless, it is a sterling example of a seemingly inconsequential occurrence that turned the tide completely and ignited a liftoff in a new and better direction. As Jews, we know all-too well what it means to suffer and feel down in the dumps. We also know with striking clarity that giving up is not an option. “There is no such thing in our world as hopelessness,” said the famous Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. One never knows what will be the catalyst of his personal comeback.
Thank you Dave Roberts for teaching us that lesson.