Editors note: The following column is being written at 12 p.m. on Oct. 4, just four hours before Sports Editor Mike Smith’s Red Sox kick off the 2013 ALDS.
In just a few short hours, the American League Division Series will kick off with the Boston Red Sox squaring off against their division rivals from Tampa Bay, making their first postseason appearance in four years.
As a Red Sox fan, I’m starting to get that old familiar playoff feeling.
I’m having trouble sitting still at my desk and obsessively reading any scouting report on the Rays that I can get my hands on—despite the fact that I’ve watched Tampa play no fewer than 50 games this year thanks to my MLB package. It’s a general sense of unease—excitement tempered by overwhelming sense of despair that something will go horribly wrong and the Sox will be eliminated before you can say John Michael Paveskovich.
Why then, into my late 20’s, do I continue to subject myself to the angst of sports fandom, opening myself up to the almost inevitable scenario of a soul-crushing loss?
As fate would have it, the two worst losses I’ve ever experienced as a fan occurred in the same calendar year—2003 to be exact.
The first occurred on Jan. 5 of that year when the New York Giants blew a 24-point lead to the 49ers in the NFC Wild Card game. The second, which happened just 10 months later, is the now-famous “Aaron Boone” game which saw the Yankees bury my Red Sox thanks to an extra-inning home run by a journeyman infielder who joined Bucky Dent as yet another Bronx Bomber to have a new middle name affixed by Red Sox faithful.
The two losses were quite different from an emotional standpoint.
The fourth quarter of the Giants game was akin to having one’s windpipe slowly crushed in a vice. As San Francisco rattled off 17 straight points to take a 39-38 lead, a basement full of Giants fans—who just 20 minutes earlier were in wild celebration over a team that seemed assured of a berth in the NFC Championship game—collectively fell silent. After the botched field goal attempt that sealed the Giants’ fate, I don’t think any of us spoke for 10 minutes. We simply sat there, emotionally battered by what had just transpired, until my buddy Tom—whose family revered the Giants with an almost religious-like fervor—broke the ice.
“I can’t go home,” he muttered. “I don’t know what I’m going to say to my dad.”
The Boone home run was a much more sudden, violent end. The game coincided with a mixer we were throwing at my fraternity house. But, after the fifth inning, I couldn’t bear to be around anyone else. The game, at that point, became simply too excruciating. I left the party and found a television in an upstairs rec-room, where I watched the nightmare when Pedro Martinez came out for the seventh—and Boone’s subsequent homerun play out.
I don’t think I even saw a moment of the Yankees celebration.
I hopped off the couch, went downstairs, made my way through the partygoers and ducked out into the night where I hoped some fresh air might help me wrap my head around what had just happened. A friend of mine, exiting a science building on campus, saw my shell-shocked look, my ratty old Nomar Garciaparra shirt and put two and two together.
“Don’t worry,” she told me. “It’s just a game.”
I don’t remember what I said in response, but I am fairly certain she didn’t speak to me for at least two semesters.
Yes, those were dark times.
But it’s all part of the game. One year later, the Sox swept the Cardinals to win their first World Series title since 1918. Four years later, the Giants downed the invincible Pats in the Super Bowl. Those wins didn’t erase the pain. But the pain enhanced the win. Every misstep, every blown call by Grady Little, every mishandled snap, those all came rushing back. The win was a validation for every time I had been ready to give up on my team.
That’s why we watch sports. Not for the championships, not for the victories, but for the rare times when our faith, as fans, is rewarded.
Will this be a Red Sox year? As I’m writing this, I can say I have no idea. After all, maybe fortune will shine on Pirates fans who haven’t sniffed the postseason in two decades. There’s always that sliver of hope. And that’s why we root.
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