It’s weeks like this that I miss my grandfather, and he’s been dead since 1965. Unfiltered Camels and quart-bottles of Narragansett Lager finally got him one afternoon in the parking lot of the sign-painting company he owned in downtown Worcester, Massachusetts. (There’s an arena on that spot now. His old shop was right about where the visitor’s locker room was.) Old Charlie Gibbons was the guy who taught me how to watch baseball, specifically Red Sox baseball, specifically bad Red Sox baseball. He had seen so very much of it.
His life as a fan had started promisingly enough. He and his father rode the train from Worcester into Boston for a couple of games during the 1918 World Series between the Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs. What could possibly go wrong from there, what with that Ruth kid standing them on their heads the way he could? So he spent the next 47 years watching this team and, by the time he died, they were so terrible that they would finish the season 62-100.
I was his regular Sunday companion for the last five of those years. Well, me and the quart of ‘Gansett and the cigarettes, anyway. He would sit in a bilious green leather recliner — one of the very first La-Z-Boys, if I recall correctly — and I would sit in a round armchair and we would watch an exercise in utter public futility. This wasn’t the hyped-up “Curse of the Bambino” nonsense. He never mentioned 1946, or 1949. Johnny Pesky and Enos Slaughter never came up, though he’d lived through those moments, too. This was summer after summer of damned near hilarious incompetence. One day, in fact, I learned a new word. Frank Malzone butchered a ground ball at third base, and my grandfather erupted in a gerund that was heretofore unfamiliar to me, but that seemed important enough to my grandmother that she hustled me out of the house and into the backyard. Old girl had surprising lateral movement, I’ll give her that.
The worst season was the last one. Not that 62-100 isn’t self-explanatory, but the Sox finished a full 40 games out of first place, and it wasn’t even the Yankees who won it that year. They had already begun the slide that one day would make them cheap enough for George Steinbrenner to buy. No, the Sox finished 40 lengths behind the freaking Twins, who’d only been in Minnesota for five years. What was worse was that the Sox couldn’t even win at home, in the ballpark that they’d tailored for right-handed Australopithecine sluggers since God was a boy. Instead, at Fenway, the team was a dismal 34-47.
My grandfather and I were used to it by then, though. The Red Sox had been dismally noncompetitive for almost my entire life. That had certainly been the case for the several summers in which we’d watched the games together. So, we found our pleasures where we could. Tony Conigliaro could hit a little. And there were always the cartoon commercials that Elaine May and Mike Nichols used to do for the Narragansett brewery. This has always been my test for a true longtime Red Sox fan. Don’t ask the person if he remembers Ted Williams. Ask him if he remembers — Hi, neighbor! — the Parakeet Bar.
As you can tell, the Camels and the ‘Gansett got the old fella before the glorious 1967 season that turned everything around. After that, there were the near misses in 1975 and 1986, and the two World Championships in 2004 and 2007. There was the steady development of a fan base so in love with failure, and so narcissistic in success, that it has managed to become cordially loathed throughout the rest of baseball. There was the conversion of Fenway Park — which still smells like an abandoned sheep farm when it rains — into a haven for romantic nostalgists. But what really turned around in 1967 was that the Red Sox never again sank as low as they did two years prior. They never went longer than three or four seasons without contending seriously for either a pennant or a world championship.
Until this year.
This season was the throwback. To hell with all the “ghosts” and all the fanciful guff about curses, this year — actually, this season plus the final third of the 2011 campaign — was when, out of nowhere, all the old hell of being a Red Sox fan reasserted itself with a vengeance. The old “country club” days came back last season, with Josh Beckett and the bucketeers chowing down on fried chicken. And, when they weren’t eating Popeyes, they were devouring managers whole. There were rumors of backstairs intrigue and backdoor dealings, just the way there used to be with Yaz and old Tom Yawkey. There was pointless spending leading to worse results. This, I thought, this is the Red Sox team that I remember. While they will not finish the year 40 games behind the Yankees, the point is still the same. And just to round off the circle, at Fenway Park this season, the Red Sox went 34-47, their worst home record since …
I need a ‘Gansett. That would make it complete.
I have to admit. There has been something peaceable for me about the way the Red Sox have disincorporated this season — the long, messy, slow dissolve into outright rancor and mutiny, and then the almost completely irrelevant endgame over the past two months, in which we saw various mystery guests don the uniform while everyone waited for Bobby Valentine to show up one day to find all the locks changed. This was the way it was in my childhood. These were the kind of days that brought me back to my youth, the way all the baseball propagandists say the game is supposed to do. These were my Red Sox — overpaid and underachieving backbiters who ended up as comic relief. This was the Fenway Park of my youth — a rancid snake pit of venomous egos, and not a theme park. This was how I became a Red Sox fan before Becoming A Red Sox Fan became a piece of performance art.
This was the way the season always used to end — with a discreet, but complete, collapse that hardly anyone noticed, because they were paying attention to other, real Major League Baseball teams that had not devoted six months to eating their own livers. The Red Sox went into Yankee Stadium and lost to a team that will not think about the Red Sox again until next April, or perhaps even later than that, if next year’s start is anything like this year’s start was.
The franchise needed a year like this. It needed a year like this not just because it was forced to clear out the lumpy deadwood in the clubhouse, though it certainly needed that. It needed a year like this not just because it was a humbling experience that let the air out of the inflated hubris that had been keeping the franchise’s collective ego aloft since the wonderful autumn of 2004, though the franchise certainly needed one of those, too. The franchise needed a year like this because people like me are getting older and we missed the days when being a Red Sox fan wasn’t so much work. The franchise needed a year like this because we kept telling young folks that it wasn’t always like this, that, in fact, things can be much worse than simply piddling away a playoff spot to the Rays in September, that baseball — Red Sox baseball — can be so thoroughly, unremittingly awful that you can stop worrying every game to death long before it’s time to get back to school.
And, yes, it is sometimes possible that good seats indeed will still be available, phony sellout streak or no.
From a strictly baseball sense, this looks like a middling- to long-range rebuilding process. The manager has to go. The farm system is nearly desiccated, and there isn’t enough talent on the roster to contend anytime soon. Neither Jon Lester nor Clay Buchholz looks remotely like a consistent no. 1 starter anymore. Also, it doesn’t look as though life in the American League East is going to get any easier. (Sooner or later, even the Blue Jays will forget to underachieve.) And I don’t want to hear anything about rebuilding that most noxious of all marketing department curses — “The Brand.” Sooner or later, you realize that no matter how many things you can find to commemorate, The Brand is simply whether you win or not. Stop losing, and your Brand is all bright and shiny again.
So, I rather enjoyed the second half of this Red Sox season. I was reminded of all the afternoons I spent with my grandfather, watching lousy baseball while, bit by bit, he drank and smoked himself into the Beyond. Those were good days, and isn’t that what the baseball people tell us the game is all about? Generations, sitting together, watching players bumble and stumble while the old folks teach the young’uns new and exciting curse words? Let Ken Burns set that to banjo music. I’ll be in the Parakeet Bar, waiting for the show to begin.