"There were three men down, And the season lost, And the tarpaulin was rolled, Upon the winter frost.” --Paul Simon, “Night Games”
This Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, the Boston Red Sox will play the final game of their 2012 campaign, contest number 162. The year began, as with all baseball seasons, in the hope that only April in New England can bring. Hope for a competitive team. Hope for the playoffs. Heck, maybe even hope for another World Series title. Remember?
In the early spring just six months ago, our part of the universe thawed out and warmed up. In the blooming of the buds on the trees and the bulbs bursting forth from the chilly ground, we believed then that anything was possible. But now 181 days later the Red Sox have experienced their first 90 plus loss season in 46 years. This team is the worst BoSox contingent since 1966.
I’ll admit I’m very tempted to complain, to whine about this year, to join the predictable hyper-critical “pig pile” now burying our woeful Sox. They are being ripped to shreds in print, on the talk shows, by the water cooler, and over coffee at Dunkin Donuts. In reading some of the more caustic sports columnists, like the Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy, you’d think the Sox had committed a mortal sin by having such a sub-par year. “The 2012 Sox would have been better off letting this sorry season bleed out quietly. Sometimes it’s OK to simply admit that there is nothing to celebrate.”
But guess what? There is a cause to celebrate, always will be if you are a real sports fan, a fan, one who is in and at the game for the long haul. All nine innings, all 162 games and then back again to the next Opening Day in just another six months, April 1, 2013, at Yankee Stadium. No one bad year can ever change that or change me. My birth as a fan began when I was seven years old in 1968 and discovered the Red Sox. That year I biked to my local CITGO gas station to purchase an official Fenway Park glass mug and I can still taste the cold chocolate milk I’d drink from that keepsake as a little boy. Fandom isn’t ever fickle. A fan is faithful.
So I’m not ready to adopt another team to cheer for. I will still proudly wear my Red Sox cap out in public, head held high. These final weeks I’ve still tuned in to the game as I drive in my car, comforted by the familiar voice of Joe Castiglione, the crack of a bat on a ball, cheers for a great strikeout, boos for the other team.
Yes this week I’ll pack away all my Red Sox hopes but only until the new season next year when it will all come back around. And then I’ll hope again. And then spring will come again. Fenway Park will echo again with the cries of “Beer here!” Moms and Dads will bring their excited sons and daughters to their first game ever. With wide open eyes and full hearts those kids will walk into a 101 year old cathedral of memory, just like their grandparents and great-parents did too. They will learn how to be a fan.
A fan: not just for one game or one great championship run. Not just when the hits fall and the sun shines and the “W’s” pile up. A fan is finally only a true fan when they stick around for the hard times too. When the stars players break our hearts, when the bats swing and whiff, when the losses mount, when the team just does not have the horses or the hearts to win the race.
Still you cheer. Still you hope. Still you anticipate beginning anew, the top of the first inning, no score yet. That’s true for sports. That’s true for life too.
Because finally “the game”, whether between the lines or in the real world, matters in the playing and not just the winning. The game matters not only on warm spring days of hope but also on frosty October nights of disappointment, when the tarpaulin is rolled out one last time to blanket the turf and the winter nights settle in and New England turns towards the end of another season.
“Wait ‘til next year!” Maybe a losing season is actually not such a bad thing. I know the more rabid fans will protest such competitive blasphemy, but life is finally life. The game is the game. Some days we win. Some days we lose. But the gift always is this—we get to play. We get to compete. We get to be a fan.
See you at spring training.