In one’s puckishly misspent youth, the last day of the regular baseball season was special in a rather quaint way. Invariably, it would be a lovely early fall day touched with autumn’s wistful sweetness, a perfect contrast with the melancholy of the moment.
It was purely a radio game then, almost only and decidedly at its best on the radio where your rich imaginings added so much to the game’s depth and meaning. And the play-by-play man – usually the cowboy, Curt Gowdy, but sometimes one of his sidekicks – would officially close the season with a wrenching farewell spiked with predictions of next season’s inevitable greater promise. We always bought it, of course; hook, line, and sinker.
Bear in mind we are talking the Fifties here and while we had plenty of Saturday football, there was none hereabouts on Sundays and it would be more than a month before the Bruins and Celtics got rolling. Moreover, the primacy of Baseball was then axiomatic. No one disputed it. Baseball reigned supreme. Everything else was the “off season.”
Elsewhere – more precisely about 225 miles down the road, south by southwest – the Yankees were gearing up merrily for another wondrous World Series. In what I would lightly regard as my formative years, that would be the case at least a dozen times.
These were their “wilderness years,” but the Red Sox were not as awful as they’ve often been depicted. At a time when finishing in the so-called “first division” was a big deal for all the pigeons politely serving as the fodder of the Yankee’s rapacious dynasty, your pets managed that nice trick six consecutive seasons; finishing four times in fourth (’53-’56) and twice third (’57-’58).
Of course, finishing fourth in that lop-sided era could mean you ended up 42 games out of first-place, absurdly the case in 1954 when pennant-winner Cleveland won 111 games. Yet overall those were hardly appalling times; a bit dreary, maybe, but faintly redeemed by the august presence of Himself, Sir Ted Williams, lumbering majestically through his near decade-long twilight, piling up glorious statistics in games that were, by and large, irrelevant. I’ve long suspected those who complain that the decade of the ‘50’s was “silent” and “blah” must have been, at heart, Red Sox fans. For my part, those having been my coming-of-age years, I found the era quite fabulous, thank you very much.
So here we are again, and if in most other realms the change across the interim has been near infinite in scope, the litanies with which we bury another baseball season remain essentially unchanged, much as does the game, differences in the way of the thing being superficial. Ten teams may now vie for the honors in a post-season stretching beyond Halloween while few not on the road in an automobile will be following the action on the radio. But in the end, there will still be only two left standing with all the rest soon to be forgot while the also-rans are left to wallow as ever in the more-often-than-not hollow promise of that elusive “next year.” Yes, indeed, you have heard this song before!
With three championships in the bag in this era of the new regime, the present Red Sox might disdain comparisons with their lackluster ancestors of the Fifties, who labored at roughly the mid-point of the franchise’s 86-year dearth of triumphs. But none of those teams finished last and this contemporary bunch has now done so three times in the last four years while failing to make the post-season festival for the fifth time in the last six years. So much for the dynasty loftily proclaimed seven years ago.
It’s true that finishing last no longer bears the shame it once did. Altered rules make climbing out of the baseball gutter much easier than it once was. But it’s still degrading, even for a franchise that doesn’t blush easily. The Red Sox of yore were accustomed to being ragged on. Humiliation was familiar. They bore the burden like sackcloth, whereas for this current and very cocky edition, even the hint of contrition is unthinkable.
So it is that last place notwithstanding, after a season that was two thirds a total mess and an off-season that was a bona-fide fiasco, we find them back on their high horse offering no apologies and basking in the glow of next year’s already widely acclaimed and fabulous promise.
Such grandiose euphoria is predicated on a decent finish wherein they were 34-26 the last two months; 28-20 under the interesting leadership of interim manager Torey Lovullo. Compared with the carnage compiled March through July, the high stepping of August and September was a worthy turnabout. But it was hardly unprecedented. The Cleveland Indians – also done and gone – played just as well the last two months. Once upon a time, in 1914, the Boston Braves of sainted memory surged from the basement to the throne room the last two months and that was back when you needed to hurdle over seven teams to do something like that.
In their belated cleaning up of their earlier tawdry act, the Red Sox may have answered important questions and opened doors to interesting possibilities. The kids may be almost as good as Ben Cherington, the man the team made take the fall, dreamed they’d be. And new Boss Dave Dombrowski, the man whose timing appears to be impeccable, may still be clever enough to steal good pitching over the winter, although I’d still like to know why he got fired in Detroit. It should be an interesting off-season.
But it says here you should beware of glitzy displays of the light fantastic offered when little is at stake, the pressure is off, they’re making the rounds for the first time, and expectations are in the pits. Too often, garbage-time performances are only worth what the name says they are. I remain, politely, from Missouri on this team.
And so the playoffs begin with a batch of recent memory’s more chronic losers – the Royals, Blue Jays, Astros, Mets, Cubs, and Pirates – being among the invited to the Dance where the Dodgers, Cardinals, Rangers and, the last and possibly least, Yankees are also to be found. Three cheers for parity, you might say, although there are times when it gets a bit too contrived.
It’s a lively field and mainly worthy although there are probably at least a half dozen teams not there –including maybe even Boston – that are in better shape and would be capable of a more honorable playoff showing than the seemingly drained and thoroughly fried Bronx Bombers, who ended the regular season clearly whipped and befuddled.
This is being written before the frolic even begins and predictions are dumb under any circumstances, let alone before the very first salvo. But if the Yankees survive the Astros in the opener and thus advance as the wild-card survivor, it will verify either that baseball remains the least predictable and wackiest of all the games or that the Yankees, who’ve always been above such foolishness, have been playing possum.
Their season’s finish was pathetic: losers of six of their last seven games to two teams with losing records, unable to eke out a small win that might at least have ended their regular season with some dignity rather than having to depend on the uppity Astros to manage mercifully to lose in the season’s final seconds, thus sparing the erstwhile Bombers further humiliation. Crazy! And by the Yankees’ historical standard also arguably disgraceful, given the paucity of their effort those last three games in Baltimore. Unless, of course, they’re simply wasted, totally out of gas. We’ll find out soon enough.
Any of the NL’s entrants, except probably the Mets, could go all the way with those aroused Cubbies the most capable of stirring genuine magic although for them, too, it could be over before it really begins: one and done and see you next year. In the AL, it seems inconceivable that, in the end, it won’t be between the Royals and Blue Jays, easily the class of the pack. But here’s a warning. With the inscrutable Josh Hamilton seemingly awakened, the Rangers are dangerous.
As for the rest of you, wait until next year. And take it from the Cowboy. It’ll be better!