I Love You, You Ugly, Miserable Bastards

Jason Schwartz on how the 2013 Red Sox won us back.

boston red sox world series beard pull

Photo via AP

It was a chilly Sunday evening in April, and I’d come to Fenway Park for a ball game. This particular matchup against the Kansas City Royals had originally been scheduled for the previous Friday, but was postponed when we were forced to spend the sunny spring day cooped up inside, digesting the phrase “shelter in place.” Turning onto Yawkey Way—past the familiar bark of the program hawkers and the sizzle of the sausage vendors—it was a relief, after a week of chaos, to hear the same old Fenway noises and breathe in the same old Fenway smells. Looking my fellow Red Sox faithful in the eyes, I noticed something: They were all ugly. Homely, ruddy-faced, and, the wisest among them, with caps pulled down low. I turned to my friend Ben, who’d come with me to the game, to confirm. Yes, everybody was ugly again, he said. We agreed this was a wonderful thing.

Over the past decade, Fenway Park had become something once unimaginable: a cool place to be. It wasn’t just that tickets had ­become expensive and tough to come by; the old ballpark had become fashionable. A place to be seen. The women got better looking. The men got better looking. Even Wally, I’m pretty sure, got better looking.

But now all that was gone. Fueled by ownership’s media machine and spending, Red Sox mania had grown and grown and grown until, like a bubble of Big League Chew, it popped and splattered all over everyone’s faces. The 2011 team, after spending much of the year in first place, suffered the worst September collapse in team history—and seemed bored by it. Then came the Bobby Valentine Death March of 2012, a 93-loss campaign that ­compounded incompetence with the manager’s existential misery. Many of my friends who, just a few years ago, lived and died with the team, seemed over it: The games were too long, the fans too annoying, and the team too dull and disinterested.

Coming out of the chute in 2013, the Sox ran an advertising campaign with no higher ambition than convincing fans that the team wasn’t full of flesh-eating monsters. Earlier in April, the club’s sellout streak of 820 games had officially been snapped—unofficially, the “streak” had become a running joke, a symbol of management’s head-in-sand insistence on a “Red Sox Nation” that existed only in their marketers’ imagination. On this night, attendance was reported at about 33,300, leaving some 4,200 seats officially empty. I got my tickets for free when a friend gave them away.

But the ballpark buzzed, from first pitch to last. The people around me looked like…baseball fans, miserable old baseball fans. In the row behind me, they debated pitch selection. In front of me, they hung on every at-bat. There even seemed a kinship with the players on the field, some of whom—with bushy beards already hanging from their mugs—were pretty ugly bastards themselves. The Sox would go on to blow the game to KC in the 10th, with Saltala­macchia, Middlebrooks, and Carp striking out to end it at 5–4. But there was surprisingly little grumbling on the way out of the park. Over the past several years, Red Sox fans had morphed into entitled facsimiles of our hated Yankees counterparts, hyperfixated on championships and nothing else. Tonight, though, the crowd was free of expectations. After the last week, we were all just happy to be at Fenway Park.

 

The Red Sox could go another 86 years before winning their next World Series. Or they could win each of the next 86 straight. It doesn’t matter: There’ll never be another one like 2013. That’s because there will never be another year like 2013. It was a year that pulled us together, pushed us apart, and forced us to rethink everything we thought we knew about Boston. It also offered the Red Sox—so unlikable after straying so far—a chance to reclaim their position in the city’s heart.

I had come into the season determined to pull back from the team—maybe find something healthier to do for three and a half hours, 162 nights a year. I wavered quickly: By the end of April, after a surprising 18–8 start, my sports-life balance was again ruined. But the rest of Boston was more skeptical, and ­remained largely indifferent. Attendance stayed down, with the secondary ticket market boasting the city’s best bargains since Filene’s Basement closed. It was understandable: There was, after all, some ­other stuff going on.

There was a mayor’s race, for one thing. It had begun less than a week before Opening Day, when Tom Menino, Boston’s mayor of 20 years, stood before a crowd in Faneuil Hall and announced he wouldn’t run for another term. Generations of political ambition were unleashed: We began to talk, in a way that we hadn’t before, about what we wanted for the city’s future—about how the city had changed, and who we were, and who ought to lead us.

Two and a half weeks after Menino’s ­announcement, on a perfect Patriot’s Day Monday, the bombs went off near the marathon finish line. The vigils started on Tuesday, the biggest on the Common and in ­Dorchester. The president arrived on Thursday for an ­interfaith service at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, in the South End. On Friday, just after the lockdown ended, they pulled Dzhokhar Tsarnaev out of a boat in Watertown. And then, on Saturday, a pastor named Big Papi presided over a different kind of service.

The Sox had just returned home for their first game since the bombings, and staged a pregame ceremony that paid tribute to survivors and law enforcement. Blessedly, someone handed David Ortiz a microphone. “This is our fucking city,” he bellowed to the crowd, “and nobody is going to dictate our freedom.”

Baseball is just baseball. It’s a sport. It can’t unmake tragedy. But like songs and movies and the occasional poem, baseball has a way with symbolism. Not long ago, the Red Sox had seemed hopelessly out of touch with Boston—and yet here was Big Papi, perfectly capturing the essence of a nearly 400-year-old city with a single, artful F-bomb. Then, wearing jerseys that read “Boston” instead of the traditional “Red Sox” across the front, the Sox went out and played this April game with the intensity of October. When Daniel Nava hit a go-ahead three-run homer in the eighth to give Boston the lead, he could barely contain himself while circling the bases. After crossing home plate, he let it all out.

 

boston red sox fan fear the beards

Photo via AP

Life went on through the summer, and not always for the better. In Boston’s less-fortunate neighborhoods, an outbreak of shootings reminded us that the marathon did not hold a monopoly on tragedy. A new statistic emerged around town: murders since the marathon. In early June, at a neighborhood group meeting in the basement of the Greenwood Memorial United Methodist Church, in Dorchester, John Barros, the city’s first Cape Verdean candidate for mayor, turned to a cop seated nearby and asked what the numbers were up to. The
answer: 22 shootings and six homicides. “Six homicides,” Barros repeated. “Anybody know the names of the people who were shot, killed?”

The subtext was clear: What happens on Boylston Street is treated differently than what happens on Blue Hill Avenue. The website Blackstonian keeps a count of shootings in the city since the marathon—164, as of press time—beside the text “One Boston? Boston Strong?”

While some parts of Boston were struggling to be heard, an old one was finally being snuffed out, but not without a kick. In August, Whitey Bulger returned to South Boston for trial at the Moakley federal courthouse on our sparkling new waterfront. The city once again relived the hypocrisy of a murderous thug who’d worked hand in hand with the FBI while terrorizing Southie for decades. He had been hiding in plain sight, in Santa Monica, ­often proudly sporting a Red Sox cap.

When the mayor’s race shook out, following a September 24 preliminary election to whittle down the diverse field of 12 candidates to two, we found out what the future mayor of Boston would look like: white, male, and Irish. Both of the finalists, John Connolly and Marty Walsh, came with progressive credentials and long track records in the neighborhoods—but this was the city’s first real election in 20 years, and, for many, it turned out to be a disappointment.

The city’s flesh-and-blood problems—pervasive inequality, underperforming schools, gun violence—won’t be turned around overnight, no matter how hard we wish them to. For times when we want things to change quicker than we know they can, there are illusions such as politics, and baseball.

On the campaign trail, the city’s minority leaders rallied around Marty Walsh, creating the power bloc that would eventually vault him to victory—and forming a constituency that any mayor, for years to come, will be smart to heed.

On Yawkey Way, another kind of vision was taking shape. The team—the same one that we had disowned—seemed, day after day, to provide fresh symbols of selflessness, resilience, and rebirth, while also demonstrating what might happen if there were a worldwide razor-­blade shortage.

There was the omnipresent “Boston Strong” jersey in the dugout at every game, with “617” stitched on the back, and a patch added to the team’s ­jerseys. On May 28, Jeff Bauman, the 27-year-old who lost his legs in the blast, and Carlos Arredondo, a former Occupy Boston regular who’d lost his Marine son in Iraq before ­becoming known as Bauman’s cowboy-hatted savior, received huge ovations before throwing out the ceremonial first pitch. With a wide-eyed, goofy grin plastered across his face, Bauman hauled back and delivered an impressive strike from his wheelchair.

On the field, the team was finding its own redemption. Pitcher John Lackey, long suspected of being, in fact, a flesh-eating monster, had lost so much weight he was barely recognizable, and was finally pitching well enough to justify his $82.5 million contract. His fellow chicken-and-beer enthusiast, Jon Lester, had also reinvented himself. After a poor 2012, Lester won his first five games, and despite a midseason dip regained strength in the summer’s dog days. And then there was Big Papi: He returned from injury for his first game on April 20, and it was nearly three weeks before his average dipped below .400. Every time he came to the plate it seemed like just another opportunity for the statue makers to study his bearing.

 

Even after it became clear, in late summer, that the Red Sox were real contenders, it was equally clear that the team still hadn’t ­recaptured the city’s full attention. In August the Sox marched into Los Angeles and took two of three from the Dodgers, the hottest team in baseball. Days later, with the Sox neck and neck with Tampa Bay for first place, I went to Fenway for a crucial game against Baltimore. The crowd rang in at just below 32,000—but hey, at least everybody was still ugly. Just as in April, despite the empty seats, Fenway sizzled. Behind Lackey’s pitching and a dying-quail bloop of an eighth-inning RBI single from Mike Carp, Boston won 4–3. All season, it seemed like whenever the Red Sox needed a big hit, it simply happened.

Finally, with the playoffs starting in October, the city snapped to attention. Not that the club had been ignored—this is Boston, after all—but all of a sudden, everyone seemed to realize that the whole team had grown beards. And was good. And was fun. People even started growing beards of their own: In my apartment building’s elevator, I overheard a guy complaining into his phone that he loved the Red Sox, but the damn thing on his face was starting to itch.

If there was a moment when the Red Sox stole the city’s heart back, it was Game 2 of the American League Championship Series against Detroit, when David Ortiz launched his season-saving grand slam toward the waiting arms of officer Steve Horgan. It was pure joy—at once a throwback to the early-morning moments of 2004 and, with all that had happened, a new story for our new fucking city.

Two days later, with Game 3 in Detroit scheduled for late afternoon, I looked outside the Boston magazine offices to see that rush-hour traffic had disappeared from Massachusetts Avenue. The city was consumed: The late innings of that game, a cardiac 1–0 win, overlapped with the first mayoral debate between Connolly and Walsh. For that reason, precisely nobody watched. The Globe wrote a story warning that an electorate distracted by baseball could sometimes swing an election. At the next debate, Walsh wore a Red Sox tie.

The tense ALCS continued, tortuously, to a sixth game at Fenway Park, with the Red Sox up three games to two. In the seventh inning, Shane Victorino walked to the plate with the bases loaded and the Red Sox down 2–1. Victorino, a veteran right fielder signed in the off-season to a highly criticized, three-year, $39 million contract, had just two hits in his 23 ALCS at-bats. He was a millionaire many times over and had put in a fine 2013 season, but he was also, at that moment, very close to being a failure. An infield ground ball could end Boston’s best chance for victory and tip the scales back in Detroit’s favor for Game 7.

Facing an 0–2 count, he took a big looping swing and swatted a curveball over the Green Monster. After the victory—and a trip to the World Series—was secured, Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal corralled Victorino and asked what was going through his head. “Too much emotions,” Victorino blurted. “Boston! Boston Strong! It’s just one of those things, when I came here, people counted me out. People said last year I was done. No, when I came here, there was rejubilation.”

Rejubilation! Victorino may be new in town, but it was a malapropism worthy of our mayor of 20 years. The rest was far from over: There was still a World Series that started ugly, beset by misplays in the field and curious decisions in the dugout, but was won with gritty outings from Lackey and Lester, Koji Uehara’s uncanny pitching, and Ortiz’s inconceivable .688 batting performance. But with a single hit, a single manic interview, and a single new word, Victorino had managed to smash together his own personal redemption with the redemption of the worst-to-first Red Sox and with the long, hard, ongoing redemption of the city. For a moment, at least, his story was the Sox’s story was Boston’s story, and that story was perfect.

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