For most of my life, most of Earth’s baseball fans viewed the team I root for in one or more of the following ways:
- a team to laugh at
- a team to make one feel better about one’s own team
- a team whose fans (so the thinking went from the outside) actually reveled in flagellating themselves with the team’s chronic losing
- a team of which one could declare, mockingly, “those poor saps will never win anything, ever”
- a team of which one could declare, mockingly, “if they ever do win anything then it’s time to head for the hills because the end will be near”
- a team of which one could declare, perhaps wistfully, perhaps just to oneself, laying aside the mockery for a chance to reflect on the deep grooves of failure that define most human life, “maybe it would be interesting if they ever won it all; maybe it would be something I could root for”
- a team that always repaid any wistful marginal interest from unaffiliated fans with more disappointment, which inspired from those not lashed to the team further, distancing mockery and general pronouncements about the unchangeable destiny of the team, such as that they seem to be forever saddled with an unusually large amount of bad luck (as noted by many, the litany of bad luck was wrenched into the soon-to-be-monotonous notion of a “curse” somewhere around the time that Dan Shaughnessy was sizing up his ability to put his children through college)
- a team that had torpedoed its own chances for decades not by being “cursed” but by tolerating and advancing an easygoing country-club mentality and an institutional racism, the former sacrificing team unity and a single-minded focus on winning for the coddling of often one-dimensional sluggers, the latter not only just plain wrong morally but wrong in terms of pure baseball, as evidenced most clearly by the team passing on chances to sign Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays
Since this last viewpoint was, unfortunately, by far the most obscure of the ways in which the team was viewed by baseball fans, the Boston Red Sox, in general, were not hated, not even when they were deserving of hatred. In general, they were viewed benignly, as an entity that did far more harm to themselves than they could ever do to anyone else.
The team’s place in the baseball universe reached its pinnacle the year this card came out, when Don Zimmer presided over arguably the worst pennant-race collapse in baseball history. I can tell you from experience that Zimmer became a hated figure from within the world of Red Sox fandom (in Maine, according to a college friend, this hatred found its purest expression as something children called out when frantically running toward water: “Last one in is Don Zimmer!”), but outside that realm I think he was seen mostly as a comical figure, a crusty baseball lifer with bulging cheeks, beady eyes, and a history of debilitating, brain-scrambling concussions.
Zimmer’s cartoonish persona came into full bloom a couple decades later as he served as a coach on Yankees throughout their dynastic domination of the league in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Zimmer’s transformation from a Red Soxian figure, i.e., one upon whom gentle mockery is cast, to a fully vested member in the Yankee Pantheon of Beloved Greats (Zimmer something of a junior member of the Pantheon’s “Colorful” wing along with, among others, Yogi Berra, Casey Stengel, and Phil Rizzuto) helped further define the team he’d once managed: If even Don Zimmer could find glory at the very top of the baseball world, then the message was clear: you went to the Boston Red Sox to lose, and you went to the New York Yankees to win. It seemed absolutely set in stone, something that could never change.
Well, it changed. (Interestingly enough, it changed the year after Zimmer embarrassed himself by charging at Pedro Martinez during a bench-clearing incident in the 2003 playoffs, an attack that Pedro handled with the gentle flowing grace of the ever-peaceful, ever-beleaguered Kwai Chang Caine, but that’s a whole other story or two or three.)
Anyway, it changed. Now, two Word Series victories later, the Boston Red Sox are considered by most of Earth’s baseball fans as an annoying huge-market monstrosity with arrogant, ubiquitous fans and a stranglehold on the mainstream media’s attention. Many fans wishing to damn them with the harshest terms possible point to the above developments to back up the claim that the Red Sox have become the Yankees.
I’ll leave that claim alone except to say that I don’t see it that way. But I’m a Red Sox fan and have been a Red Sox fan since long before the birth of the young woman who sat behind me the last time I was at Fenway, in 2007, and talked on her cellphone the whole game about, among other things, how she was sitting near the “Penske Pole.” Winning attracts a whole new breed of fan, I guess, one who doesn’t care so much about the game and couldn’t tell you who Johnny Pesky is, let alone that he got a raw deal in the eyes of the world for his role in the events of the 8th inning of the 1946 World Series, and this new breed of fan is one reason why fans of other teams have turned on the Red Sox, but I can only control my own fandom, and my own fandom is just like anyone else’s, and always has been: to root for my team to win.
Anyway, it’s win or go home tonight against the team for which Don Zimmer is currently employed, the Tampa Bay Rays, who hold a three games to one lead over the Red Sox in the 2008 ALCS. For most of my life, the Red Sox would be viewed as roadkill by now. Even if they were the ones holding the three games to one advantage, it would be seen as a prelude to another choke job. Now baseball fans everywhere—those who hate the Red Sox, those who love the Red Sox, those who go to Red Sox games to talk on cell phones about the Penske Pole—have to temper the seemingly obvious conclusion that the Rays are the superior team with the thought that there is no tougher team to kill than the Boston Red Sox. If Dice-K, who looked so strong in Game One, wins tonight, then fearless Josh Beckett gets another chance to atone for his recent poor outings, and if Beckett wins then it’s Jon Deathbeater Lester in Game Seven. It could happen. These are the hated Red Sox, the team that threw down the old beady-eyed fool of losing long ago.