Concerning last season’s debacle, there is no adequate genre to describe the mystery, farce, comedy, and crime that ensued, and was reflected and magnified and made epic in the Boston press. You play the best baseball in the Majors for the hot summer months, and then suddenly the forces of muscle memory defy you. Your 99.4 percent chance (according to coolstandings.com) of making the postseason falls only incrementally as the losses mount—as though the formula behind that strange statistic has a New England bias—and then, one day, it falls precipitously, as though the computer finally understands the likelihood, no, the necessity, of an Epic Fail. And yet, the pain must not culminate until the season’s final day, when even after losing to the Orioles on a misplayed ball (by gimpy Carl Crawford, of course), your postseason hopes aren’t entirely dashed until a secondary rival, the Tampa Bay Rays, scores six times in the eighth inning, once in the ninth, and then once more in the 12th to defeat your greatest rival, The New York Yankees.
The subsequent gloom was made immeasurably worse by anonymously sourced scoops in The Boston Herald and The Boston Globe, about starting pitchers eating fried chicken and drinking beer and playing videogames at the ballpark on their off-days (Herald), and about their puckish manager, Terry Francona, allegedly battling an addiction to painkillers while losing control of his clubhouse (Globe). It was North Dallas Forty, the Kentucky Fried baseball version.
As early as spring training, it was obvious that the primary villain of last year’s choke job—the chicken-eating pitcher and catalyst of doom Josh Beckett—was so out of touch that he reportedly thought contrition meant confronting third baseman Kevin Youkilis in a Fort Myers eatery and accusing him of being the snitch. In April the new manager, Bobby Valentine, displayed his penchant for the inappropriate when he told the press that Youkilis was not “as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past, for some reason.” Any motivational intent fell flat; Youkilis felt burned and spurned. Dustin Pedroia, the team’s emotional stalwart, offered the retort, via the press: “I don’t know what Bobby’s trying to do. But that’s not how we go about our stuff here.”
By the time I arrived in Oakland to watch the series and consider all this, Youkilis had been shipped off to the Chicago White Sox, the All-Star break was nigh, and Valentine had paddled a rudderless vessel to a record of 43-43. One White Sox fan, Barack Obama, tried to joke about the Youkilis trade during a campaign speech in Boston, only to be unanimously booed.
“I guess I should not have brought up baseball,” the president immediately conceded. “I understand. My mistake; my mistake. You’ve got to know your crowd.”
Upbeat! Positive! Upbeat! Positive! I repeated Pitino’s words as a mantra each time I entered the Coliseum, the Oakland A’s steel tomb of a stadium. Fenway, by comparison, is ancient, but upgrades reinforce its reputation as a “living museum.” The Coliseum has “$2 Tuesdays” and free parking; Boston has the highest ticket prices in the league, on average, and the parking, in certain lots, can cost even more. In Oakland, they cover up thousands of seats with plastic wrap; in Boston, the ownership trumpets a dubious sellout streak, bolstered by the thousands of tickets belonging to the corporate “pink hats” who routinely show up late or not at all.