Tuesday, October 11, 2005

A Nation Exhales

The Bombers got knocked out of the playoffs last night, and if you had your TV muted as Darin Erstad flipped the ball to Francisco Rodriguez for the last out, you probably heard the sudden gust of wind that rustled leaves from Marblehead to Malibu. That stiff breeze was comprised of one Nation-wide sigh of relief. While cell blocks of Yankee fans, offices of television network executives, coffeeshops of journalists for whom “write” and “trite” have more commonality than a rhyme, and a man named Cashman who just performed his annual ritual of reactivating his Monster.com account, there is disappointment abound in another Yankee season which fell short of the mark. For Rob Russell and his ilk, however, there is a long-overdue moment of carefree relaxation.

It’s already been covered in this space that Boston’s failure to repeat their charmed season wouldn’t be a failure at all, that 2004 created a recliner full of laurels upon which team and fan base alike can rest for the foreseeable future, and that the way the 2005 season unfolded for them, it was quite something that the Sox went as far as they did. It’s also been covered that points a, b, and c above would be rendered moot were the New York Yankees to win the World Series this year. Well, that’s not happening, so those points just went from self-help rationalization to Gospel.

While my cohort isn’t exactly kicking up his heels at the notion of his team suffering its first postseason sweep in a decade (since their playoff-debacle days when Boston dropped 13 straight postseason games), he can actually breathe easy for the first time. Last winter granted them no such downtime, as stonebuilt angst suddenly led to intense revelry which morphed slightly into utter release which eventually became hearty self-congratulation which rolled well into this baseball season. By the time the scorebook-pointing and own-horn-tooting gave way to stress about the outcome of the year 1 A.C. (Anno Champione, in the year of our championship), it was apparent that the time for deep exhalation and tranquil smiles would have to wait.

It was questionable whether the folks on the roster or in the Nation had the energy for yet another ALCS showdown with the Empire. Of course, had the situation arisen, so would have the appropriate parties, but it would have been like that last day of Mardi Gras – you realize you have to muster the energy, because for Pete’s sake, you never know if this will be the last time you ever encounter this opportunity, but you’re just so dog-tired, and beaten up, and you know very well there’s likely a letdown on the docket. So this quiet duck-out was arguably the best way for it to go down for Red Sox Nation this year. I just know there’s at least one guy for whom today is Day 1 after finally figuring out what the hell Glenn Frey was singing about in “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” Enjoy, Rob.

* * * *

The way the 2005 ALDS unfolded was also the way I wanted it. I informed my compatriot in writing early on that I would not be renewing my membership in the Friends of the Nation for this year’s playoffs. Last year was a one-off ride for me aboard the Soxwagon, doing my small part to further the positive karma that led the Olde Towne Team to its highest heights. (You’re welcome. Really.) It was a good story, excepting the Series steamrolling of St. Louis, and I’m all for that. But I’ve got just as (personally) compelling a story going in ’05, and it involved a bleaching of Sox I hope Rob understands.

There were a couple of uncharacteristically real-world dramatic stories this year, both involving grandfathers. Rob’s recounting of what might sadly have been one of his last visits to his Sox-loving grandfather provided some often-necessary perspective at MLC, and (I can’t believe I’m mentioning this) serves as a reminder that there was a happier side to the Win It For thread – the folks who waited what seemed an eternity but did hang around until the Red Sox did it. Meanwhile, you might recall my posts surrounding the April passing of my Mets-loving grandfather. While he was the family’s patriarch and the reason the rest of us live and die with every Mike Piazza home run or Kaz Matsui toss into the dugout, there’s more to the story.

Grampa Jack was living in the NYC suburbs in 1962 when the New York Mets were founded, and as one who believed that “root, root, root for the home team” was more law than lyric, he instantly pledged his allegiance to the worst team ever assembled. (It also enabled him to successfully force-feed baseball to his children in a pre-Extra Innings Package era.) Long before Stengelese made its way from Yankee Stadium to the Polo Grounds, however, my grandfather was cheering for another lousy franchise.

He was born on the South Side of Chicago (you now know where this is going) 88 years ago today, on October 11, 1917. When he was four days old, the hometown White Sox won its second World Series by taking four of six from the New York Giants. It stood to reason that there would be more trophies arriving in the South Side before long, with players like Joe Jackson, Eddie Collins, and Eddie Cicotte doing life sentences on Charlie Comiskey’s payroll. Then some stuff happened you might’ve heard about. [Although books and films paint Comiskey as Darth Vader and the Sox as the Rebel Alliance, most historical accounts say it ain’t so. Charles Comiskey (and the fans) as the victim and Shoeless Joe as the villain brought to justice – not as gripping a Hollywood story, but the truth rarely is.]

So Grampa Jack knew the ChiSox in their darkest years. When he left Chicago as an adult, they still hadn’t fully recovered from the 1919 implosion. Though he moved on to other cities and other teams, the White Sox still had a piece of him. When my grandparents bought a condo in Sarasota in the early 1980’s, that town was home to the Pale Hose in spring training. Cheering on the White Sox as the secondary, American League alternate to pulling for the Mets became the new mandate for the family. And so we did, without deviation. Soon we became privy to the doctrine of mediocrity known as the Chicago White Sox, though I’ve only come to know the full history in later years.

The immediate future of the White Sox post-1919 was compromised not by a curse, but by the fact that a roster widely considered as talented as the 1927 Yankees or any other in baseball history fell on its own grenade. The wreckage in the scandal’s wake was tangible (many of the best players banned) and perceived (franchise disarray for years to come; Comiskey’s reputation sullied). It was 40 years before the White Sox contended again.

Once that hump was crossed over, though, what prevented a title for the next 40 years? Hard to say. These weren’t the classic bad teams like the Senators and Phillies. These were teams with All-Stars on the roster, even a handful of Hall of Famers, but a whole lot of mid-grade nobodies in between. They finished in the middle of the pack most years. There are only a few first-place finishes, but only a few more last-place finishes. They haven’t won 100 games since 1917, but they only lost 100 three times. They never showed much flash, despite being well-known as the single largest purveyor of hideous uniforms (outside of Houston, perhaps) in baseball yore. They were boring. After hiring managers with first names of Fielder, Nixey, Pants and Kid in their first quarter-century, they opted for guys like Jimmie, Al, Chuck, Tony, Gene, and Jerry ever since. New Comiskey is dull and void of personality, but it has accurately reflected the team itself since its opening. This franchise has had no vibe, no must-see undercurrent, no backstory at all beyond the Black Sox tale that’s been played, overplayed, revised, and beaten into the ground long ago. The Chicago White Sox have never been sexy in the least; truly, they’ve been about as sexy as . . . well, as white socks. (Outside of my grandfather, very few folks found white socks a sexy look.)

The 2005 ChiSox, however, have a few things going for them. One is Ozzie Guillen, a fiery, mouthy skipper who most importantly has an interesting name. (It’s no “Pants,” but it beats the hell out of “Gene.”) He’s actually inspired a style of play that bears watching. In addition, the White Sox have the Red Sox backlash thing going for them. Now that the Soxwagon has witnessed its hangers-on fleeing like rats from a sinking ship, the train of thought in vogue would be to shut up the “86 Years” chatter definitively with an immediate, one-upsmanship that is the end of an 88-year famine. After seeing the joy in Beantown last fall, the humanitarian in me wouldn’t mind seeing a parade of title-less streaks broken, either, with the Cubs and Indians following in the years to follow.

More than this, however, these ChiSox have one crazy old man upstairs (we in the family hope) who would find it all too fitting that the team he was born into rooting for would win it all on his fourth day on the planet and then not again until six months after he’s gone. If fallen BoSox fans pulled some strings up there to achieve last October’s result, it could happen again this fall. And finally, don’t discount the power of my weight aboard any team’s bandwagon. Sure, that amount will slow any vehicle down at first, but once you get some momentum going, look out, people.

Happy 88th, Grampa Jack. Let’s see what we can cook up in the next couple of weeks, just for kicks.

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