The Mets Have Grandmas, Too
Originally posted June 8, 2009 in The Wicked Pissah Blog on WordPress
NOTE: The following represents one of the support pillars of the novel I am working on. It is a blend of creative non-fiction, history and memoir centered around the dramatic events of 1986.
It was October 12, 1986. The family gathered around the TV set in the living room to watch Game 5 of the American League Championship Series between our beloved Boston Red Sox and the California Angels. We were all in a somber mood that afternoon, for my paternal grandmother had passed away a few hours earlier after a year-long battle with cancer. The fact that the Red Sox were trailing 3 games to 1 in the best-of-seven series didn’t exactly help, given that we were all die-hard fans.
Things didn’t look good for the Sox, as they trailed 5-2 to the Angels in the ninth, but when Dave Henderson hit a shot to give the Sox the lead – and later a sac fly to force the series back to Boston – we were suddenly re-energized. “It must have been Grandma!” was the theme of our elated reactions. Clearly a comeback like that had to involve divine intervention, and what better way to rationalize it and put a positive spin on the day than to say that my grandmother spiritually influenced a home run by a guy named Hendu.
As my parents made arrangements for Grandma’s wake and funeral, they realized that the ideal time for the wake would have placed it right in the middle of Game Seven of the ALCS, so they did what any right-thinking Red Sox fan would do: they changed it. Instead of the normal evening viewing of 7-9pm, we held it from 4-6. Not just because we all wanted to watch (and that we wanted people to show up) but because, truthfully, “Grandma would have wanted it that way”.
The Sox’ improbable run through the postseason continued into the 1986 World Series, where they took on the heavily faovored Mets – winning the first two games on the road and heading back to historic Fenway Park for three straight games with a 2-0 lead. All the Red Sox had to do was win two out of three games at home to win their first championship in 68 years.
The Red Sox struck doubt in the hearts of Boston when they lost the third and fourth games of the series, tying it at 2 and giving back home field advantage to the Mets. Panic spread through Red Sox Nation – could it be possible to choke again? And in such dramatic fashion? Fortunately the Red Sox came back to win Game 5, heading back to New York needing just one more victory to break “The Curse”.
Easier said than done. A brief review of 1918 through 1986 may explain.
* * * * *
The fortunes of the Red Sox – or more accurately, their misfortunes – had long been tied to the supernatural. After winning the title in 1918, the Sox sold the rights to Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees, who went on to dominate the sport for decades. The fabled “Curse of the Bambino” was an oft-used explaination of why the Red Sox always seemed to falter in spectacular fashion when the stakes were at their highest. After a nearly three-decade long absence from the Fall Classic, they lost the ’46 World Series in seven games on an odd play: Johnny Pesky held the ball instead of making a throw to the plate on what proved to be the winning run. In ’67 a team of unknowns came out of nowhere to shock the world and win the AL Pennant, only to fall in seven games to the mighty Cardinals. In ’75 Carlton Fisk hit a historic homer in Game Six to force a seventh game againgst The Big Red Machine, only to see the Sox fall again. In ’78 they led the AL East by a seemingly insurmountable 14.5 games in July, only to blow the lead and lose a home tiebreaker game to the hated Yankees on a homerun by the previously insignificant Bucky Dent.
If dark spiritual forces were at work against the Red Sox – and it would be difficult to assert that they were not – then clearly it would take some sort of positive influence beyond that of mortal men to pull them out of it. Thus my Grandmother became a martyr for the cause of Red Sox nation, as did the many other grandmas, grandpas, uncles, fathers, etc. who passed into the great beyond in the fall of 1986. There could be no other explaination as to how the hitherto cursed Red Sox now sat poised on the edge of victory.
* * * * *
I could go on at great length about Game Six of the World Series – could probably write a book about it. The game went into extra innings tied at 3, but the Red Sox scored twice in the tenth to take a 5-3 lead. The first two batters for the Mets in the bottom of the inning were retired, and the Sox sat on the precipice of victory.
As all of this was happening, my father fell asleep on the couch. I woke him up several times, but he kept dozing off. “Dad! The Red Sox are about to win the World Series! Wake up!” Curly-haired annoying catcher Gary Carter hit a single, but still – the Sox only needed one more out. “Wake up, Dad – you’re gonna miss it!!” I pleaded, but when he saw the Mets had a runner on, he replied with a half-awake prophecy.
“There gonna blow hit”, he muttered. “I don’t want to see it”, and he actually fell back asleep. Kevin Mitchell hit a single, followed by Ray Knight, who brought the Mets to within a run with a single of his own. Sox manager John McNamara went to the bullpen to get Bob Stanley, the oafish closer who had shown inconsistent signs of brilliance for the Red Sox all season, but was an everyman kind of guy that everyone pulled for.
I tried one last time. “Dad! The Red Sox are one out away from winning the World Series and The Steamer is pitching!” As the words rolled off my toungue, I realized how ridiculous it was that I uttered that sentence with an air of enthusiastic optimism. And then it happened.
Very few of you reading this don’t know all too well what happened, but for the uninitiated, Mookie Wilson stepped up for a long at-bat that featured numerous foul balls. After several foul balls, Stanley threw one in the dirt, allowing the tying run to score. Moments later, Wilson hit a slow, playable ball up the first base line and….
…I still can’t talk about it. Look up Buckner, Bill if you don’t know what happened next.
Fans of the Mets, it turned out, had Grandmas too. And on this October night, those Grandmas conpsired with whatever dark forces had plagued the Red Sox for seven decades to pull off the most spectacular collapse ever seen. Sure there was still a seventh game to be played, but it was a fait acompli. We knew what would happen. A rain out and an extra game only served to prolong the inevitable. We expected failure, and we got it.
Perhaps nothing underscores the fatalistic view of Red Sox fans better than the fact that many of us even forget that there was a Game Seven. And its not as if it wasn’t a close game – the Red Sox led 3-0 midway through the sixth inning. Yet somehow we all knew at this point that they were going to choke - it was just a question of how.
* * * * *
My grandmother was buried in Forestdale Cemetery in Malden, MA that October. Her “neighbors” in that plot of land are all people who died around the same time, and given the fact that almost everyone in Boston is a hardcore Sox fan, there is a sweeping assesment that can be made about that section of the cemetary. It is populated by those who either escaped the epic collapse by death, or those who may have had their demise expedited by it.
The winter that followed was an exceptionally warm and wet one – more rain than snow. The section of the cemetery in which my grandmother was buried was deemed to have drainage problems, and was closed to further burials for almost two decades.
* * * * *
In October of 2003, the Red Sox once again reached the very precipice of greatness, only to have it yanked away in cruel and unimaginable fashion. With the Red Sox leading the hated New York Yankees by a 5-2 score through seven-and-a-half innings of Game Seven of the ALCS, manager Grady Little left a clearly exhausted Pedro Martinez in to pitch the 8th inning. Millions of Red Sox fans screamed at the TV for Grady to take him out – and again, we all knew what was coming. It was how it was meant to be.
I have no idea what happened in 2004, but it must have involved something of a magnitude tantamount to John Locke turning that giant wheel on “Lost”, because everything about the physical universe we live in changed that year. The Sox again approached the ALCS against the archrival Yankees, and instead of “maybe this year”, most of us just wondered how it could possibly get worse.
By the end of Game 3, we thought we had our answer: a sweep. The Red Sox were bludgeoned by the Yankees in a game that went forever, and all seemed lost. After all, in the 120-year history of baseball, NO team had EVER come back from a 3-0 deficit. Certainly it wasn’t going to be the cursed Red Sox, and certainly not when the Red Sox trailed going into the bottom of the ninth in Game 4.
Then again, nothing is ever certain with the Red Sox.
Again, I could write a book about the heroics that ensued. Dave Roberts stole second, and a chain of events hitherto unseen unfolded that handed the Yankees the mantle of Greatest Choke Artists of All Time – an epic collapse even more shocking than that of Bill Buckner. For all of eternity, any time a team trails 3-0 in a series, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox will be invoked. The Sox came back to win the series, sweep the World Series, and give Boston its first World Championship in 86 years. I still get chills even typing it.
I watched the final game with friends in California, in a place where I did not have cell reception. When I finally got my signal back, I had 37 messages from various well-wishers and disbelievers. None was more important than the one I got from my father.
“Kev… the Red Sox did it! They did it! Hurry up and call me back before I croak!”.
* * * * *
Once again, he was prophetic. Before the year ended, we found out my father had terminal lung cancer which had spread all over his body. He was probably a physical wreck during the playoffs, but didn’t go to the doctor or complain to anyone – most likely because he didn’t want anything to take away from his enjoyment of the Red Sox. It probably wouldn’t have mattered given the severity of the situation; he passed away on March 26th, 2005, just as the Red Sox were preparing to defend their title.
As fortune would have it, Forestdale Cemetery fixed the drainage problem in the portion of the cemetery where my grandmother was buried, and opened it up to new burials. The area that was open when my father died was literally a few dozen feet from where his mother had been buried in 1986. In fact, if you walk the graves today and take note of the dates of passage, you will see they abruptly end in November of ’86 and resume again in February of ’05 – bookends of a period of frustration and jubilation for Red Sox fans around the globe.
When I first arrived at the cemetery on the morning of April 1, 2005 I was astonished to see what looked like the aftermath of a victory parade. The “old” graves from 1986 were littered with banners and signs from the previous World Series – left for those who missed the heroics to say “they finally did it for you!” There were floral wreaths with sashes that included the Sox logo or the words “World Champions”. These were left through the winter as an homage to this historic event.
In the “new” section, fresh floral arrangements on new plots without headstones also included a fair amount of Red Sox memorabilia – the sentiment being that at least the recently departed had the good fortune of seeing the Improbable Dream come true in their lifetimes.
My father died at the age of 59. I can say in all honesty that the two most comforting things that offset his early passage were the fact that he got to meet his two grandchildren and that he saw the Red Sox win the World Series. And I can also honestly say that I’m not sure which one was bigger.
My mother went about choosing a headstone, and decided upon a fairly traditional one with one notable exception – a chiseled image of the “hanging Sox” version of the team logo. When my mother first told me what she was planning to do, I wasn’t exactly in favor of it. In fact, for a moment I thought she was kidding. Sure, my father was a die-hard Red Sox fan – we all were in my family, and in my town – but this was taking it a bit too far I thought.
“On the headstone, Ma? You don’t think that’s… kinda weird?” But that’s what Dad would have wanted, so we went with it. Initially I was afraid we’d end up on the local news in some distant town – a human interest story about “those crazy Red Sox fans” or something. Eventually I came to accept it though – in truth I kind of dug the idea, even if it did turn us into a sideshow or a “strange but true” internet story somewhere.
When I came back to Boston that October to see the headstone for the first time, I was surprised when I first saw the logo. Not because it wasn’t exactly as my mother described it, but because it was on a different guy’s headstone. And another. And another. In fact, as it turns out, there are several headstones in that section of the cemetery that bear various incarnations of the Red Sox logo. One guy even has the “flying Elvis” style Patriots logo on his. Turns out it wasn’t such an outlandish idea after all.
* * * * *
The moral of the story is clear: in Boston, the Red Sox really are bigger than life. Our commitment to the team is part of our culture, our history… something that is uniquely “ours”. The Red Sox are so much more than just a baseball team to the people of Boston – they are our common identity, the thing that connects us all with each other, and our past with our present. Together we’ve experienced disappointment of unfathomable magnitude, only to make the eventual victory and the improbable way in which it happened all the more enjoyable.
The Mets may have Grandmas too, but we have the Red Sox – and nobody can ever take that away from us.