I man the phones at the Red Sox Hot Line again this fall. I figure it's my civic duty. I live in Boston. I figure I should help my fellow citizens survive this time of peril, pestilence and all-around misfortune. I am old enough to have been through a few of these pennant races. I can help people deal with their pain.
"Take it easy, Jack," I tell the men. "This is only a game. Baseball."
"Be calm, Jill," I tell the women. "You have two healthy kids, a husband who works, a charge card at Filene's. All of this baseball stuff will be finished by the end of October. Then you can move ahead with your life."
I drop my voice to the level of the deejays' on WCRB, the FM classical music station. I preach calmness and common sense. Against a hard and constant rain of negativism, I am an umbrella. On some days I even mention—if the standings bear me out—that the Red Sox are still in first place with the end of the season in sight.
"Stop crying, please," I tell everyone. "Think how you'd feel if you lived in a place like, say, Cleveland."
The dozen red lights on my phone are always lit. I talk for hours. I talk with old-timers who mutter about Johnny Pesky holding the ball in 1946 while the St. Louis Cardinals' Enos Slaughter ran home, and about Denny Galehouse—Denny Galehouse?—being named to start the 1948 playoff game against the Cleveland Indians, and about the final events at Yankee Stadium in 1949. I talk with schoolchildren who say their lives haven't been the same since their mothers allowed them to stay up late on that fateful night in 1986 when the Red Sox were going to win it all at Shea Stadium against the New York Mets. The schoolchildren say they have a tendency to stare out the window and repeatedly mutter the words "Bill Buckner."
The sense of doom transcends all age differences and all ethnic, racial and economic barriers. A woman called this morning and said her cat had refused to eat "since Rajah hurt his shouldah." The television sports-casters report each loss with a gravity unequaled on any other segment of the news. The newspapers look daily for signs of team dissent or imminent demise. The English lit lions from academia write windy treatises about the legacy of despair handed from father to son to son to son, the trail of tears that rolls over an entire, shell-shocked region as the days become short and the nights become cold, as the leaves begin to change and another hard winter approaches this hardscrabble countryside. Or something like that.
There is always mention of a bottle of champagne that never will be opened, though fingers were wrapped around the cork in 1986. The Bucky Dent home run in the '78 playoff is mentioned. ("Where were you?" "I was lying on my living room floor with major chest pains.") The curious pitching change of rookie Jim Burton for veteran Jim Willoughby in the seventh game—the seventh game!—of the '75 Series is mentioned. The past is a tin can forever tied to the present—with a hand grenade inside.
"And what do you think is going to happen with the Red Sox this year?" I heard a local talk-show guy ask one of his callers last week.
"Eddie," the caller said. "Go to bed. Pull the covahs ovah your head."
The trouble began this time on Sept. 3. The Sox had a 6½-game lead on the Toronto Blue Jays and were at home for the first game of a three-game series against the Oakland A's. The papers called it a "playoff preview." The occasion had long ago been scheduled as Bob Stanley Night to honor a retired relief pitcher who had been talented, but also, alas, associated with some of the more fateful Red Sox moments, including Game 6 in 1986. At home plate, Stanley was given the usual golf cart and trip to Bermuda, and everyone cheered. He was then asked to puncture a beach ball with a rake, a lighthearted task he had done often in the bullpen at Fenway Park. The beach ball this time, however, was a large, inflated facsimile of a baseball with a Red Sox logo on one side. Stanley swung. The ball was deflated. The Red Sox lost three straight to the A's, Rajah Clemens's shoulder began to hurt, and the entire lead was gone in two weeks. The phones have not stopped ringing.
"It has nothing to do with karma, Harry," I tell the men. "Deflating a Red Sox beach ball has no link to anything. Each season, each team is different. Anything can happen."
"There's still hope, Harriet," I tell the women. "The Red Sox are home for the end of the season. Toronto is on the road. The big series with Toronto will be played in Boston. Rajah might even be back. You never know."
I am not paid for my work. I have watched these Red Sox for all of my life. I have witnessed most of the moments that are relived. I figure my experience can dispel some of the worst fears that have been aroused and can be an antidote to the inflammatory rhetoric that is everywhere. I preach reason, moderation, a sense of perspective. I will talk with anyone. I am a rock. I want to help.
It is also kind of lonely here with the covahs pulled ovah my head.