Dispatches While Sheltering in Place: Ode to the 2004 Boston Red Sox, Part 1

In his most recent dispatch, Courthouse News’ western bureau chief reminisces about family and his beloved Boston Red Sox.

Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox. (Courthouse News photo / Chris Marshall)

The waiter approached the food line and announced, “4 to 3 in the sixth.”

“Who is winning?” I shot back.

“The good guys,” he replied. Had I not been looking at half-full plates and food tickets I might have noticed a smirk.

“Alright, go Sox!” I shouted a bit too loud for this hip restaurant with an open kitchen, the closest table a few feet behind me.

I could feel him staring. I turned.

“Sorry, Marshall, I meant the Yankees are winning,” he said.

I muttered a vulgar insult quiet enough that only he could hear, handed him two plates, grabbed two more and told him where to bring them.

The dinner rush usually started late and ended early on Sundays, requiring four hours of work in two. This day was no different.

Line clear and few tickets remaining, my work as expediter was almost done. I confirmed with the hostess no more reservations were on the books before speed-walking to my manager’s office to ask if I could leave.

He looked up from a stack of paychecks. “Sure, but the Yankees are going to win,” he said, smiling.

Though these events took place decades ago many memories are fresh, including yelling at my radio to tell me the score as I sped through a stop sign on the way to my apartment in San Diego’s Ocean Beach neighborhood.

You might wonder, dear reader, why I write about old baseball games during a pandemic.

Stuck inside except for daily walks with Klaus the dog through my suburban neighborhood, I have no recent road trips to discuss, and I already wrote this column about neighborhood turkeys, and a second about shopping during ‘Rona. The ‘burbs aren’t as boring as some imagine, but they’re not endlessly exciting either.

Unable to sleep the first night after the county I live in shut down, I considered packing what I could fit into my little car and driving across the country to wait it out with my family in Maine.

But to leave an emerging hotspot and possibly carry the disease to gas stations, restaurants and hotels across the country, finishing in a rural state with too few hospitals and the oldest population in the country would be selfish.

Having concluded I must remain, I faded off to sleep.

Then Major League Baseball delayed the start of the regular season indefinitely.

Covid-19 achieved what not even two world wars could.

Television networks are filling airspace with classic games. I’ve revisited victories for the Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics and re-watched every championship the New England Patriots won, including that game against the Los Angeles Rams from two years ago, arguably the worst viewing spectacle in Super Bowl history.

Lest anyone see in this story an attempt to distract from MLB’s recent report that members of the 2018 Red Sox stole signs on the way to a championship, it is not. I wrote the first drafts of this story weeks before the news broke. I’m not pleased with the Sox. That their behavior paled in comparison to the Houston Astros’ the year before or that the Sox weren’t able to employ their scheme during the postseason doesn’t diminish what they did. A small asterisk is an asterisk.

The news doesn’t change my feelings for the 2004 team, and I remain diehard despite moving away in 2003, though I’ve also developed a soft spot for the plucky Oakland Athletics.

Growing up my family attended an easygoing church, but the Red Sox have always been my religion, and the team remains a tie that binds, especially with my mother, a lifelong fan.

I remember sitting on her father’s lap as a small child while he read the sports section. The Sox were mired in last place.

But it was only summer, I said. They had plenty of time to turn the season around. He looked down at me, smiled and went back to his paper.

His wife had no use for those upstart Red Sox. She would die a Boston Braves fan. An original member of what would become the National League, the team was around for three decades before the Sox came to town. Her heart did not follow the team to Milwaukee or Atlanta.

My paternal grandfather, for his part, used to listen to the Red Sox on a crackling transistor radio, constantly moving the knob to catch the weak signal in the little town of Monson, Maine. His wife cared only for the local high school basketball team.

Monson, Maine. (Courthouse News photo / Chris Marshall)

Born in 1915, my maternal grandfather was too young to remember the Red Sox 1918 title. They’d come close since, making the World Series in 1946, 1967, 1975 and 1986, only to lose, usually in agonizing fashion.

I wasn’t alive for most of those games, but I heard about them and the Curse of the Bambino. Before he shattered home run records and changed the game as a Yankee, Babe Ruth was an excellent pitcher and part-time hitter for the Sox. Notorious for poor behavior and drunkenness, the Sox sold him to New York in 1919 when he demanded to be paid twice what he’d earned the year before.

The Yankees hadn’t won a title before 1919. They’ve won 27 since.

I was alive in 1986, and just old enough to feel the gut punch when the Sox fell to the New York Mets. Bill Buckner got much of the blame for letting a ball go through his legs. Aging and with bad ankles, Buckner shouldn’t have been on the field. But had he made the play the game would not have been over. It would have gone to extra innings. The Sox then blew a lead in the decisive game seven.

And those were just the years the Sox lost in the World Series. In many others they came close only to falter, often finishing behind the Yankees and missing the playoffs.

Like clockwork, a season would end in disappointment and soon after another brutal Maine winter would start.

In dark February we would celebrate truck day, when the Sox pack up and move their equipment from Boston to Florida for spring training, then rejoice the day pitchers and catchers reported and again when the rest of the team arrived.

The start of a new season brings hope to fans everywhere, and every year we Red Sox fans believed this could be the year while trying to ignore the dark voice reminding us what happens when we dare to dream.

Though my parents had little spending money we made at least one pilgrimage to Fenway Park every year. I recall huddling under a blanket during snow flurries in April and thinking I might pass out from heat and humidity in summer.

My fondest memory is from the random summer day my maternal grandfather bought standing-room only tickets on a whim. We spent the day standing at the back of sections, scanning for two free seats together, snatching them up only to move to the back of another section when the ticketholders arrived.

A soccer match being played at Fenway Park in Boston. (Courthouse News photo / Chris Marshall)

I still get restless in my designated seat.

Part of me welcomed the seasons the Sox weren’t competitive. At least we wouldn’t have to suffer when they again snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

And after 1986, no loss hurt more than 2003.

We had gathered in the backyard of a friend’s house in Ocean Beach to watch the final game of the American League Championship Series against, who else, the Yankees.

We were confident. This team was different. This team would win.

And for a time it looked like they would. Up 5-2 heading into bottom of the eighth, the Yankees rallied to tie.

What had been a raucous scene grew quiet as the game went into extra innings.

Knuckleballer Tim Wakefield started the bottom of the 11th inning against Aaron Boone, who was mired in a slump so awful he’d started on the bench only to come on as a pinch runner.

Boone swung at the first pitch. I think we all knew the ball was gone as soon as he made contact.

I looked to where the lone Yankees fan had been sitting, but his seat was empty. I spotted him walking away from the house, leaving us in all-too-familiar silent misery.

Then fall became winter, 2003 became 2004. By spring we had convinced ourselves 2004 would be different. This team would win.

To be continued…

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