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Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Red Sox World Series and a Real Life Prodigal Son

I love sports. Sports in many ways are an outlet: a way to get out all the stuff in your heart by just screaming your lungs out for a few solid hours. Sports are a catharsis. Every now and again they become something even more. Every so often a moment in the life of a sports team becomes something more that just a moment in the life of a sports team. Watching the broadcast of the World Series in the common room of my dorm last night, I witnessed one of those precious moments. For a brief moment in time, it wasn't about just another game or just another Red Sox win. It wasn't even about the Red Sox winning another World Series (their third in 10 years). This was about a city in triumph after hitting the lowest point a city can, and about the prodigal son who symbolized the turn around the city so desperately needed.

It had been since 1918 since a Red Sox team won a World Series in Fenway Park. 1918. Let that sink in. In the oldest and (arguably) most iconic ballpark in baseball, the home team hadn't clinched a World Series in almost a hundred years. The team didn't win a World Series at all for over eighty years, until a magical October run in 2004 made the entire city believe in miracles. Even then, in what seemed to be the ultimate catharsis of at least four generations of Red Sox fans, there was one more thing left to do: bring it home. Win in Boston. Have the triumph of winning it all in the greatest cathedral in the baseball world: Fenway. To go a century without it seemed unspeakable.

Against this backdrop, came the 2011 and 2012 Red Sox seasons. After winning another World Series in 2007, the organization had gotten arrogant. The farm system became neglected as a rather Yankees-like tendency to simply buy talent settled in. Chemistry wasn't a factor. The Red Sox teams of previous World Series were known by their likability. They weren't the most talented teams, but they played well and hard together. They represented Boston as a city, as a birthplace of democracy that came not out of singular talent but of collective will. The Red Sox had lost their way. As 2011 ended with the worst September collapse of all time, the decadence of a "chicken and beer" clubhouse came to light, and as 2012 became a nightmare of clubhouse fractions and injuries, the city for a moment lost touch with its team. Fans disconnected from a franchise they didn't recognize as their own. John Lackey seemed to symbolize all that was wrong with the team: overweight and struggling, he was mercilessly booed off the mound. Even on the occasions he did play well and got a hand from the crowd, he never tipped the cap. It got to the point that Red Sox fans were almost happy to see him go down for Tommy Johns surgery during the season.

Winter of 2012 came and the Red Sox organization finally looked in the mirror and realized what it had become. So they went to work to find the pieces to make the Red Sox the Red Sox again: a team built to have a strong clubhouse environment, work hard, and play hard. The organization sought out guys who wanted to play in Boston, and who wanted a chance to establish and play in that culture. John Farell was brought in to skipper and players like Shane Victorino and David Ross were brought in. The biggest change however might have come from a player already on the team: Lackey showed up in the Spring significantly lighter and showed evidence of working extremely hard to up his game.

So the 2013 Red Sox surprised everyone. Most of all their own fans. We recognized our team again: likable, even lovable, and playing with a chemistry and work ethic that brought back fond memories of past Sox teams. They quickly established themselves as the best team in the AL East. They slowly became one of the best teams in baseball, and the city found its heartbeat with its baseball team once again.

Then in April came one of the greatest tragedies to hit the city: the Marathon bombings. The details are well established, and need not be mentioned, but the effect on the city was tangible. Boston felt like its very identity had been struck and brought into question, but the city responded. Behind a mantra of "Boston Strong", the city rallied and vowed not to let its darkest hour define it. The Red Sox in many ways represented this sentiment neatly: the nadir of the 2011-2012 seasons was overcome by a re-commitment to being the true identity of the Red Sox. The city and team together became the embodiment of the resolve to stick to what made Boston great.

That's what made last night so special and so above anything that's "just a game". As Lackey kept shutting down Cardinals pushes, as the lineup kept pummeling away at the Cardinals bullpen, and as the innings counted down; the city felt not only the triumph of a baseball team but the triumph of everything that the city stood for. The team embodied the spirit of the city itself. Best of all the fairy tale was being written at home. In Fenway. For the first time in almost a century the cathedral of baseball rang with the raucous sounds of some of its most devoted fans. In a glorious moment of catharsis, as Uehara pitched the final strike, Fenway exploded in a whirlwind of civic pride, belief that all was indeed going to be alright even after such tragedy, and the collective weight of almost a century of waiting. But the cities' prodigal son had already come home. In the seventh inning as Lackey strode off the field after pitching a game full of the grit that his team was so beloved for, after getting out of jam after jam and holding the Cardinals to one run, the stands roared and chanted his name. "Lackey! Lackey! Lackey!" The man who had previously symbolized all that was wrong with the franchise had now become an embodiment of all that was right in the city itself. For the first time in his Boston career, as Lackey walked into the dugout, he tipped his cap.

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