Archive for Monday, June 2, 2003

Baseball fan has split loyalties

June 2, 2003


— This space is reserved for essays on the moral conundrums of our time, the difficult questions of enduring social importance, the epochal matters involving eternal themes. Great issues like Loyalty. Responsibility. Justice. Redemption. The Red Sox.

Nearly four months ago, I moved to a great new town and got a great new start. It was exhilarating in every way: new surroundings, new challenges, new opportunities, new friends, a new league (the National League), a new stadium (PNC Park, baseball's prettiest), a new team (the Pittsburgh Pirates).

Now the Boston Red Sox are coming to town to ruin everything.

For four decades these same Sox have toyed with me, disappointed me, hurt me. They have broken my heart and have almost broken my spirit. They haven't won the World Series in my lifetime. Nor in my father's. Strom Thurmond, not known to be a Red Sox man, was, however, alive the last time the World Series flag flew over Fenway.

This is all you need to know about these bums: They have finished second to the Yankees for five consecutive seasons. Yes, they have taught me the value of patience. (It has been 85 years since they've won the championship, so those of us in Red Sox Nation know not to wait till next year. We wait till next century.) But they have also taught me about the vanity of human wishes. (I'm more likely to be hit by a meteorite than to witness a World Series celebration in Kenmore Square.) Some people have demons. I have Johnny Damon.

So the moral question I face at the interleague games this week is clear: Do I root for my new team in my new town? Or do I stick with the Olde Towne Team, as the Sox are sometimes called?

For most of my colleagues in the columnizing business, this is a trivial digression, eclipsed in significance by the budget deficit (going up), the tax burden (going down), civic participation (going away) and the reconstitution of Iraq (going badly). But I am tormented by whether to support the team led by Grady Little (the Sox manager, still going strong) or Lloyd McClendon (the Bucs' manager, who may be going, going, gone).

Wouldn't it be disloyal to my New England roots to abandon the Red Sox, whom I first visited in their cozy ballpark in 1962 (it was a no-hitter)? But wouldn't it also be disloyal to my new colleagues and neighbors to abandon the Pirates, whose fortunes I have eagerly embraced since coming to the Post-Gazette? Put another way: Is it noble to refuse to change? Or is it ennobling to have the courage to change?

I am tortured by this question -- though my publisher, my wife and my daughters all believe I have more important things to worry about, or ought to. Then again, I did invite Yaz, whom I had never met, to our wedding. (Carl Yastrzemski, my boyhood hero, didn't show. Cindy Skrzycki, my fiancee, did. Two great Polish Americans, one great lesson.)

On the surface, there is no reason to dread next week's three-game series. It's the first time the two teams have met in an entire century -- since the 1903 World Series, the very first. Cy Young pitched in four games. Honus Wagner came to the plate 30 times. Pittsburgh that year was the richest city on Earth, its people open-minded and fiercely optimistic. Boston was static and stubbornly staid, possessed of a Puritan pessimism that it didn't shake until the late 1960s. My two towns have nothing in common, except everything.

"The story of the first World Series is the story of the birth of baseball as a modern game," writes Louis P. Masur, a professor of history at City College of New York who, presumably, also has more important things to worry about, or ought to. His "Autumn Glory: Baseball's First World Series" is one of three books on the 1903 World Series published this season. Somewhere in this favored land is someone who has read all three.

I sat in the back row of the bleachers when the Red Sox, hundred-to-one odds to win the 1967 American League pennant, clinched the title when Rico Petrocelli caught an infield pop-up for the last out on the last pitch of the last day of the season. I saw Yaz slam two homers and Jim Lonborg throw a one-hitter in the second game of the Series that October, against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Deep inside my very favorite book, "The Red Sox Reader," is a little piece by David Halberstam, who also presumably has more important things to worry about, or ought to. This essay is about having what he calls "a soul divided." He's a New Yorker and a New Englander, a Yankee fan and a Sox partisan, which is a little like being a Republican and Roosevelt supporter in the 1938 midterm elections. No matter. He pulls it off somehow. I'm going to have to do the same. In December 1962, John F. Kennedy, a one-time Navy lieutenant, nonetheless watched the Army-Navy game from the Navy side of the field for the first half, from the Army side for the second half.

So I'll be at the ball yard next week, in Section 124. I can't bring myself to root against the Sox. I can't bring myself to root against the Pirates, either. I'll cheer, to be sure. But I'll cheer for the glory of our American game, and for the happy fact that I can see both my teams at once, on one splendid field. Mine is a tale of two cities, and next week is the best of times.

-- David Shribman is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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