Red Sox fans, we concede, your team is truly cursed


October 07, 1990|By JOHN EISENBERG

BOSTON -- I want to shake these people by their collars and tell them to get a life. I want to explain to them that they aren't unlucky, that their baseball team has a fine record and a history of providing thrills, that the unlucky fans are in Atlanta, Cleveland, Seattle and other cities where baseball is so much drudgery and the playoffs a faraway dream.

I want to tell these people that fans in Chicago haven't had a World Series winner since 1917, the year before the Red Sox won it the last time -- and they have two teams in Chicago, by gum, they're twice as unlucky out there. So stop complaining. Read a book. That is the admonition I want to give these people, who accept disappointment as an article of faith.

But I can't do it. I just can't. I hate to admit it, but they have a point. All these doomsayers and professional pessimists wallowing in their misery up here -- they have reason to drag out their hankies and blow, or call the talk shows and wail, even with their team in the playoffs for the third time in five years. Their skepticism isn't just a media creation. It is justified.

The Red Sox, see, are the ultimate tease. They always lose in the end, but that isn't what separates them from the Atlantas, Clevelands and Seattles, from the Cubs, from any loser in any sport. What separates the Sox is their history of coming so very close, of tantalizing everyone's fondest hopes before collapsing in a heap.

They are the sporting version of the boy who cried wolf. They threaten again and again to provide themselves and their fans the ultimate gift of a happy winter, but they never make good on their promises. Now no one believes, and I don't blame them. Taken together, as one, the Sox's collection of failures is an amazing piece of non-fiction. The players insist it doesn't affect them. They're always the last to know.

The Sox have lost four World Series since winning in 1918, twice lost a regular-season title in a one-game playoff, twice more been eliminated on the last day of the season. They have won a division title but lost in a League Championship Series, blown a 14-game lead in the last six weeks of the regular season, three times fallen apart in late September after contending all season.

It is true, no doubt, that fans in Seattle, Cleveland and Atlanta would accept the heartbreak in exchange for more interesting seasons. But few people outside Boston truly comprehend the degree of frustration to which the Sox have exposed their supporters.

The Sox not only have lost all four of their post-1918 Series appearances in Game 7, but they were ahead in three of the four seventh games, twice by three runs. In the 1986 Series, the most flagrant example of all, they were three times within a strike of winning.

In 1946, the Cardinals scored the winning run in the ninth when Sox second baseman Johnny Pesky hesitated with a relay throw. In 1975, the Reds scored the winner in the ninth when Sox manager Darrell Johnson curiously removed reliever Jim Willoughby, who had pitched magnificently. The questions -- Why did Pesky hesitate? Why did Willoughby come out? -- are still asked here, usually around closing time.

Two years after Pesky hesitated, the Sox won the last four games of the 1948 season to finish tied with the Indians, but for some reason, journeyman pitcher Denny Galehouse was named the starter in the playoff. The Sox got blown out at home, 8-3. The Indians went on to win the Series, and Galehouse never won another major-league game.

The very next year, the Sox had a powerhouse team with five .300 hitters, two 20-game winners, the league MVP, home run and RBI champions. Twelve games back on July 4, they rallied to take the lead and needed only to split their last two games with the Yankees to win the pennant. Ahead 4-0 in the first game, they lost by a run. The Yankees won the title the next day.

Despite all the near-misses, the belief that the Sox were truly cursed did not crystallize until 1978, when they blew a 14-game lead to the Yankees, fell three back, rallied to force a playoff and lost it on a 320-foot home run by weak-hitting Bucky Dent. It was, arguably, the bitterest loss of all. The very mention of the year 1978 sends a true Sox fan into a funk.

Of course, the closest call was in the 1986 Series, when the curse strained all limits of belief. Needing to beat the Mets in Game 6 to win it all, the Sox took a 5-3 lead into the bottom of the 10th inning. Pitcher Calvin Schiraldi got the first two Mets out and two strikes on the third. It was inconceivable that even the Sox could blow this one.

They did. Three singles, a wild pitch and a ground ball between Bill Buckner's legs gave the Mets a 6-5 win, and they won Game 7 after the Sox blew a 3-0 lead. Imagine being a Sox fan the night of Game 6, waiting all those years, coming within one strike and . . . another kick in the stomach. People in Cleveland never had it so good.

Buckner's name joined the list of those that still send shivers down spines across New England. Pesky, Galehouse, Willoughby, Dent, Schiraldi -- it is a horror show that has lasted seven decades. You can try to tell the people here that they're lucky, but it's easy to do from, say, Baltimore, where the Orioles have won three Series since 1966. Eighteen teams have won Series since the Sox last did. If the fans here are lucky, their luck is no lady.

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