Great theater

The Red Sox and Yankees gave us a drama only they could have produced.

October 22, 2004|By JOHN EISENBERG

IT HAS BEEN many years since baseball was rightfully known as America's national pastime. Pro football is more popular by almost any measuring stick.

But the Boston Red Sox's stirring and historic comeback victory over the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series was a throwback to the days when the summer game ruled.

Television ratings skyrocketed. Kids stayed up past midnight to watch. Baseball talk dominated offices, bars and the radio dial.

The buzz was formidable enough to match that of a heated presidential race in its final weeks.

For once, pro football couldn't compete with baseball's hold on the public.

"The series between the Yankees and Red Sox series provided baseball with a perfect storm of circumstances to create this kind of interest," said Michael Mandelbaum, a foreign policy expert at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and author of The Meaning of Sports, a book exploring the popularity of baseball, football and basketball.

Game 5 of the ALCS massacred Monday Night Football as a television event, consigning the football series to its lowest-rated broadcast ever.

Game 6 drew higher ratings in Boston than those for the New England Patriots' Super Bowl victory earlier this year.

The overnight national ratings for Wednesday night's Game 7 were the highest in at least 14 years for any league championship series game.

Baseball will point to such numbers as evidence that its popularity is soaring again a decade after its worst moment, the cancellation of the 1994 World Series due to labor strife.

But while the game surely is healthier than it was, such sweeping pronouncements are overstated.

Sadly, the thrilling series can't eradicate the competitive imbalance, steroids controversy and other problems keeping it ranked behind football.

"The exact same games played by two other teams wouldn't have generated nearly the same [high] ratings," Mandelbaum said. "As great as these games were, they wouldn't have been the same if it had been the Toronto Blue Jays and Tampa Bay Devil Rays playing."

The National League Championship Series between the Houston Astros and St. Louis Cardinals was also a dramatic affair that went seven games before ending last night, but it didn't dent the nation's conscience.

Baseball's return to its glory days as the national pastime was attributable strictly to the presence of the Yankees and Red Sox in a playoff for the pennant.

Their lopsided but passionate rivalry was the perfect vehicle for attracting millions of otherwise indifferent viewers.

The Yankees were classic villains with their buy-a-win philosophy and smug, superior attitude befitting a franchise with 26 World Series titles since the Red Sox's last Series win in 1918.

The 2004 Red Sox, meanwhile, were underdogs straight out of central casting: scruffy, self-mocking and team-oriented, though (shhhhh) also quite well compensated, their payroll second only to the Yankees' $182 million among the 30 major league teams.

In many eyes, the series boiled down, fairly or not, to Good vs. Evil, Haves vs. Have Nots, with the added twist of the Sox supposedly having doomed themselves to eternal failure by trading Babe Ruth to the Yankees before the 1920 season.

Nothing like a decades-old curse to ramp up the drama.

The two franchises' opposing fates provided the dramatic arc of the series, as the Yankees seemingly fulfilled their winning destiny in the first three games only to collapse and lose the next four.

And those four are destined to become legend, lasting five and six hours, featuring the slow-ticking suspense only baseball can produce, with each seemingly won and lost a dozen times before finally being decided.

There was Red Sox ace Curt Schilling doggedly winning in the mist at Yankee Stadium as his injured right ankle soaked his sock in blood.

There was the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez getting caught trying to cheat a rally along, a delicious moment in which baseball's highest-paid player was reduced to a stereotypical bully frustrated by his lack of the one possession he really wanted, World Series glory.

There was the larger-than-life spectacle of the highest-paid team in major league history becoming the first to choke away a 3-0 series lead.

"As people in England say, `You couldn't make this stuff up if you tried,' " Mandelbaum said.

Nor could you make up the lesson that emerged from the Red Sox's victory, which any Little League manager could and should teach.

The Sox were the ones with old-fashioned qualities such as camaraderie and spirit. You got the feeling they actually cared about each other and were willing to bunt, move runners along, do whatever was needed.

The Yankees, meanwhile, were a collection of free agents with little common history; a bunch of talented, highly professional guys who didn't really seem to care about each other. And they weren't into bunting.

The only sympathetic figure wearing their uniform was manager Joe Torre, who began to resemble former president Richard Nixon as the Game 7 debacle wore on, shoulders hunching, dark eyes narrowing, fate closing in.

But while the Red Sox's celebration on Yankee Stadium's infield was a golden moment unlike any in the franchise's history, woe unto those shortsighted fans who proclaimed it better than a World Series triumph.

They obviously weren't around in 1986, 1975 or 1967, when the Red Sox lost World Series Game 7s.

Remember, it is a Series title, not an American League pennant, that the Ruthian curse supposedly has blocked since 1918.

"As someone who roots for the Red Sox, I see with dread the perfect Red Sox moment coming," Mandelbaum said. "This could be the greatest comeback in history, coming from 0-3 down to beat the Yankees. Only the Red Sox could follow up a history-making achievement like that by going out and losing the World Series."

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