In land of `Cheers,' agony a birthright

Boston

World Series

October 23, 2004|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Being a fan of the Boston Red Sox isn't easy. Just ask one.

It's haaad, wicked haaad.

Harder than the ice that covers the northern two-thirds of Red Sox Nation each winter.

Harder than the steel plate in Don Zimmer's skull (although he swears it's just bolts).

Harder than the granite on Mount Washington.

Yet, legions of New Englanders over the years have pledged their undying allegiance to the Sons of Yawkey despite knowing that their spirits will get stomped flatter than a scrod fillet.

Defeat builds character. Brooklyn Dodgers fans may or may not have invented the plucky, "Wait Until Next Year," but Red Sox faithful have it embroidered on their hearts in a macabre twist on Raggedy Ann's "I Love You."

Taking the long, hard road of being a Red Sox fan over the superhighway that leads to Yankee Stadium or, yes, Busch Stadium, would alone qualify Boston as the baseball capital.

"It's like a marriage," said Steve Silva, webmaster of BostonDirtDogs.com. "We have our ups and downs, but we stay together and we're stronger for it."

But there's more. There's the depth of baseball knowledge - a virtual Plymouth Rock of information and opinion - on which The Nation rests.

Red Sox fans are still arguing the nuances of whether Johnny Pesky "held the ball" to allow Cardinal Enos Slaughter to score from first and win the 1946 Series.

They remember where they were in 1975 when catcher Carlton Fisk hit the 12th-inning home run to force Game 7 against Cincinnati, and when the Yankees' Bucky Dent hit the home run in 1978 to win a one-game playoff for the American League East title.

And Sox fans, unlike the rest of the baseball world, have long stopped debating the 1986 Bill Buckner miscue in the sixth game of the World Series against the Mets. Instead, they ask each other whether earlier in that same inning Bob Stanley's pitch was wild (as scored) or catcher Rich Gedman allowed a passed ball to tie the game.

For years, a local VHF television station broadcast vintage Red Sox games, a video hot stove league, to tide fans over from the last game of the season to spring training. Pop open an ice-cold 'Gansett lager, just as Curt Gowdy told them to, and watch the action.

"The fans here are unbelievable, the stuff they know," said Eddie Doyle, for 30 years a bartender at the Bull and Finch Pub (aka "Cheers") at the foot of Beacon Hill. "People keep trying to make the case that the Patriots, with their two Super Bowls, are New England's team. I'm sorry, we watch football but we follow baseball."

However, there's more to being the center of the baseball universe than being a walking Trivial Pursuit game. It takes being able to love your team even when its players - Ted Williams, Jim Rice, Nomar Garciaparra - are less than lovable.

"We're rooting for the laundry. We don't care who's wearing the uniform, we cheer for the team," said Silva. "If we had gotten A-Rod, we would have loved him. But we didn't, so we rip him."

Silva admits there's little to hate about Cardinals fans, but he'll give it a try. "It's the whole Midwestern thing - `Hi, neighbor,' and stuff like that. At [Cardinals] spring training, it's like a pep rally. You wear your red, you wave your pom-poms. It's not as much fun as being cranky and negative and ornery, like we are."

But those outside the six-state region seem to like the Red Sox, too.

In Field of Dreams, author W.P. Kinsella doesn't have his protagonists meet in St. Louis or Chicago, both closer to Iowa's cornfields than the Fens in Boston and both with photogenic ballparks and rabid fans.

No, they have their first encounter not far from the Green Monster and have their revelation in third base-side seats.

And where was one of TV history's most successful sitcoms set? Not under the St. Louis Arch but beneath Beacon Street at "Cheers," where everybody knows your name.

"I think the fact that Boston's not won makes it more endearing," said Roger Berkowitz, a lifetime Sox fan and CEO of the Legal Sea Foods restaurant chain, a Boston institution. "People admire Red Sox fans' loyalty."

Doyle is hanging a banner over the bar that says, "Chickazoola," the blood-curdling scream hollered by onetime Cardinals first baseman Jake "Eagle Eye" Beckley (1904-07).

"It's part of my redirect-the-curse effort," Doyle said, laughing.

Legal Sea Foods is offering a "Reverse the Curse, All Things Boston," dinner of chowdah, lobstah and a slice of Boston cream pie.

"We're pulling out all stops," said Berkowitz. "We've exorcised all our excuses. We have new ownership. Trading Nomar was the last thing we had to do. Now, we have a clean slate."

Granted, the Cardinals have won the World Series nine times to Boston's five, but you can't consider yourself the center of the baseball universe if your team played more than two decades on plastic grass, as the Cards did. Baseball and Astroturf go together like clam dip and Oreos.

And if, for some reason, Boston isn't crowned king of the baseball world this month, residents of Red Sox Nation won't renounce their citizenship.

"We've gotten this far," said Berkowitz. "There's no turning back."

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