REVIEW AMERICANA

 

Spring 2006

Volume 1, Issue 1

http://www.americanpopularculture.com/review_americana/spring_2006/brophy.htm




MATT BROPHY

 

Our Year

 

Baseball, in Boston, is a religious institution. We practice our faith through rituals. I don’t shave during winning streaks. When he was alive, my father would pour himself a stout if the Red Sox got an early lead and drink it very slowly, making it last until the game was over or the lead had disappeared. The morning before an important game, my wife, Danielle, will soak white socks in red wine to make her own red sox. Sometimes these things work. More often than not, they don’t.

Danielle and I have gone to six games this season, a season in which the Red Sox put together one of the hottest streaks in their history, winning twenty out of twenty-two games over a four-week stretch. They finished the regular season with ninety-eight wins and won the wild card. They swept Anaheim in the Division Series, and we braced ourselves for the Yankees. Then, as feared, the Sox stumbled, losing the first two games in New York, and the next one in Boston. Now they are down three-love, facing elimination and their eighty-sixth consecutive disappointing year. Danielle and I have tickets for tonight’s game, which we bought a week ago for $500 a piece. I fully expect them to lose tonight, but I cannot not go. And it isn’t even because the tickets cost us a grand; it’s because some idiotic part of me still thinks they might win. This could be the year, I keep telling myself – our year.

Danielle and I squeeze onto the trolley car. This is the green line to Kenmore. She is wearing her Johnny Damon jersey, and I my David Ortiz. She calls me “Papi” and tries to get me to smile, but underneath it all we are both trembling. Looking around, we see that stupid, stubborn hope in all the faces.

— Cute boys, Danielle points out, nodding at a handful of little-leaguers wearing t-shirts that say “Yankees Suck.” I wonder what Bostonians of a century ago would make of such a scene. The kids are unaware, but I want to tell them, We are Yankees.

The Yankees. They steal our hope just like they stole our name. Granted, “Yankee” in the broadest sense of the word has come to mean “American,” and in a slightly stricter sense “Northerner,” but in the strictest sense “Yankee” has always meant New Englander, and New York is certainly not New England. The New York Yankees – what an absurdity!

Unlike Derek Jeter, I am, in the truest sense of the word, a Yankee. And I don’t say that with any Puritan snobbery. After all, my name is Murphy, and my family only came over from Ireland a couple generations past. My grandparents settled in Southie, my parents in Quincy, and then I made my way to Harvard. We moved up quick, with good old Thoreauvian self-reliance. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the Red Sox, it’s that you can be in first place in July, and still not make the playoffs come October. Such is the life of a real Yankee.

Take last year for example. If any year looked like it was our year, it was last year. Seemed like every game in which the Sox were trailing, they would find some way to pull it out in the end. Either Nomar would come up and line a bases-clearing triple or Manny Ramirez would knock a walk-off home run onto Lansdowne Street. In the playoffs, they lost the first two games to Oakland on the road, but when they came back to Boston no one doubted them, and no one was surprised when they came back to win the next three.

And then they played the Yankees.

Okay, so we know how it turned out, but at the time I really thought they were going to do it. The Sox walked into Yankee Stadium with a swagger, even when they were down three games to two. They won game six to tie things up. They were five outs away from winning game seven, and during the whole thing I just wanted to call my brother on the phone and tell him what was happening. My brother, you see, had been playing the part of a traitor, and I was convinced the Red Sox were winning precisely because he wasn’t around. I thought he, too, was a curse, and with him out of the way, they just might win.

In 1996, when he was eighteen-years-old, my brother decided he was a Yankee fan. I was twenty-one, just dropped out of Harvard and tending bar at The Sevens on Charles Street. At first I just laughed at him, because it seemed so silly – native Bostonian turned Yankee fan – but the little shit was serious. He bought the hat and one of those nauseating pin-stripe jerseys with a “2” on the back. He would come in to the pub and cheer for them, not caring what anyone said, happy enough that his team was a winner. You could tell he felt superior, like being a Yankee fan in Boston was this courageous and defiant act. I told him there were better ways of being a non-conformist than waking up one day and deciding to be an asshole.

— I just don’t see the point in cheering for losers, he said. I mean every year we think they’re gonna win, and they never do, and then I get wicked depressed.
— But you can’t go for the Yankees. You’ll kill Ma.
— Ma doesn’t give a shit about baseball. She just pretends for your sake. You’re the only one who really cares anymore.

My brother’s actions were clearly a statement of contempt for the family. Our father had always loved the Red Sox, from his childhood through the war and the Impossible Dream, through Fisk in ’75 and Bucky Dent in ’78. Our father fought in Vietnam because that’s what Ted Williams would’ve done. He always said that he knew he would survive Vietnam as long as the Red Sox kept losing. He believed that God would not let him die without seeing the Red Sox win the World Series, and each year they didn’t win was at least one more year he would live. The Sox kept coming up short, and my old man stayed alive and made it home.

In 1975, the year I was born, the Red Sox played the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. The Sox lost in seven games. Three years later, they lost the American League East in a one game playoff with the Yankees. My brother was born. The closest my father came to seeing them win it was 1986, the year he died. The Sox were up three games to two in the series, and leading five to three in the ninth inning of game six, with two outs and no one on base. They were one out away. Somehow, they managed to lose. The curse had cracked our faith. Everyone knew they would lose game seven, too, which they did. My father passed away about a month later, right before Thanksgiving. That was the fall of 1986.

I don’t blame the Red Sox for my father’s death. That would be too much. We blame the Red Sox for everything bad that happens around here, but baseball games do not decide matters of life and death. My old man had had heart problems for years, and my grandfather too. All the men in my family have been lucky if their tickers can get them through half a century. My old man made it to forty-two.

It was inevitable that they would lose. It was foreordained. It was providence. It was fate – whatever you want to call it. They were bound to lose. When it comes down to it, that’s what the Red Sox do.

Seventeen years later my brother, who was also my best man, wore his Yankee hat to my wedding. Danielle and I were married in the Public Garden on September 25, 2003, the same day the Red Sox clinched their spot in the playoffs in a fourteen to three drubbing of the Baltimore Orioles. Danielle and I watched the game in bed from Martha’s Vineyard, and while rubbing her face against my unshaven cheek, she said —My love for you is like a walk-off home run.

Danielle grew up in Paris, and when she moved to Boston to accept a fellowship at Harvard (she is an accomplished poet) she knew nothing at all about baseball. The game, and the Red Sox in particular, took a quick hold on her imaginatio – their history like something out of Camus – but she had difficulty decoding certain statistical, geometrical, and dramatic nuances, not to mention the infield fly rule, why sometimes a batter will run to first even if he strikes out, and what is and what is not a balk. She sought a tutor, offering French lessons in exchange. At the time I was stumbling through an existential crisis, and thought reading Sartre, Bergson, and Beckett in the original French might hold a key to my fate, so when I saw her ad posted in a coffee-shop in the Square, I was quick to take her number.

She was ten years older than I. She still is, of course, and in some ways it is still an issue, though when we met, at twenty-one and thirty-one, we were more concerned with what others would think, whereas now, at twenty-nine and thirty-nine, we are facing questions of family and the future. Danielle, almost forty, does not want to wait any longer to have her first child. When I proposed, four years ago, that was what I thought I wanted too, but four years ago I was twenty-five, and at twenty-five who really knows what one wants?

Some of the reasons behind my anxiety over having children may seem rather irrational, but keep in mind I’m a New Englander. Although Yankees have a great intellectual tradition (Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson), it has always been coupled with myth and superstition (Salem witch trials, curse of the Bambino). So when George W. Bush managed to find his way to Washington, despite the fact that more people (including myself) voted for the other guy, I saw it as more than a political setback. It was, to me, a sign.

What happened in New York on September 11th, 2001, was another sign.

The clincher, though – the event that still gives me nightmares – is what happened in Yankee Stadium last year, during game seven of the American League Championship Series. It was the second time I really felt what it meant to be a Red Sox fan. It was to feel again what I felt with my father in 1986. To believe, with all my being, that this year is the year, to see it come so close to fruition, and then to watch it all collapse senselessly – to hear the gods and the Yankee fans laughing at me from afar. Would I really want my son ever to feel such a thing?

At twenty-five you still think it might happen someday. Someday they might win it all. After what I saw last October, I’m beginning to see the grim truth. They, and by extension, we, are cursed. We will always lose.

Yet, we still believe. It was the same when John Kerry and the Democrats came to town this summer and I thought maybe, just maybe, we’ll get a new guy in there – a real Yankee who knows what he’s talking about. But I probably should’ve just listened to Bill, one of my regulars at The Sevens. He told me Kerry’s biggest mistake in the election was identifying himself with the Red Sox.

— Everyone knows the Red Sox are losers, Bill said. You have to project confidence to be the President. Kerry should be going to Patriots games. They’ve won two of the last three Super Bowls and they’re called the Patriots for Christ’s sake. Talk about a missed opportunity.
— You lost your faith in comeback Kerry, Bill? I asked.
— I think your little brother is better than we are at picking winners.

In November of 2001, my brother decided he was a Republican. It was just after the Yankees had lost what was perhaps the greatest World Series ever, and I’m not saying that just because the Yankees lost. They lost in the most incredible, improbable way. If they weren’t wearing pinstripes you would’ve thought they were the Red Sox. It was perhaps the first (and only) time I looked into the faces of Yankee fans and sympathized.

At some level my brother may have suspected a connection between al Qaeda and the Diamondbacks. He was hungry for blood. He wanted personally to hunt down Osama bin Laden and Curt Schilling. He bought a big red, white, and blue truck with two huge American flag decals on each side. He had gone from Yankee to redneck. For whatever reason, I felt responsible.

He ended up driving that truck of his down to Virginia, and not for a holiday, but for good. He wanted to get a job at the Pentagon. He wanted to do what he could to help Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz do whatever they were trying to do. Now just because my brother was crazy doesn’t mean he isn’t smart – he’s a Murphy too, after all. He probably could’ve done a lot of dirty shit for the CIA if they ever gave him a chance. But it wasn’t meant to be. He took temporary jobs from time to time, but mostly he was just a bum. He’d call me up asking for money every couple months, and I’d try to get him to come home, but end up giving in and sending him what I could. It was my attempt to be bi-partisan.

But now it looks like both my brother’s teams are going to win, which of course means both of mine are about to fold. The Red Sox are no surprise, but I had higher hopes for Kerry. After all, there’s a lot more riding on that race.

But what if Kerry does win? What if the Red Sox were to win the Series? What would happen then? Would my little brother finally come home? Would I take Danielle out to the Vineyard for the weekend and get started on making a baby?

Why do I do this to myself? I already know what is going to happen. I would be better off thinking of a way to tell her that I’ve changed my mind. That I can’t do it – not in good conscience. She will try to change my mind, point out the good in the world.

— But you love this town so much, she will say. How can some man in Washington or some baseball team ruin that for you?

It’s true, I do love Boston. The pubs, the Charles, the Pru. The Fens, Back Bay, the North End. The Garden, the Common, the Esplanade. It’s my town.

I love sleeping in until noon, walking over the Charles River from Beacon Hill to Kendall Square to watch a foreign film by myself in the middle of the afternoon. Some people feel strange going to movies alone, but it’s something I’ve been doing ever since I started working nights. My wife and my friends all have things to do during the day, so I go alone. I don’t have to worry about who sees me cry. I love to cry at movies, alone, in the dark, maybe a stranger or two a few rows back. Aside from baseball, movies are about the only things that can make me cry.

Sometimes I’ll go to the MIT library to read, or take the T up to Harvard Square and check out my old favorite places, get coffee at Peet’s or hot chocolate at Burdick’s, spy around for old friends. Or sometimes I will go back to Charles Street, buy some groceries at DeLuca’s, maybe shrimp, pasta, vodka sauce, a bottle of wine, a six-pack of ale. Then back to the apartment, where I’ll get dinner cooking before Danielle gets home. We eat early so I can get to work at six. Bill will be there for happy hour with some new theory. Once this year he told me that trading Garciaparra ended the curse.

—How can you say that? I asked. I loved that guy.
— It had to be done, Bill said. This is the year.
— Since when are you an optimist?
— I don’t know, but there’s something about these guys. I think they’re too dumb to realize they’re supposed to lose.
— Let’s hope no one tells them.
At two o’clock, we’ll close down. I’ll pour myself a stout and help clean up. I’ll be home by three and Danielle will wake up when I slip into bed.
— Why don’t we move to Paris? she will ask. Would you have children in Paris?
— I couldn’t live in Paris. You started teaching me French eight years ago and I still can’t speak it.
— But you’ll learn it once you live there.
— And then will we speak French to each other?
Bien-sûr.
— But I’ll miss you speaking English with your French accent.
— But I speak French with the same accent.
— But you hate my American accent when I speak French.
— This is true, but it’s okay.
— But Boston is my home.
— Yes, I know, and so was Paris mine. It is your home until you move away.

Back in ’96, I got so engrossed in teaching Danielle baseball that I forgot I was supposed to be learning French and studying philosophy. I ended up on academic probation and decided to drop out. That was when I got my job at The Sevens. She would come into the bar while I was working, and sit there with her notebook, writing in French, English, German, Russian – whatever she was in the mood for that night. The Sevens was one of the very few bars in Boston without any televisions, so we couldn’t watch the Sox, but Danielle would set her VCR, and after I got out of work we’d stay up until sunrise watching the game in her tiny Cambridge apartment. She’d keep sipping wine all night while I’d move through a six-pack of ale, and I’d tell her —No, that was a slider, he’s trying to get him to chase an outside pitch. You don’t necessarily want to throw a strike when you’ve got a guy oh-and-two. I’d tell her stories about Ted Williams and Yaz and Jim Rice that I’d heard from my father, what happened in ’75 and ’78. We’d fool around between innings, and after the Sox would blow it in the ninth, I’d curse and she’d sigh, close the shades to block out the morning light, and then she would teach me things that she knew – the older woman, the French woman – and then we’d sleep the morning away. No one cares if a poet and a bartender sleep past noon.

Today I am still a bartender and I still sleep until noon. I usually wake up alone, as Danielle now savors her sunlight, writes best in those early, solitary hours, and often teaches a class or two before mid-day. She is a professor of French Literature at Boston University. She has affairs with Baudelaire and Rimbaud.

Not a native New Englander, Danielle’s love for the Sox is not quite of the same caliber. She appreciates the beauty of the game, the tension of a moment, and the situational drama. She loves the long narrative of the season, with its autumnal denouement. She loves the game, and she loves the Red Sox, but it is not quite the same passion. By passion I mean suffering. After the Red Sox lose, Danielle feels like she’s just seen a great production of Sophocles, whereas I feel as if I’ve lost my best friend. Or my brother.

I don’t want to feel that way tonight. If my brother were here, maybe I could’ve convinced him to take Danielle in my place. He would cheer for his Yankees despite the wrath of 35,000 Fenway faithful. Danielle would laugh at him and he would take offense only for a moment, until he realized it makes no sense, under any circumstances, to be angry with Danielle – she is simply too good a human being. The Yankees would win and he would be the only one happy. He’d try to cheer up Danielle on the T afterwards, and he’d get her to smile once, with difficulty, and then again and again, effortlessly. The three of us would stay up drinking, and he would gloat and tease me, and I’d pretend not to be hurt, and say ridiculous things like it’s only baseball, and pretend to mean it. I’d hold onto Danielle for dear life, and eventually I’d feel okay again. We’d go to bed together, and my brother would fall asleep on our couch, alone, but still part of the family.

Unfortunately, this is not how it will be. Although I don’t know exactly where my brother is tonight, I know he is very far away.

On April 4th, 2003 – opening day – my brother enlisted in the Marines. I remember the Red Sox lost to the Devil Rays. They had been ahead all game – Pedro Martinez had pitched beautifully. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, they still had the lead. It should’ve been over – Garciaparra failed to turn a double play on the second to last batter. Then came the walk-off home run. Boston loses.

That game should’ve been a sign, not just for the baseball season, but for the whole year, at home and abroad. Looks like an easy victory – shock and awe, American tanks rolling down the streets of Baghdad, major combat over before it had hardly begun. My brother watched it on television, embedded in his unemployment, saw the Marines like the Yankees – winners, heroes, everything that a bum from Boston wasn’t.

—Why don’t you just come home? I asked him.
— I’m not going back to Boston, he said. Boston sucks. It’s wicked cold.
— You think you’re gonna like Baghdad better?
— So it’ll be wicked hot, instead. So what? At least I’m going somewhere, man. You’ll be in Boston forever. That’s all you’ll ever know.

It was a unilateral decision. He was in Iraq before the playoffs. It’s more than a year later and he’s still there. Who knows where he is now? I haven’t heard from him in weeks.

I’m waiting for a good sign. I thought if the Red Sox could beat the Yankees, maybe my brother would come home. He’s a fair-weather fan – a frontrunner – and if Boston could beat New York he might come back to our side. He just wants to win, and can you blame him? I’d like to win for once, myself.

But all the signs have been bad. The Sox are down three games. Kerry is behind in the polls. My brother is missing. Danielle keeps talking baby talk. At a time like this?

—They will not lose anymore, Danielle says to me, as if reading the despair in my eyes. They are done with losing.
— They’re going to win four in a row? I ask her.
— Eight in a row.
— Don’t say that. It hurts too much even to think it.
— I want to have a baby. And if the Red Sox need to win a World Series for it to happen, then it will happen.
— But they’re going to lose. They always lose.

We are both about to cry and we haven’t even gotten to the park yet. We’re still on the T. I know I should take her in my arms and tell her it will be okay, but instead her arms find me. She pulls me closer, and I bury my face in her jersey. She is the brave one. She still believes.

—I just want them to win it so bad, I say, choked up. Just once, just to know it can happen. I don’t want to die like my father died, never having seen it. My heart can’t take much more of this.
— I know, she says.
— It’s so silly. I’m sorry. It’s just a game, but it means everything to me.
— I know, I know.
— I feel like I’m running out of time.
— I feel the same.

I have a beautiful wife that I love very much. I like my job. I still live in my hometown and I love it as much as I did when I was a kid. So why do I cry for the Red Sox? Because I’m an idiot.

—They win tonight, and we’ll make reservations for the Vineyard, I tell her.
— You say that because you think they will lose.
— No, I just need a sign. I need to believe it’s still possible.
—I understand, she says, and kisses me.
— And if they lose, she says, then I’ll make reservations for Paris. One-way reservations. Okay?

I hesitate. She, too, is looking for a sign. I kiss her.

— Okay, I say, and kiss her again. But they aren’t going to lose, are they?
— Of course not, she says. This is our year.

We make our way from Kenmore, through the massive crowd to the park. We enter through security and turnstile, pass chaos and commerce, and finally walk up the steps to the bleachers and see all that green under those giant lights. We feel that cool October air, crisp and electric. I take Danielle’s hand in mine, and I think of my father. I wish he could feel this. I look around for my brother and see him in the faces of strangers. I turn to Danielle and she squeezes my hand and I think maybe, just maybe, we might do it.


 

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