Jonathan Edwards, known to his friends as “Mr. Sunshine.”

“We are all sinners in the hands of an angry God.”

So said Jonathan Edwards, that happy-go-lucky New England preacher, the man who put the “fun” in “fundamentalist.” I had to read that sermon, which dates from 1741, for a high school English class. In it the effervescent Mr. Edwards (not to be confused with the singer/songwriter who performed “Shanty”) described how this pissed-off God holds us loathsome sinners suspended over the pit of hell and is just itching to drop us into the ultimate hot stove.

Well, he dropped all the Red Sox fans last night. The team wrapped up an epic late-season collapse by letting the lowly Baltimore Orioles snatch away their hopes for a playoff berth. It followed a September when the Red Sox appeared determined to prove themselves the worst team in baseball—and did a damned good job of it by racking up an excruciating 7-20 record.

That should get things back to normal in New England and throughout the New England of the spirit called Red Sox Nation. When I was growing up in Maine people expected nothing but the worst from the Red Sox. True, there were occasional bright spots (1967, 1975, the gut-wrenching 1986) but they all ended just short of the finish line. In between Red Sox fans suffered the tortures of the damned. Bucky Dent anyone? Grady Little? Red Sox fans know what I’m talking about.

But then came the magical season of 2004, when the Red Sox won the World Series for the first time since 1918. Not only that, they came back from an 0-3 deficit in the American League Championship Series to beat the hated Yankees in the greatest comeback ever. Many Red Sox fans (myself included) will tell you that victory was even sweeter than the World Series win.

Bill and me at Fenway, October 24, 2004. Those were happier days.

That October was one of the best months of my life. Those first three losses to the Yankees hurt but once the Red Sox fought their way back from the brink all turned golden. I attended Game 2 of the World Series at Boston’s Fenway Park with my best friend Bill, who has season tickets. It was damp and cold all night but who cared? That was the second Night of the Bloody Sock for pitcher Curt Schilling (the first came in the playoffs against the Yankees) and the Red Sox emerged triumphant 6-2 over the St. Louis Cardinals ( whose comeback to win the National League wild card this year was as exhilarating for their fans as the Red Sox’s collapse was crushing to theirs). As we watched game four on TV my wife and I told our kids they could stay up late and watch just one World Series game. They picked that one. The Red Sox won, completing a series sweep, as a lunar eclipse outside turned the moon red in the sky above our house. I blasted Queen’s “We Are the Champions” and we took a picture of the four of us, our fingers up in a “We’re Number One” salute. Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund will always have Paris, but Red Sox fans will always have 2004.The 2007 championship series was just a cherry on top. But that taste of winning seemed to change things. It swept away much of the gloom and angst that characterized Red Sox fandom. It was as if Eeyore had suddenly taken to whistling “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” Now people expected the team to win. We started to resemble Yankees fans. We became complacent, felt entitled. It was like we had woken up in some parallel universe—sort of like the one we knew, but just a little different.It felt strange at the start of spring training this season to read about the Red Sox in the Boston Globe. The team had a huge, $161 million dollar payroll. They had signed slugger Adrian Gonzalez and Tampa Bay’s Carl Crawford, who had always bedeviled the Sox in the past. They had what some people thought was the best rotation in the American League. Pitcher Josh Beckett predicted the team would win 100 games. People talked about the likelihood of a Red Sox-Phillies World Series. The pre-season talk was confident, upbeat, optimistic—smug.

Well, the optimists were knocked back on their heels when this Red Sox dream team stumbled right out of the gate with a truly horrendous start to the season, going 2-10. The only team they beat in that stretch was the Yankees. Well, we had that going for us, which was good.

Then they regained their footing and became the best team in baseball—until September, when once again they became the worst, blowing a nine-game wild card lead over the Tampa Bay Rays. The season was like a sandwich with lots of yummy meats, cheeses, veggies and dressings in the middle, stuck between two thick slices of shit. When you bite into that sandwich you won’t remember the stuff in the middle.

So now we can all get back to normal. We can resume the gloom. We can embrace the angst. We can once again start talking about curses. Maybe they’ll even start burning witches in Salem again.

The Red Sox didn’t provide my only baseball disappointment this season. The Harrisburg Senators, the Washington Nationals’ AA team, won their Eastern League division (good!) only to have the Richmond Flying Squirrels knock them out of the playoffs in three straight games (bad!). The poor Senators had to play even their “home” playoff games in Richmond because the raging Susquehanna River had turned their stadium on City Island into something more suitable for water polo than baseball.

I wasn’t too upset about the Senators, though. I had a great time watching them this year. I saw rookie sensation Bryce Harper throw a bullet from left field to gun down a runner at the plate. I saw pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg return to Harrisburg for a game as he rehabbed from elbow surgery, pitching to catcher Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, who was in town for his own rehab stint. I watched the Senators break a 0-0 tie in the bottom of the ninth inning with a walk-off, pinch-hit home run. I sat in the stands on glorious summer evenings and drank beer, ate ballpark food, and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

And I saw the Cowboy Monkeys. Twice. The Cowboy Monkeys are just what they sound like: monkeys, dressed like cowboys, who ride border collies and herd goats while the p.a. system blasts the Outlaws playing “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” Talk about American exceptionalism! What other country is going to come up with that? Only the country that brought us the pet rock, the Bigmouth Billy Bass, and deep-fried Twinkie has the creative mojo to invent the Cowboy Monkeys.

I also saw the Baseball Project play at a Senators game—the last game of the season, in fact, on a Labor Day that threatened rain but held off until after the game. The Baseball Project is a band formed by Steve Wynn (ex-Dream Syndicate), Peter Buck (R.E.M.), Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, Robyn Hitchcock’s Venus 3, R.E.M.’s touring band) and Linda Pitmon (who plays drums in Wynn’s other band, the Minus 5). Buck missed this gig because a back problem had landed him on the disabled list and Sal Maida, who has played with Cracker and Roxy Music, took his place. I had to admit I was a little disappointed that Buck wasn’t there but once I heard the band I got over it. They played a set before the game, sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” did “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” for the seventh-inning stretch, and played another set after the game. They did songs about Ted Williams, Bill Buckner, Tony Conigliaro and even some non-Red Sox, and they appeared to be having a great time. Afterwards I bought a copy of their first CD, Volume I: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails, and had all the band members sign it.

I told Wynn I had seen the Dream Syndicate open for R.E.M. back in 1984 or 1985 at the Orpheum in Boston. “That was 1985,” he said and he told me he remembered doing a duet with Michael Stipe for the encore. Several of us tried to persuade them to become the house band for the Senators. They didn’t commit to that but they did say they’d be back next year.It was a great way to cap the minor league baseball season. Why, the band was even better than the Cowboy Monkeys. So this morning as I walked beneath gray clouds both spiritual and real,, I played some Baseball Project songs on the iPod. Baseball, like rain and gloom, was in the air. I started with “Past Time,” the grinding rocker that starts off the CD, and followed that with “Ted Fucking Williams.” (When the band played that song in Harrisburg they changed it to the family friendly “Ted Freaking Williams,” and appeared quite amused by it.) I listened to “Jackie’s Lament,” about Jackie Robinson, and “Harvey Haddix,” the story of a Detroit pitcher in 1959 who threw 12 perfect innings only to lose the game in the 13th.

Then I gave the iPod a shake. The next song up seemed horribly appropriate. It was a Beth Orton song called “Stars All Seem to Weep.” At least they do over New England now.

 

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