For the second year in a row, and the third time in the last five years, the Boston Red Sox have rallied from the brink of elimination to force a deciding seventh game in the American League Championship Series. Last year they dropped games 2, 3, and 4 to the Cleveland Indians, only to roar back and win games 5, 6, and 7 on their way to sweeping Colorado in the World Series. In 2004 they played in the greatest League Championship Series in Major League history, winning four consecutive elimination games against the New York Yankees after dropping the first three, then went on to sweep the St. Louis Cardinals and win their first World Series since 1918.
Tonight history could repeat itself yet again. The Red Sox are still on the brink of elimination. Thanks to a momentous come-from-behind Boston win at Fenway Park in game 5, so are the Rays. The winner of tonight’s seventh game goes to the World Series, where the Philadelphia Phillies have been waiting patiently since Wednesday.
I have my own theory about this. (I say it’s my own theory, but I’m sure it’s crossed the mind of every baseball fan these last few days.) I think the Red Sox are doing this on purpose. At some point after the completion of the division series but prior to the beginning of the ALCS, the BoSox and the Rays reached an agreement to ensure that the series went to a game seven, with the Red Sox coming back from a deficit to even the series after facing elimination multiple times. Tonight’s seventh and deciding game will be on the level. The point wasn’t to rig the series for one team to win; the point was to make the series as dramatic as possible.
Why would the Rays agree to such a corrupt bargain? They are the story of the year in Major League Baseball. The team with the lowest payroll is one win away from playing in the World Series. They have a shot at going from worst to first, which is always a thrilling thing to watch, whether you’re a fan of the team or not. What better way to qualify for the Series than by defeating the defending champions in a thrilling seven game ALCS? How depressing would it have been for the Rays to go down in four straight? How anticlimactic would it have been for the defending champion Red Sox to go quietly in a forgettable four or five game series?
Why the Red Sox would do this is obvious. I remember the 2004 postseason. I watched the Red Sox come back from a 3-0 deficit to win four consecutive games and take down the Yankees in that ALCS. Legendary. I remember the thrill, the sense of history when Keith Foulk fielded a bouncer from Edgar Renteria and lobbed it to first for the final out in game four of the World Series. The first World Championship for the Red Sox since 1918. The Curse of the Bambino, smashed. A great day for baseball. Celebrations swept across New England. Aged Red Sox fans, who feared they would die without seeing their favorite team win the Series, wept. Curt Schilling was canonized and Bill Buckner was forgiven. It was the most memorable postseason of my life.
Know what I remember about last year’s World Series, which the Red Sox also won? Checking the score online the next morning and saying, “Oh, good! They swept the Rockies.” Seeing the Red Sox come back to beat the Indians in a seven-game ALCS was the most exciting part of last year’s postseason, not the World Series. The Series in ’04 was a relatively boring four-game sweep when taken out of context — it was getting to witness history, Boston’s first championship in 86 years, that made it an exciting Series. There was nothing especially historic about seeing the Red Sox sweep their second Series in four years.
And there we have it. I recall the questions asked by commentators after that ’04 Series. “What now?” “What does it mean to be a Red Sox fan now that the drought has ended?” “Can the Red Sox be a compelling team without the ‘Curse’ to overcome?” The franchise had been defined by failure and suffering for most of the last century. How could they suddenly be winners? Now we know the answer. The Red Sox have found a way to rack up world championships while still giving their fans the anxiety and torment they’ve come to expect. Instead of steamrolling straight through the postseason, the BoSox place themselves at the edge of oblivion and fight back. Every time things turn against them, every time a player on the Red Sox makes an error at a crucial point or is victimized by a shitty umpire call, Boston fans can think to themselves, “Here we go again . . .” Then the Red Sox win against all odds and stomp all over the NL team in the World Series to make amends to the fans for jerking them around.
I’ve been a Red Sox fan since I was in high school, so I’m not going to complain about another American League pennant and another World Series. But I wouldn’t kill myself if the Rays won tonight. I’d like to see a team go from worst to first. I’d like to see the team with the lowest payroll win the whole thing. It would be good for baseball. Even Varjak, who as a Phillies phan has been waiting for a championship since 1980, would probably admit that. (Wouldn’t you, Var?)
So tonight (and through the World Series, should the Rays win), I will engage in the ultimate act of fan cowardice: I will root for a good game. Go Red Sox. Go Rays. Come the Series, go Phillies. And God bless us, every one.