Suffering plays regularly in Red Sox fans' lineup


BOSTON -- Baseball came back here yesterday and all the people opened their arms, welcoming an old friend. A man in a lobster costume danced in the street, surrounded by colorful balloons. The organ music trembled through the sun-drenched bleachers. It was a little chilly, 43 degrees, but the people kept their hands warm with soft pretzels and onion-and-pepper sausages.

All in all, a beautiful day to suffer.

That's what Boston Red Sox fans do. They are good at it. They always fill this old, green ballpark, hoping the Red Sox will win but certainly not expecting it. It is just as much fun to visit Fenway Park, see the players come close and then go home moaning about how awful their luck is. The complaints keep the fans comfortable and warm, like a cup of clam chowder.

The Orioles spoiled Boston's home opener yesterday, 8-6, battering pitcher Frank Viola, the most recent player chosen to bring this city glory. Yesterday's game read like a Red Sox history book. Boston pulled close, rallying to erase a 5-0 deficit, before sending all its hope-filled fans home deflated.

This game didn't matter, not really. Boston will win its share. Boston will come close. And then Boston will lose. Sorry. It has to be this way.

Boston has not won a World Series since 1918, and it makes you wonder if the anticipation of winning is not becoming more intoxicating than winning itself. The Red Sox have been to four World Series since 1918, lost each one in the seventh game. There have been two one-game playoffs in the history of the American League, and Boston has lost both.

No team has come as close to winning a World Series without actually doing it as the Red Sox did in 1986. One pitch away. The wives of the players stood up to cheer, waiting to celebrate the inevitable. Catcher Rich Gedman's wife was the only one who remained seated. She knew better. She had grown up in Massachusetts.

Sherry Gedman had heard about how Enos Slaughter had scored from first on a single in the 1946 World Series, heard about how little Bucky Dent's popup had turned into a home run in the 1978 playoff. And, in a few moments, she would watch a grounder dribble through Bill Buckner's legs. Of all the sad things that had happened to the Red Sox, this was a first. They had been beaten by a man named Mookie.

The Chicago Cubs and White Sox are the only teams to have gone longer than Boston without a championship having waited since 1908 (Cubs) and '17 (White Sox).

On Opening Day five years ago, local entrepreneur John McKeon stood outside Fenway and sold a stack of 16-page booklets detailing 68 years of Red Sox failure. They sold well. He explained why to Dan Shaughnessy of The Boston Globe:

"The joy of being a Red Sox fan now becomes the thrill of marveling, not at the great plays and dramatic moments, but at the creative ways the Red Sox bring about disappointment."

If you don't believe McKeon, how about A. Bartlett Giamatti, the late baseball commissioner who was just about the biggest Bosox fan you ever saw?

"There's a sense that things will turn out poorly no matter how hard we work," Giamatti once said. "Somehow the Sox fulfill the notion that we live in a fallen world. It is as though we assume they are here to provide us with more pain."

"I don't know," pitcher Matt Young said yesterday. "You should ask a voodoo guy."

No, you should ask Young. He warned all of Boston about baseball's heartbreak in perfectly symbolic fashion Sunday. He pitched an eight-inning no-hitter that doesn't count under baseball's new standards. And he lost, 2-1. In just one game, Matt Young had eloquently chronicled Boston's past seven decades.

It has been this way since the Red Sox traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees for $100,000, plus $300,000 for a mortgage on Fenway. Boston won three World Series before trading Ruth. It hasn't won one since. The Yankees, they have won 22. Pretty bad trade.

"I don't feel cursed," Young said.

Then a pause.

"But it is only my second year here."

A few years ago, The Boston Herald ran perhaps the best headline in its history. Wait Till Next Year, it screamed. This was after the team had lost on opening day. It sarcastically captured the feeling of the hardened Boston fan.

Not that they don't love this team. My, do they ever. No team has more reporters covering it, and the fans still can't get enough. Nolan Ryan shows up to training camp late and all of Texas yawns and turns to the Cowboys. Rajah Clemens comes in late and it is on the front page for days. A few years ago, on the day Pope John Paul I passed away, local broadcaster Charles Laquidara opened the newscast with this teaser: "Pope dies; Sox still alive."

"We hear it all the time, how we haven't won since 1918," reliever Jeff Reardon said. "It is tough on the players. The fans have to understand that we want it as bad as they do."

Reardon was on the mound in the last inning of 1987, as a member of Minnesota's first championship team. He says Boston's first celebration will be much bigger, should it ever come. Reardon has always been a Red Sox fan, having grown up in nearby Dalton, Mass., and studied history at the University of Massachusetts.

"I've got a lot of records and people always ask me what I have left to accomplish," Reardon said. "I want to win it with the Red Sox. It would be one of the most intense celebrations ever, after all the suffering. It would be the ultimate."

Reardon was asked how he would celebrate.

"I haven't gotten that far yet," he said.

He never will.

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