As I write this, it is the cusp of summer, and the Boston Red Sox are winning. They’ve won seven out of ten and sit in first place, a half game ahead of that barnstorming assemblage of all-stars, that billionaire’s vanity toy, also known as the New York Yankees. The Sox lead despite a daunting array of injuries to key players; one star (Trot Nixon) and one superstar (Nomar Garciaparra) have yet to play a single inning this season, while last year’s league batting champ (Bill Mueller) languishes on the disabled list. Yet night after night the team keeps finding ways to win. Calm down, my heart. It’s only June. Just wait for August and September, when the Sox have a matchless tradition of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
That tradition is the subject of Still, We Believe, Paul Doyle’s documentary chronicle of the 2003 Red Sox. The club gave Doyle unlimited access, from locker room to owner’s box, but what he’s really interested in are Boston’s fans. He interviews eight of the Olde Towne Team’s faithful, charting their ups and downs over the course of a thrilling and ultimately heartbreaking season-a campaign in which the Red Sox, buoyed by new ownership and the acquisition of some hard-working, no-name players, fought their way to the American League championship series, only to lose in seven games to the Yankees. The death blow was a home run struck by journeyman infielder Aaron Boone, in a nightmarish echo of another notorious loss to the Yankees a quarter-century earlier: Bucky Dent’s season-ending homer against the 1978 Red Sox.
Though Doyle barely nods at this precursor, and provides no footage of Red Sox teams of yore, Still, We Believe fairly groans with the burdens of history. Americans experience sports the way Europeans experience history itself; a Red Sox fan is an Irishman, a Serb, an Armenian, reciting ancient hurts inflicted by ancient enemies, fomenting a vehemently one-sided view of reality, and rousing the eternal hope of vindication and dominance. As every Red Sox fan knows, the team hasn’t won the World Series since 1918. You’d have to be ninety-five years old to remember that event, notes one of Doyle’s interviewees. By now Red Sox suffering surpasses an individual human life span. It is a cathedral of pain and loss. It is holy.
Doyle’s eight worshipers find diverse ways of participating in-and fending off-the sacred pain. Steve, a cheerful firefighter who follows the games from his station, tries to laugh it off. “No one can lose like the Red Sox,” he says. “They always find a new and better way.” Dan, a twenty-something Boston resident left paraplegic by a swimming accident, draws inspiration for his own rehabilitation in the hope of Red Sox victory. And all partake in the sacrament of Yankee hatred-like Erin and Jessamy, bubbly office workers who travel to a Sox game in Milwaukee, then detour to Chicago and Wrigley Field in hopes of seeing the Yankees lose to the Cubs.
But the star among Doyle’s subjects is a diehard fan known to Boston-area sports radio listeners as Angry Bill, for his acid denunciations of Red Sox shortcomings and serenely mordant predictions of team collapse. Angry Bill is a case study in spiritual pessimism. He has hardened his heart. It’s almost an illicit pleasure to listen to his rote invocations of doom, enunciated with a bitter certainty which, we recognize, is both self-punishing and self-protective. “If they won, I wouldn’t know what to do,” Angry Bill announces at season’s start. “I watch to see how they’re going to blow it.”
Sure enough, the team loses its opening game, to lowly Tampa Bay, on a ninth inning homer. “Can you believe it?” asks Harry, a high school coach who has followed the team for five decades. “It’s only going to be the first of many!” his wife chimes in. The season, however, develops nicely. Summer offers some giddy highs. The Sox suffer through a three-and-seven road trip in June, only to rebound with a seven home-run shellacking of the Yankees in the Bronx. Angry Bill is unfazed by such triumphs. “Come August, if it’s close, they’ll fold,” he predicts. “I’m totally jaded. They can’t hurt me anymore.”
Oh no? August passes, and no collapse. Boston’s Boy Wonder general manager, Theo Epstein, makes key last-minute trades. An infectious esprit emanates from the new players, especially Kevin Millar and his rousing, silly invocation (cadged from a country song) to “Cowboy Up!” “The pieces are falling into place,” writes Boston Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy. At season’s end the Sox hold a wild-card entry into the playoffs. In the opener against Oakland, they lose on a squeeze bunt in the twelfth inning. “I have no nails left,” moans Steve the Fireman. Angry Bill: “They’re gonna go down in four.”
But they don’t go down. Behind two games to none, the Sox sweep three in a row to win in a miracle comeback; and now Red Sox fans abandon themselves to the thrill. “This is our year!” shouts a bar owner to the assembled faithful as the Sox head into game seven in the league championship against the Yankees. “Tomorrow is gonna be the greatest day in Red Sox history!” Even Angry Bill reveals the fervent hope he has kept locked away. “It’s killing me,” he says. “I’ve been sick all week. I can’t believe it, but I predict they’re gonna win.” For the first and only time in the film, he smiles. It isn’t pretty.
Of course, they don’t win. Red Sox fans still wince at manager Grady Little’s decision not to pull star pitcher Pedro Martinez when he was being hit hard in the eighth inning. “Take him out!” shouted a guy sitting near me in the theater. But Little doesn’t take him out. The Yankees tie the game, then win on Boone’s extra-innings homer off Tim Wakefield. For Red Sox fans it’s 1946, 1967, 1975, 1978, and 1986 all over again. How could we have let ourselves hope? Stricken, Angry Bill snaps off his TV. “Don’t have your kids watch sports,” he says in disgust.
Baseball, far more than other professional sports, cherishes continuity; statistical comparisons across the ages are the lifeblood of its hard-core fans, and changes to its rules (in contrast to football and basketball) occasion anxiety and harsh resistance. One little remarked-on revolution in the game, or perhaps in the culture of the game, has been a sharply diminished tolerance for losing. Used to be, you rooted for your home team no matter what; you went out to the park, whether they were champs or bums. Nowadays, however, when a team languishes, so does attendance, often drastically. Vince Lombardi’s dictum about winning-that it isn’t everything, it’s the only thing-has long been a staple of coaching inspiration in American sports, but only recently has it become the structuring reality of baseball’s economy and management. Consider the example of Grady Little, a serious contender for Manager of the Year, yet fired nonetheless after the loss to the Yankees. That would have been unthinkable just a decade ago, but baseball has experienced a radical attenuation of patience, among owners and fans alike. The causes are many, but the bottom line is that we have lost our understanding of losing.
Hence the necessity of the Red Sox. In an era in which the idea of winning has transfixed America’s imagination and imperiled its soul, the Sox remind us that life is a trial: that it raises hopes only to crush them cruelly; that it ends badly. And, as the title of Still, We Believe implies, this demands of us not a cessation of faith, but a continuation. “You live, you die,” reflects Angry Bill, “and the Red Sox are part of how you grow up. They’re not going to win, but you root for them anyway.” As such, the Red Sox constitute an invaluable-and seemingly eternal-spiritual resource. And if you don’t believe that, well, go root for that soulless juggernaut in the Bronx.