Baseball: A whole new ball game?

The Boston Red Sox finally laid to rest the 'Curse of the Bambino' by defeating the 'Ruth-less' New York Yankees this week. The underdog can win: is it an omen for one fan, John Kerry?
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The Independent US

Take a stiff drink and repeat twice after me: the Boston Red Sox have beaten the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox have beaten the New York Yankees.

Take a stiff drink and repeat twice after me: the Boston Red Sox have beaten the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox have beaten the New York Yankees.

Or, to put it another way, the established order of the baseball universe has been turned on its head and all America is in shock.

On Wednesday night, the Red Sox overcame history - not to mention their own darkest superstitions - by defeating their arch-enemy, the New York Yankees, to clinch the American League championship in what some are already calling the greatest post-season series in the history of baseball.

Not only did the Red Sox beat the team every Bostonian calls the "Evil Empire", their nemesis of always; they did it in quite unbelievable fashion.

Never before in baseball has a team come back from a three-game deficit in a best-of-seven encounter. Yet Boston did so amid the purest melodrama, twice standing on the brink of elimination in Games Four and Five. Having defeated the Yankees, the Sox are now within touching distance of their first World Series win in 86 years.

But these are mere facts. This is a tale that extends far beyond baseball.

It is a story of two teams to be sure, locked in what is truly the greatest rivalry in all US sport. But it is also a tale of two great cities, whose baseball histories are inextricably entwined. It embraces two distinct views of history. And before this astonishing autumn is done, it may turn into a tale of politics.

In baseball terms, Boston and New York are conjoined and divided by a single name and a single all-powerful myth. Between 1903 and 1918, the Red Sox won the World Series five times, but have not won another since. Why? Because, according to the legend that every Red Sox fan imbibes with his mother's milk, the Red Sox's then owner, Harry Frazee, sold a certain Babe Ruth, the team's star hitter and pitcher, to the Yankees in 1920. The fee was $100,000 plus a $350,000 loan, helping Frazee to finance the Broadway production of No, No Nanette.

Thanks to Ruth, the Yankees became the most fearsome winning-machine in baseball history, collecting 26 world championships between 1923 and 2000 and dominating their sport for decades at a time. The Sox, by contrast, laboured in near obscurity for the rest of the 20th century. They reached the odd World Series but always came up short, most usually through some dreadful error of their own making.

Hence the "Curse of the Bambino". The term denotes not so much a spiteful edict handed down by Ruth from beyond the grave than the bleak defeatism that settled with the passage of the years on Boston's collective sporting soul. With each defeat, the complex grew worse. Where New York was involved, the Red Sox were always predestined to fail.

Gradually, the disparity spread from the baseball field to life's larger theatres. Boston is a rich, proud and very clever city, fanatical about its sports teams, brimming with money and great institutes of learning. The "Hub" it likes to call itself, the "Hub of the Universe". But the Big Apple not only won baseball championships in bunches when Boston couldn't manage one; it grew even richer, and financially and culturally more dominant.

Boston's challenge faded. Who could argue that rude and arrogant New York was truly the hub of everything that counted on the East Coast? Over the years the Sox have tried everything to break the spell. They have recruited some of the finest players to have graced a baseball field. Their fans have prayed, and left offerings of beer, liquor and cigars at the grave of the famously dissolute Babe. They dredged a Massachusetts lake in the hope of finding a piano to which Ruth was especially attached.

But, until now, to no avail. With each Boston setback, the intensity of the feud only deepened. Each season produced at least one brawl between the teams, mirroring the sentiments of the fans. But whenever the Red Sox got uppity, all Yankee fans needed merely to produce posters with the single figure "1918", and the challenge duly fizzled out. The Sisyphean ordeal, it seemed, would last for all eternity. Invariably, the problem was the hated Yankees. Time and again, Boston would push the boulder almost to the top of the mountain, only for it to come crashing back down.

Take 2003, when the Sox were 5-1 ahead in as similarly decisive a Game Seven as Wednesday's, and the Yankees down to their last five outs. In their very mouths, the Sox could taste sweet cleansing victory. Naturally it was not to be, and every Sox fan knew it. Their team found another way of losing - on that occasion by leaving a visibly fading star pitcher in the game too long - and the old enemy prevailed by 6-5.

But not on Wednesday. This time, miraculously, the Yankees never really threatened. Instead new heroes entered the Boston pantheon - the slugger David Ortiz of course, whose key hits earned him the series' Most Valuable Player award, but above all Johnny Damon, whose soft smile and flowing locks have made him the incarnation of Boston's baseball resurrection.

After last year's traumas, when discipline and organisation were all, and tensions abounded in the clubhouse, 2004 has deliberately been the year of the loosened up, anything-goes Red Sox, their newly unkempt hair the symbol of their laid-back attitude. More than 1,000 fans turned up outside the barbers' shop where Damon last had his beard shaved in May. Shortly before the New York series began he had three inches trimmed from his tresses - only for ever-superstitious Bostonians to fear the worst as Damon fell into an alarming batting slump.

But on Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium, everything came right. Damon smashed two home runs, the first a grand slam, worth the maximum four runs, the second a colossal blow that sent the little white baseball soaring into the distant upper deck above right-field. The Sox had an 8-1 lead, putting the game beyond the Yankees' reach for good. "They Did It," crowed the Boston Herald across its front page yesterday. The more staid Boston Globe carried a giant, single word headline: "BELIEVE".

Yogi Berra, the legendary Yankees catcher of the 1940s and 1950s, is the man responsible for that aphorism of baseball and the human condition: "It ain't over till it's over." But even Yogi was spotted heading for the exits in the Bronx with two innings still remaining. On Wednesday, for once, it clearly was over, and well before the end. The rock at last had reached the mountaintop and tumbled down the other side, crushing New York's legions as it passed.

This week has been an unqualified disaster for the Yankees, which the tabloid headlines in New York - "Damned Yankees", "Ruth-less", and "What a Choke" to pick but three - merely hint at. A city has been humiliated, and the wrath of George Steinbrenner, the Yankees' owner referred to with awe and trepidation as "the Boss", will be terrible to behold. All those World Series wins since the arrival of the Babe, the various dynasties, the players like Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Berra himself, right now are nothing. The 2004 Yankees will forever be remembered as the greatest chokers in sport - the mercenaries who couldn't deliver.

Unlike Boston, sourly inured to disaster for so long, New York believes winning is its natural entitlement. Thanks mainly to a huge cable TV market, the Yankees are far and away the richest franchise, able to buy any player they choose. The Boss assembled his 2004 team, with its $184m (£102m) payroll (surely the greatest for any team in any sport anywhere) with a sole purpose: of bringing baseball's world championship back to New York after a quite unconscionably long interval of four years.

That was why he stole $25m-a-year Alex Rodriguez, commonly regarded as the best player in the game, from under the nose of the Red Sox. That was why he signed as free agents the slugger Gary Sheffield and the pitcher Kevin Brown for a combined $27m a year. But money, George Steinbrenner has learnt once again, does not buy everything. For once, Boston grit vanquished New York's birthright.

But for all the ecstasy 200 miles to the north, one thing must be remembered. A disbelieving New York may have been humiliated in front of its own fans, but the Curse has not yet been lifted. Victory in Yankee Stadium, silencing 56,000 normally raucous Yankee fans, was only a partial exorcism.

First the Red Sox must win the World Series. For that to happen, Boston, the newly crowned champions of the American League, must defeat the champions of the National League, to be determined by last night's seventh game between the St Louis Cardinals and the Houston Astros. Only when this last hurdle is cleared will Harry Grazee's folly for the ages be expunged.

Already however delicious political possibilities are emerging. The favourite for the NL crown must be St Louis, owners of the best regular-season record in baseball. But suppose Houston win? Just as in the battle for the White House, an Astros-Red Sox series would pit Texas against Massachusetts, John Kerry's hometown of Boston against Houston, city of George Bush Senior, Enron, and superwealthy Republican Party donors almost without number. Can John Kerry come from behind like the Sox, and win it all? Emboldened by the triumph in New York, Boston has challenged the deities again by tentatively scheduling the official celebration of a World Series victory for 2 November, election day. Boston might just be hub of the greatest sport-and-politics double since 1932, when New York (where else?) celebrated a Yankee World Series victory and the election of Franklin Roosevelt, the state's governor, to the presidency.

Arcane but critical calculations are afoot. Since 1920, it is pointed out, the American League has won 14 World Series in presidential election years, and Republicans captured the White House in nine of them. If the National League wins, the Democrats statistically do even better, with five victories in seven presidential years. Bill Clinton was the last Democrat seriously to buck the trend, winning elections in 1992 and 1996 despite American League triumphs in the World Series.

John Kerry - a passionate Sox fan who has changed his travel schedules to make sure he is in front of a television set when his team does battle - is counting on doing the same.

But that is to get ahead of our story. This is one of those moments when sport transcends everything. In Boston and New York, and much of the country, the small matter of choosing the most powerful man on earth has suddenly become an afterthought. No joy of Republicans or Democrats on 2 November can match yesterday's giddy jubilation in Boston.

For the Red Sox nation, everything, suddenly, is within reach. "Last night, God changed jerseys," said one Sox fan, a disbeliever turned believer at last, as he went to Fenway Park in the faint hope of securing a ticket for the Series which starts at the Red Sox's home stadium tomorrow. "This century belongs to us," he declared with that boundless certainty known only by sports fans whose team have achieved the unthinkable. Win or lose on 2 November, neither President George Bush nor John Kerry will ever be able to say as much.