When I first got to Florida on a balmy Saturday back in October of 2004, my lone duffel bag and I checked into a dingy efficiency motel by the Tampa airport. I'd left my girlfriend on the West Coast and knew exactly one person in the state. Monday morning I went to my first day of work in my one decent pair of pants, spent eight hours pretending to know what the hell I was doing, then headed back to my room for a dinner of cold refried beans eaten straight from the can (I was still two weeks away from my first paycheck). I kept the door locked, slept in my clothes for fear of touching the sheets and prayed that the serial killer doubling as the front desk clerk had the night off.
But the knot in my stomach wasn't from the beans, or the off chance that I might be murdered in my sleep. My beloved Boston Red Sox, losers for 85 years and counting, were set to play the New York Yankees the following night for the American League pennant.
The Sox lost that opening game. I watched all nine innings alone in my motel room, calling my brother ecstatic after the Sox put up five runs in the seventh and despondent when they came up empty in the ninth. They dropped the next two, Game 3 a depressing 19-8 loss at home. No baseball team had ever come back from a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series. My brother stopped calling. My inbox flooded with friends from New York offering mock condolences. My dad could barely bring himself to watch.
Just as it seemed the Red Sox had blown it again, as every ESPN talking head rattled on about The Curse of the Bambino, things started to pick up -- for me and for the team. I got my first paycheck, went trouser shopping, ate a decent meal, even found an apartment.
And I made a friend, a friend with an HDTV. I watched Game 4 at his house, saw Dave Roberts' historic steal in all its 57-inch glory. I was on the same couch for The Bloody Sock and Papi's heroics, for Damon and Millar and Manny. The Red Sox -- the pathetic, doormat, loveable Sox -- staged The Greatest Comeback in Sports History™ and headed for the World Series.
I watched all four games from the same spot on my new buddy's couch, my phone ringing after every pitch. John, an old friend from Boston, called screaming from a bar in San Francisco. My girlfriend's mother -- a Sox fan for all of a week -- wanted to talk baseball history. The Red Sox cruised, winning the first three games handily. One left.
Dad called as the Sox took a 3-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth of the final game. We sat on the phone, speechless, just listening to each other breathe as one Cardinal flied out and another went down swinging. Two away. "Oh my God," he started muttering. He'd watched the Sox lose for 60 years. "Oh my fucking God."
Edgar Renteria, the Cardinals shortstop, stood at the plate, the only thing between Red Sox Nation and their first championship since 1918. We'd been here before, 18 years earlier at Shea Stadium, and blown it. I stood, then ran in place -- I might have blacked out for a second or two. I could hear Dad yelling for Mom to come watch; she had spent the last few innings camped out in the kitchen.
A weak ground ball back to the pitcher. The careful throw to first.
Your 2004 Boston Red Sox. World Champions. I heard my mom scream. My father melted, said he wished his dad could've lived to see it.
As I sat there, warm, glowing, punch-drunk and giddy, I never would've imagined that three years later I'd consider rooting for another team:
The Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
On the ride home the night the Sox won the Series, the radio broadcast crackling through the car stereo, the phone rang again. It was Dad again.
"I'm not sure how to feel," he said. "The whole thing -- my whole life -- it's been about them losing." He stopped. Laughed.
"What happens now?"
Here, in short, is what happened:
"Red Sox Nation," as we came to be called, ruined it. We squandered the good will garnered after one of the most magical runs in sports history, causing fans across the country to loathe that "B" on our caps. The front office spent money at an outrageous rate, giving every Yankee fan the chance to argue, correctly, that we're no different from their soulless squad. They let Orlando Cabrera, the clutch-hitting shortstop who helped bring the clubhouse together for the 2004 playoffs, leave town.
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