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Tuesday, April 12, 2005
Sitting among the Fenway faithful

By Bill Simmons
Page 2

When my friend Sully came up with two extra tickets for Opening Day, I called my father to break the good news. We were headed to Fenway.

Red Sox
The 1918 World Champions banner on the green balcony finally has some more company.
"It's April 11th," I told him. "Take the day o–"

"I know," he interrupted. "I already took it off."

"You did? You didn't even know if we had tickets yet."

"I was going to watch it at home. I mean, they're handing out World Series rings at Fenway. It's not exactly something that happens every year."

No, the moment wasn't nearly as inspiring as the chef's speech about Pele before Louden Swain's final match in "Vision Quest" ... but the fact remains, my father doesn't take days off unless he's battling Montezuma's Revenge or something. He's one of those guys who leaves 15 to 20 vacation days unused every year. On Monday, April 11, 2005, he would be skipping work. Happily. And all for a baseball team.

You can't overstate how much the 2004 Red Sox affected everyone in New England as well as Boston fans across the country and the world. Now we had a chance to thank them. Leading up to Opening Day, this was a hotter ticket than either of the World Series games. Everyone wanted to pay their respects. Everyone wanted to be there for the impossible.

Before last October, I can remember attending games at Fenway and glancing at the championship flags on the first-base side, which went 1918 - 1916 - 1915 - 1912 - 1903 on the green balcony (going from left to right). There was an empty space to the left of the 1918 banner, with more than enough room for another flag. Fat chance. I can remember thinking, "I hope I'm not staring at that space 50 years from now."

That's what it was like to be a Red Sox fan.

I know, I know, it's all been written. For much of the country, the Sox were transformed from "lovable and tragic" to "oversaturated and annoying" in a scant six months, culminating in a morass of lame documentaries, gratuitous TV appearances, exploitative books and the indefensible "Fever Pitch" (which played to every outsider's stereotype of Sox fans and even invented a few new ones).

Red Sox
Needless to say, the Sox probably didn't go to Kinkos for this banner.
By the end of March, even I was tired of hearing about the Sox. OK, that's a lie. But it was pretty bad. For the most part, the owners and players were eating up the attention, failing the "act like you've been there before" test about as badly as it's ever been failed. On Sunday afternoon, my father and I were watching a feature where UPN's "Red Sox Report" followed C-list celebrity and author Johnny Damon around for the day. As Johnny traded barbs with Regis and Kelly, my dad suddenly piped, "Oh, God, we don't have a chance this season."

But did it matter? For instance, the front office made the incredible decision to tinker with a championship team, revamping the starting rotation, changing shortstops, overhauling the bench and threatening last year's unique chemistry. Like many Sox fans, I swallowed hard after some of the more questionable moves, reminding myself that they could go 0-162 for the next 10 years and it wouldn't change what happened last October.

At the same time, I loved last year's team. I wanted to see those same players (as many as possible) defending their title. Isn't that part of being a champion? During the first six games of the season – all on the road, with a whopping 10 newcomers on the Opening Day roster – you couldn't help but feel a wee bit detached. These weren't The Champs. These were Most Of The Champs. There's a difference.

On Monday afternoon, we finally had the chance to pay our respects to last year's team. Walking around the city that morning, there was a giddy vibe in the air, like a crowd of people getting ready for a fireworks show (only for blocks on end). The number of Red Sox shirts and caps was simply staggering. And it wasn't limited to the fans.

When I met some friends at a bar called Dillon's on Boylston Street, both bartenders were wearing Red Sox gear and the waitress was sporting an "I BELIEVE" shirt. These are the things that happen when your team wins the World Series. We headed to the park at 1:30, found our seats by 2 – my father was already there – and watched the Yankees finish batting practice. Once they cleared the field, members of the Boston Pops took their places behind second base, and then one of the announcers said a sentence that finished with the words, " ... your defending world champion Boston Red Sox!" as everyone went bonkers.

Here's what I wrote in my notebook to cover the next 10 minutes:

"Pops play 2001 Space Odyssey – banners dropping from Wall – WHOA!! 2004 COVERING WHOLE WALL! HOLY S---! OH MY GOD!"

This was our Zihuatanejo moment. People were hugging and high-fiving. People were fighting off tears. People were staring at the Wall in disbelief, like they were watching the spaceship land in "Close Encounters." I was so overwhelmed, I can't even remember what song James Taylor performed next, or the names of every Red Sox legend on the field (Yaz, Rice, Fisk, Evans ...).

Red Sox
If the Yankees forgot about last season, the Nation provided a small, friendly reminder.
Then the owners handed out the rings, our first chance to cheer the World Series-winning manager, Terry Francona (recovering from a viral infection that looked at first like a heart problem); last year's Superman (Big Papi, who should just change his last name to "Kennedy" at this point); one returning hero (Derek Lowe, who seemed genuinely touched by the huge ovation); one surprise returning hero (the immortal Dave Roberts, who nearly brought the house down); every key player from last year's team with the exception of Cabrera (stuck in Anaheim) and Pedro (unconscionably and unforgivably absent); one savior (Schilling, the last player introduced); and one walking reminder of everything that happened since 1918 (Johnny Pesky, the loudest ovation of them all).

I was doing fine until Pesky. Really, I was. For the next seven seconds, I made the Tom Cruise Memorial "I can't believe Goose is dead" Face before fighting it off. Others were less successful. On April 11, 2005, let the record show that it was extremely dusty in Fenway Park. We watched everyone move to center field, the conquering brigade, with Ortiz and Pesky walking arm in arm. They raised the 2004 flag together, a red triangle whipping happily in the wind.

And just when the day couldn't get any better, the Sox made the ball-busting decision to introduce the entire Yankees lineup – BOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!! – highlighted by the glorious (and spontaneous) decision to cheer Rivera. You know, just to thank him for all the blown saves. It was so funny, even Rivera started laughing and raising his arms in mock celebration, the best random moment of the day – at least until a moment of silence for Dick Radatz was cut short because someone screamed out, "A-ROD, YOU SUCK!"

See, that's the thing – we didn't just raise the banner, the Yankees had to stand there and watch. From my perch in Section 22, I snapped a digital photo of them lined up along the third-base line, with the "WORLD SERIES 2004 CHAMPIONS" banner behind them. I'm going to blow it up, frame that sucker and hang it in my office like a deer's head. For my entire life, the Yankees kept getting the better of the Red Sox. Last October, everything changed. Yesterday, the moment was immortalized. And no matter what transpires this season, the Red Sox beat the Yankees, and the Red Sox won the World Series, and it happened, and we celebrated, and that's that.

Well, except for one thing.

Last September, I found out that I was going to be a father. Eventually, my wife and I learned that we were having a baby girl – I know, the irony – but during Game 3 of the Yankee series, I didn't know what we were having. I just knew that I already felt terrible for Baby X. As the Yankees slugged their way to 19 runs and a potential sweep, I was slumped in my seat in Section 116, debating the merits of bringing another Red Sox fan into the world.

Why do something so cruel to a little kid? Why dump nine decades of baggage on them? It seemed like an inherently selfish act, almost as if I were trying to drag them down with me. I kept imagining a little kid sobbing after their first October heartbreak – like me after the Bucky Bleeping Dent game – knowing that the kid belonged to me, that I did it to them, that I could have saved them.

So I asked my father about it: "Dad, if you had to do it over again, would you have raised me as a Red Sox fan?"

Red Sox
Seymour, Bruschi, Russell and Orr -- all that was missing was Vinatieri kicking the first pitch from Lansdowne Street.
He thought about it for a few seconds.

"Yeah, probably. We were living here, who else would we have rooted for?"

Excellent point. Either you were born into the Red Sox, you were swept up by them or you inherited them the same way people inherit baldness and high blood pressure. Inevitably, you passed them down to the next generation. You hoped everything would be worth it some day ... even if all evidence pointed to the contrary. You hoped. You hoped. You hoped.

(Yes, I would be raising my child as a Red Sox fan.)

Just 24 hours later, Roberts stole second base. Within 12 days, 86 years of baggage was swept away. I'm not claiming that I helped spawn the miracle fetus or anything, but the doctor told us that the baby was conceived shortly after the Cabrera trade. Maybe she didn't do as much as Schilling or Big Papi, but she definitely did more than Byung-Hyun Kim. Regardless, she's entering a world where the Red Sox aren't considered lovable losers, where we can watch playoff games without enduring dozens upon dozens of Babe Ruth references, where 35,000 people aren't secretly expecting the worst possible outcome in every big game. And when I carry her into Fenway some day, I'm pointing to the 2004 banner and telling her, "That was the team that changed everything."

Maybe she'll care, maybe she won't. But I have a feeling she will.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.