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The tragedy of '04

Do you ever find yourself secretly wishing the Red Sox had lost last October?

The good old days. Dejected Red Sox players in the dugout at Shea Stadium on Oct. 27, 1986, having lost the seventh game of the World Series to the Mets. At right, reaction to the 2004 victory.
The good old days. Dejected Red Sox players in the dugout at Shea Stadium on Oct. 27, 1986, having lost the seventh game of the World Series to the Mets. At right, reaction to the 2004 victory. (Globe Staff Photos / Stan Grossfeld, Evan Richman)

AT THE RISK of being burned at the stake like Jan Hus, say, or strung up on Boston Common like Mary Dyer, I'd like to introduce a heretical notion: Wouldn't it have been better if the Red Sox had lost the World Series last year?

Before you start preparing the gallows, let me explain where I'm coming from. I am a Red Sox fan of long standing. One of my earliest sports memories is of watching Carlton Fisk will his ball fair in the sixth game of the 1975 World Series. I learned math by reading the Globe sports pages, studying the standings in the American League East. The Red Sox are embedded in my soul.

Therefore, I do not venture this proposition casually--especially after veteran Globe sportswriter Bob Ryan, in his column last Wednesday, expressed his disdain for ''pseudo-intellectuals" who ''spoil the fun with ludicrous over-analysis." But I increasingly believe it to be true: We lost something when the Sox won the World Series.

By what possible logic can that be true? Start with this: Any team (except maybe the Chicago Cubs) can win a World Series. The Arizona Diamondbacks, after all, won one in their fourth year of existence, and the Florida Marlins won one in their fifth year, and two in their first 12. (The Yankees, for their part, have collected World Series championships like cheap trinkets, pocketing 26 of them over the last 82 years.)

Not winning a World Series, on the other hand--and not just not winning, but flamboyantly, spectacularly, transcendently not winning--is a more impressive accomplishment. Before last year, no other team had not won like the Red Sox had not won. Even the benighted Cubs, who have not won for longer than the Red Sox have not won, haven't not won with such dramatic flair as the Sox, who seemed to find ever-more outlandish ways to not win despite having victory in hand. (The Cubs' equally but less famously benighted neighbors the White Sox, for their part, have been so quiet in their failure to win over the last 88 years that no one even notices them not winning.)

As masters of the perennial near-miss, members of Red Sox Nation may have been eternal losers--but in our predestination for failure, we had something special, a Calvinist sense that we were, in our humility and accursedness, somehow distinct from all those arrogant New Yorkers, or lazy Los Angelenos, or mild Minnesotans. Now that we've won, we've taken a step toward becoming more like everyone else, more like the Sunbelt of Arizona and Florida, where World Series championships must seem to fall from trees like overripe grapefruit.

What about all those touching stories, you ask, after the World Series last fall? Men and women leaving championship memorabilia on their forebears' graves. Families coming together in the thrill of victory. I don't want to take anything away from those stories, but the true bond connecting Red Sox fans was so strong for having been forged in the crucible of defeat. As the sportswriter E.M. Swift once put it, ''Epic collapse is unifying."

Before 2004, the basic Red Sox mode was that of tragedy. ''The Sox remind us that life is a trial; that it raises hopes only to crush them cruelly; that it ends badly," wrote Rand Richards Cooper last summer in a brilliant essay in Commonweal. The team, in Cooper's view, was an emblem of the tragic view of history, and of life. ''A Red Sox fan is an Irishman, an Armenian, reciting ancient hurts inflicted by ancient enemies," he wrote. ''By now Red Sox suffering surpasses an individual human life span. It is a cathedral of loss and pain. It is holy."

But if this suffering no longer surpasses a human life span--if, in fact, it is no longer suffering--is it any longer holy?

. . .

In achieving victory, the Red Sox have moved from tragedy to romance, or perhaps comedy--and if Aristotle, among others, is to be believed, romance and comedy are lesser forms than tragedy. To take a trivial but illustrative example: The Farrelly Brothers' romantic comedy ''Fever Pitch" was originally supposed to take place against a backdrop of pain, the love story between the two protagonists unfolding against the eternally dashed hopes and unremitting futility of the Boston nine. As it was, the plot bounced along the trajectory plotted by the 2004 team, ending with saccharine-sweet triumph all around.

Actually, the predicament of Red Sox Nation after winning the World Series is more like the final scene of ''The Graduate," where Dustin Hoffman has triumphantly and climactically snatched Katharine Ross from her wedding, and joyfully escaped with her onto a bus and into the future. As the camera lingers on the couple in the film's final shot, they are clearly thinking with dissipating joy and mounting dread, ''What do we do now?"

One also has to wonder: To finally win the World Series did New England, Faust-like (or ''Damn Yankees"-like), have to mortgage its collective soul? Surveying the post-championship landscape, I can't help noticing a few things the Boston area has lost since Keith Foulke threw to Doug Mientkiewicz for the final out of the 2004 season, and wondering if they represent the karmic consequences of victory: Filene's, a century-old fixture of the New England landscape, swallowed up by Macy's; Reebok, a regional economic powerhouse in the 1980s and 1990s, absorbed by Adidas; Fleet Bank, eaten by Bank of America; Gillette, acquired by Procter & Gamble; John Hancock insurance, merged with ManuLife; and The Atlantic Monthly (where I work), a 150-year-old literary landmark, soon to decamp for Washington, D.C.

Local Democrats must wonder, too, whether the price of a Sox victory was a John Kerry loss. Did Dave Roberts's theft of second base in the fourth game of the American League Championship Series ensure that George W. Bush would steal Ohio?

Okay, so maybe demographic and economic forces that have nothing to do with the Red Sox can account for these losses. But what about this? According to the indispensable Morbidity & Mortality Weekly, 123 more Bostonians died between the end of the 2005 World Series and the end of last month than died in the comparable period of the preceding year. Already total New England-area incidences of E. coli, Legionellosis, Listeriosis, Meningococcal disease of several varieties, animal rabies, and Salmonella have surpassed last year's totals. And incidences of Hepatitis B, primary and secondary syphilis, and chicken pox have evidently been on the rise since the World Series as well.

Coincidence?

. . .

In truth, the price we've paid is less morbid but no less real--a palpable diminishment of the force of our yearning. As we approach the homestretch, with the Red Sox uncharacteristically perched atop the American League East, something just feels different than in the past. A friend recounted overhearing a conversation in a Wayland liquor store the other day, in which the thirtysomething sales clerk, tattooed and pony-tailed, was lamenting the waning ferocity of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry. ''You know," he said. ''Sometimes I almost wish we hadn't won."

Me too. What the Red Sox accomplished last year was incomparable. The seven straight games they ran off after being down three games to none to the Yankees in the ALCS ranks as possibly the single greatest achievement in the history of team sports. Who ever would want to trade that? And yet for me there remains that uneasy, end-of-''The Graduate"-like feeling of ''now what do we do?"--and the haunting question of whether what we've lost was somehow greater than what we won.

Scott Stossel is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the author of ''Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver."

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