Red Sox County?

Apologies in advance to my friends who are Red Sox fans, but this team’s collapse is one of the most intriguing sports stories of the past 10 or 15 years.

I watched sports avidly for decades, played sports, covered sports. After a while, the gloss wore off. I can’t put my finger on it, but it was somewhere between “Canada’s Ben Johnson” becoming “Jamaican-born sprinter Ben Johnson, running for Canada” and walking into high school locker rooms where the coaches had tubs full of creatine — a “supplement” — for their teenage football players to take home and consume by the handful.

I appreciate the nuances of the games, but too often now find them lost or abandoned. If a big league player can’t be bothered to respect their sport, I can’t be bothered to watch.

I still love the essential, human, elements of sports: the players who find places within themselves to create the tiny margin that so often separates winning from losing and winners from losers; the guys who try every bit as hard but fail not because of effort but because of the odd bounce of a ball or puck; the tests of courage, skill and will that epitomise the challenge of games played intensely by world-class athletes at their peak.

So I find myself drawn to games where the best players in a sport — any sport — are tested in the crucible of expectation, desire and competition. Right now, that’s the Boston Red Sox, madly performing CPR on their dying season, pounding compressions on their collective chest right where the “TON” in Boston is starting to feel like a weight, not a syllable.

That mass pressing down is a consensus AL pennant, a month ago all but hung from the flagpole, now fluttering away in such dramatic fashion as to make Billy Buckner into an afterthought. He, after all, was one player caught out by a bad hop. The team was caught out in a short series like so many others in the playoffs.

But this, this is relentless; record-breaking if they lose. This is a team falling from first place, nine games up on the wild-card, to a flat-footed tie for the last playoff spot against the Tampa Bay (Not Devil) Rays, who can’t draw a full house for a pennant race. This is the second-biggest-spending team in baseball choking on a hot dog. In a city full of medical students, isn’t there an Archibald Wright “Moonlight” Graham in the house?

The Sox’ problems are in part their own making: They had a good first baseman in Kevin Youkilis, age 32, who used to be a slightly better-than-average defensive third baseman about 3,000 bowls of chowdah ago but who has never played 70 games at third in a big-league season. According to the team stats, he is 220 pounds, which means they apparently excluded his butt from the weigh-in.

The Sox also have a full-time DH and recovering perfomance-enhancing substance abuser in David Ortiz, 36 in November and who has missed 106 games in five seasons despite playing fewer than 200 innings in the field over the same stretch.

They have Bill James on call for the front office, the guy who invented the defensive spectrum (DH-1B-LF-RF-3B-CF-2B-SS-C-P) and who warned that moving from right to left on the spectrum almost always fail, especially for tw0-hundred and (cough)-pound first basemen in their 30s. So they move Youkilis, from first to third, then blow a bazillion simoleons on another first baseman and watch in surprise when Youk breaks down physically.

They also have an old right fielder, an old catcher, an old shortstop. an old bench, a couple of old middle relievers, the Ancient Knuckleballer in the starting rotation. Then they give long-term contracts to an old starting junkball pitcher and, for left field, a speed guy, a leadoff hitter who’s only scored 100 runs three times in 10 years in the the bigs and who is turning 30 this year, and then are surprised when they “are bit by the injury bug.”

The prostrate Boston media, presumably led by whatever idiot first wrote down the term “Red Sox Nation (printed on paper brought to you by W.B. Masons, powered by Granite City Electric light and washed down with vile Dunkin’ Donuts coffee)” is finally starting to question whether the team might need to be in better condition …

Tell me again how they’re different from the Yankees? They had a good core of players and the makings of a first-rate farm system, but then went out and spent (DiceK!) and spent (Lackey!) and spent (Gonzalez!) and spent (Crawford!). Now they’re sucking wind trying to beat the 68-and-92 Orioles the last two out of three to save their season. And four of those 68 wins have come in their last five games against the Red … press-press-press-press-press-BREATHE-press-press-press-press-press … Sox.

I don’t have a betting interest in the race; Major League Baseball lost me as a fan when the league precipitated a players’ strike that robbed my beloved Montreal Expos of their best season ever. I just never took to the game — or at least to its corporate whore of Babylon/MLB iteration — the same again.

The Boston fans, boisterous when they are winning, are averting their gaze, their recent championships fading in the memory of eight decades of pain and ignominy.

But I recognize in the 2011 Red Sox the human drama of a great sports story. The fan in me is dormant or dead, but the storyteller in me can’t resist the final act of this long, strange season, which began 2-12 and is ending in a dead heat.

So sorry Sox fans, but I can’t get enough. I hope it goes to a one-game playoff. Maybe even extra innings … just not a W.B. Masons extra innings, thanks.


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