I’m all Kavanaughed out. I hope some good will come of these past few weeks. Perhaps American men now have a better understanding of how common and how damaging sexual assault actually is. At the moment, however, it feels like the entire country has joined the Beach Week Ralph Club, and the hangover may be gnarly.
Let’s look instead at something wonderful, a rare occurrence that reminds us who we are and how we got here. I’m referring, of course, to the American League playoff series between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. Arguably the greatest rivalry in American sports, the BoSox and Yanks battle routinely during the regular season – this year on an epic scale. But because they play in the same division of the same league, they can only meet in the postseason under very peculiar circumstances – when one team posts the division’s best record, while the other wins the wild card.
I wasn’t alone in thinking last spring that the Yankees were the favorites in the AL East. During the offseason, they did that thing they love to do, the thing that thrills their fans and steels their enemies: They reached into their seemingly bottomless cash drawer for Giancarlo Stanton, the mighty star of the measly Miami Marlins. The Yankees already employed Bunyanesque Aaron Judge, the 2017 AL rookie of the year. Most teams must be content with only one otherworldly slugger. But because nothing succeeds like excess in New York, the Yankees have always preferred two at a time.
Then Boston achieved something close to baseball perfection, outhitting the entire major leagues and, by at least one yardstick, outpitching them, too. The Red Sox record of 108-54 was the best in Boston’s long history, and eight wins better than the excellent Yankees.
These teams haven’t clashed in the playoffs since 2004, a year of sainted memory in the hallowed confines of Fenway Park. That was the year the wild card Red Sox fell behind their archenemies three games to zip in the league finals, then won eight in a row to knock out New York and sweep the St. Louis Cardinals for Boston’s first World Series win in 86 years. (The Yankees consoled themselves by counting the 26 world championships they had won during that timespan.)
There’s a lovely symmetry – so characteristic of baseball – in the fact that these teams are meeting up in 2018. It’s a fitting 100-year commemoration of the historic 1918 season, when modern baseball and modern celebrity were born in Boston in the outsize personage of the man who would become the greatest Yankee of them all.
George Herman Ruth was a fireballer from Baltimore who had 67 wins in a tad over three seasons as the Red Sox star pitcher. His 1.75 earned run average in 1916 led a league that included Washington’s Walter Johnson, perhaps the greatest pitcher of all time. Unlike most pitchers, however, the man they called “Babe” could also hit a ton. When future Hall of Famer Ed Barrow took over as manager of the Red Sox in 1918, he realized that Babe’s bat was too valuable to rest between pitching starts, and he began the process of making Ruth an outfielder.
In a season without parallel throughout baseball history, Ruth posted a 13-7 record in 20 pitching starts while leading the American League in home runs and slugging percentage. He threw a complete game shutout against the Chicago Cubs in Game 1 of the World Series, then came back in Game 4 to pitch eight more scoreless innings and drive in the winning runs with a late-game triple.
The cash-strapped Red Sox traded Ruth to the Yankees the following year, and the rest is, quite literally, history. Ruth revolutionized baseball in the years that followed, but more than that, he wrought a revolution in American culture: the first sports superstar. Thanks to fledgling technologies like radio and newsreels, Ruth’s extraordinary talent earned him the sort of fame that had been the exclusive province of kings, queens and generals.
What began with Ruth became a global phenomenon, with athletes among the most prominent people in nearly every country on Earth, and sporting events among the world’s most compelling cultural moments. Now, more than ever, this feels like an unforeseen blessing. While many forces drive us apart – tribe from tribe, left from right, red from blue – our teams and stars still pull us together.
A rousing series from these storied franchises would do us all some good. And maybe another shot at a championship for the overdue Cleveland Indians, or a Cinderella run by the Colorado Rockies. Less Brett Kavanaugh and more Patrick Mahomes. And definitely some more “sheroics” from the USA women’s soccer team. What we need, in other words, is something to cheer for.
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