Over Easy: Big Papi won’t rake my leaves, and other baseball disappointments

  • Dan Mackie (Courtesy photograph)

Published: 10/2/2020 9:58:21 PM
Modified: 10/2/2020 9:58:09 PM

A measly two years ago, the Red Sox won the World Series and so did we. I wrote after the deciding game that the players had enchanted my wife, Dede, and me.

“They seem to like each other,’’ she told me, as I reported exclusively in this newspaper. “They also seem to be having fun.”

I was taken by the way Boston’s three boyish outfielders came in at game’s end: “They ran with delight, beaming like high-schoolers who’d won a state title. Victory was theirs and a charmed life awaited. Or so it seemed in the moment, anyway.” Then came 2020.

The Red Sox and their fans just moped through a shortened season played in empty ballparks where they piped in fake crowd noise. Two years ago they won 108 and lost 54. This year they won 24 and lost 36.

Day by day it seemed even worse. With their best starting pitchers injured and one sick with COVID-19, they trotted out second-raters and relievers hitherto unknown to us. A children’s author could have invented names: Moe Meatballs, Alphonse Loseanother, Henley Elbowchip.

It was as if team scouts were driving windowless vans and grabbing replacements off the streets of Boston. Maybe they were hired as day laborers.

I have seen a lot of things in sports, but I don’t recall a young, promising squad turn from champs to chumps so rapidly, so completely. The sleek red sports car from the 2018 victory parade has lost a muffler and two hubcaps, suffered all sorts of dings and dents, and spewed dark smoke as it lumbered along.

What curse befell this team? They crumbled as hurricanes formed in the Atlantic, fires raged near the Pacific, and all manner of mischief roiled the capital.

I barely watched this season, just a batter or two at a time, fewer than nine innings in all. The listless losing made me mull what sports are all about.

Baseball is a game, a business, an entertainment, a maker of millionaires, deliverer of TV audiences, an excuse for drinking beer and eating hot dogs. I wondered whether there was any point in playing in pandemic time.

Let’s all agree that our current national pastime, our troubled preoccupation, is this hideous national election season. The only thing that unites us is disdain for the other side. Baseball legend and Zen master Yogi Berra might have appreciated the paradox.

Sports are supposed to divert us from our daily angst. But this baseball season, for me at least, was thin soup. No peanuts, no Cracker Jack.

I sometimes dreamily recall that the roots of baseball go back to contests played on irregular fields by town teams. I imagine they included 40-year-olds whose hands were gnarled by factory or farm work. The most demanding positions, shortstop and center field, were for their swift sons and nephews.

One day in summer, long, long ago, it seemed important that the boys of Lebanon vanquished the boys from Canaan, 12-9. And the next day, everyone went back to work.

There isn’t much baseball like that anymore. I don’t know if history has recorded the last sandlot game thrown together by kids. And this season was strictly a made-for-TV production.

“Baseball is a business,’’ players say when they are negotiating million-dollar deals. Fans hear, “I am playing for you. My victories are your victories. When I retire, I’m going to move into your neighborhood and have you over for a barbecue. I will lend you my power tools. I will mow your lawn if you need me to.”

I am still waiting for David Ortiz to come by and help with yard cleanup. Big Papi will get the big rake. I wish an announcer could be on hand. “Ortiz takes his stance, spits on his hands, claps like he means business. He covers lots of ground with his 6-foot-3 frame. Now he’s aiming low and outside. Look at the reach, look at the technique. HE’S GOT A RAKE FULL OF MAPLE, OAK AND ASH. They’re going, going, gone — into the pile. How about that!”

But back to so-called reality: There were signs that a few of the young prospects might pan out, while others look for new opportunities in pizza order fulfillment and other industries. The new general manager has been trading merely useful veterans in search of phenoms about to bloom.

That’s a thing about sports. The seeds of renewal are often sown in bleakest times. The Red Sox are rebuilding, and so in 2020 must we.

Dan Mackie lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at dan.mackie@yahoo.com.

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