Red Sox turn from Israelites to Israelis

Their 86 long years in World Series exile - decades filled with struggling and, most importantly, keeping the faith, established the Red Sox as Jews of baseball.

red sox 88 (photo credit: )
red sox 88
(photo credit: )
On their way to a masterful four-game World Series sweep which culminated in a 4-3 besting of the Colorado Rockies Sunday night, one thing about the Boston Red Sox became clear: they have become the Israelis of baseball. Their long years (86 to be exact) in World Series exile - decades filled with yearning, struggling, anxiety and, most importantly, keeping the faith - had established the underdog Red Sox as the Jews of baseball. Their perseverance in the face of adversity, both as a team and throughout the wide-flung diaspora of Red Sox Nation, was then rewarded in their miraculous comeback three years ago. After the aching post-season losses of 1948, 1967, 1975 and 1986 when victory seemed so close, in October 2004 they clawed their way out of a three-game deficit against their arch-rival New York Yankees with four straight wins to take the American League Championship Series. It was a hole from which no other team had ever managed to climb out, and it presaged their sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals for their first world series since 1918. Finally, the Red Sox had made it to the Promised Land. With that the battle-worn New Englanders came out of the closet, riches and resources poured in, and a fan base proliferated everywhere beyond the tri-state New York area in support of the underdog team that could stand up to the Yankees, who were once famously referred to as the "evil empire" by the president of the Red Sox. It was exhilarating and vindicating and everything else a lifelong Sox fan, who had finally found redemption could have wanted. At long last the Curse of the Bambino - in which appalling errors and management moves conspired to keep victory out of reach following the sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920 - had been broken and Red Sox minions could walk with their heads held high, knowing they would never again be taunted with jeers of "1918!" And yet, we remained Sox fans, just like Jews around the world haven't remained entirely secure despite their place in Israel and America. As New England-raised baseball kibbutzer extraordinaire Bill Simmons put it in a column last month, "No Sox fan can find total peace; we'll always dread the next meltdown or come-from-behind charge by the Yankees. These feelings are wired into our DNA, like Haddonfield citizens who will never again feel totally safe on Halloween." It was in September, after all, that the Red Sox, having held first place in the American League East since the beginning of the season, much of it with a double-digit lead over the Yankees, started to falter and allowed the Bronx Bombers to come within a couple games, only to hold on to win the division late in the month. So it was with some shock that, at dinner before the start of the World Series, a friend told me in all seriousness that she was rooting for the Rockies since "they're the underdog" and "they have the better story," having won 20 of 21 of their last games to go from a middling place in the NL West Division to league champions. How can that be? I wondered. My team is the underdog, the poor-luck, big-hearted fighters, the feisty competitor that never gives up when the chips are down. A 2007 World Series win would only mean that the Red Sox had won once on average for each of its 40 years of wandering in the baseball wilderness. And yet three years out from clinching the World Series, that was all gone, forgotten, erased. Everywhere I looked, the signs were clear. The Red Sox were described as the dominant team, were favored to win in Vegas by 2-1 odds, and - horror of horrors - were being compared to the Yankees. And that's when it became apparent. The Red Sox had gone from being Israelites to being Israelis. Though the Jews had been homeless, oppressed and persecuted for two millennia, Israel had only to be in existence for a few decades before it was considered the dominant regional power - the turning point coming in 1967, the year of the Red Sox Impossible Dream team that made a heart-breaking come-from-behind run for the World Series. International opinion generally depicts the Jewish state as having one of the world's best militaries, as well as the upper hand in its struggles with the Palestinians and other Arab states. Perhaps the most common criticism of Israel in the war with Lebanon last summer was its use of "disproportionate force" with its air and infantry attacks in spite of the hundreds of rockets raining down in the north; that conception assumes that Israel is the more powerful actor. Despite the insecurities that lurk in the psychological make-up of the populace, Israelis also see themselves as strong and undefeated. Sometimes Israelis evince frustration in being perceived as the card-holder when they are exponentially outnumbered by surrounding Arab and Muslim countries. But they also take pride in that circumstance for good reason. And so the Red Sox, both grudgingly and gladly, came to wear the same mantle this fall. I have to admit it: In the days leading up to the playoffs, I expected to win. Never once before in 20-plus years of ardent baseball fandom had I expected the Red Sox to win the World Series - hoped, yes, prayed, when necessary - but never expected. I wasn't alone. Hall-of-fame bound pitcher Curt Schilling said that even when the Red Sox were one game away from elimination by the Cleveland Indians in the ALCS, he knew they would make it to the World Series. In contrast to 2004, he said, "This year, down 3-1, I don't ever remember for a day thinking we weren't going to be here. I don't know if that's right or wrong, fair or foul. But I don't think anybody in that clubhouse thought our season was going to end before we got here." columnist Jayson Stark, who included the Schilling quote in his post-game piece, explained what that means to those outside Red Sox nation: "We have made it through most of our lifetimes thinking of the Red Sox with a certain simplicity, possibly even a little sympathy. But those days are over, friends. Over. Two World Series sweeps in four seasons have sealed that deal." Schilling acknowledged as much. "It's a different organization now" than it was in 2004. "It's different. Nobody feels sorry for us anymore. And they shouldn't. We're not the little guy on the block anymore. We're not David to Goliath." Maybe not. Maybe Israel isn't either. And maybe it's better that way.