Jewish World Review Oct. 20, 2003 / 24 Tishrei 5764

Paul Greenberg

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Damn Yankees: A tragedy in Eleven Innings | The finest meditation on baseball I know is Bart Giamatti's "The Green Fields of the Mind," and, as soon as you hear the title, you know it's about baseball, which means it's about tragedy for all but Yankee fans.

What is the suffering of the cornfed Cubs fan, crying behind his collegiate, ivy-covered brick wall at Wrigley, compared to the classical truths of Fenway, with its Green Monster rising ominously out of left like the Minotaur patiently awaiting this year's sacrificial offering, knowing it will come no matter how long the wait?

This year's showdown at Yankee Stadium was no mere playoff, it was another round in our own Peloponnesian Wars, another chapter in the rivalry between our city-states, the Athens and Sparta of the American League.

Imagine what Sophocles could have done if he'd had some real material to work with - like the Red Sox instead of a faded Theban legend about a blind king.

Then he might have written like A. Bartlett Giamatti, president of Yale, commissioner of major league baseball, Red Sox fan and therefore a man well acquainted with tragedy. Professor Giamatti needed no chorus to set the scene; he got right to the point that dreary Sunday after the big game:

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"It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops. Today . . . a Sunday of rain and broken branches and leaf-clogged drains and slick streets, it stopped and summer was gone."

As every baseball fan knows, there is life and there is the off-season. There is hope and there is baseball in Boston. And always, as in the Gwen Verdon musical and real heartbreaking life, there are the Damn Yankees, waiting to bring the curtain down and cackle gleefully, the demons.

Once again the tragedy has been faithfully performed, the rites of fall duly observed, and the bright season closed and put away, the soul cleansed of foolish hope. It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. Again everything is as it must be, as it should be, as it always is. And the curtain falls, like a fan's hopes.

You don't have to be Presbyterian to appreciate predestination; you only have to follow the Red Sox. It's not sad, really, it's kind of uplifting, the sheer certainty of the outcome every year. "Hardship to those resigned," pronounces Oedipus in exile, "is no dismay." He must have been a Red Sox fan.

Once again our heroes managed to avert victory at almost the last minute, defying the odds to preserve their integrity and - more important - the story's. It hasn't been easy, season after heartbreaking season. In 1986, it looked near impossible. But the incredible Sox did it, though it took seven games that year and some of the most improbable sequences this side of a Dickens novel.

This year it looked as though victory might be closing in, and hope sprang foolishly eternal in Beantown. But at the end of the day, and a long, long night, and eleven jagged innings, the now 85-year-old tradition remains intact, unbroken since 1918.

A secret: Thursday night's defeat came as a quiet relief, as another profound assurance that some things don't change even in an always changing world. The stars still move in their courses, and the Red Sox have lost another pennant.

Defeat has its consolations that victory can never bestow. Would the Southern character be the same without the forever Lost Cause? (Who speaks of won causes?) Would King Lear be a more satisfying play with a happy ending? Who would remember Oedipus sighted and successful, giving speeches at Rotary? If Dante had wed his Beatrice, how long would you have given it?

Let's face it: Victory is undignified. It does not offer the solitude that the development of character requires. Once again Boston has narrowly escaped it.

Why would a grown man let himself in for all this, bright summer after bright summer, tragic fall after tragic fall as the light fades and the shadows grow longer? Because it's not who wins or loses. It's not even how the game is played. It's the game itself, the beautiful, pastoral, perennial American game itself. As another tragedian put it, the play's the thing.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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