Thank You, Grady Little?

In a perverse way, Grady Little's decision to let Pedro Martinez pitch batting practice to the Yankees in the eighth inning of last year's ALCS Game 7 may have contributed more to John Henry's bottom line than a World Series win ever could.

Imagine the scene if the Sox had defeated the Yankees in Game 7, then knocked off the Marlins to win their first Series in 85 years. After the celebration, Kenmore Square would have looked like downtown Baghdad. Johnny Pesky would finally have a World Series ring. The media would have been filled with images of ecstatic octogenarians proclaiming that they could now die happy. Theo Epstein would wake up knowing that the remaining two-thirds of his life would be an anticlimax That's how it would have happened in the movies.

But baseball's not a movie. A movie tells a story that builds to a climax -- and as soon as the story line is resolved, the movie ends. When the superhero gets his mission, you know that an hour and a half later, it will have been completed. When the final credits roll over the image of Tom Hanks or Hugh Grant or Adam Sandler embracing Meg Ryan or Sandra Bullock or Drew Barrymore, you can practically read the words, "and they lived happily ever after."

In baseball, no one lives happily ever after. Baseball is like television: after one story line builds for months to its inevitable climax, another must take its place. Baseball's new story line begins when training camps open, less than four months after the World Series. The champion has to prove itself all over again, while the losers get another chance. And in professional sports, the one story line that never grows stale is the one about the Lovable Loser Trying Yet Again.

Compare what happened to the two clubs in last year's NLCS. In Florida, the world champion Marlins still can't get the state legislature to listen to their demands for a new ballpark, and say they'll be lucky to draw 20,000 fans per game. In Chicago, by contrast, Today and MSNBC came to witness the destruction of the foul ball tipped by Steve Bartman to cost the Lovable Loser Cubs their first trip to the Series since World War II.  This season the Cubs expect to cram 3,000,000 fans into Wrigley Field.

Boston's offseason was even more manic. Thanksgiving weekend was dominated by reports of the Sox' successful negotiations with Curt Schilling. A week later, the signing of Keith Foulke raised expectations even higher. When word leaked that the Sox were about to turn Manny Ramirez and Nomar Garciaparra into Alex Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez, all New England held its breath. And when A-Rod instead went to what Larry Lucchino had dubbed the Evil Empire, all New England wept. The Patriots' second Super Bowl win in three years was a virtual afterthought.

The Red Sox have two Lovable Loser story lines that their fans can recite by heart: the Sox can never win a World Series, and can never beat the Yankees in a head-to-head showdown. The A-Rod fiasco added a new wrinkle, with Boston even finding a way to lose to New York during the offseason. The Yankee-Red Sox rivalry is so heated that Fox is pre-empting its regular programming to show the clubs' first 2004 meeting on Friday, April 16 -- the network's first regular season prime time baseball telecast since the night in 1998 when Mark McGwire broke Roger Maris's single-season home run record.

Years of Lovable Loserdom have been good to the Sox. Despite the majors' highest ticket prices, Boston will set an all-time attendance record in 2004. Except for strike-shortened 1994, they haven't drawn fewer than 2,100,000 fans since 1985. Once they actually win a World Series, though, decades of pent-up anticipation will dissipate. After the party ends, the Red Sox will be just another local team. Thanks to Grady Little, that time has not yet come.

Copyright © 2004 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the April 2004 issue of Boston Baseball.

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