When I was 11 I became a baseball two-timer. Growing up in Georgia I was by default an Atlanta Braves fan, the key syllable in there being “fault.” The Braves were terrible every single year. Our best pitcher, year after year, was Phil Niekro — a guy who threw knuckleballs. It was like having your Aunt Myrtice lift the heavy end when you moved furniture. Over the years we had at least three starters (Jerry Royster, Omar Moreno, Andres Thomas) who various writers called “the worst player in baseball.” In my childhood the Braves made the playoffs only twice and never won a game. In the first game of the 1982 NL Championship Series, we were leading St. Louis 1-0. Of course it started raining. The game was washed out and we lost the next three.
My sceond-favorite Braves fact: On July 6, 1986, our third baseman Bob Horner hit four home runs in a game — one of just 15 times that has happened in major league history.
My favorite Braves fact: The Braves lost that game to Montreal 11-8.
None of this hurt quite as much as it normally would because along the way I had picked up a second losing team, in the way a guy who decides to get drunk will alternate beers with shots of Jim Beam. I couldn’t help it. The Red Sox had me at Game 6 in 1975.
My brilliant friend Joe Posnanski is writing a book about that ’75 Cincinnati Reds team — maybe the greatest team in baseball history. I hated the Reds. They crushed the Braves like Emeril with a garlic clove. Pete Rose was obnoxious and Joe Morgan did that goofy chicken-wing flap when he batted (which, many years later, I copied for church softball) and George Foster had that scary black bat and even scarier sideburns. Couldn’t stand the Reds.
But when I was 11 and just starting to really love sports, the Reds were in the ’75 Series and so I watched. The Red Sox I knew basically nothing about, except they had some guy named Yaz whose name I couldn’t spell.
If you’re a baseball fan you know that what followed was the greatest World Series of all time.
It peaked in Game 6, where a Sox sub named Bernie Carbo hit a three-run homer to tie it in the eighth, and Carlton Fisk waved his homer fair in the 12th to win it. I honestly don’t remember if I saw the Fisk homer live — I’m guessing it was past my bedtime by then — but they replayed it so many times right after (even on our TV with only three channels) that it felt like I was watching it live, and still does even now that I’ve seen the highlight probably a thousand times.
So the Red Sox became my second team. Of course they lost the Series in Game 7. And then… well, if you’re a sports fan there’s no need to rehash it, so let’s just say they spent the next 29 years shattering hearts. It was like Houdini in reverse. They found a way to die every time.
In ’86 (the same year as the Bob Horner four-homer game — wow, was that a tough season) I was at my first job, covering night cops in Augusta, Ga., and living in a one-room apartment with a king-size bed and a dorm-size fridge. But it was walking distance to a great bar called the Red Lion, and I was making new friends, and the Red Sox were finally going to win the World Series. They were up 3 games to 2 on the New York Mets and led going into the bottom of the ninth.
They got the first out. One of my friends called, let the phone ring once and hung up — just to let me know he was thinking about me.
They got the second out. The phone rang again, just once.
It didn’t ring again.
There were a couple of singles and a wild pitch and finally the ball that rolled through Bill Buckner’s legs, and somehow the Sox — one pitch away from their first world series in 68 years — had blown it. They lost Game 7 as destiny ordained and kept their crown as the most agony-twisted team in sports.
A few years later, the Braves got good. The team that never won anything started going to the World Series every year. In 1995 they broke through and won, and I hugged my buddies in my friend’s living room in Atlanta as we laughed at Ted Turner giving drunken interviews on the field. We had watched all those losing games, sat through all those poundings, and had come out on the other side.
Nine years later, I watched with my same friend as the Yankees pounded the Red Sox in the A.L. Championship Series to go up 3-0. One more game and the Red Sox would be disappointments again. Except — and I still can hardly believe this to write it — they beat the Yankees four straight and then the St. Louis Cardinals four more to win the World Series for the first time since 1918. I saw that last World Series game in a hotel room in Florida with a king-size bed and a dorm-size fridge. The world circles.
I never wanted to root for losers. I never wanted to be a baseball bigamist. But that’s where I’ve ended up, and now I’m living in the home of my tied-for-first favorite team, and they show every single game on TV, and it looks like they’re bound for the playoffs again.
My friends have asked me who I’d root for if the Braves played the Sox in the World Series. I’ve never had a good answer. But I just looked back over this post and noticed that I said “they” when I talked about the Red Sox and “we” when I talked about the Braves. Sometimes the back of your mind knows stuff that the rest of you doesn’t.