I want to tell you the story of Aaron Boone, a man who, seventeen years ago, broke my heart and ruined my year.
I know, I know, there’s too much going on right now. With all the election results rolling in, and so many news outlets and social media feeds to consult, and petulant press conferences to stare at, who’s got the time for a story? But, please, indulge me. The tale I have to share speaks directly to what is going on right now in our country, to the frantic tug-of-war over electoral votes, to non-concession speeches, and to the teams of lawyers descending upon state election offices like ravens to carrion. For all the pain he caused me, I appreciate the lesson Aaron Boone taught me all those years ago, and I want to share it with you.
First, let me introduce you to ol’ Aaron at what is arguably the greatest moment in his life:
Now, let’s back up and set the stage. Back in 2003, the American League Championship Series pitted the scrappy Boston Red Sox – a team I have been devoted to since I was a kid – against the dreaded New York Yankees. The Yankees entered the playoffs as the top team in the American League, and the Boston Red Sox were the Wild Card team, having finished the regular season in fourth place.
Most people know the Red Sox and Yankees are bitter rivals, and that their fans loathe each other. In fact, many see in each other the very worst of the sporting world. Thus, plenty of drama was already baked into this series. A lot was on the line. The Yankees wanted to prove they were definitively the best team in the league, and put the Red Sox, who had been nipping at their heels all season, down for good. They had shown themselves to be the better team during the regular season, but now it was time to do the same in the post-season.
On the other side, the Red Sox wanted to overcome the pinstriped juggernaut and, at long last, return to the World Series, which they had not reached since 1986 and had not won since 1918! For over eighty years, they’d suffered under “the curse of the Bambino,” but now they were finally poised to change the tide.
It was a nail-biter of a series. The Red Sox won Game 1 handily, but then the Yankees won the next two. Boston drew even in Game 4, the Yankees took Game 5, and then Boston rallied in the latter half of the penultimate game to force a momentous Game 7.
A best-of-seven series seemed inevitable, and so, on Thursday, October 16, 2003, sports fans throughout the country tuned in to see who would emerge triumphant from the fray. Boston took an early lead, but as the game wore on the Yankees chipped away at it, eventually forcing extra innings.
And that’s where Aaron Boone comes in.
At first, he didn’t seem like much of a threat. He had only entered the game a few innings earlier as a pinch-runner. That made what came next all the more shocking. I watched helplessly as he stepped to the plate in the bottom of the eleventh and blasted Tim Wakefield’s first pitch into the left field seats. As the ball leapt off his bat, my heart leapt into my throat. Yankee Stadium erupted, the Yankees flooded the field, and a jubilant Boone stomped definitively on home plate.
Meanwhile, the blood drained from my face. Exhausted, emotional, and sorely disappointed, I felt tears well up in my eyes. My side had lost one of the closest games – and series – in modern history. Worst of all, the Bambino’s Curse held sway.
I was devastated, angry, and more than a little willing to criticize the Yankees. Now that they had handed my team such a hope-shattering loss, I hated them even more (if that was possible). In that moment of sorrow, they represented everything awful and despicable about professional sports. And, like any true fan, I also had some judgments to pass on my own team. Why had Red Sox manager, Grady Little, left a visibly fatigued Pedro Martinez on the mound in the eighth, even after he gave up a double and a single? Perhaps it had been a strategic decision, but it nonetheless resulted in three runs for the Yankees, which tied the game.
There was plenty to criticize and bewail and regret and second-guess. After such a long season and a contentious, hard fought championship where so much was on the line, the frustration and dejection I felt was completely understandable. So, yes, I did my fair share of complaining.
But you know what I didn’t do?
I didn’t cry, “Conspiracy!” I didn’t declare the game was rigged. As upset as I was by the loss, I didn’t insist Boone’s bat must have been corked, or that Mariano Riviera was doctoring his pitches, or that Joe Torre was stealing signs. I didn’t stomp my foot and announce that every run scored after the seventh inning was ill-gotten and should be erased from the scoreboard. No, as depressing as the loss was, I was mature enough to accept it and move on.
No doubt some will argue that a presidential election, particularly this presidential election, is much more serious and consequential than a baseball game. Indeed, if you’ve truly bought into the groundless conspiratorial chatter that this election was actually a contest between people who loved America and people who hated it – that it pitted a true patriot against a mustache-twirling autocrat – well, then nothing I write here will make an ounce of difference to you. To your own psychological peril, you’ve chosen to live according to an us vs. them narrative.
However, if you haven’t surrendered your sense of reason and your trust in democracy, and if you are willing to accept that this election was a choice between two dedicated Americans who love our country but hold radically different ideologies on how to show that love, then hopefully the story of Aaron Boone and the 2003 ALCS offers some much-needed perspective to what is shaping up to be yet another frighteningly divisive moment in our nation’s history.
Yes, a presidential election is far more significant than a baseball game, (even an ALCS Game 7). But there remain more than a few similarities between presidential campaigns and Major League championships (and not just because of all the ball caps, colorful banners, and chest-beating crowd chants that have marked this election in particular). Just like MLB teams, both candidates recruit as talented and dedicated a personnel as possible, and in turn that team of people work incredibly hard for months, even years, to build the most formidable campaign, one that can win early, win consistently, and win when it matters most.
When we, as “fans,” jump on their bandwagon, we can become just as invested, if not more, in their success. Many of us will, without even realizing it, start remaking our very identities around this affiliation, while simultaneously disparaging – or even despising – our counterparts on the other side. Don’t believe me? Go back and look at the last five articles you shared, or the last ten posts or tweets you tossed into cyberspace. What does that snapshot reveal about you? What topics does it seem were the most important to express to the rest of the world?
I get it. Losing is never fun, and the greater the stakes, the harder it is to stomach (especially when you had a solid lead for a lot of the game). But we all know that losing is a part of life. If every ALCS loser cried “Conspiracy!” when he didn’t win the trophy, all he accomplished would be damage to his own reputation and to the sport. In the same way, if we buy into the lie that every contest that doesn’t go our way must somehow be secretly rigged against us, we will only tumble into a cynical, joyless darkness of our own making.
Here’s the most insidious thing about conspiracies: if you look for them, they’re pretty easy to find. That’s not because they’re true, though. It’s because they’re convenient. They turn us into corrupt and bumbling detectives, making up our minds on whodunnit and then searching only for evidence that fits that narrative. From the outside looking in, this practice is irresponsible and pathetic. But from the inside looking out, it’s commiserative. No matter how illogical or petty they make someone sound, conspiracies offer a semblance of comfort in the midst of disappointment, control in the midst of failure.
Look, you don’t have to be happy with the outcome of the game, or match, or election, et cetera. But in order to maintain a healthy outlook on the world, it’s important to accept the result and move on. Otherwise, you’re interior monologue, you’re dinner conversations, and your social media feeds will all start to sound as petty and obsessive as those nuts who call in to sports radio every afternoon just to projectile vomit their neurotic fandom into the ears of anyone who will listen.
When Aaron Boone connected with Wakefield’s pitch, it was like a punch in the gut. Were the Red Sox actually cursed? Was it possible to overcome these detestable Yankees? Would they ever make it back to the World Series, and, if so, how long? Before Boone was even finished rounding the bases, I was already lamenting over what a long, long off-season it would be and if my side would ever rise again.
Right now, roughly half the country is elated, like those fans in Yankee Stadium back in 2003. The other, however, are weeping wicked hahd into their Sam Adamses. And yet, as polarized as we might feel, we two fandoms, who have been so callously tribalized against one another, have the opportunity and dare I say the responsibility to find a way forward? For crying out loud, we learned the appropriate coping lesson way back in our childhood, remember? You know, it’s not whether you win or lose…
Sure, sure. A presidential election is much bigger than a baseball game. Still, though, there’s a stark parallel we mustn’t miss, because the future of our democracy depends on our sportsmanship in the present. Do we want to protect the integrity of the game by exhibiting humility and trust, or do we want to tear it apart by stewing in bitterness and spewing vitriol? It’s easy to be a sore loser – easier still to insist the match was stolen from you. It’s much harder to swallow your pride and offer a handshake to the other side. But it’s the right thing to do.
As of this moment, America is a field full of relieved celebrants and heartbroken runners-up, and the rest of the world is watching. What we need more than anything is to take a deep breath, look each other in the eyes, and sincerely say, “Good game.”