Return From Exile

When Larry Mahnken and I decided to start writing a column together about the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry before this season, we came up with the name “Rivals in Exile” because we live so far away from both of our favorite teams. If you weren’t aware of it (and why would you be?), Rochester, N.Y. is about 330 miles away from New York City and about 390 miles away from Boston. Never have I felt that distance so much as this past week.

So, I decided I needed to take a road trip. I worked Friday night and Sunday night, but I had Saturday night off and some friends of mine from college were throwing a Game 1 party in Maynard, Mass. My girlfriend and I left western New York around 9:30 Saturday morning and got to my parents’ house in Springfield, Mass., a little after 2 p.m. After a quick lunch, all of us went out to look for American League Champion T-shirts.

The first store I stopped at had several different versions, and it was quite a scene. Dozens of people were milling around the racks looking at the various shirts and talking on their cell phones to people they were presumably buying shirts for as well. The store had plenty of AL Champion shirts, and it also brought out plain Red Sox shirts, “Biggest Comeback Ever” shirts, player shirts with name and number on the back, etc., and it looked like everything was selling.

I got myself a red American League Champion shirt with the roster printed on the back and was ready to go to the party. When I got to the party around 7 p.m., everything just felt right. I was in the company of people who truly loved the Red Sox, and I’d be able to scream, clap, high five and pace to my heart’s content.

Watching the first two rounds of the playoffs was somewhat agonizing for me for two reasons. First, I was at work for most of the games (all but one in the first two rounds), and that meant I had to show restraint with my cheering. Second, I’m the only Red Sox fan in the newsroom at the paper I work for, which means I not only had to deal with several Yankees fans (most of whom are actually very agreeable), I also didn’t have any fellow New Englanders to commiserate with.

So the first game of this year’s World Series was the most enjoyable Red Sox game I’ve watched in a long, long time and not just because it was a World Series game and the Red Sox won. It was because it was a tremendously important game, and I had people to share the tension with. I could discuss things with people who had the same worries as me and I could cheer for things with people who felt the same joy as me and it was great.

Living in New York going on seven years, I’ve certainly missed being able to just turn on the TV or radio and watch or listen to the game whenever I want. But more than that, I’ve missed constantly being around people pulling for the same teams, where nearly every conversion from April through September (and hopefully October) touches on the Red Sox at some point.

People throw around the term “Red Sox Nation” all the time, but it’s accurate. There is a feeling among Red Sox fans that’s almost akin to nationality. If you root for the Red Sox, you’re part of Red Sox Nation wherever you live, but you definitely feel disconnected when you’re not living in New England. So it was good to go home, if only for a day, and feel part of that again.

It was certainly worth having to wake up early Sunday morning and drive six hours back to western New York in order to get to work by 4 p.m. And if the experience of Game 2 paled in comparison (quietly talking to the TV, silent fist pumps and quick claps while helping make sure the section got finished), that’s OK too.

I’ll certainly never forget sitting on a couch in Maynard with my girlfriend lying asleep on my chest and waking her up as I leaped up to slap hands with my friends after we heard the sound that told us Mark Bellhorn’s fly ball in the eighth inning was a home run. Moments like that are what being a fan is all about, and I’m just glad I was able to have one.

While I’m talking about being a Red Sox fan, I want to comment on something people have been saying about Boston fans that’s been bothering me this postseason. That would be the idea people have that New Englanders would trade both of the Patriots’ Super Bowl wins for this World Series championship. I obviously don’t know about everybody else in New England, but I’d never make that deal.

When the Patriots won the Super Bowl the first time, it was the first time any of my favorite teams in any sport at any level had won a championship while I was rooting them on. I was so overcome with joy that I honestly cried for about an hour after the game ended. I’m a much bigger fan of the Red Sox than the Patriots (and a much bigger fan of the Patriots than any other team), but I don’t know if I’ll cry if they win the World Series.

That first championship, regardless of the fact that it was won by my second-favorite team instead of my favorite, just can’t be duplicated and I wouldn’t trade the experience of cheering for that win for anything in sports. It’s simply too special a memory for me.

You might be saying, “OK, so you wouldn’t trade both Super Bowl wins for a World Series title, but would you trade the second Super Bowl for a World Series?” Well, if you’re asking if I’d rather be at a stage in my life where I’d rather have rooted for one championship each for the Red Sox and Patriots than two for the Patriots, I guess I’d say yes.

If you’re asking if I’d agree if somebody came up to me and told me he could change history so that the Patriots didn’t win the Super Bowl last winter and in exchange he’d guarantee that the Red Sox win this World Series, I wouldn’t agree. Part of the thrill of rooting for a championship is that you never know if you’re going to get it until the last game ends. Making a trade would render the whole experience meaningless, in my opinion.

Consider this. If you had a million dollars in the bank from winning the lottery and somebody agreed to sell you a ticket for one million dollars for an upcoming lottery that was guaranteed (nothing to worry about whatsoever) to win two million dollars, would you feel any excitement just before that last ball popped up with your number on it? Maybe a little, but probably not much. You’d have made a smart business decision, but I can’t imagine there would be a thrill of victory involved.

I don’t know if that’s really a good example, but that’s kind of the way I feel about the issue of whether or not I’d trade a Super Bowl for a World Series. In my opinion, saying that you’d trade one team’s championship to get one for a different team shows a lack of faith in the second team. If you really love a team, you should believe that they will eventually win a title on their own and not need you to engage in some hypothetical sports championship swap.

Say that most New Englanders like the Red Sox and want a World Series title much more than they liked the Patriots and wanted a Super Bowl win, sure. But don’t say we’d give up that great feeling of making it every step of the way with no emotional safety net and ending up with a champion in exchange for a sure thing, and don’t insult the Red Sox by implying that they need us to make a trade for them.

It’s early yet, but they seem to be doing fine by themselves. Within a week, I hope to know whether the Red Sox winning the World Series can top what I felt when the Patriots won Super Bowl XXXVI or not. Until then, I’ll be sweating through 2-5 more games, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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