The view from the Fenway Park bleachers Tuesday night was mostly the same as it was four decades ago when I sat there during one of the most gut-wrenching games in Red Sox history. But everything else is different.
Sox fans like me have been bred to expect the worst: A shortstop inexplicably hesitates while the winning run of the World Series rounds third and scores (1946); a ground ball shockingly dribbles through the spindly legs of a first baseman to help lose another World Series (1986); a tiring pitcher coughs up the lead in the deciding game for the American League pennant (2003).
I was in the bleachers, just 15, for this 1978 calamity: A light-hitting Yankee infielder smacks a three-run homer in a one-game playoff to send the Red Sox packing, once again, without a world championship. On that October afternoon, children all around Boston had been let out of school early to watch the game. Some lucky ones, like me, managed to score tickets. Everyone approached the game with the same anxiety: The Red Sox were just another crimson leaf preparing to fall, as they did every year. Each pitch seemed a prelude to disaster.
Tuesday, as I settled with my 18-year-old son, Mike, into our seats for Game 1 of the World Series between the Red Sox and Dodgers, I noticed immediately that the sense of impending doom in the crowd had disappeared. It was my first postseason visit to Fenway since the end of the troubled times and the atmosphere — in past years akin to a vigil for a dying loved one — was now more like a fraternity party.
Pleas for divine intervention have transformed into joyous cheers, including taunts of “Ker-shaw, Ker-shaw” as the great left-hander struggled, and “Beat L.A.,” a rallying cry requisitioned from the bitter Boston Celtics/Los Angeles Lakers rivalry.
The curse-breaking World Series victory of 2004, along with two more titles in 2007 and 2013, healed the infected psyche of Boston.
But for some Red Sox fans like me, who still bear the scars of those hopeless decades, it’s been a difficult adjustment.
Last week as the Sox closed in on their pennant-clinching win over the Houston Astros, I was texting with my high school pal, Dave — inning by inning, often pitch by pitch — as we have during the big playoff games this year.
Our shared love of the Sox was forged in the summer after sixth grade, when we scoured the streets of our hometown of Melrose, Mass., together, plucking sports pages from the Boston Globe and Boston Herald out of the trash to clip articles and pictures for our scrapbooks commemorating the pennant-winning 1975 season. (They lost the World Series that year on a bloop single in the ninth inning of Game 7.)
As the Sox clung to a 4-1 lead over the Astros on Thursday night, I conveyed my fears about their shaky third-base defense.
Me: I’m nervous every time the ball is hit to third.
Dave: You are way more nervous than me. You have a phobia!
Me: It’s the 78/86/03 phobia.
Dave: We are now doing exposure therapy for you.
Every postseason win since 2004 has been just that. Each time the Red Sox rise instead of fall is like another wrap of gauze around those old wounds.
Tuesday night, there in person when the stakes were highest, was the final application.
With the Red Sox holding a slim lead in the seventh inning, just as in the ’78 playoff game, another light-hitting infielder stepped to the plate with two runners on base.
In ’78, it was the Yankees’ Bucky Dent, who hit the game-altering, three-run homer. From my bleacher seat that afternoon, I had the perfect angle -- a sightline that extended along the top of Fenway’s famed Green Monster -- to see the ball barely clear that 37-foot left field wall.
On Tuesday night, the batter was the Red Sox’s Eduardo Nunez. He hit a shot toward left field. Just as in ’78, I had a great angle. Again, I watched the ball barely clear the Green Monster.
Another three-run homer. But this time, it cinched a victory for the Red Sox instead of sinking one. The bleachers exploded into cheers. Mike and I high-fived each other and everyone around us. I screamed myself hoarse.
It all felt so similar, yet so very, very different.