Spring and baseball returns to New England

Mar 29, 2013

After a long winter, spring officially returns to these parts this afternoon. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay takes  a break from State House debate  to bring us baeball's return.

In New England, everything old really is new again on the Opening Day of the baseball season. Shortly after one this afternoon, the oldest and most spirited rivalry in all of  American sports begins anew as our Boston Red Sox travel to the Bronx to play the New York Yankees, a club also known in our sliver of New England as The Evil Empire.

This is the season of renewal; of daffodils, Passover and Easter. The sun is higher in the sky and mornings trill with the symphony of  birdsong spilling through an open window.

Baseball is one of those indelible rites of spring for a nineteenth century institution that is forever  exempt from the unforgiving dictates of a clock; time is till measured in innings.

While football, the ultimate clock-centered game, is more popular than baseball in the 21st Century, the traditional among us prefer the lazy summer rhythms of the national pastime. As writer George Will put it, baseball is superior because football is ``too much like modern life – violence interrupted by committee meetings.’’

If any team needed a fresh start, it is the 2013 edition of the Red Sox, a team that  in a decade went from first to worst. After breaking an 86-year drought by winning the World Series in 2004 after a thrilling playoff series over the Yankees, Sox fans endured two heartbreaking seasons in 2011 and 2012. The 2011 team swooned in September after accusations that some pitchers were more focused on eating fried chicken and drinking clubhouse beer than painting the strike zone. That led to the firing of manager Terry Francona, a patient, player-centric baseball lifer who brought winning back to New England. He was replaced by the fiery Bobby Valentine, who vowed to show pampered players who was boss, only to lose control of a team that was riddled with injuries and lost more games than it won.

Now, there is another new manager, John Farrell, the third skipper in three years. Farrell is a onetime Red Sox pitching coach who understands the fanatic fan base that is Red Sox Nation and the prying media horde that conflates every error into the baseball equivalent of  a World War.

We don’t know what this new team will bring. Yet we know that it will be alternately worshipped and cursed, depending on the fickle fate of millionaire men playing a boys game. Indianapolis has its car race, New Orleans had Mardi Gras and Hollywood has the  Oscars. New England has the Red Sox and Fenway Park, the green cathedral in Boston’s Back Bay that will host its 101st year of baseball next week.

Rhode Islanders are the most fortunate residents of Red Sox Nation because we have the team’s top minor league affiliate, the Pawtucket Red Sox, who play in McCoy Stadium in the Blackstone Valley’s seen-better-days factory town.

McCoy, named after Pawtucket Mayor Tommy McCoy, the Depression-era machine politician, is also steeped in hardball history: the longest professional game ever played was at McCoy, a 33-inning marathon that began on a chilly April night in 1981.

Last year, the PawSox drew 521,000 fans, the third highest attendance in all of minor league baseball. (Only teams in the much larger cities of Buffalo, N.Y. and Sacramento, Calif., drew more).

PawSox tickets are still $5 for young fans under 12 or under and silver hairs 65 and over. This year, the team will feature even more fan-friendly promotions, including $1 hot dogs on Monday games and a $10,000 fan-centered pitching competition on Tuesday evening games, says Lou Schwechheimer, the team’s general manager.

The beauty of Pawtucket is that Sox fans get to see the future now, before the players take the 45-minute shuttle to Boston and realize their dreams of making it to the majors.

Four times since the end of World War II, in 1946, 1967, 1975 and 1986, Boston went to the seventh game of the World Series, only to lose every time. That morose legacy was consigned to the dustbin of history during 11 improbable days in 2004, when the Sox won eight straight post-season games to become world champions for the first time since the signing of the Versailles Treaty.

Today is the time to shake off the winter doldrums, forget the futility of last year and watch the Sox battle the Yankees. And if they lose, well there are 161 games left in the season.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35 and on All Things Considered at 5:50. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at the `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org