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Sunday, February 05, 2006

Part I: Boston's Hero

How old should a boy be before he starts to learn some of the hard lessons of life? I don't mean lessons like:
Stubbing your toe is followed by about three quarters of a second of "stay-tuned-for-pain" before the pain is actually delivered.
If your throw your little sister out the window, you're probably not going to get dessert tonight.
I'm talking about the adult stuff. Love. Commitment. Loyalty. Support. Reliance.


Many parents put off teaching these lessons out of an instinctive need to protect the child from immediate harm. Questions that begin with "why" worm their way into topics of human behavior that parents deem too dangerous to warrant further exploration.

"Junior doesn't need to know about that yet."

So they gloss over. They give things a caramel coating, all shiny and sweet. It looks great at first but over time, it cracks and molds and crumbles away and when that inevitably happens, the best parents take the time to gingerly guide their children from a world of wondrous innocence into a world of chilling reality.

But what are parents to do when life's hard lessons are shoved right in a child's face by someone else, a stranger perhaps, or the increasingly inescapable media? An outsider foisting adultism upon unsuspecting youngsters seems especially unfair, especially heartbreaking. The kids didn't ask for this. And the parents are left holding the bag.

Case in point: when Johnny Damon left the Red Sox to go play for the Yankees.

For those of you who don't know, here's a little background. The Red Sox are a baseball team. They play in Boston, home of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Aerosmith, and my mom. The Yankees are another team. They play in New York, home of Joel Rifkin, Son of Sam, and Tony Danza. To say that there is a rivalry between these two teams is like saying that Martha and George in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" don't get along very well. The history of these two teams is filled with brawls, melees, brouhahas, dust ups, skirmishes, scuffles, sucker punches, glove slaps, bean balls, brush backs, and mound charges. The animosity that exists is pretty much even on both sides. What is not however is their record of success. The Yankees have won 26 World Championships. The Red Sox have won six. Fans in Boston hate, really, actually hate the Yankees. This I know.

With sentimentality, I phrase the following sentence in the present tense: Johnny Damon is a hero to Red Sox fans. He played centerfield for Boston during the remarkable (that's a stupid word but it does as good a job as any at describing this particular event...I believe an event like this demands a entirely new word, one that can only legitimately be applied to the original event itself) 2004 season, a season which saw the Red Sox - Yankee rivalry rise to new, truly frenzied heights. And in the ultimate victory, there was absolute release for Red Sox fans, some who had literally been waiting an entire lifetime for this moment.

I won't attempt to recount everything that happened that year or how Johnny Damon became so beloved. Let's just say Johnny Damon was the guy that women wanted, the guy that men wanted to be, and the guy that kids just wanted to be like.

One of those kids was my friend George. George is 9 years old and lives in Portland, Maine, home of the Sea Dogs, the Red Sox Double A farm team. In 2004, Hanley Ramirez was the star shortstop for the Sea Dogs. Ramirez rented a room in a triplex across the street from George. One time, in violation of several rules of conduct, the landlady let George in Ramirez' apartment. George tiptoed across the buckling hardwood into the bedroom, carefully swung open the closet door heavy with excessive coats of paint and marveled at the array of footwear. Later, George would get an autograph. It remains one of his primary treasures.

Ramirez was one thing, but George's real hero was down in Boston, crashing into Fenway Park's centerfield wall, outrunning opposing infielders hardest throws to first, stretching doubles into triples. Johnny played fast and loose. Johnny played hard and fearlessly, sacrificing his somewhat hulking, sometimes clumsy body in pursuit of one more base, one more out. Kids naturally love players like this, guys that play wildly and out of control and successfully and have fun doing it. When Johnny put the ball in play, it was always exciting because you knew anything was possible.

As an athlete, Johnny was a jumble of contradictions. He was big and wide, more like a fullback than the typically lanky centerfielder. With a frame like that, you'd expect him to be slow. Contradication: Johnny was one of the fastest players on the team. Centerfielders are often graceful creatures, as well. Fred Lynn, who manned center for the Sox back in the 70s, would range under flyballs with the delicate gait of a playful deer, eyes unwavering, trained on the ball until it dropped into his glove like a nut from a tree. Contradiction: Johnny was not so blessed. His gift was speed and he used it to race around the field, hauling in flies surely destined for the gap or the warning track. Even the ball itself must have been shocked to find itself wrapped in leather instead of bouncing into the bullpen. And many times Johnny would come sliding head first into shallow center to rob a batter of a bloop single only to weakly flick the ball to first, unable to double up even the slowest runner. Contradiction: Johnny's arm was one of the weakest I have EVER seen. Is it possible to be nidextrous?

And on top of it all, Johnny was a goofball. The longest hair in baseball since Oscar Gamble. Always smiling. Always playful. He was just a big kid. I've seen him goof with bat boys in the middle of an at bat. He seemed to get it, that this is a game, a beautiful, fun game played in the sun on bright green grass every day of every summer. How could you not smile? Even though he was one of the highest paid players in Boston (his 2005 salary was $8,250,000), he looked like he was playing for his fans, his teammates and as corny as sounds, and trust me, I know how corny it sounds, God help me, for the love of the game. That's how it looked.

9 year old boys can't comprehend how much money a million dollars is so they just don't bother with it. But what they do have is a finely tuned phoniness-meter. They know who's for real and who's not. They don't pick their heroes. Their heroes just are. Kids gravitate towards the adults who look like they having the most fun, the ones who are the best at what they do. Those are the ones they idolize. How could a kid like George look at Johnny Damon and see anyone but Superman?

December 21, 2005 in the predawn darkness I clicked on the Red Sox bookmark. It's funny how such a small event, a contraction of a muscle inside an index finger on a piece of electronics can tip your life from one direction to another.

Sickened, my shock came out in quiet, constricted breaths. "No. No."


Boston's Traitor



At 2/06/2006 4:00 PM, whl said...

Every word that you write is the utter and complete truth. Looking forward to part II.


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