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What the Red Sox Franchise Means to the Baseball City of Boston

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What the Red Sox Franchise Means to the Baseball City of Boston
Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

It was a two-strike splitter from Koji Uehara to Matt Carpenter that did the trick on Wednesday night. Carpenter swung and missed for the final out of Game 6 of the 2013 World Series, giving the Boston Red Sox their third title since 2004.

As for the 38,447 people crammed into Fenway Park, well, they did what fans taking in a sight that hadn't been seen in 95 years would do. They went bonkers.

Outside of Fenway Park, meanwhile, the game was being watched on almost 90 percent of the television sets that were on in Boston. Which, believe it or not, is an actual fact:

On Saturday, there will be another, much larger number that will tie Red Sox fans to the Olde TowneIan Browne of MLB.com says that millions are expected to show up for the Red Sox's victory parade through the city and on the Charles River, which gets rolling at 10 a.m. local time.

Between Game 6's attendance, the percentage of TVs in Boston showing it and the amount of people expected to turn up to Saturday's grand shindig, what we have here is a case where, yeah, the numbers agree wholeheartedly with the conventional wisdom about the city the Red Sox call home.

They're crazy about baseball in Boston, and man-oh-man do they love their Red Sox.

Yeah, yeah. It's easy to gush about the love that a particular city has for a particular team whenever it wins a particular championship. No title has ever been won to the tune of halfhearted clapping and Huzzah-ing from the hometown fans, nor will any title ever be won that way.

But it really is different in Boston. Baseball means something in Boston. The Red Sox mean something in Boston.

And for the first time in a while, what the Red Sox's place in Boston is was as clear as day in 2013.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Boston and the greater New England area are not lacking for sports options. There are the Boston Bruins, Boston Celtics and New England Patriots, all three of whom have won championships recently.

Baseball, however, was there first.

When the National League was founded in 1876, there were the Boston Red Stockings. A quarter of a century later, there was the American League and the Boston Americans. Six years later, they were the Boston Red Sox. 

More than a century later, they're still the Boston Red Sox. Boston has been a baseball town for almost 140 years, and the Red Sox have been a fixture for over 100 of those. Mind you, they also play at baseball's oldest ballpark.

That the entire Red Sox operation comes off as being about as old as Father Time makes it a good fit for its surroundings. Boston was founded in the 1600s, and you'd never know from the way the road system works that a couple centuries have passed. Step into Boston, and you feel an inescapable sense of the way things used to be mixed with the way things have always been.

Elsa/Getty Images

The Red Sox are a part of that sense. They're so much a part of Boston and New England at large that it's hard to fathom a time when they weren't there.

Heck, the Red Sox are so ingrained in the fabric of the region that they feature prominently in a decidedly New England holiday. The Boston Marathon and the Red Sox at Fenway Park are two things New Englanders can always look forward to seeing on Patriots' Day.

That the franchise itself is old, traditional and what-have-you isn't all there is to it, though. Old, traditional things can be easily ignored, but Red Sox fanhood is traditional in its own way. There's one notion that says Red Sox fanhood jells with values that predate even Fenway Park by a few centuries.

As Martin F. Nolan of The Boston Globe (subscription required) put it a few years back: "The Red Sox have supposedly been New England's team because they have met the low expectations of a Calvinist climate that toughened the Pilgrims and those who followed."

That's one way to put it. One thing that's for sure is that it didn't happen by accident.

We all know our history, yes? The Red Sox didn't win a single World Series championship between 1919 and 2003. They came close here and there, but they found ways to break hearts each time.

Enduring the year-in, year-out disappointment was a requirement of being a Red Sox fan. They were there to break your heart, and it was one's duty to keep coming back and asking for more. And even when the punch didn't appear to be coming, you had to expect it would come eventually.

For most teams, being a fan means having a fun. Being a Red Sox fan meant learning how to enjoy misery. As The Globe's Dan Shaughnessy put it back in 1990: "To be a Sox fan is to suffer."

It was a shared experience, though, and that was the beauty of it.

"Flinty New Englanders wore their suffering as a badge of honor," wrote Corey McCall in The Red Sox and Philosophy, "and always bore it with a stuff upper lip. Suffering went with the territory—if you were unlucky enough to be a Red Sox fan, then of course you suffered."

For a long time, this is what the Red Sox meant to the city of Boston. They existed to make everyone suffer, sure, but they made everyone suffer together. It could be brutal but, you know, tradition. 

And besides, there was always the great tease that the Red Sox would win it all one day, ending everyone's suffering and kicking off a party decades in the making. That tease was worth coming back for every year.

The Dropkick Murphys hit the nail on the head in their song "Tessie" when they sing: "Don't blame us if we ever doubt ya, you know we couldn't live without ya."

But then came the one year when the Red Sox finally overcame the doubts: 2004.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

You just watched the final out of the 2004 World Series, the one that killed the Curse of the Bambino and gave Red Sox fans a feeling of bliss unlike anything they'd ever felt. 

"I've been watching this team for more than 40 years. It's been years of frustration, but it's all worth it now," said one 82-year-old fan on the day of the victory parade, via USA Today.

He spoke for all Red Sox fans at the time. Old. Middle-aged. Young. Whatever. The 2004 World Series felt like the fulfillment of a prophecy that was never actually supposed to be fulfilled. Given that it was something 86 years in the making, nobody needed to be told to rejoice.

Inevitably, however, the identity crisis was going to come.

Darren McCollester/Getty Images

"New England, where baseball is king, will never be the same," wrote The Globe's Thomas Farragher. "A region so used to fretting, frustration, and second-guessing is going to need to rethink what it now means to be a Red Sox fan."

And for a time, what it meant to be a Red Sox fan did change.

The Red Sox made the playoffs again in 2005, won it all again in 2007, came to within an out of the World Series in 2008 and went back to the playoffs in 2009. The organization's response to missing out on the playoffs in 2010 was to attempt to build a superteam for the 2011 season. After so many years of failure, failure suddenly wasn't an option.

Red Sox fans shouldn't have taken any of this for granted, but they did. Rather than being characterized by a feeling of suffering, they found themselves characterized by a feeling of entitlement. They had become the enemy.

As David Margolick of The New York Times put it in 2010: "Creeping Yankeeosis has spread to Red Sox Nation. There is the same petulance, the same arrogance, the same intolerance for imperfection, the same obnoxious impatience."

But then 2011 happened. What was supposed to be a great season turned out to be a disastrous one when the Red Sox went 7-20 in September to miss out on what seemed like a sure playoff spot. It was exactly the kind of choke job that Red Sox fans had been used to in the old days.

Then came the 93-loss campaign of 2012. It was a disaster from start to finish and served as one big exclamation point for the previous season's collapse.

Together, the collapse of 2011 and the disaster of 2012 served as a shot of humility for a fanbase that needed one. First for one month and then for a full season, Red Sox fans were made to suffer again.

Like that, Red Sox Nation had every reason to doubt its beloved team heading into 2013. It was on the Red Sox to do something to remind their fans, as the Dropkick Murphys sing, they can't live without 'em.

They did that in more ways than one.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

The Red Sox were remade in the 2012-2013 offseason, but the experts didn't buy it. As The Globe's Chad Finn pointed out, only nine out of 134 experts from various big-ticket publications picked them to be in the postseason at the end of the 2013 season.

As silly as it feels to say it now in light of what just happened on Wednesday night—not to mention in light of the club's $150 million-plus payroll—the Red Sox were an underdog again. 

It didn't take long for the 2013 Red Sox to establish themselves as an underdog worth pulling for, as they were a very good team and a very likable team early on in the season. Quite the turnaround from the Red Sox of 2011 and 2012, who were both inconsistent and about as endearing as a pet howler monkey.

The Red Sox's biggest challenge, however, was presented to them after the Boston Marathon bombings on Patriots' Day. Though baseball was really beside the point, the Red Sox made it their mission to help in any way they could.

The Red Sox obviously served as a welcome distraction between the lines, winning 97 games in the regular season before charging through the postseason. But Red Sox players also did whatever they could beyond the lines.

And all season long, Red Sox players preached "Boston Strong" so passionately that it became hard to separate the team from the phrase itself; indeed, there's the Red Sox "B" in the "Boston Strong" logo.

"For the lack of a better description, they get it," said Red Sox manager John Farrell of his players after the World Series was won, via The Globe.

What exactly is "it," you ask? 

Easy. They would have played good baseball regardless given the kind of talent they had at their disposal, but what the 2013 team embraced—perhaps like no Red Sox team before it had ever done—is that Red Sox baseball is no mere sideshow in Boston. It's a way of life.

This way of life was celebrated on Wednesday night when the Red Sox clinched the World Series at Fenway Park for the first time since 1918. It will be celebrated again during Saturday's parade.

And then it will live on. 

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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