Monday, August 03, 2009

Like a Good Wine: Review of "Now I Can Die in Peace" by Bill Simmons

It is a rare treat when a book makes me laugh, cry, and experience the frisson of chills running up and down my spine - all within the space of the same paragraph. Such is the singular genius of Bill Simmons. Four years ago, occasioned by the Red Sox 2004 World Series victory, he published his collection of annotated columns as a memoir of his pilgrimage as a Red Sox fan. The book became an instant New York Times bestseller. I love reading Simmons' columns on Page 2, but I have waited until now to read this book. I am glad that I did. Much like a fine wine and a good cut of steak are improved with age, the intervening four years have added to my enjoyment of Simmons' literary morsels that he offers in this book. It was fun to re-live those moments once again.

The reading of this book - and the memories that it unearthed and evoked about the 2004 Red Sox season and the events leading up to it - is very timely. We are moving into the last few weeks of the 2009 baseball season, with the Red Sox and Yankees once again slugging it out for supremacy in the AL East. The defending AL Champion Tampa Bay Rays are still within striking distance. The Red Sox play both teams this week on the road. I am hours away from boarding a flight to Tampa to visit my sister (who sent me Simmons' book) so that we can make our semi-annual pilgrimage to Fenway Park South - a.k.a. Tropicana Field. We will be only two of what promises to be a horde of thousands of Red Sox fans in the stands on Tuesday and Wednesday night when the two teams square off. I have set at "5" the over/under for the number of batters hit by pitches in the brief 2-game series! It should be fun.

When the Red Sox decamp from St. Petersburg after Wednesday's game, they will head to New York City. I will be a few hours behind them on a JetBlue flight. I have several business meetings set for NYC on Thursday and Friday. I do not, however, plan to attend any of the four games that the Sox will play at the new Yankee Stadium - as much as I would like to. I refuse to pay those prices!

As Simmons so wondrously reminded me in this satirical treasure of a book, 2004 changed everything in terms of the Red Sox vs. Yankees rivalry. Sox fans no longer need to cower in fear waiting for the other shoe to drop when our team faces the Yankees. Mariano Rivera, arguably the greatest closer of all time, is beatable and human when he toes the rubber against Red Sox batters. I agree with Simmons in his plea to Red Sox fans to abandon the puerile "Yankees Suck" mantra that makes citizens of Red Sox Nation appear to be a bunch of losers stuck in perpetual middle school mindset. We no longer need to taunt the playground bully from afar. He has been exposed as not being able to take a punch. 2004 proved that. This season, in the eight games that the Red Sox and Yankees have played, the team that hails from Boston is 8-0. Who knows what will happen later this week, but I find that aberrant statistic encouraging.

For me, one of the most poignant sections of "Now I Can Die in Peace," is found in the chapter entitled "The Brink of the Group Hug." The column first appeared on October 27, 2004, as the Red Sox stood on the threshold of eradicating 86 years of frustration and humiliation. I offer the following extended excerpt, because it so perfectly captures what I - and many of my fellow Red Sox fans - felt as the miracle of 2004 crystallized.

"'How will your life change if the Red Sox win the World Series?'

My wife asked me the question last night, minutes before Foulke clinched Boston's third straight win over the Cardinals. Let's just say that it's a best-of-seven series and Game Four happens tonight. Seemed like a relevant question.

'That's easy,' I told her. 'Everything would get wiped away. No more baggage. No more Babe Ruth pictures, Buckner highlights, fans walking around with Curse signs, 1918 chants, announcers hinting at doom around every corner. Everyone would just leave us alone. We'd be just another baseball team.'

That was the simple answer.

Here's the complicated answer:

This is about life and death. And not in the traditional sense. A Red Sox championship always felt like a race against time. When journalist Marty Nolan wrote, 'The Red Sox killed my father and now they're coming after me,' he wasn't kidding. I keep thinking about my dad, and my friend, Walsh, and my buddy Geoff's mother-in-law, Neets, and every other over-50 person in my life who happens to follow this team. Those are the people who passed a certain point in life and started wondering, 'Wait a second, is this thing EVER going to happen?' Obviously, I'm not quite there yet, but after three decades of following this team, I could feel the guillotine inching closer and closer. That's what it's like to be a Red Sox fan." (Page 325)

In reading that passage, I could not help thinking about those who helped to foster my love for the Red Sox and who never got to celebrate a World Series victory. My father, Lewis Chase, spent thousands of hours in his recliner following the vicissitudes of decades full of bad teams with just enough sporadic streaks of brilliance and competency to keep him hooked. My grandfather, Arthur Champoux took me by the hand when I was eight years old and introduced me to the thousand shades of green that make Fenway such a breath-taking visual experience. In the hours and days that followed the Red Sox final victory over the Cardinals in October of 2004, thousands of Red Sox fans across New England and beyond travelled to family plots and left mementos of the Red Sox on the headstones of progenitors who had lived and died without tasting a championship.

So, as I head to Tampa, I must say "Thanks," to Bill Simmons. Remembering the magic of 2004 helps put this year's race in perspective, and helps - just a little bit - in wrestling with the disappointing news about Papi's positive drug test.

Go Sox!


1 comment:

Unknown said...

I must second this review...what a wonderful experience it was to read for the first time, in a most wonderfully funny, articulate and poignant way what it really means to be a Sox Fan. It is a phenomenon that cannot really be understood outside of Red Sox Nation. Everytime I think of the
'04 World Series my heart goes out to my father who would have so loved that experience. He would have been in his recliner with this grin that would not really expose the level of his excitement but you would understand what it meant to him. If you love the Red Sox this is a MUST read.