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A season in amber

Novelists Stewart O'Nan and Stephen King preserve the magic of the Red Sox' 2004 campaign in their paean 'Faithful'

Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the 2004 Season
By Stewart O'Nan and Stephen King
Scribner, 403 pp., $26

When I was a boy growing up in the Catskill Mountains, I loved to ride up to the top of the ridge behind our house with my father and uncle to listen to the Red Sox and Yankees over the radio of my dad's old DeSoto. Those were exciting evenings for a baseball-loving country kid, but they were tense evenings as well, because my father was a diehard Yankee fan, my uncle an equally ardent Sox supporter. Invariably, they would begin to argue about the relative merits of their respective team, and soon enough these arguments would become so heated that my dad and uncle would stop speaking to each other altogether -- except through me.

"Howard," my father would say to me over the crackling mountain static on the radio, "you tell your uncle that Joe DiMaggio is the most complete player in the history of the game."

My father and my uncle always referred to baseball as "the game," as if it were the only one.

"Maybe so, Howard," my uncle would say, though my dad was sitting behind the wheel of the DeSoto, 3 feet away from him. "But you tell your father that Ted Williams is the greatest hitter in the history of the game."

And so this strange, three-way debate would continue until, sooner or later, all reception faded out, and we would drive down the mountain in a dreadful silence.

My father and uncle were both teachers. Ordinarily, they were eminently sensible, moderate men, with great affection for each other and for "the game." What was it about the longstanding rivalry between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees that transformed them, temporarily and at a level just shy of complete seriousness, into blood enemies? It was as much of an enigma to me as how a pitched baseball, thrown in an apparently straight line, could suddenly dip half a foot in midair like a swooping lark.

In "Faithful," novelists Stewart O'Nan and Stephen King shed some light on this baffling question. On the surface, "Faithful" is an entertaining chronicle of the just-completed 2004 Boston Red Sox baseball season. In fact, this collaborative memoir of diary entries and e-mails is nothing less than a passionate love letter to -- I hardly dare say it for fear that I'll wake up and those miraculous October evenings will turn out to have been a dream -- the new champions of Major League Baseball.

I became a Sox fan 40 years ago, right out of college, when I moved to the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. Within a few years, I counted myself as a bona fide member of Red Sox Nation. How could I not be, living in the heart of what my neighbor, Sox pitching legend Bill Lee, calls the Capital of the Red Sox Nation, North? Since then, I've followed nearly every pitch as avidly as my dad and uncle did on that mountaintop long ago. Still, when I started reading "Faithful," I wondered. Did I really want to relive the incredible roller-coaster ride of the '04 season just a few weeks after it had ended?

Early on in the book, O'Nan recounts an anecdote from his daughter's high school choral concert, which laid my doubts to rest. The concert was dedicated to a beloved custodian who had died suddenly of a heart attack. "I think how unfair it is that he never got to experience the Sox winning it all," O'Nan writes. "I think of the millions of Sox fans who rooted their entire lives and never felt that giddy vindication the Pats have given us twice now. There has to be a tremendous psychic charge built up from those faithful generations. This year, if we do it, we'll be doing it for them too."

Yes, I thought, we will, and we did. And yes, I most certainly did want to replay the magical season of 2004 with writers O'Nan and King. What diehard Sox fan wouldn't?

After the disastrous seventh game of the 2003 American League Championship Series between the Sox and the Yankees, there was, to put it mildly, no joy in Beantown or anywhere else in the Nation, from Aroostook County, Maine, to Martha's Vineyard. But during the course of the long New England winter, hope began to stir in the hearts of Sox fans. The A-Rod deal with Texas fell through -- perhaps fortunately -- but the acquisition of Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke was a brilliant move by Sox general manager Theo Epstein and the team's owners. Of past Sox teams, O'Nan says, "We were always at least two players away, and one of those was usually a closer." Now, in Foulke, we had our closer, and in Schilling, a second ace starter to go with Pedro Martinez. And, of course, the Sox hired a new, young manager -- Terry Francona, a strong believer in "moneyball," the theory that team on-base-percentage (OBP) is the most important offensive statistic in baseball.

The revamped 2004 Red Sox came out of the gate fast. By Memorial Day, they were in a dead tie with New York for first place in the division. Better yet, "we," as New Englanders call the Red Sox during a winning streak, had already taken six of seven games from George Steinbrenner's Evil Empire.

Still, we had our doubts. Nomar Garciaparra and Trot Nixon were sidelined by injuries. Some members of the team seemed more concerned with their upcoming free-agency status than with the current season. And there were questions about Francona, and his philosophy. "I loathe his refusal to bunt runners along in key situations," King writes on May 30, speaking for nearly the entire Nation.

Then came the "June Swoon," in which the Sox began their long, maddening slide into mid-season mediocrity. This was a bleak stretch that I did not want to replay game by game. Fortunately for readers like me who would like to put that out of our minds, "Faithful" isn't just about the Red Sox. It's also about family, friendship, and what it truly means to be a baseball fan and to be -- well, faithful, come hell or high water. What's more, King and O'Nan can be very funny, poking fun at everything from the team they love to themselves.

Here's King on "Angry Bill," his favorite fan in "Still, We Believe," the documentary of the 2003 Sox season. "Angry Bill is a piece of work: overweight, hypertensive (he suffers persistent nosebleeds during the '03 post season), . . . bursting with cynical pronouncements that barely cover his bruised baseball fan's heart. This guy has lived and died with the Sox for so long . . . that he sums up the New England mindset when he states, in effect, that the Sox are always gonna lose." In other words -- Angry Bill is us.

Then there's the day that O'Nan takes a long-handled fishing net to the game, with which, during batting practice, he perches atop the Green Monster, gleefully swiping at fly balls like a character out of one of King's own stories. The season was full of priceless moments, and King and O'Nan catch nearly all of them in amber. The entire Nation will remember Pokey Reese's inside-the-park home run at Fenway against the Kansas City Royals: "Santiago lunges with the tag as Pokey dives flat-out and slides a hand across the plate -- safe!" And the day Manny Ramirez trotted out to his position with an American flag in hand to celebrate becoming a US citizen. Not to mention the "Nomah" trade to "the one other team in baseball whose long World Series drought has become not just the stuff of history but of myth."

Like most love letters, "Faithful" reveals nearly as much about its writers as about the object of their adoration. As a rule, King is the more volatile fan. I loved his Sept. 20 letter beginning "Dear Red Sox -- It's my birthday, and I'd like you to give me a present. After three straight losses, I'd like a win tonight." O'Nan, the author of many acclaimed novels, including "The Speed Queen," is a superb analyst of the game. Neither writer takes himself too seriously. And time and again I was struck by the human decency of these two hard-working family guys who, despite their obsession with the Sox, can put baseball in perspective. Late in the season, O'Nan expresses deep disapproval of the Fenway faithful for booing Mark Bellhorn and third-base coach Dale Sveum. "It's wrong," he says flatly, and he's right. Of the runaway salaries of many major leaguers, King remarks, "Ball players are even more egregiously overpaid than bestselling novelists."

Three quick footnotes. First, I thought that some of the back-and-forth e-mail chat in "Faithful," along with some of the play-by-play and analysis, could have been shortened to advantage. "None ever wished it longer," Samuel Johnson remarked of "Paradise Lost" in his "Life of Milton." The same will probably be said of "Faithful." It's far from a slow read, but I think it could be 50 pages shorter without shortchanging the Nation or readers in general.

Second, I was intrigued by O'Nan's suspicion that some late-season games might have been rigged to generate more television revenue. For evidence, he offers some curious, circumstantial coincidences, particularly when Yankee closer Mariano Rivera was on the mound. You never know, but I wasn't persuaded the fix was in.

Third, King, whose generosity is legendary, is probably just too kind a man to do this, or maybe he figured that the material was too far afield. But how I was hoping to read, from our literary master of the macabre, the ultra-chilling (sorry) story of the bizarre post-mortem fate of my uncle's great hero, and mine, Ted Williams.

"It's time to put a stretch drive together," O'Nan writes on the last day of July. "Or else."

Looking back, his words have a prophetic ring. Of course, there's a delicious irony about reading this memoir and watching O'Nan and King and the rest of the Nation live and die with each game, each inning, each pitch: We know how it's all going to turn out.

Once more, through the Sox winning streaks of August and the playoffs, I lived and died with every inning all over again. (Isn't there some kind of medicine we could take for this mania?) By the time Boston came back to Fenway, up 2-0, to face Anaheim for the third game of the division series, dozens of people told me they simply couldn't watch their TV sets when the Angels were batting, for fear the Curse would rear its head. Then came Big Papi's walk-off shot over the Monster. King, who was lucky enough to be there, writes, "The ball seemed to be off his bat and gone into the night before my ears even registered the crack of wood on horsehide."

Next, as O'Nan puts it, came our "shot at redemption," our shot at my dad's New York Yankees, whom we would somehow come back to beat in four straight after being down 0-3, a first in post-season major-league play.

And finally, the all-powerful Cardinals, and the World Series sweep that turned out to be almost an anti-climax. Yet who will ever forget where they were when Foulke snagged Edgar Renteria's comebacker and underhanded the ball to first for the last out, making the Red Sox champions for the first time since 1918?

O'Nan gets it exactly right in his eloquent conclusion. "You believed in yourselves even more than we did," he writes to the 2004 Red Sox. "That's why you're World Champions, and why we'll never forget you or this season. . . . Go Sox!"

Let's hear it once more, OK? For the entire Red Sox Nation, past and present, who stayed faithful to the end. Go, Sox!

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