Dan Shaughnessy

The old days weren't this good

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / October 7, 2008
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We are spoiled. The Red Sox are in the playoffs, and it seems as if some Boston folk are holding back on their enthusiasm until the World Series.

Take a moment to smell the autumn air, you citizens of Red Sox Nation. When you finish analyzing Josh Beckett's oblique injury, Jed Lowrie's lefthanded swing, Mike Lowell's indomitable will, and the wild concept of pinch hitting for Jason Varitek, remember the most important thing of all: The Red Sox are still playing baseball after Oct. 7.

There's no more baseball in Pittsburgh this year. Same for Kansas City and Baltimore. The good people of Milwaukee just experienced their first taste of the playoffs since 1982 and their ride lasted only four games.

This is the best time of the year for baseball fans, but New England's young people have come to think of postseason play as a birthright. Five playoff appearances since 2003 will do that.

Not me. I still remember the hungry years when October baseball was limited to images of Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle making history on a black-and-white television. The Yankees were always in the World Series and the Red Sox were always somewhere near the bottom of the American League.

New Englanders who grew up during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations had absolutely zero expectations of postseason play involving the Red Sox. It just wasn't going to happen. The red-white-and-blue bunting was hung on Fenway's facades on Opening Day, then stored in mothballs until the following April.

Granted, it was much more difficult to play into October in those days. In the early 1960s, the Red Sox played in a 10-team American League and there were no preliminary rounds. There were no divisions. There was no wild card. You finished first out of 10 teams after 162 games or you went home.

The Red Sox always went home. From 1918 until 1967, the Sox played in exactly one postseason series. That's one in 48 seasons. Sox fans watched the World Series the same way the Three Stooges watched the Oscars. It was a great show, but there was absolutely no way we were ever going to be involved.

Ted Williams was a rookie in 1939, played until 1960, and made it to the postseason only once - in the 1946 World Series.

That's why 1967 remains the most important season in franchise history. It changed the way we thought about the Red Sox. The Local Nine won the greatest pennant race of them all, and from that point forward we expected the Sox to contend. Most of the time, they've complied.

The emergence of the Sox as a big-market, big-money team, coupled with the expansion of the playoffs, has made Boston an official host city of Major League Baseball's postseason. The Red Sox went to the playoffs in 1986, 1988, 1990, 1995, 1998, 1999, and now in five of the last six years.

It's a lot of October baseball. New England fans are accustomed to staying up past midnight to see the Sox in the postseason.

"It's different," said ESPN baseball guru Peter Gammons, who grew up in Groton and was the best baseball writer in the land when he toiled for the Globe. "There's such a degree of expectation now. Fans who once were fatalistic now expect them to win. I heard a guy today say how bad the Yankees were this year. Well, they won 89 games."

And now Fenway seems a little quiet on some playoff nights. Some of the thrill is gone. Early-round tickets are not as coveted as they once were. Some fat cat fans are waiting for the ALCS, or even the World Series. It's arrogant, sad, and unavoidable. A kid who gets an ice cream sundae every day stops thinking of the treat as a big deal.

Further proof that the Sox have been in a lot of playoff games was the presence of Troy O'Leary as last night's honorary first-ball chucker. Eddie Bressoud must have been unavailable.

"I think of it as a good thing," said Lou Merloni, who grew up in Framingham and made it to the bigs, last playing for Boston in 2003. "The expectations aren't just to make the playoffs. It's about winning it all now. It sure wasn't that way when I played here."

Enjoy the rest of the Red Sox season, Boston fans. Don't stress too much about the thought of losing the next game.

You could be in Pittsburgh.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

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