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Ruthless

As the baseball playoffs loom, a new documentary revisits the trade that set off one of the most intense rivalries in all of sports.

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Now that I have to think about it, Red Sox Nation looks a whole lot like the Confederate States of America—a lost cause that richly deserved to lose; a bitter superstition masquerading as the one true faith; a morbidity of martyrs, a cult of crybabies, and a woefulness of wounded honor, baroque excess, lugubrious keening, fragrant decay, and sentimental slop, not to mention fair virgins and the Klan. Yes, the Klan. I remind you that the Red Sox were the very last major-league baseball team to add a black athlete to their lineup. They could, we are told late in The Curse of the Bambino (Tuesday, September 16; 10 to 11 p.m.; HBO), have had Jackie Robinson, before he signed with Branch Rickey and the Dodger organization. They could also have had Willie Mays, for $5,000. They would settle instead for the immortal Pumpsie Green.

But you knew this, and so does Bambino, a new bottle of the old whine that goes down agreeably enough. The first half of Bambino, in which we hear mostly from hardened fans, rehearses what I think of as the Saint Sebastian Scenario. Saint Sebastian, you’ll recall, was arrow-prone, a Renaissance pincushion nailed trying to steal second by Bernini, Botticelli, Mantegna, Perugino, and El Greco. Red Sox fans are inclined to think of themselves as Saint Sebastians, bleeding to death for the eight long decades since Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees in the winter of 1920 for the $400,000 he needed to produce No No Nanette.

So, because of the bad juju from the selling of the Babe, Enos Slaughter of the Cardinals scored the winning run from first base, on a single, in the seventh game of the 1946 World Series while Johnny Pesky held the ball . . . and Bucky “Fucking” Dent (as everybody refers to him here) hit his heartbreaking, game-winning home run in the 1978 playoff game . . . and Mookie Wilson’s grounder dribbled through Bill Buckner’s legs to short-circuit a World Series triumph in 1986. Which magical thinking explains as well the unavailing countermeasures reported by Bambino—the crop circles, the exorcisms, and an underwater snorkel for the Babe’s drowned piano.

Never mind that Ruth’s behavior in Boston’s bordellos triggered the trade, and that No No Nanette didn’t open until five years later. These are inconvenient facts that get in the way of the hurt feelings of sore losers like actor Denis Leary, comedian Steven Wright, and critic Jeffrey Lyons. The second half, which turns to cynical sports writers like Bud Collins and the late Will McDonough, is less fun but more instructive. There is the racism—a municipal problem in general and an ownership problem in particular, carrying over into the free-agency era, in which many black superstars just haven’t wanted to play in Beantown. There is the parochialism—tailoring a team for Fenway Park and its Green Monster in left field means a big, slow team that can’t bunt or run or win on the road. And there is the pitching—or, rather, the lack of it: Black superstar Bob Gibson of the Cardinals beat white superstar Carl Yastrzemski of the Red Sox in the 1967 World Series. This wasn’t voodoo; it was pitching.

The Curse of the Bambino deserves our gratitude for omitting the usual lineup of famous writers who are Red Sox groupies. That every scribe who ever went to Harvard—or wanted to, or pretends he did—should worship Ted Williams as if that Popsicle were a Fisher King suggests only that they’re working out their Oedipal problems on our time.

Nothing said here about Red Sox fans is an excuse to root for the Green Sox. You may as well root for Microsoft. Better sore losers than sore winners. About Steinbrenner triumphant, there is no joy; there is instead the grim satisfaction of Calvinist rectitude, of predestination. Like right-wing Republicans (and the owner himself), Yankee fans find the very idea of losing a violation of Natural Law and an insult to Big Money. If Red Sox fans have made themselves too much at home in masochism, Yankee fans need a soupçon of humility. They need to cry, as John Cheever reminded us that grown men do, at the death of a cat, a broken shoelace, and a wild pitch.


Mavericks, Miracles & Medicine (September 16–19; 8 to 9 p.m.; the History Channel) escorts us from the pioneering past to the cutting edge of modern medical knowledge about the heart, the brain, transplants, and infectious disease. The only expert host Noah Wyle doesn’t get around to talking to is an economist to explain how patients can pay their bills.

State of Denial (September 16; 10 to 11:30 p.m.; Channel 13) looks at the AIDS crisis in South Africa, where until a couple of weeks ago, President Thabo Mbeki was still refusing to see a connection between HIV and the deadly disease, and where, even with a change in the government’s attitude, pharmaceutical-company profiteering makes public-health programs almost impossible. The Second Coming (september 20; 8 to 11 p.m.; BBC America) plucks an average bloke, Christopher Eccleston, out of his pub and away from his girl, Lesley Sharp, to drop him on the moors, where he discovers he’s the Son of God. Try telling that to a soccer stadium in Manchester. But then there is a miracle, after which some satanism, followed by an interesting argument about the cost benefits of the possible death of God. Rough, rude, and wonderfully acted.

Las Vegas (September 22; 10 to 11 p.m.; 9 to 10 p.m.; Mondays thereafter; NBC)—with James Caan as the boss of a Vegas casino “surveillance and security team”; Josh Duhamel as the lieutenant on this team who should have known better than to mess with the boss’s fun-loving daughter, Molly Sims; and Nikki Cox as a professional comfort station—is the best new series that doesn’t sound as if it would be any good at all, television at its satisfying slickest.


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