Watched closely and with passion, the Boston Red Sox are a solemn tragedy. Watched from afar with broad unconcern, they are comedy.
The Bosox are New England's loose tooth -- continually aching and jiggling and causing torment. They demand constant, yet painful attention.
When that tooth is pulled, when the Sox are finally ripped out of the pennant race by the roots, it is almost a relief to their fans.
Sleep well, Massachusetts. The suffering is o'er. The Carmine Hose, so recently on the wing of the Baltimore Orioles, have sunk 11 games behind the Birds and are far closer to fifth place than first.
The Red Sox have met their personal monster and it has slain them once more.
That beast is not the Fenway Park wall, but that other monster the Sox almost never beat -- the road.
Today, the Sox ventured into Yankee Stadium and lost a game, 10-6, that epitomized more than 30 years of continual failure outside Fenway.
This Labor Day war was supposed to be a pennant race piece de resistance with the Yanks' Ron Guidry facing Boston's Dennis Eckersley.Instead, it was merely a demonstration of Boston's perennial split personality.
"All organizations build teams along their own particular lines," said Boston's Carlton Fisk. "We seem to fashion our team after our ballpark. Rather than build a solid team that can play and win anywhere, we try to build a club that will be unbeatable in Fenway.
"We look for a specific type pitcher -- tall, right-handed, who throws fast balls, sinkers, sliders, And a certain type of hitter -- somebody who can hit the Wall."
This leads to the Sox historical predicament: to build a club that will prosper in Fenway, they must, almost axiomatically, construct one that will have grave difficulty in other parks.
Both the Sox pitching and hitting is lopsided -- leaning far to the right-handed side. The Bosox have not gotten a victory from a left-handed starting pitcher in 414 days.
"Whenever we go on the road, it's like we're swimming upstream," said Fisk. "If we've had a tendency, year after year, it's that we don't play well away from home. You'd think we'd learn from history, but when you play 81 in Fenway, you almost have to tailor yourself to it."
So, in this decade, the Sox have been a 25-40 team here in Yankee Stadium. As was the case today, they saw a sidearming righty starter -- Dennis Eckersley -- knocked out in two innings by left-handed-hit home runs into the convenient right field pavilion.
When the Sox get tangled in a one-run battle on the road, as this was until the Yanks scored four in the ninth, all the true Boston weaknesses are shown.
Manager Don Zimmer spent the day waving to the bullpen. They might as well wave back. Nobody out there is an improvement. Today it was Joel Finch and Win Remmerswaal who were the designated rookies to be thrown to the wolves.
The Sox epitaph for '79 is cut and dried: Thank you, Pawtucket.
Whenever the Sox reach down to Pawtucket for desperately needed young arms, they come up with mud. Finch is no Oriole.
To New Englanders it is a lifelong mystery why teams like this year's Orioles can play .606 baseball on the road while the Sox are, once more, under .500, at 33-34.
The reason, of course, is that the club they see in Fenway is a carefully crafted illusion, while the one they hear about, bumbling through the hinterland, is the bonafide article.
The Sox are weaned on fantasy baseball. Hit a weak fly ball to left and get a double. Never steal a base because it's always a bad percentage play when the next man can hit a homer. Don't bother developing southpaws because they will self-destruct in Fenway.
"Statistics, statistics . . . I hate 'em," fumed Coach Johnny Pesky, who has spent his lift fighting the Fenway monsters. "That's all you hear in Boston. They are meaningless, a complete distortion of the game. I never want to see them."
What he means is that Red Sox statistics are a distortion, a slight-of-hand by which average players like Dwight Evans and Butch Hobson can be thought of as stars while quality pitchers grow old quickly because no theory of pitching gives them a logical sense of rewards and punishments.
"This team is so used to freewheeling and having 5-0 leads that it has trouble playing 1-0 baseball," said new Sox Bob Watson. In other words, feted on Fenway ball, the Sox are unaccustomed to playing actual baseball -- the kind with fundamentals and strategy and mental alertness.
"We're not playing good, fundamental baseball," grumbled Rick Burleson, who has watched the current slump reach 11 losses in 14 games.
"We're sloppy," said Jerry Remy.
"How come Baltimore never makes a mistake?" put in Fisk.
Why do the Sox play most poorly under pressure? Because that is when the simple but essential nuances of the games become crucial. Today, the Yanks dropped down a suicide squeeze bunt in the ninth. The petrified Sox looked at the ball like the play should have been outlawed years ago.
Bostonians claim the extenuating circumstance of injuries, particularly those that have cost Fisk and Remy 50 games each. Balderdash. Baltimore, and many another team, can match Boston sprain for strain.
For instance, Boston has outscored opponents by 130 runs this year, while Baltimore has held a margin of 140 runs. In other words, each powerful team has an edge of about one run per game. Yet the Orioles are 44 games over .500, while Boston is 22 games over the break-even mark.
The reason? Boston's Fenway statistics, those aberrant games like a 27-hit explosion in the Fens last month, are a deception. The Sox live by Fenway feast or famine. Better constructed teams, like the '79 Orioles or '78 Yankees, know that the essence of baseball is the ability to win the one-run games.
Fenway is a delight to all the senses. But any baseball team that learns the game in a fun house pays a steep price. Its players' sense of themselves is as distorted as the reflections in the mirrors along a carnival midway.
The reason that the Red Sox are in third place and fading is not because Zimmer is in inept manager or because Fisk, one of the game's guttiest players, won't play with pain, or because the Boston pitchers are gutless wonders.
Those are New England myths, doubly cruel because they are inversions of the truth rather than mere distortions. $5Just as the Sox of '78 did not "choke" and "blow" the pennant, so these '79 Hose are not the ignominious victims of some fall.
More likely, Boston should be proud to have the fourth best record in baseball. It is unlikely that the Sox, given all their injuries, are the game's fourth best team.
Those who live and die with the grandly tragic Red Sox would rather search for great flaws of character than face the more mundane limits of talent in their heroes.
That would be the hidden joke in the Red Sox comedy -- if it were funny.
But it is not. The crushing and warped expectations under which the Red Sox labor are their other unslayable dragon. And for these Boston players themselves, who seem year after year to perform in the midst of some grim joyless pall, that is monstrous indeed.