Sitting by the window brings no relief. There's nothing out there but bare tree limbs and a wet, gray landscape. Too often, the sun is missing. On top of that, we are still facing war with Iraq, and yesterday we witnessed a second tragedy involving the space shuttle. It helps, if only a bit, to be a sports fan.
If the sport happens to be baseball, it's even better. That's because baseball fans know how to cope with endless winter -- they look ahead to spring. Some already have circled May 19 on their calendars. On that evening, the New York Yankees will play the Boston Red Sox for the first time since their CEOs identified each other as the evils of the national pastime.
Surprisingly, the first salvo was fired from Boston. The Red Sox are the Olde Towne Team. Season after season, they have approached the game in consistent fashion, earnest and mannerly (even if the same cannot be said for the behavior of a few of their understandably frustrated fans). Suddenly, the new man in charge, Larry Lucchino, up and blasts George Steinbrenner and his Yankees, calling them the "Evil Empire." Nobody found it funny because Lucchino was angry at the Yankees for having outbid the Red Sox to sign Cuban defector Jose Contreras when the Red Sox had all but put a pen in Contreras's hand.
Steinbrenner fired back at Lucchino, calling him the "foremost chameleon of all time."
It comes as no surprise that a Red Sox fan as true as John Updike has been paying attention. Like the rest of us during winter's short-long days, the much-honored author has been fighting off bouts of cabin fever, although up in Massachusetts they are used to it when the snow piles up and clouds hang low and gray. And, of course, as prolific a man of letters as he is, he has had little time to be depressed, judging by the continuing volume of his work -- including an essay on Ted Williams. But not so busy that he hasn't noted the change in the nature of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry.
Lucchino has turned it confrontational. Previously, it always had been tense but seemingly ordered by the fates: the right and just pitted against the mighty and arrogant (at least, that's the view from New England) with predictable results. That had been more than enough. Updike used the word "insatiable" to describe the Yankees, long before George Steinbrenner.
"I think both have backed off a bit, at least that's my impression," Updike said of the warring CEOs. "It's been very unseemly."
Updike does not pose as an authority -- he gets much of his information on the Red Sox from the Boston papers, the Globe and the Herald. But in the best tradition of Red Sox fandom, he hopes that Lucchino and Steinbrenner control themselves and leave the headlines to the players. Like fans here in Washington, wondering if the Senators will ever return or if the Orioles will ever land a player of significance, and seeing nothing but a bleak horizon, Updike is scanning the news for some word on the Red Sox that will help him get to spring.
"I've been reading in the papers about a lot of near deals and rumors of deals, but not any real deals," he said.
Updike remains hopeful in part because he has confidence in the Red Sox' new general manager, 29-year-old Theo Epstein -- whom, he hastened to add, is the son of a friend of his. Leslie Epstein heads up the creative writing program at Boston University. So it is with some real angst that Updike has followed Theo Epstein's baptism by fire, courtesy of the Yankees. The Yankees not only snared Contreras but, in a three-way trade, helped steer potential 20-game winner Bartolo Colon from Montreal to the Chicago White Sox, thus keeping him away from Boston. Updike is sure that it was more than youthful enthusiasm that caused Epstein to predict that the Red Sox will win a World Series, and that they even have a chance to win it this coming season.
"If it can be done, he can do it," Updike said.
"If it can be done . . . " Updike does not discount the possibility -- which, of course, is the very essence of being a Red Sox fan. Updike and Epstein are united by the same thing that has united baseball fans with their teams for generations -- the eternal notion of hope. Maybe hope is enough, Updike seemed to say as he described his own love for the team. "It's been one of the pleasures of life. I've had quite a passion for the Red Sox since I was a boy in Pennsylvania," he said. "That's what made it such a thrill to move up here. In a sense it's been heartbreak city. There have been a lot of close calls. But I couldn't complain."
This season, Updike said he will find himself again at Fenway Park, the place he famously described as "a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark," in the company of his grandsons. When he goes there this time, however, he will see, in place of the 23-foot-high netting that has been strung atop the Green Monster since 1936, a new section of 280 seats (actually, barstools in front of countertops). They are being built above the wall and cantilevered above the street behind it. Updike's sentiments about Fenway Park, the wall and even the netting are well-known to baseball fans and fans of his prose. In his legendary account of Williams's final game, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," he wrote: "As I took a seat behind third base, a uniformed groundkeeper was treading the top of this wall, picking batting-practice home runs out of the screen, like a mushroom gatherer seen in Wordsworthian perspective on the verge of a cliff."
"It seems like an architectural departure," he said, sounding doubtful about the concept of people sitting above a monument and a design that arranges "the weight of people above a thin wall."
"I don't want to sit there," he said. "I might land in Lansdowne Street."
He said that "putting in seats here and there" suggests to him that the team's new owners -- "nice guys," he called them -- "need the money," that their pockets aren't as deep as Steinbrenner's. But whose are? He sees The Boss's profligate spending as no "guarantee," but a reality "tough to overcome." Like the best Red Sox fans, he passes another frozen Massachusetts winter sometimes wondering if things are not meant to work out for the team any more than they have worked out for T. Williams himself, who has been cryogenically frozen by two of his three children -- "unless," Updike said, "there is a power shortage in Arizona."
There is hope among the living. There is always hope.