Jarrod Saltalamacchia's reaction to a foul tip hitting him in last night's contest resembles that of every Red Sox fan following losses the last few weeks.
I was born in early 1986. This means that, outside of the many stories I have heard from my father, I have no recollection of the events of that heartbreaking season, in which the Red Sox let their first World Series in 68 years slip away from them. It sounded brutal, of course -- the series of events leading up to that collapse are some of the more famous in modern baseball history, so there were plenty of replays or things to read if I wanted to learn about that time.
The pain of that moment was lost to me, though, as pain is a relative thing -- you need to have had something within your grasp to know the hurt that seeing it slip away causes. Reading about it can describe the pain, but other than knowing I was rooting for a team that had failed to win in decades, decades I had not even been alive, there was nothing there to truly make me feel. Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship series is probably the closest I have come to understanding how my father and all of the other Red Sox fans felt back in 1986, as Grady Little failed to take Pedro Martinez out of the game, and... well, you know the rest.
The reasons I couldn't understand 1986 until 2003 are the same reasons I failed to grasp the kind of downward spiral Red Sox fans witnessed in 1978 until, well, last night, basically. In 1978, the Red Sox were 14 games up on the New York Yankees in July, but ended up losing that lead, playing in a game 163 against those same Yanks, and lost partially due to a famous home run by New York shortstop Bucky Dent. The Yankees, as they do, went on to win the World Series, while Boston would have to wait until 1986 for their next chance.
A 14 game lead, gone in a matter of months. That's hard to do, for both the team losing and the one winning, and it's difficult to know how it feels to be on the losing side simply by hearing stories about how injuries and the Yankees swept away the dreams of the Red Sox that year. Inherently, you know that it must have been terrible to watch, unbearable, even, but you don't know unless you're there.
These 2011 Red Sox had a 1/2 game lead on the division, and a nine-game lead for the Wild Card on September 1. There was a remote mathematical possibility that things would change for them and the Rays could make it interesting, simply due to the schedule of September -- the Red Sox, excepting one series at the start against the Texas Rangers, would face AL East teams, including the Rays and Yankees, all month long.
This is why you saw people saying that a playoff spot was "all but locked up," as we know baseball, and we know that crazy things happen. Just days before this September, I wrote an article reminding people about how "over" the 2010 playoff races looked heading into the last month of the season, and how different the end result was to what we had expected just weeks before. Even as I wrote it, I didn't expect the massive changes and final pushes to include Boston, given the size of their lead and the talent of the team, but here we are. Tied for the Wild Card lead with two games to play. A nine-game lead on the Rays has vanished entirely.
We're in coin flip territory now, and it's difficult to watch knowing every mistake might be the one that effectively ends the season, but this is baseball. Anything can happen in the next two days, but Boston is going to finish something they started either way. Whether that's something they started in April or in September, none of us knows, even if we can predict.
I can't say I know the pain experienced by fans in 1978 just yet, as hope still lives on for this team with two days to go, but I'm starting to understand. I don't want to understand, and I absolutely do not want to know. But that's going to be up to the Red Sox, not me.