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Mark Shields: For Boston Red Sox Fans, a Return to the ‘Bad’ Old Days

Losing season after losing season doesn't make the disappointment any less painful

One of my life’s blessings was to be born into a loving family of devoted Boston Red Sox fans.

You learned early as a Red Sox fan that life wasn’t going to work out the way you hoped. In the movies, the orphaned, hardworking night-school graduate might get the big promotion. But in real life, the boss’ spoiled, feckless son-in-law would instead be given the prize. And the decent, loyal guy doesn’t always get the girl — and that the considerate, self-effacing girl too often ends up with a selfish, self-centered guy.

Red Sox fans are centered in Boston, the most political of American cities, and are the offspring of a “mixed-marriage” between the Protestant Puritans and the Irish Catholics. The terminally sober Puritans who believed firmly in original sin were forced to surrender political power but not economic dominance to the Catholic refugees from famine and British cruelty.

These Irish were short on laughs and happy tunes and long on fatalism, accepting that life was unfair and to be endured in this world for just rewards in the next. So you had the New England Puritans, a grim lot, who agreed with the Irish interlopers, resigned to the disappointments of this world, on nothing but the Red Sox, whom both groups rooted for and expected to lose.

And lose the Red Sox did — usually to the dreaded New York Yankees. From the end of World War I until 2004, some 86 years, the arrogant Yankees were American League champions 39 times and world champions 26 times. During that same span, the Red Sox were league champions just four times and never world champions. Only twice did two American League teams finish the season in a tie for first place, which required a one-game playoff to determine the champion. The Red Sox were in both and won neither.

True, the Red Sox did finally defeat the Yankees and win the World Series in 2004 and again in 2007. But 2011 is a season that has brought back all those painful memories of when the Red Sox regularly broke our hearts.

When September began, the Red Sox were in first place, two games ahead of the Yankees, and possessors of the best won-loss record in the American League. Since then, the Red Sox (as of this writing) have lost 16 out of 21 for a winning percentage of just .238. They are now seven full games behind the Yankees, who have now clinched first place.

The Red Sox — with less than a week left in the season — could even lose the wild-card spot, awarded to the team with the league’s second-best won-loss record, which would get them to the post-season playoffs — and a chance to redeem themselves. But given that Red Sox pitching has been during September arguably the worst of all 30 major league teams, Red Sox fans cannot logically expect a miraculous turnaround in October.

These Red Sox fans are baseball’s most loyal. Since May 11, 2003, every Red Sox home game at venerable Fenway Park has been a complete sell-out. That’s right, 712 consecutive sell-outs. The previous Major League record was 455 games. At least the Boston baseball team finishes first every year in one category. Some consolation.

So in the next few days or weeks, if you do run into a Red Sox fan, just take the time to be gentle. Offer a little pat on the slumped shoulder and maybe an encouraging word or two. After all, even if you expect it after a lifetime of losing, it doesn’t make the disappointment any less painful.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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