Bittersweet theology of Red Sox faithful

In a city of Calvinism and a so-called curse, being a baseball fan means tragedy, then ecstasy, then....

In a week that has encompassed a loss of Trojan proportions and an extra-innings escape as improbable as any by Houdini, lifelong Red Sox fan John McGrath merely crinkles the white whiskers of his chin with a wry smile.

"I want to say it's different this year, but to be truthful, it's just more of the same," he says.

Being a Red Sox fan, after all, has never been for the faint of heart or mind. It has been the peculiar province - and pain - of the New Englander.

The drama of this year is only a taste of a story and a tradition built over generations. In a time when sports seems to be usurping its own sphere - becoming a cultural influence far beyond its actual import - the Beantown Nine's connection to the people of New England remains a unique phenomenon in American sport.

The Red Sox are at once the symbol of spring renewal after the cold and dark of a Maine winter and a Puritanical sermon of brimstone in autumns of failure. They are the muse of angst-ridden Harvard lit majors and the milk of Vermont dairy farmers.

Perhaps no team so perfectly represents more than itself - indeed, the outlook and ethos of an entire region. The Sox are New England, as much as blushing fall maples or rubber-booted fishermen, and this season - regardless of the conclusion - has only tightened the ties. "They never let you down," says Ed Boulos, a native Mainer attending one of the games. "You can always expect drama."

Drama, of course, makes for a good story - even if the ending has always tended toward the tragic. On one hand, the fact that Boston hasn't won a World series since 1918 has created a solidarity of the downtrodden. The reason Bostonians love the Red Sox "is the losses," says Maureen O'Brien, milling among the still-hopeful crowd outside Fenway. "It creates empathy."

Yet the Boston Red Sox are no Chicago Cubs - they are no lovable losers. Trials of faith have never been foreign to the New England mind. Whether it was scratching an existence out of the granite-veined earth or the preparing for an afterlife of Calvinist severity, the joys of the moment have always been spare - and attended by no small amount of toil.

The failures of the Red Sox are a product of struggle, not concession, and to some, they are best seen as the reflection of the region's doctrinal traditions. "There's something about the Puritan legacy," says Isaac Kramnick, the vice president of undergraduate education at Cornell University and a Red Sox fan. "There's something about the inherent nature of New Englanders" that believes that bad can triumph over good.

When discussing the bleaker aspects of Edmund Burke and St. Augustine in his political classes, he uses the Red Sox as a contemporary lesson. And the story sticks in the hearts of the college set that pervades the Boston culture.

"A lot of people go to college in Boston and get seduced by the narrative of 'almost, but' and the aesthetics of Fenway Park," says Professor Kramnick. "We're talking about a group of people who become the intellectual leaders of the country."

Indeed, there is a sort of Red Sox diaspora - an intelligentsia of Red Sox long-sufferers cast across the ivory towers and publishing houses of America. Yet the pith of Red Sox Nation is invariably grounded in New England soil, starting with the grass at Fenway.

Munching on a sausage across the street from Fenway's brick arches, Dick Donovan can't imagine the Red Sox myth emerging from any other park. Smaller than any other major league venue, and the originator of all the ballpark quirks that modern stadiums try to emulate, Fenway is less a city amphitheater than an intimate communal hearth for all of New England. "It's so old and so small that everyone feels together," he says.

Yet in a region where winter descends in winds that cut through clothes and flesh, there is a connection even more primal. Every Red Sox season begins just as New England is emerging from hibernation, when the growing green of spring quickens thoughts in an eternal cycle of optimism.

"The harsh winter ... knits you closer to each other, so in the spring you just want to come out and stretch, and play ball," says Reiney DiBiase, a local Sox fan. "The sun just hits your face [and you say,] 'Let's start all over.' "

Staff writer Sara B. Miller contributed to this report.

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