BOSTON — A huge banner on the side of Fenway Park during the 2018 World Series proclaims it to be “AMERICA’S MOST BELOVED BALLPARK,” which is a bold claim. There are folks in Chicago who would violently quibble with the designation. But what we do know for sure that Fenway is America’s funniest ballpark. It’s funny like an old man with his pants pulled up to his midsection, and we don’t talk enough about how silly it is.
For starters, Fenway is almost hidden from the outside, blending into the city blocks around it, as if it were built surreptitiously in a time when baseball was illegal. The inside of the park makes it all seem like a structure from the Game of Thrones intro that stopped expanding two-thirds of the way through. It’s all small and compacted, with overhangs and nooks and trapezoids and crannies and triangles everywhere. There’s a giant wall here and a tiny wall there, both of which affect the play dramatically. It’s a beautiful, silly place, and it’s hard to believe it still exists.
I can only imagine what it was like when there were ghosts at Fenway Park, hanging around all of those nooks and crannies, doing everything they could to make sure the Red Sox couldn’t win. The moans sounded like Calvin Schiraldi being unable to get Ray Knight with an 0-2 count, and the wails sounded like Grady Little leaving Pedro in too long. The ghosts were always there, lurking in the infinite hidey-holes and cubbies, waiting to rattle their chains and ruin everything. This went on for nearly a century.
Then the ghosts were exorcised. About 15 years ago, there was a purge, and the nooks and crannies are filled with memorabilia and plaques now. The straggler ghosts were reëducated and trained to work with the Red Sox, not against them. The quirks became silly instead of menacing.
It was the Dodgers who first felt the ghosts in Game 1, then. It was the Dodgers who heard those howls and moans, the Dodgers who thought here we go again when David Freese whiffed on a foul ball in the first inning. The ghosts were saying I-told-you-so to Clayton Kershaw when he allowed some of the hardest contact he’s allowed all year. When the Fenway crowd started chanting “KERRRR-SHAW ... KERRRRR-SHAW,” the two sides couldn’t quite sync it up, and that made it sound even spookier. Red Sox fans laughed and laughed and laughed because it’s hilarious now that the ghosts are rattling chains behind Kershaw and the Dodgers, not every single member of the Red Sox.
About 15 minutes after the Red Sox took the lead in the first, though, the Dodgers had tied the game because, dammit, this is baseball and ghosts don’t actually exist.
Or, if they do, they’re in Chris Sale’s shoulder after another full, punishing season, or they’re in Kershaw’s elbow after his sixth October in a row. Eventually, baseball takes over, and nobody gives a damn if they’re playing at Fenway or on the Moon. We can retroactively ascribe it all to ghosts later, if needed, but while it’s going on, there aren’t any ghosts except what whatever happened the pitch before.
In Game 1 of the 2018 World Series, there weren’t literal ghosts chasing Kershaw; there was just fatigue and time, moving his fastball down to a velocity that’s almost indistinguishable from his slider. Sale wasn’t immune from it all because old-timey ghosts were defeated in front of Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon; he was cursing the fatigue that was compromising his Hall of Fame stuff and preventing him from going seven or eight innings, like he wanted to. Like he almost certainly would have just a couple years ago in this situation.
No, there were new ghosts being created. There are always new ghosts being created. It’s what the postseason does. Chris Sale was probably left in a batter or two too long, just like Pedro in ‘03, and that could have been another ghost. Why didn’t Cora take him out?, people would have wailed, as the Dodgers took a 1-0 series lead.
The symmetry on the other side was almost too perfect, though. Kershaw was probably left in a batter or two too long, and people will debate that decision for a long time, just like they’ll debate the decision to pull Pedro Baez in the eighth. Both teams could have been haunted. The winning team, regardless of who won, was guaranteed to have gotten away with an awful lot.
The truth is that almost everyone on both teams is still seeing ghosts. Ian Kinsler is seeing ghosts because he was a literal inch away from helping an old team tie a World Series up, and now he’s finally ravaged by time and unable to help his new team at all. Dave Roberts might be a famous base-swiping deity who can come into Fenway and get a standing ovation while managing the opposing team in a World Series, but he’s also never won a World Series as a manager, so he should be more than a little spooked.
Almost everyone on the Dodgers over their respective careers has finished season after season without winning the World Series, Ryan Madson is the only one available to remind them that good things can actually happen and he had a rough start to the 2018 World Series.
If anyone on the Red Sox wants to hear stories about a season when everything didn’t end in eventual failure, they’ll have to gather around old man Xander Bogaerts, who can tell them the tales of a distant time known as 2013. Somehow, he’s the only one on the Red Sox roster who knows what not-failure feels like at the end of a season.
All of this is to say that the Dodgers aren’t thinking about the ghosts of 2017 any more than J.D. Martinez is thinking about 2011 through 2017, when he also didn’t win the World Series. Just like the Red Sox weren’t thinking about Bill Buckner at the exact moment when Mariano Rivera was staring them in the face. Every player and both managers are acutely aware of failure at the end of a season, if only because failure is guaranteed for 97 percent of the teams that participate, and they’ve all felt that failure over and over again.
It was just baseball in Game 1, no metaphysics involved. The Red Sox won because the Dodgers rushed Madson into the game to replace Kershaw, and everyone can all argue the wisdom of Madson not being there from the beginning. The Red Sox won because Kershaw isn’t being chased by the ghosts of his past, but by the ghosts of his physical present.
The Red Sox won because Eduardo Nuñez, a supremely likeable player who still gives his team conniption fits whenever a ball is hit toward him, turned on a near-perfectly placed curveball and hit it out.
If you don’t believe me about the perfectly placed curve, there is proof:
Nuñez cares not for ghosts. None of us should. Because occasionally a noodle-armed infielder will knock a perfect pitch over the fence and put everyone on his team another step closer to a championship, and nobody will care what happened before that.
Fenway is a hilarious ballpark, which is perfect, because baseball is a hilarious game. Hitters have been honed and sharpened to the point where a pitcher on month six of a grueling grind is no match for them. The baseball we’re seeing now has nothing to do with anything that happened last year, much less 100 years ago, and the Red Sox and Dodgers are quintessential examples of this. Almost every hitter on both teams is about as good, relatively speaking, as a tired Chris Sale or Clayton Kershaw.
We can say for certain that it’s not the ghosts of Fenway that spooked the Dodgers. It’s not the ghosts of postseasons past that spooked Kershaw, and it’s not the ghosts of “OH NO, JOE BUCK IS CALLING MY EVERY PITCH, WHAT DO I DO WHAT DO I DO” that are haunting Alex Wood. All we know is that Game 1 featured a whole mess of baseball.
And a whole mess of baseball usually ends up being used as compost to grow more baseball, which ends up growing more ghosts. This is how it works. The Red Sox are three wins away from further proving that they were never cursed in the first place. The Dodgers are four wins away from slaying some very rude ghosts. It all happened in Fenway Park, which is a cathedral to silliness in the best possible way.
There will be more to come.