One of my mild obsessions is books about baseball framed around the story of one season. The best of these books combine history, baseball and personal drama together to create an entertaining and insight for snapshot of a moment in time*. In the years and decades to come someone will undoubtedly write a fantastic book about the 2021 season. Not only was this an incredible year for baseball, it was set against the backdrop of the second year of the COVID 19 pandemic as the Delta variant rose and political turmoil engulfed the country, creating battle lines around vaccinations and masks and ballot counts. From out of this storm, baseball emerged to give us one of the great seasons of the game, complete with once-in-a century performances, down-to-the-wire pennant races, miracle turnarounds and a playoff picture filled with rivals, heroes and heels, and so much potential for heartbreak. I cannot wait to read that book.
When I think of baseball in 2021, I will think of Shohei Ohtani dominating on the mound and at the plate, of his foot twisting as he loads up that beautiful left-handed swing. I will think of the highlight videos of him hitting 99 with a fastball than hitting a fastball 116mph into the stratosphere. I will think of the pure violence of Vlad Jr.’s swing connecting with a baseball. I will think of Sal Perez having one of the greatest seasons any catcher has ever given us. I will think about the Dodgers and the Giants battling all season long, both teams winning more than 100 games and one having to land in one-game playoff against a Cardinals team that won 17 straight games down the stretch on the back of Adam Wainwright and a cast of relative unknowns stepping up at the right time game after game. I will think about the home run derby and Trey Mancini and the underdog Mariners and grumpy Tony LaRussa asking for pitchers to throw at his own players. I will think about Covid quarantines and the homeless Blue Jays. It was an incredible season and it delivered more wonderful storylines than I can possibly list here.
But I am Red Sox fan and so whatever I really remember about the 2021 season will be determined tonight.
Tonight, the Red Sox will play the Yankees in the Wild-Card game at Fenway Park. For fans my age and older who can remember the days before 2004, this scenario is the reason the phrase “trigger warning” exists. It may be 26 days before Halloween, but the ghosts will be out tonight- the ghost of Bucky Dent Bill Buckner and Aaron Boone* will fill out the spectral monster seats in the back of the mind of every Red Sox fan over 35. We will all try to guard ourselves with the image of Dave Roberts stealing second and David Ortiz’s fingers pointed to the sky, but the ghosts will remain until the final out brings us either triumph or heartbreak.
This is probably how the season had to end. It is undoubtedly how the season would have to end if this was glossy, star-studded sports movie, which is how the season feels now that this matchup is set. The truly incredible thing is that both Red Sox fans and Yankees fans have their own cut of the film, complete with their own themes and morals.
This was scrappy, under-rated Red Sox team, with fans still reeling from the loss of heroes from their 2018 World Series run, like Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley, Brock Holt and Andrew Benintendi. The pitching was shaky apart from ace Nate Eovaldi. The bullpen was held together with duct tape and a plug of Rafael Dever’s chaw. They whiffed on getting Anthony Rizzo at the trade deadline only to have Kyle Schwarber emerge as their best hitter down the stretch. They dominated the AL East early then faded as Covid hit the clubhouse and the Rays roared back to life. They were fun to watch and infuriating at the same time. They seemed to have great chemistry together but manager Alex Cora often failed to find definitive roles for players and lasting solutions to their many holes on the field.
In New York, it was the mirror opposite. They started slow and looked like a disaster early in the season. Gerrit Cole was their only reliable starter and closer Aroldis Chapman- once as unhittable as they come- looked washed. Worst of all, though, they couldn’t hit. Up until the trade deadline, Only Aaron Judge (146 wRC+) was hitting well and While Stanton (119 wRC+) and Sanchez (116wRC+) were productive they were striking out at eye-popping rates. Last season’s batting champ DJ Le Mehieu was merely a league hitter and former stand-outs Gleyber Torres, Luke Voigt and Miguel Andujar were borderline unplayable at the plate up to that point in the season. It looked like Aaron Boone had lost the team and was on his way to losing his job. Then in came Texas Ranger Joey Gallo, presumably on horse-back and Cubs star Anthony Rizzo, presumably on Bear-back, and the Yankees surged just as the Red Sox began to falter.
Both teams fan bases have reasons to love the 2021 incarnation of their team and both fan bases have reason to be fearful of the coming clash. The Red Sox get to host because of their early season dominance- they beat the Yankees in their first nine meetings- but the memory of the mini-Boston Massacre- the three-game sweep of the Yankees handed the Red Sox at Fenway between September 24 and September 26 – is fresh in Boston fans’ minds.
Tonight’s game is the sport-movie ending for both teams, win or lose. Neither team will fair much of chance against the Rays in the division series or against the better teams that will follow. When the story of the 2021 season is told, tonight’s game will decide the narrative for Boston and New York, it will deliver the tear-jerker ending of either triumph or defeat that will stand out the most when the story of the 2021 season is written. We are living history and I am full of all the anticipation and terror that it brings.
*the best baseball books I have read that center around a single season are Kait Murphy’s Crazy ’08, Glenn Stout’s Fenway 1912 and Robert Creamer’s Baseball in ’41
*Player Aaron Boone will always haunt Red Sox fans for his home run in the 2003 ALCS (aka the Grady Little game) but Manager Aaron Boone did as much as anyone to help the 2018 Red Sox defeat the Yankees- this distinction is very important.