My friend Amanda wrote a wonderful paper prompt for her first-year writing students. The book her students read was published in 1998, and it makes the argument that entertainment has overrided all other forces in American society. Her prompt asks her students to apply the author's argument to any event since 1998. It sounded like such a fun prompt that I decided to write a response to it myself. I hope it's good enough for her to give to her students (or at least give me a decent grade):
Ask any Red Sox fan about the 2004 team, the first group of Sox to win a World Series in 86 years, and you will likely hear about Dave Roberts' stolen base or the shocking trade of franchise player Nomar Garciaparra. You will almost certainly be treated to the story of Curt Schilling's heroic "bloody sock" game in the ALCS or Bill Mueller's base hit off Mariano Rivera. For sports fans, these individual moments are what crystallize into memory; Red Sox fans, for instance, are less likely to recall Bill Buckner's fruitful career than they are to associate Buckner with his crucial error in the 1986 World Series. What connects these isolated stories, these "spots of time" as Wordsworth would call them, are storylines: the story of the 1986 Red Sox, who came so close to winning a World Series before the "Curse of the Bambino" struck them down, or the story of the 2004 Red Sox, a ragtag band of self-professed "idiots" who finally overcame adversity to win it all. Like background radiation from the Big Bang, lingering throughout the known universe, these storylines are everywhere: they are part of the fabric of American sports. To be a sports fan or a Red Sox fan is to follow these storylines, whether you want to or not.
When Neal Gabler wrote Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality in 1998, he both could and could not anticipate the 2004 Red Sox. Gabbler's argument, that entertainment is "the most pervasive, powerful and ineluctable force of our time," is confined predominantly to fifty years prior to the book's publication (9). Life the Movie trades in specific instances of the ways entertainment has come to rule over every facet of American life, from politics to sports to religion. While Gabler's concrete examples stop in 1998, the force of entertainment rolls on until today: as Gabler admits in the introduction, "Every day the life medium generates new episodes. Every day someone finds more inventive applications for its use" (10). The 2004 Boston Red Sox were one of these "new episodes," as much TV show as baseball team. From their identity as a band of "idiots" to the drama of their ALCS win against the Yankees, the 2004 Red Sox were a team based on entertainment, a team that sold itself so well to American sports fans that they created an entire nation of followers.
Prior to the 2004 season, the Red Sox, along with the Chicago Cubs, were perennial "underdogs," always expected to finish second to the mighty Steinbrenner-led Yankees and never expected to win a World Series. The entertainment value of the 2004 Red Sox lay primarily in this underdog identity. The story of the underdog is one of the most enduring stories in American sports, likely because it reaffirms the "American dream" of self-betterment and provides the illusion that sporting events are spontaneous and unpredictable (in other words, the illusion of "reality"). Hollywood has capitalized on this borderline-mythological trope for decades: Gabler, for instance, extols the brilliant cross-marketing of Disney films and sports franchises in The Mighty Ducks and Angels in the Outfield (118). The '04 Sox, though, were one of the first "real" teams to embrace this identity and appropriate it for entertainment purposes. If we follow Gabler's argument, then this appropriation of a Hollywood trope by an actual team is only natural. Gabler argues that the traditions of nineteenth-century baseball would be sacrificed on the altar of television and twentieth-century entertainment: "lowering pitching mounds, shrinking strike zones, quickening playing surfaces … all designed … on the assumption … that for most fans high-scoring games were far more entertaining than low-scoring ones" (118). In this light, the 2004 Red Sox were merely a more sophisticated continuation (a "new episode" if you will) of the trend in baseball toward mascots and other sensory delights.
The underdog identity of the team manifested itself in a number of ways, but the most prominent of those was the team's own label of the "idiots." The "idiots" epithet emerged from Kevin Millar's 2003 coining of "Cowboy Up!", a phrase that was meant to encourage teammates to give their all. The '04 team embraced the "idiots" label and constructed themselves, consciously or unconsciously, as a group of characters in an ongoing baseball comedy. There was Millar, the fun-loving first baseman who kept things light and enjoyable in the clubhouse. There was Millar's partner in crime, Johnny Damon, the hirsute center fielder, affectionately dubbed "Caveman Johnny" by fans, who entertained fans by hustling around Fenway Park's cavernous center field and showing off what everyone knew was quite possibly the worst arm in the history of the game. There was David Ortiz, "Big Papi," the team's lovable teddy bear of a designated hitter, a reclamation project from the Minnesota Twins, who would rumble around the bases with a grin of his face. And, of course, there was the paragon of entertainment, Manny Ramirez, who fans would later remember for making phone calls from Fenway Park's famed Green Monster in between innings and diving to cut off an outfielder's throw from fifteen feet away. On the one hand, they were simply a good baseball team led by a new manager and the youngest general manger in baseball; on the other, they were the living embodiment of the Charlie Sheen movie Major League, in which a team of misfits put together for the sole purpose of losing band together to win a division title.
Of course, sports provide fans with the illusion of "reality"; sports marketing focuses on the sport itself, the actual games of baseball being played. Gabler calls this phenomenon the "macguffin," or the thing that is ostensibly the purpose of any given discursive realm (for baseball, the game itself, for religion, salvation, and so on). According to Gabler, the macguffin is an elaborate ruse, a bait-and-switch, but it is, to reappropriate his phrase, "the most pervasive, powerful and ineluctable" ruse of all. The "macguffin," the ruse, of the 2004 Red Sox was that these individuals, these characters, were baseball players first and foremost. The media coverage of their American League Championship Series (ALCS) victory over the vaunted Yankees, though, reveals just how much of a ruse that is.
The 2004 ALCS was full of singular moments like Roberts' steal and Mueller's hit up the middle, but, more than anything else, it was a theatrical dramatization of the underdog story. The best-of-seven series started inauspiciously for the Sox, who dropped the first two games by a combined five runs, 10-7 and 3-1. The series moved from New York to Boston, and the Sox were promptly humiliated, 19-8, by a Yankees team that won the AL East that year (MLB). The story should be familiar by now. ESPN's SportsCenter constantly flashed various statistics that basically told the same story: no team in the history of baseball had ever come back from three games down to win a best-of-seven series. Of course, the Red Sox would eventually come back to win the series, dramatically defeating the previously invulnerable Yankees closer Mariano Rivera in Game 4 and mostly cruising through the rest of the series. Media coverage of the ALCS focused on the dramatic reversal of fortunes, the underdog finally conquering the pit bull. And why not? This was entertainment at its finest. Talk of the "Curse of the Bambino," an 86-year-old curse that started with the trade of Babe Ruth to the Yankees, sold the team to its fans. Ironically, the media would later divest itself of the "Curse" and all its trappings. The retrospective official website of the 2004 Red Sox says of the ALCS, "It wasn't miraculous, it wasn't mystical, it wasn't mysterious. It was the Boston Red Sox being the better ballclub. Forget the Curse. Forget the ghosts of Yankee Stadium" (MLB). This effort to reassert the "macguffin" of the ALCS—it was about baseball, not the Curse—is entirely unconvincing to anyone who watched the events unfold. Of course, on some level, it was about "the Boston Red Sox being the better ballclub." Mostly, though, it was about them becoming the better ballclub, rising up from the depths of their division to overcome their greatest adversary and exorcise the "ghosts" of the Curse.
If the ALCS was the theatrical dénouement of the 2004 Red Sox soap comedy, then the World Series was its anticlimax. The Sox swept the St. Louis Cardinals in four games, absolutely dominating them by any measure. This less-than-dramatic ending to a supremely entertaining season did nothing to dispel the mythos of the Curse-breaking team, as news stories just after the Red Sox won the World Series affirmed what everyone already knew about the team: they were a baseball phenomenon unlike anything the game or its fans had ever seen. As Dan Shaughnessy of the venerable Boston Globe simply attested, "They did something that had not been done in 86 years." (Shaughnessy would later publish Reversing the Curse: Inside the 2004 Boston Red Sox, a book that epitomizes media coverage of the Curse.) Other sports teams, even other baseball teams, had entertained fans; this was nothing new. The 2004 Boston Red Sox, though, perfected the art of sports as entertainment: they thrilled fans with their "idiot" antics and reaffirmed the traditional American ideal that the underdog can win (rather, deserves to win). The force behind the 2004 Red Sox was the same force that Gabler would argue is behind all sports teams, the force of entertainment. This team, though, harnessed that force to shape its own identity better than perhaps any other team in the history of the game.