Who to hate now, and how?
What now, Sox fans, without the Yankees to kick around any more, and without the insidious, innate, indigenous dread that we'll somehow end up getting kicked around by them before the lights go down and they pull the tarp over the infield for the last time in 2007.
Once you develop an inferiority complex, it's no simple matter to dispel it. In New England, we're built with a crick in our neck from looking up at Gotham's looming towers and a permanent squint to shield our eyes from her blinding lights. No wonder we keep ourselves busy in the off-season by sharpening the chips on our shoulders.
But the old order no longer holds around these parts, at least not in the baseball world. With the power out in the Bronx, the Bosox can stake a claim: now we're the untouchables, the standard bearers, and the pretenders have to come through Kenmore Square to claim the throne.
Which poses a couple of questions: first, are we ready to assume the perch on the top of the hill, with no cover and a constant diet of high and tight heaters coming our way? And second, can we maintain our imbalance as Sox supporters without an enemy in our sights, either to motivate us or to mitigate our self-loathing when we come up short?
The first question will be answered on the diamond over the next three weeks, but for the second we may have to wait for Harvard's top logisticians, both socio and psycho, to weigh in.
In the meantime, just to hedge our bets, we'd better tap into a vein of venom nasty enough to sustain us in our tilts against the Indians and then either the Rockies or the Diamondbacks. No easy task when we've grown accustomed to their faces, those Yankees.
How easy, how convenient it's been to fall back on hating the same old familiar targets - like unloading on a middle-in change-up you knew was coming. Giambi, all ripply and sweaty and beady-eyed like an assassin, was great to learn on. There were all those rumors, the weird illnesses, and suspiciously streaky output. And then there were the cocky kids, Cabrera and Cano. And always the Rocket and A-Rod, who talk a good game about team play, but we all know where their true allegiance is. And Meant-cave-itch, the ultimate spell-check challenge who tried to make off with the final out of the '04 World Series. What else might he steal from us - our thunder, our innocence, or just an occasional bullet ripped inside the first base bag, headed for the right field corner and extra bases?
And yeah, Damon's a demon and a carpet-bagger and all that, but come on, you can't really hate someone who made you smile and love the game just a bit more every time he ran down a drive to deep center or lashed a ball into the gap that came off the wall at an odd angle, and maybe he'd get three. And remember, he's a self-proclaimed idiot, neither icon nor idol, who never claimed to be anything more than a ballplayer, and the Sox could have held onto him if they'd wanted to.
There's no way I know to hate Andy Pettitte, or even Derek Jeter, despite his occasional smirk. Or the impossibly polished Posada, all pro, all class, all day long. Or the omni-dominant Rivera, quiet and unflappable but with a hint of a twinkle. Even Giambi slithered up out of the muck this summer when he came clean about "the clear" or whatever he used to turn himself from a slugger into a SLUGGER.
And how not to admire sleepy-eyed, jowly Joe Torre, putting up with the Boss's blather all these years, so even-tempered it looked like he might nod off in the dugout at times, even late in a tight game.
But wait a minute! They're history. The Yankees have gone home, and it won't be Johnny Damon watching Becket's first BB scream past at the knees, outside edge, to get things started tomorrow night. Within the next 24 hours, or at least by the end of the weekend, we have to come up with some viable villains of the Cleveland variety. And it's not going to be easy. We don't even have a disrespectful moniker for the Indians yet. The Erie Vampire? I don't think so.
First we need to get a feel for the team, either as a group or individually. Sabathia and Carmona just look like great pitchers, not bad guys. Kenny Lofton? Nah. Hafner? Maybe something to work with there, if he takes out Tek on a close play at the plate. We could have some fun with Eric Wedge's name, maybe, but we need someone else to step up and become a target. We can be offended by the team's name, and its silly, very outdated logo, but is that enough to fire up a whole nation of ill will?
How are we going to demonize Jhonny Peralta when we aren't even sure how to pronounce his name? Or Asdrubal Cabrera, for crying out loud? Where are they mining this new batch of Latinos, anyhow? Where went the good old days when names like José or Roberto sufficed for spice?
For Sox fans to truly savor victory, the road to the championship may not have to pass through New York any more. But the champagne's not going to taste as good as it could if we don't cop a quick attitude about these boring, competent Midwesterners who are coming into our house tomorrow night, all bright-eyed and eager.
Forget about the bunting and the handshakes and the fly-overs and the feel-good family tunes on the Fenway P.A. Here's hoping we're hating them by the fifth inning, our shoulder chips get to twitching, and we can settle back into some old reliable antipathy and not look back.