Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Playoff Digest: In Beantown, It's All About the Sox

Lest anyone be unaware, the River City's pretty fired up these days -- for the first time in 15 years (when your narrator was in the 6th grade), the hometown Phillies find themselves a win away from the World Series.

One more... and the place will erupt.

Don't begrudge us -- we don't see such things all that often here, are uniformly raised from infancy to not expect them, and (well, apart from upped panic that the Apocalypse is imminent) don't really know what to do in the rare instances when they happen.

(And while we're at it, if tomorrow night does indeed end up being the clincher, don't expect anything to pop up here until well into Thursday.)

Historically speaking, of the ten or so markets with teams in each of the four major sports, Philly's dearth of a championship has been, by (painfully) far, the longest -- the last title parade to hit Broad Street came a quarter-century ago when, literally led by Moses to the Promised Land, the Sixers swept the the 1983 NBA Finals, turning away the Lakers in the now-mythic "fo'."

But as -- in a touch of deja vu -- a bit more LA-beating remains between now and (the ever-elusive) Then, likewise remaining among the national pasttime's Final Four are the Boston Red Sox, who head into tonight's Game 4 of the ALCS at home down two games to the Tampa Bay Rays. And so, amid the usual postseason fever pitch in the long-cursed, now dominant Nation, its paper of record took a moment to review the long link between the boys of Fenway and the (recently-relocated) lords of Brighton... with a side-trip to the bench's top NFL fan in exile:

Cardinal William H. O'Connell was never much of a Red Sox fan. Despite presiding over the Archdiocese of Boston during a period when the team won the World Series four times, there's no evidence that he used his free pass to Fenway, and he railed against the playing of baseball on Sundays.

His successor, Cardinal Richard J. Cushing, was more of an enthusiast, periodically buying blocks of seats at Fenway and bringing hundreds of nuns, in full habit, to games.

Cardinal Humberto S. Medeiros was a real fan, so much so that, on his way into a papal conclave in Rome, he famously asked how the Red Sox were doing. (That was in 1978, a grim year for the Vatican, when two popes died, and for the Red Sox, who lost the American League East division in a one-game playoff with the New York Yankees.)

Now comes Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley, a Capuchin Franciscan friar better known for his affection for foreign films, Spanish literature, and "A Prairie Home Companion," but who showed up at Fenway Park with a group of priests and church officials to watch the Red Sox clinch a wild card berth on Sept. 23.

"Since I have been the archbishop of Boston, the team has won two championships," O'Malley blogged afterward. "Only one other archbishop in the history of the diocese can make that claim. Cardinal O'Connell saw the victories of 1912, 1915, 1916, and 1918 . . . but, I have just gotten started!"

O'Malley's embrace of the Red Sox has echoes across the nation, as clergy of many stripes endorse, bless, or express support for a variety of sporting events. Some of the gestures are sincere expressions of fandom, others are an effort by clerical leaders to demonstrate their humanity, and others are forms of evangelism with a history that dates back to the mid-19th-century phenomenon of "muscular Christianity," in which ministers embraced sports as a way of trying to draw more men into the pews.

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, the Catholic bishop of Providence, is probably the best-known example of a bishop/fan. The Pittsburgh native is passionate about the Steelers, and, despite living in a region enamored of the New England Patriots, he hangs a Steelers banner from the railing of the bishop's residence and has a room that many refer to as a Steelers shrine in the house. [What's more, an intruder once left an 8-foot inflatable Pats' doll on Tobin's porch... which he crushed.] Although Tobin's passion for the team is real, he said it also has pastoral benefits; his well-known love of the sports team makes it easier for many people, from parishioners to politicians, to start a conversation with him.

"We deal with so many heavy issues, and complicated issues, and sometimes very difficult and emotional issues, and it's really good to have a lighter side and to have people be able to relate to that," Tobin said. "It makes the office of the bishop, and the bishop himself, more approachable, and the discussion about sports and the banter is really an excellent icebreaker."

Cardinal O'Connell, a Lowell native who served as archbishop of Boston from 1907 until his death in 1944, was not much of a fan. His biographer, James M. O'Toole, a Boston College history professor, said that although O'Connell was offered free passes by the owners of both the Red Sox and the Braves, and responded with notes of encouragement, "I never saw any evidence of his attending a baseball game."

"Like most other religious leaders in town, he opposed Sunday baseball in the 1920s," O'Toole said. "They considered this a form of Sabbath-breaking, and O'Connell in particular thought 'the noise made in rooting' disrupted the quiet of Sunday."

Now, six decades after O'Connell's death, the Red Sox are again on a bit of a winning streak - having won the World Series twice in the last four years and now in the midst of an American League Championship Series against the Tampa Bay Rays (who formerly had the word Devil in their name, but whatever). Cardinal O'Malley, is not known to be such a committed sports fan himself, but he has periodically watched the Super Bowl with his fellow Capuchin friars in Boston, and his attendance at the Sept. 23 Red Sox-Indians game was only the latest public expression of solidarity with the Olde Towne Team.

In 2003, shortly after his installation in Boston, O'Malley offered public advice to the Red Sox, saying, "They just need to stay focused now, keep cool," and he told reporters, "the first request I received from a Boston priest was that the new archbishop make sure that the Red Sox would win this year, so I'm working on it."

In 2006, when he went to Rome to receive the red hat that signaled his elevation to cardinal, he pulled up his cassock at a news conference to show reporters his cardinalatial red socks and said, "At least nobody can doubt my sports affiliation now, with the Red Sox."

And in April, as he prepared to attend a papal Mass at Yankee Stadium, he told reporters, "I'll be wearing my red socks, and if I get a chance I'll bury them in the outfield." The cardinal was, of course, referring to an incident in which a construction worker buried a Red Sox jersey in the clubhouse concrete at the new stadium in a supposed effort to bring bad luck to the Yankees....

The Red Sox have cultivated a clerical presence in the stands. For years, the team has had a clergy pass program allowing up to 100 men and women of the cloth (of any denomination) to half-price standing room tickets for regular-season games, according to Susan Goodenow, a team spokeswoman.
And lastly, as with all holy things 'round these parts, there's a relevant John Krol story to share.

On the Eagles' first Super Bowl appearance in 1980, the Most-Storied of the Pharaohs flew to New Orleans with the Birds' then-owner Len Tose -- a close friend whose devout Judaism didn't keep him from donating $50K toward the construction of the papal altar on Logan Circle a year before -- and, as lead intercessor for the cause, sat in Tose's box at the big game.

As Golden Era GM Jim Murray (so Catholic he named his son "John Paul") once told it, shortly after the Oakland Raiders began tearing through Vermeil & Co. from the game's first minutes, the hometown delegation did what Philadelphians do (rather, did), rushing to implore the Most High for some heavenly help.

"God always answers our prayers," Krol replied. "But sometimes, the answer is no."

Moral of the story: your day will come, forlorn fans... just not on your timetable.

Then again, some of the more superstitious locals have long maintained that our number wouldn't come up again 'til the veteran patriarch of the city's fifth major sport nabbed its brass ring...

...and by that standard, the moment has arrived.

Here's hoping they're right.

Go Phils... and, for now, Sox too.

PHOTO: Archdiocese of Boston(1); Reuters(2)