By Bill Simmons
Special to Page 2

"There's a small place inside us that they can never lock away, and that place is called hope."
--Andy Dufresne

Nomar Garciaparra
Chris Stanford /Allsport
The Red Sox will begin the season without Nomar Garciaparra.

Act I: The Jinx
It all started with that damned Sports Illustrated cover four weeks ago. There was Nomar, inexplicably shirtless, flexing a bat in front of his waist, grinning broadly, looking like they cut-and-pasted his noggin onto Stone Cold Steve Austin's body. Surprised Red Sox fans had three immediate reactions:

1. No-mahhhh!
2. Damn, he's ripped.
3. Hey wait a second ... NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!

Yup... it was the dreaded SI Jinx, the magazine curse that makes Bobby Brady's Hawaiian tiki seem like a rabbit's foot. Apparently SI's other option was dressing up a black cat in a No. 5 jersey and photographing it from under a ladder. Anyway, panic swept through Red Sox Nation as word spread about the cover. We were titillated that Nomar received some much-deserved ink, rattled by his impressive, "It doesn't make me gay to say that Nomar's ripped, right?" physique and infuriated at SI for jeopardizing our beloved shortstop's health. In that order.

And then it happened.

Midway through the afternoon -- the same freaking day!!!! -- word filtered from various media outlets that Nomar had injured a tendon in his right wrist. Details were scarce, early reports weren't encouraging ... and everything just stopped. People sleepwalked through the rest of the workday, searching for updates on radio and the Internet, sending out e-mails, calling friends and basically engaging in Group Commiseration. Rumors flew around various message boards that included the dreaded, impossible phrase "Out for the year." More sophisticated Sox fans remembered that Nomar originally injured his wrist after being struck by an errant fastball from former Orioles pitcher Al "Burn in Hell!" Reyes (back in September of '99). Was Nomar suffering lingering problems from that pitch? And should we organize a witchhunt to find Al Reyes? Nobody knew.

Initial reports confirmed that Nomar had battled recurring problems with that same tendon (from the Reyes game), only now he was suffering from extreme discomfort and a sudden loss of strength. Yikes. "Pit in the stomach" time. Something bad was going down here; the 2001 season was going down in flames faster than the Spin Doctors after "Cleopatra's Cat" was released. We waited for positive news -- something, anything -- but deep down, we knew it wasn't coming. And that was that.

The next three weeks of spring training were agonizing; every day felt like a kick to the collective groin. Newspapers were crammed with stories about Nomar's inexorable march to surgery, Crazy Carl missing buses, tension between Jimy and Duke and problems flaring up with Valentin's knees, Coney's shoulder and Manny's hammies. For a season brimming with so much promise -- every year we believe that "This is the year," but after the Manny signing, we were really believing, "Hey, this is the year!" -- the sudden collapse just seemed cruel.

This team can tread water for two to three months without Nomar, but not much longer, and no reasonable fan would expect them to contend in October unless Nomar, Pedro and Manny are all playing at 100 percent. Let's be honest, it takes months to recover from major wrist surgery, especially for a hitter like Nomar who relies on his wrists and his bat speed. Even if he returns near the end of the season, he won't be the same.

We know this. We know this.


Act II: The Void
Somewhere in the middle of this mess, the season suddenly commenced in Baltimore last Monday -- a disheartening 2-1, 11-inning loss that dredged up many of the problems from last year. Once again, the Sox offense wasted a fine effort from Pedro, who ended up getting the dreaded "no-decision" (Pedro could have married Derrick Thomas and gotten better support over the past few years). Once again, shoddy defense cost the Sox a crucial run in a close game. Once again, Jimy ("The dealer's showing 6 and I'm sitting on 18... hit me!") Williams made some strange decisions, starting two inexperienced players at new positions and refusing to pinch-hit for Darren Lewis with runners in scoring position in the 9th and 11th innings (with Dante Bichette and Scott Hatteberg sitting on the bench, to boot). The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Except for one thing ... no Nomar.

I wrote last week that a Red Sox season without Nomar felt like a cheeseburger without ketchup or a Cinemax skin flick without Shannon Tweed, so I was prepared for the worst. But at least four different times during Monday's game, I fell off the wagon and suffered legitimate "Goddammit, why does Nomar have to be injured!?!?!" moments that caused me to shake my head, drop a few F-bombs and question the morals of the Baseball Gods. Quite simply, the Nomar-Pedro tandem was the best thing to happen to the Boston sports scene since the Larry Bird Era. We love these guys. Outsiders can't fully appreciate it.

On the one hand, there's Pedro -- the most dominant pitcher since Koufax, maybe the greatest right-hander since Walter Johnson, a no-hitter waiting to happen every five days and one of the more charismatic Boston athletes in recent memory. Every one of Pedro's starts is an event. That's the best way I can put it. He's a comet. He's the Dominican Larry Bird.

On the other hand, there's Nomar. Statistically, he was on pace to be the most memorable all-around right-handed hitter since DiMaggio (has any player before Nomar ever topped .300 as a rookie, then added at least 15 points to his batting average in each of the next three seasons, without losing any power?). He approaches every at-bat the same way, right down to his manic-obsessive, "Nicholson in 'As Good As It Gets' " routine with the batting gloves. He never studies pitchers, freely admitting that he doesn't know if the team is facing a righty or a lefty on some days. He swings at everything, and I mean everything. And yet the guy belts more line drives than anyone you've ever seen. He's a line drive machine. It's uncanny. You really have to watch the Red Sox day in and day out to appreciate it.

After Boston fans suffered through a catastrophic, titleless 10-year span ('87 to '96) that featured the rapid decline of the C's and B's, the Tuna's bitter departure to the Jets, the stunning deaths of Lewis and Bias, Bird and Neely having their careers cut short by injury and Clemens fleeing to Canada ... watching Pedro and Nomar arrive in the same calendar year ('97) felt like hitting the lottery. Suddenly we had two heroes again, the artist and the everyday grinder. Pedro was Hendrix; Nomar was Springsteen. Pedro was Brando; Nomar was Newman.

We came to marvel at the unique contrasts between the two superstars. Pedro doesn't just get batters out, he buries them. He breaks them. On those special days when Pedro has all four pitches working, it feels like somebody stuck Fenway Park into a light socket. You stand on every two-strike count, you scream at the top of your lungs, you pound your hands together until they throb, you high-five strangers... you give yourself to this man. Everything you have. Everything. I'm telling you, he's a comet.

Nomar? We have a different bond with him, almost like he's a family member; we immediately adopted the California native as one of us. Even the way we scream his name speaks volumes: "No-mahhhhhhhhhh!" That always cracks up outsiders at Fenway, those four or five moments a game when Nomar glides towards home plate, bat in hand, and you hear a rustling buzz of excitement (building applause), followed by general recognition and giddiness ("Hey, Nomar's up!), followed by a genuine roar and a cacophony of "No-mahhhhhhhhhh's!" But his consistency makes him more endearing than anything -- all those line drives, how he runs out grounders, his uncanny ability to avoid slumps, the way he carries himself and plays the game. That stuff grows on you after time. Even if he lacks Pedro's outgoing personality, Nomar's "average guy" charisma makes up for it.

Yank him off the Red Sox for a few months and everything changes. It's like watching an episode of "The Sopranos" without Tony involved -- maybe every plot doesn't have to revolve around Tony, but you still need him there. You need him around. Together, Nomar and Pedro equal Tony; remove one of them and the Red Sox aren't the same show anymore. As we're finding out.


Act III: The Comeback
To understand why we haven't given up hope for the 2001 season -- even though Nomar's probably not coming back until August, even though this might be the worst defensive team to play in a major league baseball stadium since Kelly Leak and the California Bears ignited the Astrodome, even though the starting rotation goes Pedro, Nomo, Castillo, Tomo and Uh-Oh, even though $12.5 million worth of washed-up second basemen rot on the bench, even though our manager openly works on his resume between innings -- you have to understand us. Red Sox fans are complicated and perennially misunderstood.

You probably think that 82 straight years of failure, as well as some beyond-scarring losses, a haunted ballpark and the fact that we came within one pitch of winning the '86 World Series 13 different times would jade us beyond repair. Nope. For whatever reason, we always believe that this will be The Year ... and when it doesn't happen and things fall apart, we react as if our hearts were broken for the first time. Those three months after the Manny signing exemplified everything; we went from sizing World Series rings to popping Prozacs in the span of 70 days. Nobody overreacts quite like us, good and bad. We're a roller coaster ride. We're insane. And it's all because we're terrified that we might live a complete life -- I'm talking seven to eight decades, followed by death -- without seeing the Boston Red Sox win a World Series.

The local media preys on this fear. Manipulative, mean-spirited, agenda-ridden -- pick an adjective, because all of them fit -- this current crop of writers overrates our weaknesses (the "woe is me" complex), dwells on negative issues and delights in tweaking our stars. Outsiders read them and think, "All Boston fans are like that." Not true. The media members are just trying to rile us. Usually, it works. Again, we're insane over this whole thing; we're not rational. But at least we care.

Put it this way: If you had to find a movie that personified Red Sox fans, you know what the obvious choice is?

The Shawshank Redemption.

That's why I led with the Andy Dufresne quote up top. There's a small place inside us that they can never lock away, and that place is called hope. That's us! Andy didn't deserve to spend 20 years in jail ... we didn't deserve to root for a baseball team responsible for so much heartache over the years. Andy planned his escape every day ... we think about winning the World Series every day. Andy battled the Warden and lost ... we battled the Yankees and lost. People thought Andy was crazy because he had hope ... people think we're crazy because we always think, "This is the year!" Andy was gang-raped for over two years by "The Sistas"... we suffered through the '86 World Series. And so on.

Pedro Martinez
Chris Stanford /Allsport
Until Nomar returns, Pedro -- the Dominican Larry Bird -- is left to carry the Sox every five days.

But here's the key ... Andy escaped.

He dug out of Shawshank with a rock hammer, for God's sake. He crawled through 500 yards of s**t-smellin' foulness the likes of which we couldn't imagine. He stole millions from the warden and caused the warden to decorate his office with his brains. He fled to Mexico and settled in Zihuatanejo, but not before hiding some money and a letter in a Maine cornfield, just in case his buddy Red was released some day. And Red was released, and he found the money and the letter, and he skipped town and headed to Mexico, and he found Andy, and hell, for all we know, they're probably playing chess on that boat right now.

Yeah, it's only a movie, but it makes you wonder about the Red Sox and what would happen if they win the Series. Everyone has their own fantasy about this, but we all agree on one thing: Downtown Boston would turn into a three-day Mardi Gras. Back in my raging 20s, I worried that I would go overboard, that they would find me the same way they found the late Chris Farley -- butt-naked, bleeding, incoherent, beyond drunk and crawling towards a hooker, with a smile on my face. I feel differently now that I'm 30 -- I see the whole thing unfolding like a giant group hug, like when Andy and Red greet each other at the end of Shawshank, but multiplied by 10 million people. Does that make sense?

And that's the lure. The giant group hug. That's why we keep the faith every year. That's why we overreact to everything. That's why Sox fans were doing backflips over Manny's signing and practically chugging Drano after Nomar's injury. That's why we were rejoicing last night after Hideo Nomo's improbable no-hitter, convincing ourselves that Nomo has suddenly reversed every negative vibe from March.

And that's why we're waiting ... and hoping ... and praying ... and that's why we're quietly pining for July, when the Sox somehow keep treading water and remain alive in the A.L. East, and then Nomar starts taking BP, and then he heads down to Pawtucket for the rehab stint, and then he returns, our secret weapon down the stretch, reunited with Pedro, spraying line drives once again, the piece that pushes us over the top and closer to the giant group hug.

Will it happen? Maybe, maybe not. But I hope it happens. When all else fails, just remember that hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.

I think I heard that somewhere once.

For the past three years, Bill Simmons has been giving his irreverent take on the sports scene for his award-winning "Boston Sports Guy" site, which can be reached at www.sportsguy.net. He's also known as a man who can get things from time to time.



        Paginated view

Bill_Simmons
Bill
Simmons