The Fall Classic
Red Sox-Yankees and Bush-Kerry are more closely related than you think.
12:00 AM, Sep 8, 2004 • By BILL WHALEN
CONVENTIONAL WISDOM has it that John Kerry's problems began with a convention that produced no bounce, followed by a Swift boat veterans offensive that tarnished the senator's warrior image.
But the argument here is Kerry's downward spiral actually began the night before the opening of the bounceless convention--when Kerry bounced a ceremonial first pitch in front of home plate at Fenway Park at the Red Sox-Yankees game ("I held back," Kerry would tell reporters after the game, saying he deliberately went easy on a nervous Massachusetts Guardsman who happened to be on the receiving end of the pitch. "I tried to lob it gently.")
Since that night, Kerry's presidential bid has gone from a slight lead in the decisive swing states to trailing by double digits in some national polls. Second-guessing Team Kerry's moves--or lack thereof--is now one of Washington's favorite parlor games. Such is the campaign's downcast state of affairs that the otherwise-hale candidate received a pep talk this weekend from . . . a former president facing heart surgery.
And the Red Sox?
Since Kerry came up short in front of the Fenway faithful, the BoSox have played like a team given a new lease on life. While Kerry spent his August fending off Swift boat attacks and a Republican surge in the polls, the Sox went on a 21-7 tear, ending the month on a 7-game winning streak. Heading into Labor Day and the last month of the regular season, Boston trailed its rival from the Bronx by only two games in the loss column, setting the stage for the biggest comeback in the vaunted rivalry since the Yankees turned the tables on Boston a quarter of a century ago (see "Bucky Effin' Dent").
Does this mean that the election of 2004 is another chapter in the "Curse of the Bambino"--in this case, not the Sox themselves but a prominent Sox fan falling prey to the most notorious transition in baseball history? Or has the fan inadvertently done his hometown team a favor by being the recipient of the Bambino's negative karma?
There's precedent to suggest that the latter is the case: that would be 1988, and the last time a Massachusetts Democrat was his party's presidential nominee. That year, Michael Dukakis turned a summertime double-digit lead into a 40-state loss in November. As for the Sox, they switched managers that season, won 24 consecutive games at home, and captured their second division title in three years.
All of which presents Kerry with something of a moral dilemma as both a lifelong partisan and lifelong New Englander. Does he comply with modern political history, which suggests that the further his presidential campaign tanks, the better the Sox's chances for making the playoffs? Or does he bank on ancient history and try to convince Red Sox Nation that they can both win this fall? After all, in 1912, the Red Sox won the World Series and a Democrat defeated a one-term Republican from Yale. (The Sox would also win the 1916 Series, another good year for Democrats.)
THE INTERSECTION of baseball and politics in this election year has been hard to overlook. In addition to Kerry's appearance at the Yankees-Sox game, the video preceding Bush's acceptance speech last Thursday included footage of the president's ceremonial toss at Yankee Stadium before Game Three of the 2001 World Series. Bush was handicapped that night by a bulletproof vest, yet he managed to toss a high strike. While Kerry made his toss from in front of the mound, Bush took the bigger risk of throwing from the pitching rubber. It was a fact pointed out in the movie: real men throw from the mound.
Baseball may turn out to be a convenient backdrop for the candidates later this fall, especially if the playoffs play out in swing states. With designs on Missouri and Minnesota, the Bush campaign probably relishes a Twins-Cardinals World Series. For Kerry, a Red Sox-Marlins match-up would seem ideal.
For many, it's all too easy to put the Red Sox and Yankees in political terms. Boston fans view the team from New York with the same contempt that liberal Democrats view conservative Republicans. "You've got to be a Democrat to love the Red Sox, because they're the workingman's team," Paul Begala, the Democratic consultant and CNN talking head, has told reporters. "They're in there every year. You know, the Yankees are like General Motors . . . like Halliburton, and the Red Sox are like the rest of America."
Before the Democratic convention, Jay Leno put it a little more bluntly: "You know Boston is a perfect city for Democrats because the Democrats are like the Red Sox: They're optimistic in the spring, concerned in the summer, ready to choke in the fall." Need further proof that the Sox lean left? The club's chairman, Tom Werner, has been linked romantically to Katie Couric.
Of course, there are two problems with the concept of the Red Sox as hopelessly outclassed underdogs. First, the "workingman's" club has major-league baseball's second highest team salary. And, second, the "Evil Empire" isn't looking all the evil these days.
In the other recent oddity of this election year, the baseball team that's supposed to embody all things Republican--wealth, arrogance, inequality in the workplace--has seen its fortunes slide as those of Bush-Cheney ascend. The Yankees have gone a piddling 22-17 since the night of Kerry's flubbed toss. That includes a 22-0 loss--the worst in the franchise's history--last week, on the same night the Arnold Schwarzenegger wowed the crowd at Madison Square Garden.
Does Bush benefit from a collapse in the Bronx? In the long run, no. The last time the Yankees won the World Series was four years ago, 12 days before Election Day 2000. Three times in the 20th century--1976, 1964, and 1960--the Yankees lost a World Series in a presidential election year. Those were also winning years for the Democrats.
One thing we do know is that the two baseball rivals will settle their differences well before the two candidates. The Yankees and Red Sox play six times over the final two weekends in September. Bush and Kerry will meet three times, at most, in October. Odds are the two candidates won't engage in a bench-clearing brawl, as did the two baseball teams on the afternoon before Kerry visited Fenway Park. Then again, the presidential stakes aren't as high.
Just ask any Red Sox fan. They belong to a party that's been out of power since 1918.
Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he follows California and national politics.