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Field of broken dreams

An 11-year-old fan leans that baseball is the only game that teaches you how to deal with losing because nobody wins every day. By Mike Barnicle.
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There was a boy, nearly 11, standing in the aisle of the ballpark on a big, loud New York night when it seemed as if the greatest theater in the world was being performed on a stage called Yankee Stadium. The boy wore a bright red coat emblazoned with the words “Red Sox.” He had a green hat with a red “B” and a face that made it appear as if he had recently arrived from Galway to join the family plumbing business. I watched as he stood wild with excitement in Thursday’s seventh game, cheering nearly every pitch tossed by the matador on the mound, Pedro Martinez.

He did this, the boy did, right in the belly of the beast, surrounded by other fans who bled pinstripes as their club fell behind 4-0.

The best part about watching the kid was how he stood his ground, never wavering under the semi-good-natured verbal assault from the Yankee faithful. When Jason Giambi hammered a Martinez fastball into the seats, the lead cut to three, but the boy never lost faith. He was oblivious to the fact that he was deep inside enemy territory.

In the bottom of the eighth, his guy, Martinez, returned to the mound to take on the heart of the Yankee batting order. Seasoned baseball fans scratched their heads and wondered why the Sox manager was allowing his tired ace to stay in the game. None of those doubts had an impact on the kid.

When it began, after Derek Jeter’s one-out double, I glanced around the horseshoe behind home plate, looking for perspective, for comfort ... for what, I don’t know.

In baseball, resilience and patience matter. This year’s Red Sox had proven an amazingly resilient bunch. Now it seemed that their manager, Grady Little, was being too patient with the mercurial diva on the mound.

As I watched the boy’s face tighten with prayer and fading hope, I thought about how long the season is and that to get here - to the clamor of Yankee Stadium on a clear October night with so much at stake - a team, even an 11-year-old fan, had to be strong, had to endure ups and downs, had to learn that baseball is the only game that teaches you how to deal with losing because nobody wins every day. At anything.

I looked alongside the Sox dugout and saw their CEO, Larry Lucchino, who has battled cancer twice and both times bested a truly tough opponent, sitting there, probably saying the same prayers as the boy. Joe Torre was across the way, another cancer survivor. He is a good man who, all by himself, makes it hard to hate the Yankees. Between them, behind the plate, I saw Sandy Alderson, who helps run Major League Baseball. He’s an Ivy League guy who took his diploma and went right into the Marines and to Vietnam. I figured these three, and many more in the ballpark, had experienced worse than coming up short in a ballgame.

Now, the score was tied, 5-5. Tears big as baseballs streamed down the kid’s cheek. Instead of standing, cheering, smiling at the taunting fans around him, he slumped in his seat, head in his hands, hat pulled down.

The Stadium got louder, the language more vile, the energy more combustible.

The Sox went down in order in the top of the ninth. The greatest reliever in the history of the game, Mariano Rivera, was on the hill for the Yankees, throwing strikes. Then, the Yankees followed suit in the bottom of the ninth. Three up. Three down.

The 10th arrived with the score still tied. The place was nearly out of control. Midnight loomed. A half-moon hung in the Bronx sky, just above the third deck in left field.

The Sox got a runner on with two out but stranded him when Kevin Millar, the first baseman, popped up to Jeter. The clock struck 12.

Part of the magic of baseball is that every inning offers the chance of redemption. Striking out in the first does not mean a player is done for the day. The game lingers. There is no clock, though urgency is thick in the air.

Now, Aaron Boone, a late summer addition to the Yankee roster, stood at the plate. Tim Wakefield, a knuckleballer who had baffled the Bombers earlier in the series, wound and threw, the ball fluttering toward home. Boone swung, the ball arched toward left, fell into the stands and brought another premature winter to New England.

The 11-year-old fell into his seat. His shoulders heaved, but his sorrow was largely lost in the cauldron of a stadium where too many regard victory as inevitable.

His team had come up short. I grabbed him and hugged him as those around us jumped and screamed, delirious at the outcome of the incredible game we’d witnessed. I wrapped the boy in my arms because he is my son and I love him dearly yet know that I have given him a gift that might never be delivered: A generational affection for a team that might never come home with a title.

Mike Barnicle’s column is reprinted with permission of the New York Daily News.