The rain was light but steady Wednesday night, feeling just a bit colder on Yankees fans than on everyone else. The clouds would clear in a few days, no doubt, but what rolled in that evening is sure to last a lot longer.
For the Yankee faithful – the passionate, the knowledgeable and, yes, the spoiled – the evening began in a world in which two things remained constant: the Yankees win, and, by no coincidence, the Red Sox lose. It was true for your grandfather in the summer of ’49, it was true for your parents in the pennant race of ’78, and it became ever so palpable to you as you watched Aaron Boone – Aaron Boone – hit that home run one long year ago.
Sure, the Yankees had lost plenty, be it the hard way in 2001 or the uneventful way through the 1980s. And the Red Sox had won their share of games – not the ones that counted, but enough to make a Brewers fan incredulous at Boston’s self-pity.
But as Wednesday turned to Thursday, the world changed for Yankee fans – and for Red Sox fans, for that matter. It wasn’t just that a game had been played, with their team losing and another team winning. No, this was different. The greatest team in the history of modern sport had suffered the worst collapse in that same history.
The Yankees didn’t just lose. They were losers. And the Red Sox, damn them, they were winners.
That’s the reality that Yankees fans went home to Wednesday night. It was cold, it was dark, and it was frighteningly unfamiliar.
The Red Sox may well go on to lose in the World Series, or they may win. But as absurd as this sounds, it doesn’t really matter. A World Series title would end a winless spell, but the curse, in some ways, ended Wednesday.
Even if Boston loses next week, they still beat the Yankees. They beat the Yankees. Not in the regular season, but when it counted, against all odds, on a patch of grass and dirt surrounded by the very monuments and ghosts that have haunted them for as long as their fans can recall.
This is the world that baseball fans in the northeastern United States live in. There is Yankees-Red Sox, and there is everything else. Your ultimate goal is still to be better than everybody else, too, but nothing – not one or two or 26 world titles – leads to quite as intense jubilation or depression than how your team fares against its nearby rival.
But it is a different world now for Yankees fans, who for so long have had their domination over the Red Sox as a source of pride. The Yankees would lose from time to time, but at least they retained that seemingly untouchable supremacy over Boston. And the Red Sox would threaten, even make it to the World Series, but their inferiority remained.
Serves you right, many would say, spoiled fans, to know what it feels like for once. But what happened Wednesday night was not just a onetime experience for Yankees fans. It was the end of something unique, something incredibly satisfying, an experience that fans whose hats do not say “N.Y.” or “B” cannot fully understand.
And even more devastating, it marked the beginning of something new. Perhaps this is what the game of baseball will be like for the Yankees now, a game in which Derek Jeter fails to lead, Mariano Rivera no longer mystifies and Joe Torre no longer has all the answers. Or worse, a game in which Boston is just too tough to beat. One can only hope, if that is the case, that Kevin Brown – that vile and incompetent henchman – won’t be there.
This is not to say that the Bombers will suddenly become the Tampa Bay Devil Rays North. George Steinbrenner will probably still pay, berate and fire people. In fact, he’ll probably do all three at a more furious pace than ever. The Yankees will remain the preeminent franchise in sports, giving their fans more reason to feel good than many teams ever will.
But the feeling of superiority over your most hated rival will never be the same again. And what’s more, that illogical confidence that your team would always find ways to win those big games – in short, their mojo – may be seriously eroded.
Because when you’re a Yankees fan, you don’t just root for them – you believe in them, the way you believe in Superman or Santa Claus. Down by a few runs late in the game? Don’t worry about it. Playing against a far more talented opponent? The ghosts will take care of them. In a tight pennant race with the Red Sox? Please.
But when Ruben Sierra grounded out to end the game Wednesday, Superman had discovered kryptonite. And that Santa Claus you met at the mall, he was just a fat guy in a red suit, kid. Christmas will come again, no doubt, but there will be no reindeer on the roof. Just your parents (or in this case, George Steinbrenner) going shopping.
And so begins a long, cold, bitter winter for the Yankee faithful, tortured by the loss of something magnificent and unsure about what they’re left with. There is no way of knowing what will happen, or how the devastation will go away, except to find hope.
Hope that what ended Wednesday night isn’t really over. Hope that you’ll come to know the Yankees of old again, that you’ll have reason for that cocky pride again. And in the spring – when the rain subsides, the clouds clear and the sun comes out – hope that the curse, if only the feeling of it, will one day be real again.