Listen to this article
Over the next three days, the world will attempt to grasp what is going on in the minds of 200m American adults and presume to join in their political deliberations. To understand the US properly, it is also necessary for outsiders to grasp what has happened there this past week. In comparison, a mere change of presidency is as nothing.
On Wednesday in St Louis, the Boston Red Sox won the 100th baseball World Series, something they have not managed since the 15th, in 1918, when Germany was on the brink of capitulation and Woodrow Wilson was in the White House.
As a sporting competition, the Series was a miserable let-down. The Cardinals, on their record this year the best team in baseball, forgot how to play. Indeed, a random collection of cardinals from the Vatican might have retained a stronger grip on the game's elementary skills.
Their batting line-up went to pieces; their pitchers were outgunned; and in Game 3 on Tuesday they made an error so grotesque a team of seven-year-olds would be screamed at by even a good-natured coach. When he was batting, the Cardinals' pitcher, Jeff Suppan, had somehow got himself to third base, with a terrific chance to get the Cards back in the game and the series. Unfortunately, Suppan evidently misheard the instruction “Go!” (run to home plate) for “No!” and stopped in the middle of nowhere, gazing round like a lost lamb.
The Sox swept on and took the series 4-0 the following night. It was a defeat for an apparently well-organised, clean-cut, disciplined team, and victory for a wild group of eccentrically bearded individuals who looked as though they were on the way to an early 1970s nostalgia party. But the players were not really the focus of this victory. It is about a city and its people; a nation and its folklore. The point about the Suppan incident is that it is precisely the sort of thing associated with the Red Sox, who have spent the past 86 years finding imaginative new ways to lose the unlosable. This reached its apogee the last time the Sox reached the Series, in 1986, when with the title inches away their first baseman Bill Buckner let the ball through his legs. Buckner ranks in American history alongside Thomas E Dewey, who lost the 1948 election to Harry Truman in not wholly dissimilar circumstances.
The story derives its richness from the relationship between Boston and the New York Yankees, baseball's habitual winners. Ever since the day they sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees (and allegedly became cursed), the Sox have played the role of Tom, always thwarted by Jerry, or maybe Hamilton Burger, the hapless district attorney who at the moment of truth always lost his case to Perry Mason but with an added lovability factor.
New Englanders quietly revelled in this. It was part of their being. “The hero must go under at last,” a Harvard classicist explained in the Boston Globe after the 1978 catastrophe against the Yankees, “after prodigious deeds, to be remembered as immortal and to have poets sing his tale.”
But this year it all went right, or wrong. Having been 3-0 down to the Yankees in the best-of-seven series to determine the American League champions, the Sox did the entirely unprecedented, and won 4-3 before destroying the Cards. This does not happen. This cannot have happened.
That seems to be the reaction round Boston. The media managed to unearth loads of nonagenarians willing to proclaim that they could now die happy. There were also people who were terrified it will spoil everything. “Would I next year go to an internet cafe at 4am to listen to a Yankees-Red Sox game?” Samantha Power, another Harvard academic who spent much of this year in the Sudan, mused to the New York Times. “I don't think so.”
Maybe ordinary Bostonians will prove more robust than the professoriat. But something has been lost. Baseball has been given tremendous vigour by this long-running narrative. It has always been slightly mis-told. The Red Sox were never perennially hopeless, like the Chicago Cubs (“Anyone can have a bad century”); they just lost when it mattered most. Nor were they real underdogs: New England is a rich market, and their payroll is higher than anyone in baseball, except the Yankees.
So this weekend America will search for meaning and portents. Anything can happen, it will be presumed why, a Massachusetts liberal might be elected president. On the other hand, maybe America's enemies will suddenly be subdued it worked last time the Sox won the Series, after all and Bush will win in a landslide.
Or maybe it just means that in the last week of October 2004 a group of highly-paid mercenaries who happen to represent Boston played baseball a great deal better than a similar group who represent St Louis. But, hell, where's the fun in that?