A Baseball Counterfactual: How Will Red Sox Fans Remember the Tigers Series?

To all my Red Sox friends,

First, as a die-hard Phillies fan, I’d like to say “you’re welcome” for Shane Victorino.

His grand slam, which helped propel the Sox into the World Series, will surely be remembered for years to come.

Or will it?

Harvey Araton’s essay in yesterday’s New York Times raises an important issue about how future events can affect the relevance of counterfactuals.

Citing the example of David Ortiz’s Game 2 home run (and the iconic image of Torii Hunter flopping into the bullpen, his upturned legs mirroring the raised arms of Boston policeman Steve Horgan), Araton made the point that, for the moment to truly assume major significance and become enshrined in Red Sox memory, the team would have to win the series with the Tigers and move on into the next round of the playoffs.  (The print edition of Araton’s essay was published before the Sox actually won Game 6; the online version has since been updated).

Araton supported his case with several “what ifs?”

“Lasting greatness typically requires a continuum of events, a chain reaction. Had the Yankees followed up Derek Jeter’s classic flip play in 2001 by losing Games 4 or 5 to the Oakland A’s in that division series, his nailing of Jeremy Giambi at the plate would have been a nice addition to Captain Jeter’s video scrapbook, not much more."

"In the 1986 World Series, Bill Buckner could have laughed off Mookie Wilson’s Game 6-ending ground ball through the wickets had the Red Sox preserved an early lead and won Game 7 against the Mets. Instead, Buckner was consigned to infamy when Jesse Orosco closed out the Sox.”

Araton does not spend much time exploring the theoretical dimensions of his hypotheses, but he is clearly correct.

We assign significance to events based on their links to subsequent events.  And we do so on the fly, in real time, while events are in flux.  Looking back on Buckner’s gaffe, we can clearly see its relevance to the Series’ outcome more than two decades after the fact.  (Indeed, all baseball fans could see its relevance a week after the fact, once the Mets had won the Series).  The day after the misplay, however, all bets were off – until Game 7 had been decided.

When we are in the middle of events – that is, while their outcomes are still unknown – we cannot know for certain which “what ifs?” will end up being significant. 

The only counter-argument to Araton’s point may be Carlton Fisk's famous Game 6 home run against the Reds in the 1975 World Series, which retained its staying power in Red Sox lore despite the team ultimately losing the series. 

Perhaps it was a strange hybrid memory blending pride and masochism – a tantalizing glimpse of how close victory COULD have been for the long suffering Red Sox fan base (which had known no World Series victory between 1919 and 2003).  

Given the team’s recent success, is there a chance that Fisk’s heroics will be eclipsed over time by Ortiz’s and Victorino’s?

For now, it’s another provocative “what if” without an answer.

Don’t ask me – I’m a Phillies fan.