As the winter snows give way to the unrelenting muds of March, the small dividing strip of land along Commonwealth Avenue in Newton, Massachusetts between Center Street and Hammond Road — a strip that runners know better as Heartbreak Hill along the Boston Marathon route — becomes rutted by the innumerable footfalls that pound its surface every day. For the area runners who work this hallowed ground through the long, bitter months of winter it is the pull of generations past which draws them through till Marathon day in mid-April.
This is also why there had always been a close connection between the beginning of baseball season and the arrival of the Boston Marathon, for both are harbingers of hope, the promise of better, warmer days ahead. Yet the Marathon, like the long baseball season, while holding hope, never actually promises it. Would a people who sprung from a Pilgrim’s harsh heritage have it any other way?
Born of myth, the marathon is rooted in failure, even demise. Its language alludes to that curtain which will befall each of us one day. “Man, I really died today,” is how a runner describes a poor performance. So, too, in baseball was failure built into the system; hit safely just three out of ten times, and you are an honored player. It is this element of suffering to attain, overcoming to transcend which extends these sports from their 19th century beginnings into today’s nano-second world of instant gratification.
And it is also in that sense of suffering to attain that the long-tormented Chicago Cubs baseball fans can relate to what New Englanders had long gone through with their beloved Red Sox. Yet even the Cubs’ multi-generational streak of futility and frustration can’t compare to the 87 accursed years that Boston Red Sox fans endured the “Curse of the Bambino”.
Before winning the 2004 World Series in an improbable, incalculable, historic, tear-stained four games sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals — and before them a four-game comeback against the hated New York Yankees for the American League pennant after the Sox had been down three games to zero — to love the men of Fenway you had to love the bitter New England winters and the gray, forlorn specter they represented. You had to be one who sought the company of misery with arms flung wide, ready to embrace discomfort even as you awaited another arctic blast of disappointment to freeze your heart and beggar your hopes. This sense of hope denied meshed nicely with the marathon, whose grueling distance more often than not took the measure of you rather than you of it.
But while the marathon and Boston are linked by their April starts, with the Sox traditionally playing a home game at Fenway Park just two blocks south of the race course each Patriot’s Day to coincide with the Marathon’s passing, in Chicago their marathon is staged in October when the Cubs are no longer playing, their hopes long before sundered for another year. Yes, the Cubbies have built a longer winless streak than the Red Sox, a streak that lives to this day, but the Cubs never really came close to winning. The Red Sox, on the other hand, didn’t just lose, they did so on a tragic, Shakespearean level – think Bill Buckner ‘s between the wickets error in 1986 versus the Mets just one out away from the World Series crown, or Bucky “F’g” Dent’s home run in 1978 in the American League one-game tie-breaker against the Yankees. Only the Bartman Episode during the NL playoffs against the Florida Marlins in 2003 comes close in Cubs’ lore.
Last year a 69-93 record earned the Red Sox last place in the American League East. This year they are again being touted to finish last despite having replaced the unpopular Bobby Valentine as manager with John Farrell. The Cub were even worst in 2012 at 61-101 (fifth in NL Central), and have not restocked its supply lines with nearly enough talent to warrant a pennant run this year. Or so it would seem.
Notwithstanding, as spring training once again fires up hopes of a potential run to glory many months in the future, so, too does the whisper of promise beckon the legion of marathoners who lace up and stride out through the harsh final month of training with eyes set wide on their Patriot’s Day journey in six weeks’ time. Somewhere the ghosts of John Carver, William Bradford, Myles Standish and their small band of Pilgrim followers, half of whom died during their first winter in New England, would be proud of each and all, no matter the outcome.