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You would have needed more spin doctors than there are in Bill Clinton's staff to pluck optimism from the bitter New England spring of 1996.
The Celtics had suffered another mediocre season, missing the playoffs for the second time in three years. The Bruins had fallen to eventual Stanley Cup runner-up Florida in the first round of the playoffs. And the Red Sox, division champions in '95, went an abysmal 3-15 to inaugurate the '96 season.
The last page of the winter season had been irrevocably written into the books when my high school, Malden Catholic, lost a heartbreaker to the boys down the street, Cambridge Rindge & Latin, in the semifinals of the Massachusetts state basketball tournament. I needed an aphrodisiac to the spring of discontent, and I needed it fast.
Fittingly, I found it in the biggest failure of that year.
Ordinarily, I don't follow golf, but the bittersweet saga of Greg Norman and the 1996 Masters remains a compelling story to this day.
Norman will not be remembered for tying a course record with a 63 on the first day of the tournament. No, history will instead recall him as the man who squandered the biggest final-round lead in Masters history, barely finishing second (five shots) to eventual winner Nick Faldo.
As a Red Sox fan, I have familiarized myself with shocking collapses. I wasn't even born when Bucky Dent hit a cheap three-run homer to win the '78 playoff game, and I didn't watch Game Six of the '86 Series, but anyone who follows the Sox will note the lingering trauma these events have inflicted on New England.
So, after falling asleep to miss Albert Belle going yard against Rick Aguilera in '95 and finally catching my first real disillusionment as a Sox fan--Dave Justice doubling off Tom Gordon to put the Indians ahead in Game Four of this year's Division Series--my stance on sports has shifted somewhat. For me, the issue is not why our teams and athletes lose, but why they keep coming back.
Winning seems so easy to some. How the Yankees ever won 125 games last year, I'll never know and always want to. Faldo, Norman's nemesis in '96, is also a proven winner, having also garnered the green jacket in 1989 and 1990.
For others, though, capturing just one moment of glory is a challenge. Imagine the feeling Jake Plummer and the Cardinals must have had when they knocked off America's Team in the playoffs. The sweat of previous defeats makes eventual success that much sweeter.
This year, when I read that Norman had taken the lead in the Masters, I rejoiced: might he actually win? Instead, Norman suffered another cruel disappointment, finishing third to Jose Maria Olazabal (a deserving winner).
I was surprised that Norman had come back to the Masters, still more surprised that he had played so well in defeat. But I think that this is a testament to one of the best aspects of sports: its quiet exhortation for us to challenge ourselves.
Norman could have quit after his disastrous outing in '96, and who would have blamed him? The Red Sox could have folded--literally--after their various failures, and I'm sure few would have blamed them. But they press on, determined to write that happy ending that, so far, history has denied them. (Of course, I'm sure there's also the matter of a few bucks to be earned in the bargain.)
This quest to redeem oneself salvages success for both the Shark and the Sox. The tome of sports is long and contains many disappointing plot twists, but I'm glad there's something to read on the next page.
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