When Stewart O'Nan and Stephen King embarked on Faithful, their windy chronicle of the Boston Red Sox's 2004 season, they took an impossible gamble: Had the Sox not gone on to win its first World Series since 1918, the book would have ended in anticlimax, as the team collapsed in traditionally excruciating fashion. Unlike other single-season classics such as David Halberstam's The Breaks Of The Game or John Feinstein's A Season On The Brink, Faithful isn't the exclusive inside story of an average yearit's the enthusiastic play-by-play of two diehard fans who have no greater access than anyone else. Halberstam and Feinstein didn't need the Portland Trail Blazers or the Indiana Hoosiers, respectively, to have stellar seasons on the courtall the better if they didn'tbut had the Sox tanked, O'Nan and King's book would landed straight in the cutout bin, where it belongs. To say they lucked out is a massive understatement.
Loosely conceived as a casual back-and-forth between friends, with single-game analyses punctuated by emailed quips, Faithful opens at the start of an unusually promising season. Coming off a particularly heartbreaking 2003 post-season (the Sox folded to the dreaded New York Yankees while five outs away from glory in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series), Red Sox Nation had reason for guarded optimism. The big bats of '03 were coming back, and the pitching staff was bolstered by two major off-season acquisitions: Curt Schilling, a seasoned fireballer from the World Champion Arizona Diamondbacks, and Keith Foulke, the true closer the team had needed so desperately the year before. The year starts promisingly with lots of wins and two dominant series against the Yanks, but during the dregs of June and July, O'Nan and King play armchair analysts, second-guessing new skipper Terry Francona while shaking their fists at the doomsayers in the Boston press. After a red-hot August allows the Sox to cruise into the post-season and notch a division-series victory over the feisty Anaheim Angels, the cursed crew begins its annual collapse against the Yankees, falling behind in a 0-3 hole from which no baseball team had ever recovered in a seven-game series.
What follows, of course, are two of the most gripping and memorable games in recent sporting history, but given this serendipitous scenario, O'Nan and King can't quite seize the moment. Faithful might have worked better as an Internet book-in-progress, where readers could follow the authors' ongoing and often lively dialogue before the entries' shelf-life expired. Without any lasting insights into baseball history or the operatic miseries of being a Red Sox fan, Faithful is yesterday's news. Reading it is like scanning through a stack of Boston Globe sports sections circa April to October, except with overlapping accounts of meaningless mid-season games added in. Those who still wish for postmortems over the Nomar Garciaparra trade, or Jason Varitek's pivotal scrap with Pay-Rod, have at it.