The Olde Towne Team

For sports fans, it's more than just a game.

Almost every summer, seven of us load into my wife's minivan and make the trip from Oregon to Seattle when the Boston Red Sox play the Seattle Mariners. I grew up in Massachusetts, and our regular crew includes my thirty-five-year-old son, Corey; my longtime New England–born friends Bruce and Kevin; Kevin's son, Mark; native Oregonian Steve, who married a Massachusetts-born woman and lived in Vermont for a spell; and his son Denton. Sometimes, something comes up and somebody can't make the trip, so we find someone to fill the spot: maybe a grandson being initiated into our realm or maybe a generic (that is, non–Red Sox) baseball fan. The former is always a delight; the latter, though we are all easygoing and open people in most aspects of our lives, doesn't work so well.

We have minor rituals. I make a playlist that always begins with the Dropkick Murphys' punked-up Irish pub version of “For Boston.” We sorta sing along. We talk baseball and, especially, Red Sox: how the season's going, prospects for the games we're about to see, memories of great moments in the past. We park at the same free spot, a funky lot next to a closed trucking company, and walk the dozen or so blocks to the Mariner's Safeco Field, with our hats or sweatshirts or jackets clearly showing where our loyalties lie. There are lots of others in similar garb. Our kin.

In a 2005 Gallup poll, 63 percent of Americans admitted to being sports fans. To put that in some context, a 2008 survey conducted for the National Endowment for the Arts revealed that 54.3 percent of Americans admitted to having read a book for pleasure in the previous year. I had great experiences with both sports and books as a kid. My father and I bonded, mostly, over sports. With my mother and me, it was more about books. I can't imagine my life without either pastime. But obviously, lots of people can. Reading books is work, or at least it seems that way to people who think of books only in connection to school assignments. Being a sports fan, at its simplest level, is a passive experience. You affiliate yourself with the exploits of others. Lots of sports fans think book readers are dull. Many book lovers think sports fans are silly.

There are things about being a sports fan generally and a passionate follower of one team in particular that are silly. These are games, after all, that we are getting so excited about—games involving grown men (mostly) being paid lots of money to throw or hit or kick balls, to run around and get dirty in pursuit of victories that ultimately mean nothing. But how is that so different from art, where grown-ups play with ideas or instruments or materials to create things that most humans can—and many do—live just fine without? The rules and the tools are different, and the scores and the standings are the subjective judgments of critics and audiences and not the hard objective truth of a final score. And in the distinct worlds of art or sports, you affiliate with different sorts of people: silly or dull, fun or thoughtful, engaged or wise. I live in both worlds, so appreciate the absurdity and joy of each and find myself, depending on what I happen to be doing at any given time, mocking or glorifying one or the other—and sometimes both.

Like books or art or politics, I think, sports either get into your blood or they don't. Who knows exactly why? You play games in neighborhood backyards. Your dad takes you to some live competition. You start looking forward to the Saturday afternoon games on TV. You find something in the newspaper that you really care about (baseball, with its storytelling box scores and illuminating statistics, was made for newspapers). You get to know the players, the announcers, the rituals. You have something to talk about with your friends and grown-up relatives and strangers, too, and you can know as much about it as them—or more. And at some point, it starts to matter what happens to your team, and you feel a kinship with those to whom it also matters.

Baseball was the national pastime when I was growing up, but it isn't anymore. A game consisting of long stretches of anticipation building toward rare but frequently stunning payoffs, with no clocks or time limits, it doesn't fit well into the fully calendared twenty-first century. But that's okay, because I'm not sure I do, either. A 2006 poll put the number of Americans who list baseball as their favorite sport to watch at only 11 percent. But I don't fault those who shun it for football's play-by-play war for territory (43 percent) or the frantic activity of basketball (12 percent). I understand, I really do, why some people find baseball tedious. You need to grasp the game on some instinctual level to really get it. I am a big fan of college football and will watch and enjoy an occasional game of basketball or, even, a track meet, but I _love_ baseball. “Baseball is fathers and sons playing catch,” wrote the poet and essayist Donald Hall, “lazy and murderous, wild and controlled, the profound archaic song of birth, growing, age, and death. The diamond encloses what we are.” I don't doubt that others have comparable connections to other sports, but baseball got deep into my blood—and the Red Sox were the home team.

“Sox fans are a special breed,” wrote '70s-era left-handed pitcher Bill Lee, who was such a perfect Red Sox that he says he would have gone to Japan to play ball if a rumored trade that would have sent him to the Yankees had gone through: “Having grown up hating their cold, corporate image and their strutting glorification of elitism, there was no way I would have put on the pinstripes.” Amen, brother.

Red Sox baseball was a shining clear spot in an often chaotic and confusing childhood for me. I went to my first game at Fenway Park when I was seven years old, and by the time I was ten, I was going to twenty or twenty-five games a year with my dad or the Standard-Times paperboys or my Little League team. There was no place I'd rather be in those years than in Fenway when the Red Sox took to the holy green field, feeling that extraordinary bond with the instant neighborhood of fans around me. There are few places I'd rather be now, in fact, though I don't get there often. Red Sox fans raised hell a few years back when some new owners started seriously planning to build a new stadium (I had a “Save Fenway Park” bumper sticker on my car for years). It didn't happen. Our connection to Fenway goes far beyond the seemingly simple game played there.

I feel that connection whenever I see that elegant Red Sox “B,” which, with its supple serifs and symmetrical swirls, evokes a sudden solidarity. Though the team's recent success and the proliferation of sports brands as fashion have diluted its effect ever so slightly, I still feel camaraderie with anyone wearing that “B.” They are my brothers and sisters, inhabitants of a place we carry with us, living in a transcendent time in which we share a common story of defeat and triumph, gossip and heroes, and deep connections to the everyman players that everybody else has forgotten. Don Buddin. Ike Delock. Joe Foy.

People who study the psychology of sports fans have figured out that most fans refer to the team in the first-person plural (we, us) when they win and the third-person plural when they lose (_they, them_). For Red Sox fans like me, it's always we. And we share a common and perfect enemy. The Yankees. Rivalries spice up sports (one way, perhaps, that sports differ from the arts). Rivalries give us a well-defined _other_ that helps remind us of exactly who we are. And there is no spicier rivalry than the Red Sox vs. the Yankees, and this was true long before ESPN and 24-hour sports talk radio made a cliché of it. Hating the Yankees has always been a core value among Red Sox fans. While the Red Sox of my childhood struggled to win more games than they lost and finish in the upper half of the eight-team American League, the Yankees were piling on championships and keeping their well-heeled spikes to the throats of every other team. On July 13, 1959, I was at Fenway with my dad when the Red Sox beat the Yankees 13–3, their fifth straight win over five days against the defending world champions. The Red Sox were still in seventh place, but we couldn't have been more joyful. After the game, I joined a throng around the Yankees' bus to taunt and jeer them, a rare opportunity to gloat. Somehow I was right by the door when the Yankees' legendary manager Casey Stengel approached, so I asked him for an autograph. He pushed me aside. “Look out, kid,” he said, words I cherish to this day. I was congratulated by the other fans around me as if I'd just hit the game-winning homer.

But, as it is with most sports teams and, well, life for that matter, the days of glory are well hidden in Red Sox history amid the seasons of frustration. In his fine book The Summer of '49, David Halberstam wrote the following of Bart Giammatti, a renowned professor of comparative literature who went on to be president of Yale University and, later, commissioner of baseball: “He never lost his love for the Boston Red Sox. It was as a Red Sox fan, he later realized, that he first learned that man is fallen, and that life is filled with disappointment. The path to comprehending Calvinism in modern America, he decided, begins at Fenway Park.”

As the title of Halberstam's book demonstrates, you just need to name a year to evoke pain from a Red Sox fan. In 1949, the Red Sox lost the American League pennant on the last day of the season to the Yankees. Then 1946, 1967, 1975: they lost World Series in seven games after unimaginable heroics to get to that point. In 1978, they lost a fourteen-and-a-half-game lead over the Yankees but came back to force a one-game playoff for the pennant that the Red Sox lost after leading 2–0 into the seventh inning. The Yankee comeback was started by a home run by a light-hitting mediocre shortstop, who will forever be known to the Red Sox breed as Bucky Fucking Dent.

The year 1986 is synonymous with agony for us. One strike away from our first World Series championship in the lifetimes of more than four generations of fans, the team blew a two-run lead in the tenth inning when a seemingly routine ground ball went through the legs of first baseman Billy Buckner. Mets win. Sox lose. The gods must hate us.

Red Sox fans “keep waiting for the other shoe to drop,” Bill Lee wrote, “knowing that it usually lands on their heads. … They realize death is lurking in the background of every celebration. It can't be avoided.”

But in that shared sense of foreboding, that hard-earned knowledge that glory is fleeting, loyalty and faith endure. Sox fans share a bond that sports fans who root only for the score will never know. Cubs fans know what I'm talking about, too. Their loyalty is undeniable, but they've had precious little glory to watch fade in recent memory. Few others have experienced the peaks and valleys that Red Sox fans have known.

Of course, it all changed in 2004, when the Red Sox won their first World Series championship in eighty-six years. And they did so in perfect redemptive fashion, coming back in the American League championship series against the Yankees, after being down 3–0 in games and trailing by a run in the ninth inning of game four with auto-robot closer Mariano Rivera on the mound. It was impossible, and therefore, like so many of their defeats over the years, bordering on the miraculous. Then a sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals, who had twice beaten the Sox in a previous seven-game World Series. “Can you believe it?” shouted Red Sox announcer Joe Castiglione as the final out was made.

No. But my phone wouldn't stop ringing: the callers were fellow Sox fans, mostly repeating Castiglione's exclamatory question, and people from throughout my life for whom my being a Red Sox fan is among my most prominent attributes. One was a university professor of women's studies, a serious woman who lived up the street and must have noticed my Red Sox bumper sticker. “Are you, like, freaking out?” she asked me. Yes.

On our trips to Seattle in recent years, we usually sit in the left-field bleachers. Red Sox fans are all over the place, in big clumps or small islands among the Mariner fans. We nod and smile at each other, that special kind of smile that strangers use when they know they are in on something together. We might not like each other if we talked politics or music or how we raise our kids, but here we share camaraderie and stories with those nearest us: where we're from now, where our Sox connection comes from. And at some key point in the game, one person will start; it might even be one of us: “Let's go Red Sox,” clap, clap, clapclapclap. Then the seven of us are shouting together, sitting upright, our hands cupped to our mouths: “Let's go Red Sox,” clap, clap, clapclapclap. Then the others around us join in, and I hear New England accents, and Northwest non-accents, and little kids maybe at their first Red Sox game ever, looking up to their mother or father wide-eyed and grinning, their little voices strong, their hands meeting in perfect synchronicity: “Let's go Red Sox,” clap, clap, clapclapclap. Then people in the next section—and soon, all around the stadium, Red Sox fans are clapping and chanting, “Let's go Red Sox.” It goes on.

For the two days we take for our pilgrimage to Seattle, we want to immerse ourselves in that world, to be fully and wholly Red Sox fans, to be with our own kind, which is why it always ends up feeling a little awkward when a non–Red Sox fan, no matter how good a friend, joins us. True-believer fans of any team, I think, would know exactly what I am talking about. Sports are entertainment, but like literature, like music, like so many seemingly unessential endeavors we humans have created, they become something more than a simple diversion when they link people together in a constellation of places and stories and rituals to those who came before and those who will follow.

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