Thursday, August 10, 2006


Since being an outsider breeds resentment, you can imagine the pique simmering in me from a dozen-plus years living in, ahem, Red Sox Nation and its overlapping districts of Patriotstown, Celticsville and Bruinsburg. Oh, and Revolutionboro. (A mighty small place, Revolutionboro.)

I was nervous the first time crossing the border into the nation; nearly everyone else on the T had prepared by dressing in native garb — a dizzying array of jerseys, jackets, T-shirts, caps and so on labeled “B” for “Red Sox.” I knew that when we got to the station we’d have to queue up and pass inspection, and I wasn’t wearing a single article of clothing advertising my allegiance to a local sports team. My jitters were soothed, though, by an official announcement that, upon arrival, “Those who are not wearing Red Sox-branded clothing shall be issued Red Sox-branded clothing.”

Well, no. This is just in the imagination of someone utterly disinterested in the fortunes of Ye Olde Towne Teame, or whatever cutesy, nonsense nickname sportswriters use when they tire of writing “Red Sox.” Neither the hordes of drunken fans that clog the T nor the horrendous traffic that clogs the streets at game time cause me anywhere near as much irritation as the simple ubiquity of Red Sox clothing. It warrants the same bitter, resigned stare from me as the Abercrombie & Fitch folk get, a look I can put into words as: “Could you try just a little harder?” Sox apparel is the equivalent of the pro-family, anticrime politician, or the people who controversially assert themselves as being in favor of fun and liking stuff. But good stuff. Not bad stuff. This is branding of the most obligatory nature, a national ID card, and the sense of oppression suggested by that is no accident.

I wish I got it. It would make my life much easier, I suspect, if I could be one of the Sox crowd. Throw on the jersey, put on the cap, take out a bank loan, head to Fenway. And talk endlessly and knowledgeably about the game, the players, the trades, our chances, that Theo, those darn Yankees. Argh, those Yankees. They suck! They’re kind of like Hitler, aren’t they? Yes, especially when they buy up all our players with their damned Yankee money — they have too much of it, it’s disgusting — and confuse us by making sure the people we loved as one of us last season we vilify this season as turncoats.

I don’t get any of this, unfortunately.

The team’s success, or individual players’ genius on the field, reflects little upon Boston and not at all upon the individual fans who get so worked up contemplating one, the other or their opposite.

There are metaphorical aspects of the team to consider, I acknowledge, romantically casting us and the city as scrappy, lovable losers: the players are underdogs struggling against a curse, a storyline that had to be rewritten when the Sox actually won the World Series, and had to be revised again, in a Pynchonesque petering out of plot and structure, when it again lost; the team is also an embodiment of a city struggling to maintain its pride against a behemoth quietly buying up and shutting down its soul. As much as this should resonate, it’s hard to stay serious about it when the players earn millions a year and inevitably turn free agent, only for the narrative to be repeated the next year with different players.

Now, if we invest emotion in the players as our surrogates on the field and against New York, we also have to admit that pretty soon all these guys will be off to a bigger paycheck elsewhere. And that just leads us to admit that Boston is a city of transients, an endless line of passers-through in a queue that just happens to lead past a souvenir shop full of Red Sox paraphernalia. While we’re waiting to leave, we’ve nothing better to do than shop. Beats talking to the guy in front of us, but it’s not a very romantic image.

When Red Sox players really were Bostonians — born here, living here, with family here — our tribalism made some sense, as we could argue or imagine that the players were us and, if we were good and fate smiled upon us, vice versa. The skills of the players were worth celebrating because they suggested native talent, or at least the pluckiness that kept us competing through several decades of accursedness. There was an emotional connection.

With the revolving door of players, fandom has become a very different game: one of calculation, of dollars and cents, of whether management bought and sold the right players. In terms of dramatic narrative, it should be about as fun as hunting through the stocks tables in the Journal to see how much money other people made that day. Somehow, the Red Sox and other sports teams at its level have figured out how to make people respond emotionally to this, and even pay for the privilege.

Inevitably, I’m led to a final metaphor: of mass slavish, unthinking devotion to a government that does absolutely nothing for its citizens but offer endless war, glimpses of other people’s wealth and bright, ubiquitous flags to wave. But that sounds depressingly like the United States, and we don’t live in the United States. We live in Red Sox Nation.


Anonymous said...

You mean Kenmore Square, the BU Bookstore or Fenway?




Anonymous said...

You sure know a significant amount about the Sox. The research must have been painful for you, given your disdain for the masses.

Anonymous said...

Any association one makes with any group is slavish. Gender, ethnicity, race, religion, and especially nationalism are all artficial, cultural constructions. Red Sox nation does comply with contemporary definitions of a nation: a governing structure that claims geographic boundaries, which are recognized by a greater authority. We can single out sports fans as the example that illustrates the ignorance of an uncritical acceptance of group identity; however, we should be suspicious of other group identities that wield greater political power.

Yes, the RS nation is complacently buying RS gear, but outsiders buy their gear, too, to signify his/her Otherness. In Davis Sq the uniforms are cargo shorts [all year] and blank t-shirts [or trendy indie bands on the front]. At a Wilco show, the other crowd wear their stuff too. They go to see music not ballgames.

Scape7 said...

I'm typing this straight into notes, and I'm a bit rushed, so forgive the scattered nature of the thoughts and the inevitable typos.

Granted: Gather like-minded people in a small place and you will see a commonality in how they dress. Nothing wrong there.

But there's a critical mass issue here, just as there's been in various postings over the months, including our our overuse of the American flag and Christians whining about how they feel their religion is assailed when really Christians are the dramatic majority in the United States and the religion frequently dominates our culture. The phenomenon of the Red Sox garb is also similar to conservatives acting like rebellious outsiders hoping to save America from those Washington politicians, or bashing the "liberal media."

In short, it's a whole different thing to assert an identity when that identity is the dominant culture. It's one thing to wear a Wilco T-shirt when most people in this country hasn't heard a Wilco song and don't even know who the band is. It's a similar thing to wear a Red Sox T-shirt or cap in, say, Bangkok or even, I guess, Philadelphia.

But in Boston? A little tedious. A little oppressive.

It's also interesting to compare a band, ostensibly a creator of music you like to listen to, with a ball club, a commercial enterprise that plays a sport you happen to enjoy watching. The complexity of the latter — with its many players, all with different stats and factors affecting play, and management issues — suggests that absorbance in it is more like the fascination of the Dungeons & Dragons player than it is like the attentions of a music fan. The music fan can say "The music of Wilco speak to me, and I enjoy the sound as well as the message"; sports fandom seems a lot more complex, given the constantly shifting array of issues surrounding the worship of any particular team.

Just an observation.

I guess that's all I have time for now.

Anonymous said...

I hear that City Sports is selling mid-thigh Red Sox swim trunks at 50% off.

Anonymous said...

The parallel between RS nation and the religious right [now, and overused term] is not "similar." RS nation does not lobby for the political and social well being of non-believers.
Christians are evangelical by definition. RS nation are not trying to save American baseball even.

Your point about cultural dominance, actually, aids my argument. Context and scale determine dominance. I still say that wearing a Wilco t-shirt to a Wilco concert is like wearing the B hat to Fenway. Individuals want to feel a part of a group. That is the structure of it. You point is about the value of the group one chooses to display [publicaly] his/her affiliation. That value seems to derive from the cultural exclusion of the dominant group: the more opposite, the greater value.

My point, perhaps now, is that one's reliance on group identity, and hence, comfort should be suspicious--I don't care if it's Wilco or RS. I think REM fans sound just as foolish as RS fans when they say, "I don't like them now that they are played on the radio."