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.