The International Writers Magazine: David Calleja steps inside Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox and discovers what baseball is about – the fans and America’s most intense sporting rivalry.
Let’s talk about Sox, baby
In the front office of Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox, Barney (not his real name) is standing in front of me. He is a large, oafish man in his early fifties who possesses a hearty laugh and friendly smile, not too dissimilar to the late John Candy’s lovable character Uncle Buck in the 1989 film of the same name.
I would learn that Barney’s first marriage ended in divorce after 15 years, one which he says interfered with his lifelong love, the Boston Red Sox.
“It’s hard to be married and not cheat by seeing a sweetheart who has stuck by me throughout all these years without asking for anything more than my company,” referring to his number one team. Being forced to choose between favourite team and domestic bliss presents an awkward dilemma for male sports lovers, and some habits are hard to break.
“My Dad arranged my marriage with the Red Sox. He took me to my first game when I was a kid. One of the first pieces of advice he gave to me was, ‘Be faithful to this lot no matter what you go through in life.’ Over the years, it has taken a lot out of me, but when you love something or someone so much, money becomes no object.”
I asked him what led to the end of his first marriage.
“That’s easy,” Barney said to me. “The 1986 World Series, Game 6.”
Raising my eyebrow, I let him elaborate further.
“When I got married the first time, my wife told me that she supported the New York Mets. I didn’t particularly like it, but for me it was the lesser of two evils because at least it was not the New York Yankees. However, when the ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs at first (base), which led to the Mets scoring the winning run, she changed. For her, the Mets winning was like a rite of passage to mock every single thing that I did. From that moment, our marriage started to fall apart.”
After the stock market crash of 1987 hit Wall Street, Barney lost thousands of dollars in investments, as well as his job. One of the first decisions he made was to sacrifice his baseball attendance for the sake of saving money, instead watching games on television. He missed the atmosphere and magic associated with being in the stands.
“Eventually, she confessed that she was not a Mets fan, but a New York Yankees fan. Considering everything else I had been through, hearing this was like having a final pile of horse manure being dumped on my head. I didn’t care about Game 6, about the name-calling, and even her admission about having a fling on the side when our marriage was on the rocks. But jeez, a Yankees fan going undercover just to get under my skin was too much. She said I was cursed with bad luck, like my baseball team. Eventually she decided that the only way she could fix everything was to leave. So we parted company.”
||Barney admitted that it upset him for a while and it put him off finding Miss Right. “I promised myself that I would only marry again when Boston won another World Series. Back in the 1990s, it was a safe bet that I would remain a bachelor forever.” Then in 2002, he went on a double date with a work colleague who fixed him up. “My first question to her was, ‘Are you a Boston Red Sox member or fan?’ When she said yes, I said, ‘prove it.’ She did, and we got married in 2005."
Unconditional love and passion are traits readily associated with the Boston Red Sox fans. They have even been the subject of a reality television dating show, Sox Appeal, where devotees step up to the plate for a chance to increase their average and find true love, like speed dating at the ball park. Boston’s global legion of fans, known as Red Sox Nation, extends to countries as diverse as Brazil, South Africa, Australia, Israel, China and Albania.
It is said that a true supporter sticks by their team through thick and thin, and in Boston’s case, for too many years, patience was more of a curse rather than a virtue; an 86-year old drought between World Series victories known as The Curse of the Bambino (second to the Chicago Cubs current winless streak of 102 years). The curse, allegedly placed on Boston following the decision of Red Sox owner Harry Frazee to sell Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. Following his debut in 1920, Ruth would be part of a line-up that won the World Series 4 times. In that same period, Boston won nothing. For decades thereafter, whenever Boston failed, the curse seemed to come to life. Exact details of the curse’s origins and legitimacy have been covered by a number of baseball analysts and are prevalent in popular culture, with Leigh Montville writing about it in his 2006 book The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth.
There is an attraction to supporting the underdog, whether in fiction or real life. Neutrals love an unfashionable winner; witness Rocky Balboa overcoming insurmountable odds to defeat Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, or the ‘Crazy Gang’ of Wimbledon, led by Vinnie Jones, beating the all-conquering Liverpool in the 1988 English F.A. Cup thanks to goalkeeper Dave Beasant saving a late penalty from John Aldridge. There is something addictive about the sweet taste of success, but to fully enjoy this euphoria, you need to be a loyal fan, and devotion is a quality in abundance amongst the Fenway Park faithful. This probably explains how I found myself in Boston, eager to view this piece of sporting legend, standing behind Barney in the queue.
Suddenly his mobile phone rang. In an attempt to take the phone out of his pocket, Barney dropped his membership renewal bill. It landed by his feet. I bent down and grabbed it as quickly as I could, hoping that it would reap rewards in the form of a free ticket.
“Excuse me, mate,” I said. “You dropped this.”
He nodded at me appreciatively without losing track of his phone conversation, looked at the bill and clutched it tightly in his spare hand along with his credit card.
After he terminated his call and put the phone back in his pocket, he turned around.
“Do I detect an accent?” he added.
I told him that I was from Australia, visiting the city for a few days.
“Well, I’ll be - a kangaroo shagger. Sorry to say, but you picked the wrong time to visit us here in Boston. The weather is lousy and it’s off-season. We also failed to beat Tampa Bay and get the pennant. In the last 12 months, we went from being World Series winners to nothing. I paid $31,000 a season to see the Red Sox lose the American League to a bunch of cow-bell ringers.”
‘Did he just say $31,000? That’s insane,’ I thought.
“Are your seats covered in gold?”
Barney gave me a hefty laugh. “Not quite. What brings you to Boston anyway? If you’re a Yankees supporter, this is the last place you should be.”
I explained to Barney with a child-like innocence that I had spent only a day in New York City and had to take the bus from there to get to Boston for a five-day visit. I also mentioned about seeing Washington D.C. He accepted my answer.
“What do you think of our nation’s capital? It’s an exciting place, right?”
“A bit bland,” I replied.
“A boring place for boring people – that’s Washington for you.”
“You mentioned something about a $31,000 membership bill,” I said.
“Oh yeah. I have 6 seats which I share amongst 15 friends during the season. Since my job involves travelling across the country, I find myself giving tickets away a few times during the season. Everybody chips in a few dollars for the membership, like a syndicate. I have three really good seats and three next to the Green Monster. You will learn about the Monster when you see the place.”
“How do you decide who gets tickets to the play-offs? Do you have a competition amongst your friends, like in Survivor?” I asked.
He laughed heartily. “I might start doing that, but usually it’s first come, first served. Of course, they don’t get them for free. Sometimes they do favours for me.”
“Re-tiling your roof?” I chimed in.
“Nope, usually stuff that is done throughout the year. Of course, big favours do help,” he said with a grin.
I immediately jotted down my first idea, ‘get Australian visa’. That should earn me some good seats.
When I mentioned The Curse of the Bambino, Barney laughed it off and told me what he said was a more accurate description of what the Red Sox meant to him.
“Before 2004, generations of families in Boston had become used to the Red Sox missing out on so many occasions. It got to the point where we did not want to make it to the World Series.”
Barney went into considerable detail about just how engrained baseball was in his family. Every October when he was young, he said, his father would call the family around the dinner table and tell everyone to get supplies and enact their survival strategy; that is, head for the basement.
“Dad would say for a joke, ‘The Red Sox are going for the pennant – let’s go down to the attic, and don’t come out until a week after Boston has been beaten.’”
Did he follow these same instructions in 2004, the year that the Red Sox famously broke their drought?
“No, I watched the whole thing with my missus, our kids and Dad. He's in his eighties now. We talked about the drill and nowadays it seems funny, but we used to get a lot of stick from New York Yankees fans and we honestly thought we were cursed forever. Then the day we beat St. Louis, it was unbelievable.”
Pausing for a moment, he went on. “For us, waking up the following day and reading that we had won the World Series, just did not seem real.” If the world had ended the following day, Barney said, he would have left the planet a happy man seeing the Red Sox win a World Series in his lifetime.
“There were parties in the streets. Families flocked to cemeteries and visited their grandparents’ tombstones and just spent time talking about what happened to their grandfathers or grandmas,” Barney said. “Sons and grandsons gave thanks to giving birth to them and re-lived the thrill of watching Boston winning the World Series. All I can remember saying is, ‘We did it, the curse is gone. I wish you were here to see it with me, Pops.’”
“What happened if Fenway Park had been closed down and relocated?” I asked.
“The owners tried a few years ago, but a petition went up to save Fenway Park. For us this is a sacred spot. It’s our home. You can’t just build a new Green Monster or a new Fenway Park somewhere else in Boston.” Putting his index finger on the amount owing, he continued, waving his bill. “Well, you see this? This $31,000 bill is my ticket to attend this site where we stand right now. This ground is where I attended games as a kid with my Dad, it is where I bring my kids, and it is where they will continue to bring their children for as long as the Boston Red Sox exist.”
With that, we said our goodbyes. One hour later, I commenced my tour of Fenway Park. Our guide promised us “the ride of their lives.” The thing is, however, I had already learnt so much from one devoted member.
“Forget everything you know about New York Yankees and all of their success; history starts at Fenway Park,” our guide began. “By 1918, we had won 5 World Series championships and that obscure team to the south still had not opened their account. From now on, I will refer to the New York Yankees as The Evil Empire. D’yall understand?”
“Yes,” everybody said in unison.
“I can’t hear you!”
“YES!” we shouted back emphatically like a drilled army unit.
“What’s that other team we hate called?”
“THE EVIL EMPIRE!” we all shouted in unison, which the guide decided was good enough, so the show could commence.
“Here’s a brief history. In 1918, the Boston Red Sox decided that due to being so awesome, we would take an 86 year break from winning and let The Evil Empire (queue imitation of a spit denoting disgust at mentioning the Yankees’ name) win a few, just so they could stop whinging about everything that they do,” she continued. “Y’know what they talk about - bad traffic, overcrowded subways and streets, bad kawfee (sic), and anything else worth complaining about. But then we woke up and pulled off the greatest comeback in baseball history.”
With a single click, highlights of the 2004 American League Championship League (ALCS) started playing. Our guide acted like a narrator, taking us through the emotions of what it was like to be a Red Sox fan 3 games down to the Evil Empire and facing immediate and inglorious elimination. With each subsequent victory, however, her husky voice changed, reflecting the elation of pulling off the near-impossible. By the time the last play of Game 7 had been called, I thought we were all expected to jump out of the glass window to celebrate. Nobody needed reminding of the results of the subsequent World Series in 2004, which Boston ultimately won; just a sentence from our guide saying that “Boston were back and loved the feeling of success so much, they repeated the achievement in 2007.”
When it came to the subject of dealing with the Bambino’s Curse, the explanation was simple. “Have you ever heard of a Broadway show called No, No, Nanette?” When none of us answered, she said, “Good. That is how much attention it deserves.” The speech then mentioned a few things about the owners’ commitment that Fenway Park would remain in its current location, but was in the midst of a facelift to enhance the experience for fans and guarantee that the rich traditions built over nearly 100 years would not be lost. Laughing off The Curse of the Bambino is a part of this tradition.
||My visit was not discovering about facts, statistics and fixtures; it was about meeting the Barneys who epitomise the spirit of a true sports fan. Any team can put together an impressive run of victories and claim bragging rights, but it takes an eternity to craft a legion of fans whose faith will never waiver in the face of adversity.
In this city, Fenway Park is the temple, and the Boston Red Sox are the knights of Camelot that will soon deliver the Holy Grail known as the World Series once again.