Randy Steingberg reflects on his life as a subsiding Red Sox fan, and the love and admiration that can’t be found in a ballpark.
In 2000, I became a Boston Red Sox season ticket holder. Having recently renewed my plan—despite the horror that was the conclusion of the 2011 season—2012 will be my thirteenth year in the lower bleachers of straight away center at Fenway Park.
We all know the beginning of every calendar year is a time for resolutions we won’t keep (why did they open that new ice cream store five blocks from my house?), but more easily accomplished than trying to lose weight come January is reflection. And with the birth, just a few months ago, of my second child, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I view the Olde Towne Team, baseball, and sports in general.
I’m slightly embarrassed to admit this, but I have not attended a Red Sox game since 2009. There are a few reasons for this. First, I moved out of the city in 2009. Before, I had lived in Kenmore Square and then Brookline and could easily walk to Fenway. Now, I’m a bit more removed, and fighting traffic and finding parking is not appealing in the least. Second, I became spoiled by having the opportunity to attend so many amazing games in the last decade. Those back to back extra inning games when the Sox were down to the Yankees 0-3 in the 2004 playoffs, the Derek Lowe no-hitter, several World Series games, and more. After all that, your average Sunday afternoon game against the Royals doesn’t engender that much excitement.
More than all of that, the Red Sox simply don’t matter that much to me anymore. Apostasy? Sacrilege?? Blasphemy? Perhaps, but before you plant the stake and lather me with kerosene, let me explain.
I grew up a Red Sox fan. Like many young men in New England, it was one of the center pieces of my life. I remember a college interview at Brown University that went like this: after the usual pleasantries, the interviewer asked me, “What do you think about in your spare time?” I was stunned and speechless. I hadn’t been prepared for this kind of question: High School guidance counselor how could you have let me down like this? I think the interviewer expected me to proclaim a desire for Middle East peace; instead, I fell back on what I did actually think about. “I like the Red Sox,” I told her. She frowned, not happy, but it was the truth, and a truth for thousands of adolescents in the area.
I did not end up getting into Brown, though I don’t know if anyone ever gained or was denied admittance to college based on their interview (with the possible exception of Tom Cruise’s character in Risky Business). Nevertheless, throughout my college years I remained a passionate fan, and when I moved to Kenmore Square in my mid-20s the Red Sox were closer to me than they had ever been before. I could see the aura of Fenway Park at night from my stoop, and if the wind blew the right way, the roar of the crowd came to me in stereo.
In 1999, two friends of mine from college–already season ticket holders—suggested to myself and another college friend that we should buy a package. These were the Jimy Williams years and though the team had had some success, season tickets were not that hard to come by. We applied for and received two tickets in Plan W (all weekend home games, about 33 in any given year) in Section 36 of the bleachers. We were two rows away from our friends, and it took a few years–and a change of team ownership—to convince the season ticket office to move us directly behind them. By 2003, our situation was ideal: we had four tickets in total, two each on the end of two rows. This made conversation easier as we didn’t have to yell down a row to talk to one another, though the constant standing up and sitting down to let others by could get irritating. But come the end of the game, it was a blessing to be on the end of a row. Before catcher and pitcher were high-fiving in victory after the last out, we were on Lansdowne Street—usually headed to The Cactus Club on Boylston for post-game drinks.
This went on through two World Series Championships, numerous other post season games and an average of twenty regular season games per year. With the possible exception of Red Sox management and Dennis Drinkwater, I was at the park more than anyone during those years.
But then something changed and my enthusiasm for the Red Sox began to wane. One might say that marriage and children were the intervening factors, and it’s true that starting a family shifts one’s focus from the box score to the college fund. One thing about marriage and children is you realize that your love for them is unrivaled by anything, and baseball players, being men, must love their wives and children the same way, too.
If this seems confusing, let’s look at the mob movie A Bronx Tale for articulation. There’s a scene in the movie in which the chief gangster tells his protégé, who worships Mickey Mantle, that Mickey Mantle does not love him. If the kid gets sick, will Mantle be there for him? Will Mantle help him through life? No, Mickey Mantle won’t, and after that, the kid doesn’t follow baseball anymore.
I’m not sure when I realized this for myself, but I know it to be true. This is not to say baseball players and professional athletes in general are cold-hearted narcissists (at least not all of them), but they are, all of them, human, and that means they are selfish creatures. Perhaps some realize they don’t exist without the fans, but I don’t think many contemplate the social contract of sports. Some will visit kids in the hospital and do charity events, but they don’t love you the way you did them as a child.
I think most men know, even before marriage and kids, that players are in it for money and not necessarily much more. When Manny and his $20 million a year dogged it up the line on a ground ball, a lot of us lost faith. But nothing completely shatters that faith as does the mature kind of love that develops when you start a family—as opposed to the youthful fancy and infatuation most kids possess for pro athletes.
That’s why the mobster’s statement to the kid is sage. When you attain spousal and parental love, you know nothing can match it, so how could a professional athlete with a family be any different? And if you realize they are not different, then you know they don’t love you at all. After that, your devotion to the team, whether conscious or not, will erode. In some, it goes away only slightly, while in others it crumbles almost completely. I’m squarely in the latter category. Who says you can’t learn anything from movies anymore?
But there’s another angle to consider. In addition to marriage and children, I found ambition around 2009. Perhaps the former fueled the latter, but something I’ve only realized recently is that ambition shifts the playing field–zing, a sports metaphor—and causes you to accept that the world is bigger than what goes on in baseball stadiums. I wanted to accomplish things, and, bless that interviewer at Brown, I began to think about other things. It wasn’t Middle East peace (though, I don’t think we’ll see that in my lifetime) but the myriad other interesting things that life puts before you as you age. The Red Sox became not my first thought, but an afterthought.
I won’t be so ridiculous to say that I don’t follow baseball today. I watch a few innings of around 90% of Red Sox games. I listen to sports radio almost daily. I enjoy year-round fantasy sports competition, and I’m not above trash talk from fans of lesser sports towns (which is all of them, compared to Boston). I continue to actively root for the Red Sox and all the Boston sports teams, but when they lose (and what could be worse than the conclusion of the 2011 season?), I’m upset for all of five minutes. I don’t care about their accomplishments or failures: I’ve got too much else to do.
The ironic thing is, the cycle will soon be starting again. I have two sons, and in a few years, I’m assuming, they will begin to take an interest in sports and the Red Sox. I’ll take them to games and watch as it becomes the focus of their young lives. And through them, baseball will again become important to me—because of them.
I’m quite sure that baseball is very important to millions of grown men, and maybe I’m an anomaly in that if it went away, I don’t think I’d be too upset. That’s the real reason why I don’t feel the need to get to the games anymore. Whereas I used to see the Red Sox crisply from home plate, my view of the team now is very much from the centerfield bleachers—figures running around on a field whose numbers I can barely make out.
–Photo: charliewalker / Flickr