Max White was a Phillies fan when he moved to Boston. This year he started rooting for the Sox. That’s not wrong, is it?
After the Red Sox Rolling Rally victory parade through Boston, Mike Napoli had himself a night for the ages. Deadspin meticulously reconstructed the timeline of Drunk Mike Napoli, who proved himself a man of the people by bartending for at least one local bar and partying really, really hard in at least one other. My favorite image of Napoli is this one, which makes him look like any other overly intoxicated Bostonian.
Like Napoli, I too have wandered that stretch of Boylston Street after leaving some of the neighborhood establishments. And that’s what’s so cool about Mike Napoli and the 2013 Red Sox: they’re a team that’s proud to be part of the city and they’re happy to show it. This civic pride, it turns out, is how you attract new fans, even those with deep loyalties to other teams.
I moved to Boston in 2006, just as my hometown team, the Philadelphia Phillies, were starting to look like legitimate playoff contenders for the first time in my life. (With all due respect to the worst-to-first Phightins of ’93, that team was a flash in the pan.)
I avidly followed the Phillies’ 2006 playoff push, 2007 NL East championship, and 2008 World Series championship. The 2009, 2010, and 2011 Phillies broke my heart, and the 2012 and 2013 Phillies made me want to puke. As the Red Sox spent this past summer and fall playing inspired baseball and winning game after game even as local and national pundits expressed skepticism regarding their postseason potential, I was like a jilted lover gazing longingly at a new partner. Grit, determination, perseverance: the 2013 Red Sox possessed all the qualities I used to see in my Phillies, and played their home games 308 miles closer to my apartment.
But something held me back from fully embracing the Red Sox. It wasn’t my soon-to-be mother-in-law’s lifelong Yankee fandom, nor was it any lingering attraction to the Phillies. It was a fear of transgression, the feeling that I was breaking an unwritten rule that permits sports fans to root only for one franchise per sport, preferably the one to which you’re first introduced as a young child. Although I had always “rooted” for non-rival teams that attracted me for one reason or another, I’d never felt quite like this, like I was actually switching allegiances. I was completely unprepared for the emotional weirdness that ensued, as I watched the Red Sox in the 2013 postseason.
Just as I fell in love with the 2006 Phillies from afar, so too did I fall in love with the 2013 Red Sox from afar. In early October, during the ALDS, my fiancé, Sandy, and I took a weeklong vacation to Paris and London. On Wednesday, October 9, the day after the Red Sox closed out the ALDS against Tampa Bay, I proposed on top of the Eiffel Tower. She said yes.
The following week was one of the happiest of my life, and we returned to Boston on Wednesday, October 16, the same day that Detroit tied the ALCS at two games apiece. Jetlagged and sick with terrible European head colds, we arrived home a bit out of touch with local happenings, but giddy with excitement over our recently decided future. The Red Sox playoff run dominated local and regional media, and we readily indulged.
I don’t remember many specifics from ALCS games five or six, but I do recall watching them on our living room television as we battled through all out assaults on our sinuses and respiratory systems. Watching sports when you’re sick is a bit like watching the Food Network when you have an empty pantry: it reminds you how much you enjoy something you love, and how immediately incapable you are of enjoying it.
This was the environment in which I found myself rooting for the Red Sox for the first time in my life, and maybe someday I’ll credit my acute viral infection with making it possible. When the Sox closed out the ALCS, I was legitimately happy about it; through my pathogen-induced mental haze, I could tell that the feeling was more than satisfaction at seeing a random team beat another random team. By sharing the viewing experience with Sandy and watching the playoff run unfold in the wake of our engagement, I was legitimately becoming a Red Sox fan.
By the time the World Series began on Wednesday, October 23 (thank you, MLB, for all the off days in the postseason), we were both starting to feel a bit better, and this made it possible to follow the games rather than watch them as background entertainment.
The Red Sox’ game one bludgeoning of Adam Wainwright caught me by surprise. I expected the Sox to win the Series, but not by manhandling one of the NL’s best pitchers. I thought the games would be extra-inning bullpen battles, not one-sided blowouts. That was when I knew for sure that Boston would win the World Series. It’s also when I sensed that it was okay for me to root for the Red Sox.
Watching the Red Sox throw away game two with shoddy fielding and game three with poor in-game managerial decisions did not dissuade me from my new found fandom. On the contrary, when I heard Tony Massarotti attribute the game three loss to Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s errant throw—even as he absolved Saltalamacchia on the grounds that David Ross should have been in the game as a defensive replacement—I felt even more like a fan.
Maybe it’s my Philly sports roots showing through, or maybe it’s just that I had reached the same conclusion as Massarotti as soon as the play had happened, but being in a position to criticize the Red Sox even as I rooted for them to win was another new feeling for me.
Without wading too deeply into the waters of the “What makes a good fan?” debate, I think it’s fair to say that fans desperately want to see their teams win games and that there’s therapeutic value to be found in reflecting on disappointing losses. Fans don’t waste time or energy pouring over heartbreaking losses of teams they don’t care about; the mark of a real fan isn’t celebrating when a team wins, it’s mourning when a team loses.
Of course, losing doesn’t encourage lasting fandom (Cubs fans excluded). If games two and three put me in the familiar position of nitpicking losses, then games four, five, and six put me in the unfamiliar position of enjoying playoff wins. In game four, Jonny Gomes’ sixth inning three run homer jolted my body off the couch and brought on an authentic yell of excitement, what Walt Whitman called a “barbaric yawp.”
Prior to that moment, even as I felt myself becoming genuinely invested in the Red Sox’ playoff run, my reactions had been conscious decisions to express emotion. I hadn’t been confused, exactly, but there had been a decidedly cognitive element to my reactions. The Gomes homer, in contrast, induced a far more visceral reaction. The real fan isn’t necessarily the person wearing World Series apparel or sporting tattoos; the real fan is the person walking down the street or riding the T, listening to the game on the radio or following a gamecast, who unexpectedly exclaims in excitement or despair and bewilders passersby with seemingly out-of-context expressions of emotion.
In contrast to the unexpectedness of Gomes’ homer and its 38% win probability added, Ross’ game five ground rule double seemed almost preordained and unexciting. Five days after the Sox’ game one dismantling of Wainwright, Jon Lester’s domination of the Cardinals’ impotent bats seemed almost single-handedly to assure victory. The eighth and ninth innings were undramatic, if tense, and St. Louis’ lackluster offense could not have been any less frightening. This particular situation led me to another new feeling of fandom: confidence.
For all of the relative success enjoyed by my Phillies, it always seemed to come in spite of some looming collapse lurking. With the exception of the 2008 team that pummeled the Dodgers and Rays, the Phillies teams that led the National League in wins in 2010 and 2011 always seemed to avoid losing more than they seemed to embrace winning.
I’ve never quite gotten over game five of the 2011 NLDS, but for some reason game five of the 2013 World Series felt totally different. Both games involved the Cardinals, both games featured ace pitchers starting for both teams, but the feeling of confidence that the Red Sox inspired was completely unlike the impending sense of doom that the Phillies brought. The confidence I felt watching game five this year could not have been more welcome.
From the outset, game six was meant to be a coronation for the Red Sox and a ceremony for our marriage in fandom. Even picking a viewing location for this game seemed like a big deal. We decided to watch from the Galway House, my favorite local haunt, as well as a fabulous bar and restaurant in which I’ve enjoyed more than a few pints and spent many hours of my life.
The interior of the Galway House is always decorated for every holiday of the year—Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Independence Day, Christmas. The food is good, the booze plentiful, the kind of place you need to live near to discover. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that I’ve probably experienced more highs and lows at the Galway than at any other non-residential location in which I’ve repeatedly found myself. In short, the Galway was the perfect place to become even more Bostonian.
The viewing atmosphere was perfect: five televisions, every booth and table taken, every seat at the bar full and every standing spot behind every bar stool packed twice over. When Shane Victorino cleared the bases with a rocket of a double off the Green Monster, the place went wild. When Koji Uehara closed out the ninth inning, it exploded. And it all felt natural. I didn’t have to think about cheering for the Sox and I wasn’t missing the Phillies: I was completely in the moment and relishing every second of it.
I thought back to April 15, to the bombings at the marathon finish line that cut straight to the heart of everything that I loved about the place that I’d lived so many of the most important moments of my life. The Red Sox winning the World Series became a catharsis for all of the anxiety and pain and frustration that had seemed to crop up out of nowhere over the past six months. There I was, sitting next to my fiancé in my favorite bar in my favorite city celebrating a World Series championship won by a team that I hadn’t rooted for even two months earlier. But somehow it felt completely organic and natural, not put-on or assumed. It had just happened.
And that, I think, was the most startling part about it. I didn’t want to become a Red Sox fan. It just happened. But it only happened, I think, because I’ve lived enough of my life in this place to have a substantial and significant emotional investment in the community it fosters and the values it encourages.
To be fair, I will never, ever, until the day I die, become a part of “Red Sox Nation” or whatever other crap NESN spews over the airwaves in its revolting attempts to generate profits from empty slogans and artificial sellout streaks. The marketing element of professional baseball disgusts me almost as much as Wall Street traders jeopardizing the economy by swapping exotic derivatives on unregulated exchanges, and the Red Sox are marketing masters. That part of it I’ll never buy into. But finally, after seven years, I was able to get past it.
The irony to all of this, of course, is that being a Red Sox fan won’t make me any happier than I was as a Phillies fan; it just makes the games more accessible. I treat fandom as a love-hate relationship that depends on vitriol and criticism as much as praise and applause. But that’s life, I think: life is push and pull, win and lose, happy and sad. Which is what I love so much about sports, especially baseball: it’s a parallel for life that offers perspective on your own experiences just as much as it’s a pleasant diversion on a hot summer afternoon.
Live enough of your life someplace with this mentality and you’ll find yourself a fan of the local team. But happiness is something totally distinct, something that you have to find on your own; something that only someone very special can give to you on top of the Eiffel Tower.
Photo: AP/Matt Slocum