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Who are the Boston fans?

An anthropological study by Dan Shaughnessy

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / April 15, 1990

The Red Sox fan believes in predestination. He hates Fenway franks but buys 'em anyway. He has been a baseball fan his whole life and is convinced he'll go to his grave without ever seeing the Sox win a World Series. He thinks of himself as a New Englander rather than a Bostonian. He can just as easily be a she, but he is unlikely to be black.

The Celtics fan drinks white wine and wears red glasses. He has a car phone and is balding slightly. He does not have to stand in line to get into the Hard Rock Cafe. He became a basketball expert when Larry Bird joined the Green. When Larry retires, today's Celtics fan will move on to something else, perhaps the theater or the opera.

The Bruins fan packs his lunch, wears a bowling jacket, and never, ever misses a hockey game. He is slightly overweight and embarrasses his wife by talking too loudly in social settings. He works for the gas company, buys a lottery ticket every week, and crosses the Tobin Bridge to get to the Garden.

The Patriots fan lives on the South Shore, owns a four-wheel-drive vehicle, works at Digital, and drinks beer. He bets a football card every week. He still loves Doug Flutie, still hates Raymond Berry, and is having second thoughts about season tickets for next year. He is almost certainly not a she.

These are the cliches. These are gross generalizations, the composite sketches of the fans who follow our four professional sports teams. Like all stereotypes, they are too simple to be true. Certainly there are blacks who are Red Sox fans. There have been sightings of females at Sullivan Stadium, and no doubt there are plenty of Bruins fans who make more money than Celtics supporters. And there are reports of Patriots season-ticket holders who've never argued "tastes great" vs. "less filling."

But the images exist.

Each of our four professional sports teams has a constituency with a distinct identity. Unfortunately, there is no available data that could spit out an accurate composite of the average Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins, or Patriots fan. There are too many millions of variables, and our impressions are too subjective to be diagramed or dissected. For instance, although there is a clear distinction between the paying customer and the couch potato, our anthropological study is limited to the legions who peel off several $20s every time they root, root, root for the home team.

Instincts, experience, and basic eyesight are the tools used to compile this data. You can't scientifically prove that Pamela Jo Doe is the prettiest girl in the sophomore class. You just know it is true.

Who are the fans of our four teams?

RED SOX FANS

This is without a doubt the largest and most powerful fan bloc in New England. The Boston baseball team simply is never out of season. Sox fans have split personalities: They carry fresh hopes into every new season, but they truly believe that the Sox will let them down in the end. No one under the age of 75 can remember Boston's last championship team (1918), and the fandom has learned to expect unhappy endings. Sox fans care and cannot put their emotions on the shelf and go on to something else. To be a Sox fan is to suffer. The late baseball commissioner and academician A. Bartlett Giamatti once said, ''Somehow the Sox fulfill the notion that we live in a fallen world. It's as though we assume they're here to provide us with more pain."

This group is hardest to identify because it is so large and crosses so many barriers. Maine fishermen are Sox fans, and so are lobbyists who stroll the corridors on Beacon Hill. Members of Fenway's 600 Club pay ridiculous sums to watch baseball in silent, sterile surroundings. Meanwhile, kids from West Roxbury still hop on the T and buy bleacher seats for the same price ($6) they'd pay to see Back to the Future, Part II. Nuns like the Red Sox. Old men in nursing homes listen faithfully to every radio broadcast, and small boys in Groton (Massachusetts and Connecticut) spit in their gloves and pretend they're Wade Boggs.

Eddie Andelman, a sports talk-radio czar for 20 years and the unofficial voice of the fans in New England, says, "Red Sox fans think of the team the way parents think of their children. They forgive them all the time and continue to give to them because they really care about the team. They think they're part of the Red Sox, and they really feel that they're the 10th player on the team."

Bob Lobel, sports anchor at WBZ-TV (Channel 4), says, "Red Sox fans are the most universal. You're liable to see them everywhere."

More than Boggs or Roger Clemens, Fenway Park has become the Boston baseball star. Hungry for the old days, hypnotized by the slow pace and pastoral beauty of the game, Sox fans are filling Fenway in record numbers. The Red Sox had one of their least appealing teams last summer but still broke the franchise home-attendance mark. This is the same draw that fills Durgin Park, where the menu states, "Your grandfather and perhaps your great- grandfather dined with us, too."

There are not many blacks at Fenway. This is true of the Garden and Foxborough as well, but baseball in Boston seems to be a particularly poor attraction for blacks. The Red Sox track record in race relations is hardly exemplary. The Sox rejected a chance to sign Jackie Robinson, were the last team to integrate, and this year may have only one black on the roster -- Ellis Burks. But baseball is a proven weak draw even in predominantly black cities with a history of star black performers (Baltimore, Cleveland, and Detroit).

Red Sox fans are loud and sophisticated. They recognize a balk, and they cheer when they peek at the out-of-town scoreboard in left field and see that the Yankees have fallen behind. They appreciate a game well-pitched by the opposition. They save their wrath for Sox managers who stay too long (Don Zimmer, John McNamara) and overpaid locals who don't seem to be performing well (remember Rich Gedman, Jim Rice?). Sox fans are most quiet when the Red Sox are closest to winning it all. The Red Sox played at home for the seventh game of the World Series in 1967 and '75, and for the seventh game of the play-offs in 1986. Each time, Sox fans sat on their hands and waited for something bad to happen. The long-suffering constituents get nervous when the team is on the threshold of victory. Most Sox players do not understand this apprehension, but then again, most Sox players know nothing about the ghosts of 1946, '48, '49, of Luis Aparicio, Bucky Dent, Bill Buckner, etc.

Boston natives are far more likely to be Red Sox fans than are nonnatives. Pro football is the regional rage in many pockets of America, and college basketball gets all the attention in places such as North Carolina and Indiana. In New England, baseball is the game of tradition. The Sox are particularly big in the small villages and the mill towns where local amateur teams once provided nightly summer entertainment. If you grew up here, you are probably a Red Sox fan.

The Sox fan is most likely to call a sports talk show and to subscribe to a sports periodical. He rarely bets games. He violently defends the American League and the designated hitter rule. He has been to Cooperstown, and his wife doesn't mind spending money for NESN. He reads the sports page before anything else. He owns at least one piece of clothing that has a Red Sox logo. He has a casual interest in the other sports, but the Sox are his passion.

Dick Bresciani, Red Sox vice president of public relations, says, "I think the Red Sox fans are the longtime New Englanders who go back through generations of following the Red Sox. I think we have more women fans than ever. I think you could break it away from a Patriots crowd. There's a different mix in a Patriots game. We have more families and more kids' groups, and I think that's because it's more affordable. I think the fans have gotten away from being as rowdy as they were at one time. I think there's more policing of themselves. And since we went to the individual chair seats in the bleachers they aren't as bad as they used to be."

Andelman adds, "You can be a Red Sox fan and a Celtics fan, too, but there's not much crossover between the Red Sox fans and the Patriots and Bruins fans. Baseball is a thinking person's sport, and it's highly unlikely that people can turn their thinking tanks on and off."

CELTICS FANS

These are the trendies. Celtics fans were the first ones on your block to have answering machines, microwave ovens, VCRs, and CD players. They read the stock tables before anything else. They are overachievers, usually firstborn children. They are the winners in life. They want to be associated with winners.

We speak of Celtics fans of the '80s and '90s. There are, of course, some Celtics fans left over from the days when they won the championships every year, but this nucleus couldn't fill half the Garden. This corps is surprisingly small considering the dominance of the team in the 1960s. The Celtics became the city's in team when Larry Joe Bird got here in 1979-80. Ten years of sellouts followed. As in many major-league towns, Boston's basketball franchise is benefiting from the unprecedented popularity of NBA basketball that was ignited by Bird and Magic Johnson at the start of the 1980s. Today's Celtics have more newcomer fans than any Boston pro sports team.

Stand in the balcony and look down at a Celtics crowd and you see sport coats, neckties, and balding pates. The fans hold cups of beverage in one hand and exhort the Green Team with the other. They have learned to recognize illegal defense, no small achievement. Red Auerbach has taught them that the refs are out to get the Celtics. There is an institutional arrogance in the Celtics environment. The insiders believe that outsiders should feel fortunate just to taste the Celtics experience. Celtics fans bought stock in the club when the franchise went public a few years ago. They've got certificates on the walls of their dens and offices. Every game is a stockholders' meeting: Gotta protect the investment.

The Celtics crowd is smug. These are the privileged few. They are winners just by virtue of the fact that they have tickets. They expect to watch winners. They expect victory every night. They attend just to be part of the victory and to applaud the performance. They are like veteran theatergoers; they already know how the story comes out in the end. The Boston team went 40-1 at home in 1985-86, and Celtics fans remain spoiled by the great teams of the last decade. There is an impression that no team can beat Boston on its home court. This was true until top draft pick Len Bias died in 1986 and the rest of the team got old.

Celtics fans have disposable income. They don't flinch from paying $3 for an ice cream bar. They bet on games for the sport of it, and you can hear the bettors in the closing minutes when the scrubs are scrambling on the court playing havoc with the point spread. The Celtics crowd is filled with well- dressed people who work in the city, live in the western suburbs, and don't mind the increase in tolls on the Mass. Pike. These are people with beepers strapped to their hips.

Robert Nobtzel is a vendor at the Boston Garden. He sells the upscale Steve's ice cream bars and says, "For me, Celtics fans are better. I make more money. It's more of an upper-crust crowd. They're more well-dressed. Bruins fans give me more of a hard time about the price, and if they see somebody buying, they'll yell, 'You're crazy, paying $3.' Another thing I noticed is that at Celtic games, during the national anthem, it's quiet until the last line. At Bruins games, they roar halfway through the song, and it kinda gets you pumped up."

Jan Volk, general manager of the Celtics, says, "We've got a solid corps, but I think it spans generations. I don't think you can look at it and really single out a typical Celtic fan. It has become a mature sport, and I think it was not for a long time. I think we have more individuals buying tickets than corporations. We've had some pretty ugly crowds. When you take a hot night in June and start the game at 9 o'clock, it's different. It's exacerbated by the combination of the temperature and the opportunity to drink."

Andelman on Celtics fans: "They are well dressed, well mannered, but very passionate about the team. They wouldn't be caught dead at a hockey game. They eat nouvelle cuisine, and they go to the bathroom before they go into the Garden so they won't have to use the Garden restrooms. They drink very little and they're smart enough to think ahead. They tip the ushers and behave themselves."

John Iannacci, an executive in the apple industry who lives in Lunenburg, is a fan of all four Boston sports teams and says, "I would say the Red Sox and the Celtic fans are like the yuppies. I think they're your higher-income bracket. It's a curious mix, really. A lot of it is people with money that go to the games even though they aren't real fans. They go because it's the place to go."

BRUINS FANS

This group is loud and loyal. It's said that the Bruins have only 11,000 fans in all of New England -- but each fan attends every game. This, of course, cannot be proved.

The difference between Celtics and Bruins fans is easily witnessed on those frenzied Sundays at the Garden when the Celtics play in the afternoon and the Bruins follow with a night game. Kids have been known to sneak into the restrooms and hide out between games to avoid paying two admissions. These youths are probably the only crossover fans. It's difficult to find anyone who'll admit he likes the Bruins and Celtics equally. You are aligned with one or the other. Some corporate types may have tickets to both games, but they'll probably use the Bruins ducats to settle a score with a secondary client or a brother-in-law.

When the Celtics play, parking lots outside the Garden are filled with foreign cars, all equipped with alarm systems. After the basketball game is over, these folks go home and make room for the American vehicles driven by Bruins fans. The Bruins drivers are more polite and are not in as much of a hurry as their Celtics counterparts. Honk twice if you follow the Celtics.

Bruins fans dress comfortably. They know the Garden is grimy, so why bother wearing your Sunday best? Sneakers, jeans, flannel shirts, and

windbreakers work fine. A Bruins crowd is awash in denim. Think of it this way: The Celtics crowd dresses for LA Law. The Bruins crowd dresses for Roseanne. The only ties are in the sky boxes and the box scores.

Al Zappy, who works at the Garden arena souvenir stand, sees another side of Bruins fans and says, "The Bruins fans spend more money. They don't haggle about the price. They don't ask the price, they just say, 'Gimme two hats.' The Celtic people will shop and ask me if it's any cheaper downstairs. They'll eventually buy, but they will compare prices. Bruins fans spend the money without question."

Tom Foster, who works a beer stand at the Garden, says, "The Bruins fans like to drink more. We sell more beers at Bruins games. Celtic fans are more low-key. Personally, I like the Bruins fans better. They're more friendly. Celtic fans don't tip that much. Bruins fans talk to you more. They're easy to talk to. I just like the Bruins fans a lot better."

Lobel says, "It's highly unlikely you'll find a Celtic fan at a Bruins game. I don't think there's any doubt that Celtic fans are more upscale and tend toward the corporate, professional types. Bruins fans are hard-core. The loyalty runs very deep. It's almost like a family-type experience, although a lot of the young Bruins fans in no way could have experienced all the tradition that the team has had over the years."

Nate Greenberg, assistant to the president of the Bruins, says, "I think there's always been a blue-collar fandom to hockey. We have upwards of a dozen Saturday afternoon games to try and get kids involved. The gallery gods are a good example of our fandom. Today they are the sons and grandsons of people who came here in the '30s and '40s. They're hard-working, blue-collar types who enjoy the game. We've had that loyal 10,000 that would come if we were playing Malden Catholic at 3 o'clock in the morning. They'd be there. This is definitely a beer-drinking crowd. There's no argument about that. About eight years ago, they took some kind of a survey in the stands to find where people were from, and they found that the vast majority of people were from the north of Boston. I don't know why that is, but that was borne out by the survey."

Hockey fans like speed and violence in their game. Overall, fights are down, but there's an air of combustibility in the Bruins crowd. A fight could break out any time -- on or off the ice. You'll see a lot of peroxide blondes, but not many hairpieces. Steal the wallets of this group and you'll find more union cards and truck driver's licenses than in any other group. They endure the same organ music as the Celtics crowd, but they like it. The beer lines are long; don't ask for the wine list.

Aside from Red Sox fans, Bruins fans are the most loyal. They pledge allegiance to the Bruins and know the Canadian anthem by heart. They also know their game. Ask about the meaning of the two-line offside and you might be booted out of your section. Non-hockey fans are an intrusion. Bruins fans are not rude, but they are direct.

They don't worry about beating the traffic; they stay until the end of the game.

Kathy Gould, a security officer at Bruins, Celtics, and Red Sox games, says, "I can tell which team is playing by the cheering, the way they yell and jump up and down. Bruins fans are louder. I notice one thing about the Celtics and the Bruins crowd, and that's that the Celtic crowd tends to watch the game more. Bruins fans are up and down a lot, moving around. Celtic fans tend to sit in one place. The Red Sox crowds differ depending on who they're playing. You don't hear as much profanity now at any of the three. There's never any at a Celtic game. All the crowds are getting a lot better."

Lobel says, "I think crowd control got to be a real problem at Bruins games a couple of years ago, but it got better when the team improved, and the Garden has done a better job. I know it's gotten better at Fenway. As far as Sullivan Stadium goes, in years past it was pretty tough to take a family down there, but last year it was hard to get a group together to make any trouble."

Andelman is not a hockey fan and says, "Bruins fans are totally illiterate. That book The Big Bad Bruins outsold all other hockey books by about 10 to 1 because it was a picture book. They go to the Garden in order to drink and go to the bathroom, because that's all they're interested in. The average Celtic fan is a college grad, but the average Bruins fan dropped out two grades higher than the hockey players dropped out. You can be a Bruins fan and a Patriots fan because there's enough violence in both games. But you can't be both a Bruins and a Celtics fan, because the only thing the Bruins fans hate more than French-speaking players is the Celtics."

PATRIOTS FANS

Few New Englanders admit to being Patriots fans. Greater Boston's football fans are out there, but finding them is like trying to find people who admit they voted for Richard Nixon in 1972. We like tradition, and football has none, not here. Town teams started playing baseball at the turn of the century, and the Sox are in season 12 months a year, just like politics. We have ponds and rinks, and ice hockey is a part of youth in New England. Basketball was invented in Springfield. Football simply has no local roots. This is the game that makes people go goofy in small towns in Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida. We have never understood this football phenomenon, and our local pro football team for three decades has been sport's longest- running soap.

Patriots fans travel in packs and engage in serious tailgating before every game. A game-day trip to Foxborough is an all-day safari, and fans come prepared. Spread the tablecloths, fire up the portable gas grill, and pass the lagers. Think of every beer commercial you've seen in the last five years ("It doesn't get any better than this"), and you get the picture.

Andelman on Patriots fans: "They are the ultimate blue-collar workers. They go to these games and like to have booze for breakfast, and every other word out of their mouth is 'expletive,' and all they do is talk betting numbers. They lie. If you go to a pay phone outside the stadium, they're lined up 50 deep an hour before kickoff, and each guy says he's calling his mother to say he got there safely."

John Iannacci, the fan, says, "I think hockey and football have many of the same fans. Those sports attract the same type of people -- those you might say are a little on the wilder side. The last hockey game I went to I brought my wife, and I don't think I'd bring her there again. I think the beer consumption at Patriots and Bruins games is higher per capita than at Celtics and Red Sox games."

Jim Greenidge, former director of media relations for the Patriots, says, ''They've got their hard core. They're rooting one way or the other. Some of the fans actually like the excitement of the team. I'd like to have put a stop to all the negative stuff, but the fans have grown up with all that stuff and sort of enjoy following it. Even in the off-season it was kind of a weird franchise. I think it's a blue-collar crowd -- your average Joe out there. I think the Celtics fans are more white-collar than the Patriots crowd. There's nothing convenient about going to our games. It's outdoors and really cold. If they had a roof, it might be more of a white-collar following.

"The Patriots crowd is an awful lot like the Bruins crowd," Greenidge continues. "They're tough on officials. They're tough on both teams. Kids don't go to games anymore because of the ticket price, except for the Red Sox games. It's a guys' afternoon out."

Lobel says, "Patriots fans, I think, are searching for their own identity. They're a breed of their own."

These are hard-working guys, guys who work with their hands and talk with their hands. They won't back down from a fight. A football crowd is a macho crowd. They can be extremely abusive. But they'll also help one another. There is a convivial atmosphere in the parking lots. Count Patriots fans as those most likely to come to the assistance of someone whose car is stuck in the mud or snow. A vehicle is the Patriots fan's most prized possession, and this crowd is most likely to leave the game early. You have to beat the traffic, and history says that the end of the game is usually disappointing.

Greenidge is black and addresses the issue of how few black fans attend Boston pro sporting events: "There aren't an awful lot of blacks, even at the Celtic games. At Patriots games, there are quite a few blacks, obviously not as many as they would want, but the distance is a factor. I talked to fans in the Roxbury community, and they'd say, 'I haven't been there, but I hear the traffic is awful.' It's low. I know I get stares going to a Red Sox game. People wonder, 'Who's that guy? Why is he going to the game?' I honestly think that because of the drinking involved in the stands, no matter what the sport, black people are afraid something racial could be shouted at them. If you're gonna go to a game, a black guy's gonna go with some other black guy. And if there are three or four black guys, they're afaid they're gonna call attention to themselves."

There's a joke making the rounds that goes like this: Celtics fans were the type of kids who never let you cheat off their homework. Red Sox fans always let you cheat off their homework. Bruins fans just went ahead and took your homework from you. Patriots fans took your homework, cheated off it, and then still flunked.

Steve Sheppard is a free-lance writer and folk singer who was raised in Brockton and lives in Nantucket. He is a fan of all four Boston pro sports teams. He has been to Fenway, Foxborough, and the Garden and still goes when his schedule permits. He gets the last word:

"With the Celtics now, it seems like there's not a lot of cheering going on, and I think that's because a lot of those people are front-runners. There are a lot of true Celtics fans, but they can't buy tickets to the Garden. The real Celtics fans are found in the barrooms of Massachusetts, for the most part.

"The Bruins fans are a breed unto themselves. Only a Bruins fan knows what makes a Bruins fan. All those years they had the best record in sports, and everybody in Boston gives 'em a hard time. They are behind their team, more than any other group, I think. They are the most vocal at games but the least vocal outside, because there aren't many of them. There are a few true-blue Patriots fans, not the ones who go out Sunday to get boozed up. The true ones wear their blue jackets in summer and care passionately about their team. I almost feel as badly for them as I do for Red Sox fans. Almost.

"Red Sox fans are everywhere. This is a baseball area, and we all know that. There's hope every spring. We always think we might be able to do it again. It's like hoping the locusts won't come this year and I won't have to pay the IRS. We think and hope that all those bad things are not going to happen. But the bad things always happen. You can bet the ranch on it. If there's one proven thing, it's that the Red Sox are never going to win the World Series. Never, ever, ever. The sooner you realize that, the happier you are."

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe sports columnist.

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