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Facing the Nation

Up-close look at the Red Sox fan base finds it is as passionate as ever

I have just finished a three-month, multistate tour of Red Sox Nation, and I am pleased to report that the Nation is in semi-fine shape, alternately optimistic (well, to be honest, more hopeful rather than truly optimistic), and then slightly melancholy, but always enthusiastic. The passion in the Nation is a given. If the rest of the country cared as much about America's political processes as the Nation does about the Team's pitching rotation, we might be a healthier democracy. The truth, as the Red Sox prepare for September, is not surprising: The Nation is in better shape than the Team itself. Of contradictions like this, between the lover and the loved, some born to love, some born to be loved, are many great and often tragic romances fashioned.

As I write, many Citizens of the Nation are experiencing serious cases of the traditional late-summer blues; that is, the moment when the Red Sox go from being part of a we to being a they, as in ``we've got Pedro pitching tonight,'' to ``they blew it again.'' Tantalizing their fans as ever, they have gone from 7 back to 4 back in the last few days. Still, given the depth of the respective New York and Boston starting pitching staffs (and one surprise of the season is that the Yankee starting pitching may not be as good as it looks on paper), Citizens of the Nation are slowly preparing to learn to monitor/watch/hate the Mariners and the A's, rather than the Yankees in September.

That would take a good deal of joy out of the early fall. The Citizens, after all, are among the most committed in all of sports, and one vital reason to be a Red Sox fan is the God-given right to root against the dreaded Yankees of the hated New York City. History matters in this instance, passions can simmer over half a century or more, and it is still hard for most Citizens to accept the idea of a wild-card ticket to the playoffs and World Series, let alone chasing a team that is based 3,000 rather than 200 miles away, and starts playing its home games just about the time you go to bed.

More, these are teams that are not owned by George M.Steinbrenner III, the Prince of Bluster, the perfect owner for the Evil Empire (if you want to hate the Yankees, it is important to think Steinbrenner, not Torre). How do you summon hatred for the Athletics or Mariners? Who owns them? Chartering out to Seattle to shout "Mariners Suck," does not seem nearly as rewarding as driving down to New York in the early fall, slipping behind enemy lines in the Bronx, and shouting "Yankees Suck." For a Citizen of the Nation, beating the Mariners or A's is merely winning a baseball game, while beating the Yankees is the very essence of life itself. It might have been easier to root against Seattle if Lou Piniella were still managing there, for Lou, the most combustible of men, was a villain from central casting and has deep roots in what went before. You could make it personal with Lou around. But even Lou is now gone from the mix, working in Tampa, paid very well indeed, and earning every dollar of his salary.

I think I have a very good eye and ear for the travails of the Nation, being both in it and in some ways out of it, but never really of it, and being something of a fellow traveler, if not someone who is perilously close to having dual citizenship. Because of my book ("The Teammates," which chronicles the relationships among Red Sox players Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky, and Ted Williams), I have been greeted with great warmth and generosity over the last few months everywhere I've gone -- and the Nation, as you know, is not just a geographic locale. Though I spent as much of my boyhood in northwest Connecticut as anywhere else, went to Harvard, have owned a house for 3 1/2 decades in what is perilously close to the epicenter of the Nation in Nantucket, though my mother was a Boston girl educated at Simmons and Boston University and my father went to medical school at Tufts, the truth is that my birth certificate shows that I was born in the Bronx, Hunts Point Hospital to be exact, and the first apartment I can remember living in was at the Grand Concourse and 174th Street. Guess which stadium is only about eight blocks away.

Still, my book seems to have fit a welcome niche, a chance for members of the Nation to reminisce about what now seems like a sweeter time with more accessible players (but back then was just as painful an era as any other, perhaps even more painful, featuring a team that looked like it was designed to go on a long and successful run, but then came up with the traditional Red Sox ailment -- a shortfall of pitching). Still, the book has, I think, some historical value, and has put an end to some of the crueler myths of the past. Recently John Burton, former member of Congress, now president pro tem of the California State Senate, and a serious baseball fan, yelled across a hall to my friend Marty Nolan, the former editor of the editorial page of this newspaper, and now a transplanted Californian, "Hey Marty, I'll never blame Pesky for holding the ball again!" Would that people such as I could clear the record on Vietnam so readily.

My affection, for Dom, and John, and Bob, (and Ted, of course), among the most beloved citizens of the Nation is both palpable and absolute, and I am accepted now as a friend if not actually a member of the Nation. More, the promotional trip for my book was great fun for me because I got to meet members of the Nation all over the country, many of them in far-flung outposts, where their loyalty is tested day in and day out, and where the passion is not so easily sustained as in New England. The key to the book is the long-standing friendship of the four players, and by dint of being the author, I've been able to share at least partially in that same friendship. When I talk with the three featured players on the phone, they like to know how "our book" is doing on the bestseller list, and though I don't like to name-drop, when Bobby Doerr calls on the phone, he sometimes identifies himself as "that goddamn Bobby Doerr," as in Ted's phrase, "I can't teach that goddamn Bobby Doerr anything about hitting."

One night back in June, Bobby and I filled a church in Portland, Ore., with about 500 people, ran out of books twice, and signed books for among others Vince Pesky, John's brother (looks like him, too), and the son of Rocky Benevento, the old groundskeeper at the old Vaughn Street Ballpark, who let John play there as a boy, and then gave him his first baseball job, taking care of the bullpens.

One of the most important things you realize as you travel through the country dealing with the faithful is that the Nation is not a geographical entity. Or more accurately it both is and isn't geographic. Sometimes the greater the distance from Boston, the crueler the social condition endured by the Citizen (surrounded by demented Yankee or Cardinal or Cub fans instead of demented Red Sox fans), the greater the resulting passion -- the power and strength of adversity are never to be underestimated. Oh, it's geographic of course, perhaps no baseball team has such a wonderfully defined local and regional support system, and perhaps no team so benefits from the climate -- I think the harshness of the winter feeds the passion for baseball and for the team, and the Red Sox matter here as for example, the San Diego Padres will never matter in Southern California. But RSN is very strong in California, and Texas, and Oregon, and Washington.

My friend David White is a classic Citizen of the Nation, by conversion rather than by birth, and in his case a member of the Nation by dint of geography. (Converts, as we all know, are often more fierce in their passions than those born into a culture or religion who take their membership for granted). David and I have been friends for 35 years; he paints houses on Nantucket now, and even as I write, his crew is painting my house, but our friendship began more properly when he was the bartender at the Opera House, then Nantucket's foremost restaurant and bar, and he was still a Yankee fan, having grown up in suburban Connecticut. After more than a dozen years on the island, he was slowly weaned away from his roots (his parents, now in their mid-80s, are still devoted Yankee fans). It was not so much that he found the RSN virus as the virus found him. I should note that the role of this newspaper, and in particular the excellence and the passion of Gammons, Ryan, and Shaughnessy, is not to be underestimated in the conversion of David and countless thousands like him.

That conversion was gradual at first, but sometime in the mid-'70s ("right about the time Watergate was coming to a head," he recalls), it was completed, and he was quietly inducted into full membership in the Nation, though without an official ceremony. (I should point out what most readers of this newspaper already know, that it can be a long, cold, silent winter here in New England with very little to talk about if you are not a certified member of the Nation). Life as a Citizen of the Nation has not always been easy -- one's soul is always being tested -- and David happened to be at Fenway Park on that memorable day in 1978 -- Monday, October 2 when Russell Earl Dent, for one remarkable moment, in an otherwise not very remarkable career, became a power hitter.

I would say of David now that his faith is great, perhaps unshakable, although he is skeptical at heart. But, and this is critical, he never lets his skepticism get in the way of his passion; his heart never gives in to his brain in matters like this. If it were otherwise, he and millions like him would have to leave the flock. I have come to think of Citizens of the Nation like him as being unusually committed, as fans are rarely committed in these days of free agency (if players can trade themselves, so can fans) and the condition is passed on generation to generation. Naturally David regularly takes his daughters to Fenway -- they will not slip away from their connection to the Sox, as he slipped away from his to the Yankees. Still there is much suffering ahead for them as well as for him, and he knows it. Or in the famous words of my friend Marty Nolan, "They killed my father, and now they're coming after me."

Because the fan base is so rooted, history plays a great role and casts an immense shadow on RSN. Young fans in their 30s, born 20 years after Ray Scarborough pitched his last game in the big leagues, talk knowingly about the Scarborough Game, that tragic moment at the tail end of the 1949 season, the fourth-to-the-last game of the season when Scarborough, pitching for the hapless Senators, beat the Sox, 2-1, in a game which, had they won, would have given them a lock on the pennant. Worse, they had led, 1-0, going into the ninth inning. Losing the Scarborough Game meant that the Red Sox ventured into Yankee Stadium needing to win only one of two games there, and of course, the script never really changing, lost both. (In 1948, the previous season, the year they finished the regular season in a tie with Cleveland, the same Ray Scarborough had beaten them three times). These fans also know that, goaded by Ted, who had a surprising amount of trouble picking up the ball on Scarborough, the Red Sox traded for him for the 1951 and part of the 1952 seasons, but the magic was gone, and he was 13-14 with them, and in late August of 1952, with a record of 1-5, he was traded to the Yankees, where naturally he went 5-1. Ray Scarborough died 21 years ago, and I think it is safe to say that he lives larger in the minds and hearts of Red Sox fans than of Washington Senator fans.

The Nation is like all truly great nations, vast but because of its unique passions there is a certain intimacy to it. Many of the older members have had some kind of contact with many of their heroes over the years, and that contact has almost always been pleasant (even with Ted, I might add -- the key to Ted seems to be that the more unlikely the connection, that is the more simple the fan's professional and economic status, the more likely the friendship was to flower).

One story about player and fan is fairly typical: A fan had always admired Bobby Doerr greatly and had shown up at Cooperstown for his induction into the Hall of Fame in 1986. But there were no tickets available -- the ceremony was sold out. The fan had an idea of which hotel Bobby was staying at and called him there, thinking he might just have extra tickets. Bobby came on the phone and of course was delighted to oblige, leaving two for the fan at the hotel reception desk. Out of stories like this comes not just loyalty but love.

It is relatively easy, of course, to identify the members of the Nation. Not just the cap or the T-shirt or even the sweatshirt, though these days a great many arrive at events or games with gloves and at least partially in uniform. But there is also, I think, a certain look that gives away membership in the Nation -- it's a look of someone enthusiastic, but wary, (or wary, but enthusiastic) and there's a certain noticeable hunger to it. It's all right to believe and to care, the look seems to say, but one would do well not to invest too much emotion in the idea of actually winning. You care but you care guardedly. I would describe the principal emotion as one of deep longing.

It's a condition, being a Red Sox fan, not a cult, nor a religious affiliation, although there are on occasion certain religious experiences. (Think Yaz in '67, and Fisk in the World Series in '75.) Most Americans are relatively indifferent to the past, believing that America is so powerful that history does not matter, that our nation is so strong and energetic, that we can mold the present to our needs, despite the burdens of the past. Not Red Sox fans: They know the past matters, and they know as well that you are, more than you realize, a prisoner of it. In a country where there has been an amazing run of material affluence for almost 60 years with the expectation built into the larger culture that things are supposed to get better every year, citizens of RSN know better. They know that things do not always get better. They know that the guys in the white hats do not always win in the last five minutes of the movie. They know the guys in the black hats have plenty of last-minute tricks, and that they can pick up just the right player off the waiver list in the waning days of a season (think Johnny Mize, 1949).

The Red Sox fan knows that the fates can be cruel. Never mind the Babe. Just think a mere 31 years ago -- why it was like yesterday: Sparky Lyle for Danny Cater. A 27-year-old lefthanded reliever, who had pitched in 184 games in the previous three years, and had saved 16 that year (and would save a league-leading 35 the next year) for a 32-year-old first baseman with up to then 52 career home runs. Oh dear.

Although I am by the nature of my birth something of an outsider, I feel qualified after this trip, because so many people have confessed their greatest fears to me, to render a general update on the state of RSN. First off the Citizen of the Nation is worried. In fact, he or she is always worried. The principal lesson of life is that things are not as they seem (and there will always be a shortfall of pitching). Still there are a few specifics we need to deal with here.

First, Pedro's arm. We are among friends here, so we do not need to give Pedro any additional identification. He is Pedro. It is the belief of RSN that Pedro is not just the best pitcher in baseball but probably the best money pitcher in the game as well, that the bigger the game, the more you want him to pitch. Still there is this nagging question: Is his body starting to break down just a bit? This may or may not be happening, but being a member of the Nation means that you are always better prepared for subtraction than for addition. Some things are too good to last -- like Pedro's arm.

That brings us to the second thing, Nomar's contract. Again we have no need for a last name. Nomar is the best position player on the contemporary team. He just might be the most valuable position player in the American League. I suspect he is the best position player to come up since Yaz -- perhaps the best to come up since Ted. Baseball fans, no matter what their more immediate loyalty, should think of him quite properly, as a gift to the game. I have watched major league baseball for more than 60 years, and I saw Phil Rizzuto in his rookie season in New York but I never thought I would see a shortstop like Nomar, with that rare combination of power and speed. He has all that power, vastly greater range than Derek Jeter, and seems to take genuine pleasure in the game.

In Boston he is lionized. Why then are there so many reports about him being unhappy and wanting to go to Los Angeles? Does Los Angeles deserve him? Obviously not. Did it deserve Koufax? Obviously not. The Dodgers deserve Schwarzenegger playing shortstop for them. If indeed he needs an additional job. Still, why when there is an owner as smart and as capable as John W. Henry -- RSN finally has an ownership team worthy of the fans -- is there any question of his future here? Can it be that he is too appreciated? Loved too much? Is too much expected?

Is this the most heartbreaking new bit of evidence -- that RSN fans are so passionate that their very passion places an unfair burden on their best players because so much is invested in them? Nomar is said to be unhappy with the media, but very little negative is written about him. Will a trade to a team whose fans are less passionate make him happier? He might call another shortstop, a Mr. Rodriguez of Texas who now knows more than he ever wanted to about playing games that don't matter before crowds that don't care.

And finally, the great question which hovers out there and which may someday have to be dealt with -- the fear of victory. This is the most complicated question of all. That is, what will happen if they win it all? Will the mystique end? Will it then become an ordinary team with ordinary fans? Will winning rupture the special bond between fans and team? Does much of the beauty and the passion of it all come from the fact that the journey has been too hard? Will winning destroy that special mystique? Oh to be able to deal with those questions . . .

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