When 3.2 million people gather together, the largest public gathering in New England history, to celebrate a baseball victory, you know it cannot be just about a baseball victory.
Major League Baseball, as every Boston Red Sox fan knows, is a religion. It has supernatural significance. For 86 years, so it seemed to statistics-intoxicated Bosox followers, the Red Sox laboured under a curse, one documented and given currency by sports reporter Dan Shaughnessy in his book, The Curse of the Bambino. Apparently, according to Red Sox mythology, the sale of Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees after the 1919 season was a transaction of such monumental stupidity that the gods had no other choice than to place a curse on the Boston franchise that would prevent it from ever winning another World Series championship.
Over fourscore and six seasons, Red Sox teams laboured valiantly and would come tantalizingly close to ultimate victory. But as the years droned on, it became increasingly clear that Boston was acting out a Greek tragedy, locked implacably in the merciless jaws of fate. And yet, Red Sox fans, a curious amalgam of fatalism and optimism, continued to root and sweat and groan and hope.
How can one begin to understand this strange socio-religious phenomenon? Fans went to dizzying extremes in an attempt to “reverse the curse,” including the exploits of one stout-hearted gentleman who climbed to the top of Mount Everest, where he burned a Yankee cap and planted a Red Sox flag. To be sure, this phenomenon is not just about a baseball game.
Nor does it have anything to do with Boston. Only Mark Bellhorn, the Red Sox second baseman who set a franchise record this year with 177 strikeouts, is a native of the Boston area. Only two players came through the Red Sox farm system: Trot Nixon, who spent most of the year on the disabled list, and Kevin Youkilis, who did not make an appearance in the World Series and was excluded from the roster during the series against the Yankees.
We find a clue to the transcendent importance of this phenomenon when we listen to Red Sox fans’ conversations and read their placards. When the possibility of a world championship began to present itself once again, people were talking about how happy it would have made their deceased fathers. During the mammoth celebration, one fan, representing many, carried a sign that read: “My dad lived for this.” The poster included a picture of the father and his lifespan – Nov. 26, 1925 to March 10, 2004 – that poignantly captured the father-to-son, inter-generational bond that binds fans to their team.
My mother has received a lot of media attention of late. As she approaches her 100th birthday, she has told press scribes that all she wants for her centennial event is “a Red Sox World Series championship.” She graduated from grammar school in 1918, the last time the Red Sox were World Series victors, and recalls her father’s devotion to the team. “We could never talk to him when the game was on,” she told media interviewers, “because it would break his concentration.”
There is a religion dynamic to being a Red Sox fan, and it is one that involves the tension between fate and fatherhood. And how easy it is to apply this tension to ordinary life. Fate means that we have little, if anything, to do with the outcome of our lives. Our fate is sealed. If this is the case, we wonder what the point of our lives can be. Will our hopes always be dashed? Can we not be an agency directing, or at least influencing, the outcome of our lives? Indeed, is there any sense in which our lives are our own?
Fatherhood, on the other hand, is providential. It promises to provide us with what we need to become ourselves. Every earthly father derives his fatherhood from the fatherhood of God. Fatherhood means freedom, flexibility, fortune. Fate is fixed and final. “Fate! There is no fate,” as Bulwer-Lytton once remarked. “Between the thought and the success, God is the only agent” (or “execution,” as Red Sox hurler, Curt Schilling maintains).
In the final scene of the movie version of Bernard Malamud’s baseball epic, The Natural, we see legendary Roy Hobbes (Robert Redford) not being inducted into the Hall of Fame, but in a field happily tossing a baseball back and forth to his bright-eyed young son. Baseball touched upon fatherhood, tradition, teaching, and connecting generations. Surely, a significant part of the Boston celebration is the collective sense that the fans are not creatures whose fates are fixed, but free human beings whose fathers have pointed them in the right direction. It means that we are agents in the pursuit of our destiny.
My three sons were with me when the final out was registered. Then, I had to call my own father, who is 95 and living in a retirement home. With apologies to Abraham Lincoln and Ralph Waldo Emerson, allow me to post my own celebrational gesture in poetic form:
The Shout Heard ‘Round the Nation
Four score and a half dozen years ago,
A span of time that teemed with woe,
A curse of desperation
Haunted Red Sox Nation;
But now the torture’s over, Babe,
For the comeback that these “Idiots” made
In conquering the Yankees in their yard
And knocking down a House of Cards
Has set their fandom on a roar
And crowned them champs of 2004;
They did not wait for Hell to freeze;
Their flag now flaps to autumn’s breeze.
Donald DeMarco, a frequent contributor to The Interim, is a retired professor of philosophy at the University of St. Jerome’s College, Waterloo, Ont., and the author of numerous books, including, most recently with Benjamin Wiker, Architects of the Culture of Death (Ignatius).