There's room for everyone in Red Sox Nation
Editor's note: This column appears in the September 3 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
"Come on, admit it -- deep down, you miss the Curse a little."
A buddy e-mailed me that challenge last week. I knew what he was thinking.
In his mind, I had to miss following a tortured franchise, had to miss those life-or-death Octobers, had to miss the battle-scarred kinship with other diehards, had to miss dreaming about the big payoff that was probably never coming. He figured I was like Jack in that flash-forward episode of "Lost," wandering around LA with a bad beard as I bemoaned the fact that I'd been rescued. I had to miss the island.
It's not true. Real fans don't miss hearing the "1918" chants or McCarver and Buck mentioning Babe Ruth every five minutes, and we definitely don't miss having the lower hand with the Yankees. We don't miss living with a particular kind of sports mortality that most fans can't understand: the fear of potentially going an entire lifetime without seeing our favorite team prevail. It was a noose hanging around our collective neck. What's to miss about that?
Still, our life-or-death passion hasn't faded too much. Just ask J.D. Drew, Eric Gagne, Julio Lugo and Theo Epstein, all of whom have struggled this season and have been skewered by radio callers, bloggers and message boarders for it. No Sox fan can find total peace; we'll always dread the next meltdown or come-from-behind charge by the Yankees. These feelings are wired into our DNA, like Haddonfield citizens who will never again feel totally safe on Halloween. Maybe we shrug off day-to-day losses a bit easier, and maybe we don't spend our winters bemoaning fate and destiny, but we still give a crap. We want to keep winning. We don't want things to change.
And yet it's been surreal to watch the Sox evolve into a bandwagon superpower like the 1970s Cowboys, one of those successful ubercontenders that everyone in Boston has always despised. Home games have been overrun by pseudo fans, cute females and families in green jerseys and pink caps. Road games have been transformed by a swelling fan base -- partly because of the bandwagoners, partly because the Impossible Dream season in 1967 created three full generations (and counting) of Sox fans -- that provides a homefield advantage in many opposing parks. A recent USA Today cover story pointed to the team's startling road attendance figures, the highest in baseball, and decided, "Red Sox Nation has grown into its name."
I flew down to Tampa for last week's series and can report the following: Sox fans made up 70% of the crowd, overwhelming Devil Rays fans, most of whom were in the Matlock demographic, anyway. From a noise standpoint, if you closed your eyes, you would have thought you were in Fenway. (Well, until you opened them and saw the dome on the ghoulishly outdated Tropicana Field, or the brownish-red shag carpety stuff on the warning track that was pulled from Austin Powers' flat.) Three sights were especially shocking:
1. Entire families dressed in Sox gear, including some clans who traveled from New England for a vacation.
Before our team won it all this rarely happened, because few fathers wanted to subject their kids to merciless berating. Now there's a coming-out-of-the-closet feel to these road games: It's okay, you can wear your Manny jersey, honey. Nothing bad will happen.
2. Attractive females wearing Sox gear.
Even during the Pedro era, you were more likely to see a no-hitter than a cute woman in team colors. Now they're everywhere. And honestly, I just can't get over seeing a woman who isn't built like Doug Mirabelli wearing a Sox jersey.
3. The scores of post-2004 newbie fans.
Do these yahoos even know suffering? In Tampa, the guy behind me (a Sox "fan") and his girlfriend (a D-Rays fan) were doing the whole "giving each other crap" thing, which would have been fine if he hadn't returned with two beers during a Tampa rally and said, "Wow, you got the score to 5-7!" That's post-2004 Sox fans for you: They wear crisp new hats and think Wade Boggs was a country singer and that the score is 5-7.
Again, I'd rather be a Sox fan in 2007 than 2003. I just wasn't prepared to root for the Yankees, and as sad as this sounds, we've kinda sorta maybe turned into the Yankees. Like them, we spend more money than everyone else. Like them, we make expensive roster mistakes (Drew, Lugo, Matt Clement, Edgar Renterķa, et al.) without any repercussions. Like them, we're detested by opposing fans because we invade their stadiums and taunt their teams. And like them, we're sucking in all the soulless bandwagon kids who pick their favorite teams in first grade based on winning percentages and superstars.
Although 2004 got the ball rolling, blame the shrewd owners (John Henry, Larry Lucchino and Tom Werner) for the recent parallels. Fenway could be a Disney mini park at this point; they're practically printing money there, and when you throw in the various merchandising windfalls (one little girl in Tampa was wearing a green Coco Crisp jersey) and the TV money from NESN, the Red Sox will probably make $10 trillion this season. Ironically, this was what we always wanted: caring owners who kept Fenway alive, moved the franchise into the 21st century and spent much of their profits on roster improvements. How could anyone complain? It's like following an unknown band through thick and thin, watching them blow up and sell out stadiums, then being angry because they hit the big time.
Of course, it's tough to ignore three-fourths of a crowd in Tampa screaming for "Yooooooooook" as the alleged Boston fan behind me asks, "Why are they booing?" Back in the old days, we used late-season collapses and crushing playoff defeats to weed out these fair-weather knuckleheads. Now they're multiplying like Body Snatcher pods.
During the lowest point of the 2004 playoffs (Game 3, ALCS), I wondered if I should even raise my first kid as a Sox fan. Was I willing to inflict lifelong pain on him or her? These days, it's one of the safest sports decisions a father can make, right up there with buying a Kevin Durant rookie card and bashing Michael Vick at a cocktail party. Jump on the Bosox bandwagon, and you get a 95-win team with a monster payroll and tens of thousands of fans in every city. We're a sure thing.
You also get a franchise without any real baggage, at least not at the moment. (Hold on -- I'm frantically knocking on wood.) When the Yankees made their recent surge and the parallels to 1978 started to pop up, for the first time I didn't quake in my boots. Three years ago, we came back from three-zip, chopped off their heads at the Stadium and buried 1918 in St. Louis. That altered the hammer/nail dynamic of our rivalry, even if Yankee fans will never admit it. Today, we're simply competing superpowers with bloated fan bases. We will always be in the other's way. Always. That's as far as it goes.
Maybe it's not the most compelling story line, but for Red Sox fans, it's infinitely more palatable than the previous one. Believe me, we don't miss being on that island. Even if it is a lot more crowded back home.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available in paperback.