Throughout what even Boston Red Sox players, coaches and personnel have deemed a “miserable” season, one quote has epitomized Boston. Ironically, it came from former Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon well before the season ever got underway: “The difference between Boston and Philadelphia, the Boston fans are a little bit more hysterical when it comes to the game of baseball.” Papelbon infamously quipped at the start of spring training. “The Philly fans tend to know the game a little better, being in the National League, you know, the way the game is played.”
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While certainly Philadelphia fans, too, have some hysterics among their ranks – a contingency that has fostered a strong Boston/Philadelphia rivalry in sports beyond just baseball – the point remains: Boston fans don’t know the game.
In the middle of August, I took a friend of mine – Tom, who was visiting from Amsterdam – to see a game at Fenway. This trip was paramount for Tom, who plays baseball in Holland and had only ever been to a major league game in Toronto. Certainly, baseball in Holland does not draw attention the way the game does in the United States, but while some facilities are small and intimate, larger ones often look empty and oversized in comparison to the interest it attracts.
The same could be said for Fenway as we sat to watch the Angels and Jered Weaver take on the Red Sox behind Clay Buchholz. Although the image of the lower bowl could easily maintain the illusion of a sellout streak, private boxes and pavilion level seating were unseasonably empty. Neither the high billing of the pitching matchup nor the offensive potency of Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, was enough to hold the interest of those in attendance, save a few frustrated diehards sitting around us; the rest began doing “the wave” in the third inning and did not stop until the seventh inning, as most people had begun their exodus by that point.
While waiting for the train after the game, Tom – who had now viewed American sports culture in the form of a trip to Fenway and a New England Patriots’ preseason game earlier in the week – said to me, “I probably wouldn’t take my girlfriend to a soccer game in Amsterdam, but I would definitely take her to Fenway; it’s more like going out to an event than going to a sporting event.”
The innocence of his comment was scathing. Such a proud tradition of sport and fandom encapsulated in those brick confines over the past 100 years had been reduced to a caricature of charlatan “pink hats” born from the entitlement of multiple championships and a large wallet, both on the part of the fan and the ownership.
Buzzwords and phrases like “change of culture,” “unlikeable team” and “build around [insert player name]” are useless without the knowledge of where they are stemming from in specific regard to this team. The 2012 Red Sox are “unlikeable” in part because of the hangover from 2011, but also because they have a manager publicly calling out players in press conferences and star players complaining midseason about being disrespected by the arbitration process. They need to “build around” hardworking players Dustin Pedroia with energetic players like Cody Ross, and not treat the latter as a commodity because he doesn’t hit for the kind of numbers management expected to see from Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford. But most importantly, the “change of culture” has to come from all sides, not just the Powers That Be.
Red Sox fans have become the antithesis of themselves. While overspending on talent, regardless of chemistry, was once the calling card of rival New York, the Boston has followed suit and fans have adopted the culture change seamlessly and without question.
There is rumor of a small (probably microscopic) faction of Chicago Cubs fans that root for the boys on the North Side with the hopes that they never win a title, for fear that it will tarnish a bond that has been built from generations of failure. That was once the “Red Sox Nation,” but how soon we forget what it was like to cheer a team that could not win. To go to Fenway today and witness fans there, you would be hard pressed to imagine they might have the tolerance, zeal and faith to rally and withstand a four-game comeback in the ALCS.
Perhaps the catalyst for change would come from moving on from the manufactured nostalgia that is Fenway Park – with plaques commemorating the area in section 3 that was set aside as an overflow space for surplus media during the 2004 World Series – or maybe it means building a team for 2015 that is nurtured in Pawtucket. Regardless, the onus is on the fan in both conversation and attitude.
On Boston-area sports radio, the phrase of the season has been “the fish stinks from the head down,” and it’s true; this team has had its problems in the clubhouse and in the front office, but the “fish” is bigger than that. Media and fans alike have failed to uphold the integrity of a city. Fans have been irresponsible at games, and while the productivity of booing a player remains an age-old debate, at least booing illustrates attention. Today, Red Sox fans at the park appear wholly disinterested in the game. Media, in turn, has become lazy and seems to take their journalistic cues from the annals of these fans, particularly in their questioning of manager Bobby Valentine. Despite answers given in press conferences prior, as well as numerous votes of confidence from ownership, the same questions of the future remain. That is not to say they are unwarranted and without reason, but rather they are loaded and redundant.
The “Fenway Faithful” showed its true colors this season, but that is not to say all Red Sox fans are at fault. Enough have started to shift baseball conversation in local media outlets toward next season. Nevertheless, so long as disinterest and fleeting support continues to be the norm at Fenway, it seems unlikely that a true culture change can occur and flourish. Should the Red Sox organization return to success in 2013, it is likely that Fenway fans, too, will revert to being the most excited and faithful in major league baseball, but that only goes to further epitomize their uninformed fraudulence.