Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Characterizing the Fanbases #4: Boston Red Sox

Welcome to the latest installment of Characterizing the Fanbases! In this series I’m attempting to present the psychology of every MLB fanbase. This series, as you would expect, comes with a disclaimer: These characterizations are based on my own perceptions and opinions, and no offense is intended by them. I freely admit that I’m only one man, and my view is therefore limited. I’m fully aware that many fans will not fit the profile I depict, and that’s to be expected, because it’s impossible to make blanket statements about large groups of people. If you want to contest anything I write here, feel free to leave a thoughtful, civil comment. Otherwise, sit back and have fun reading. Perhaps I might even say something insightful!

Ah, these guys. Their reputation has grown in prominence in the last decade, and I think it’s gone through some transformations as well. It might be good to take this thing step-by-step.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: As a “traditional” baseball market, Boston is home to some extremely loyal, knowledgeable fans. You can see that tons of them know the history of their team and the game inside and out, so never let it be said that I don’t respect that element of the fanbase. Are we good? OK, then. Let’s move on to some less-flattering things that unfortunately must be noted.

I can’t say I witnessed the evolution of the Red Sox fan firsthand, as I’m only in my early 30’s. From what I’ve read though, Boston wasn’t as baseball-crazy as it is now once upon a time. Indeed, a look at their attendance history shows that back in the day they had trouble drawing when they weren’t winning, just like anybody else. It wasn’t until the “Impossible Dream” season of 1967 and the subsequent years of sustained success that baseball became an all-consuming obsession for the average New Englander.

The Red Sox in those days hadn’t won the World Series since 1918, but their fans had many reasons to be optimistic, as their team was usually a contender, and would surely find its way to a title sooner or later. After losing the 1975 World Series, a huge collapse that cost them a division title in 1978, and mid-season fades in the early ‘80s, their disposition became less cheery. It all crystallized during the 1986 season, the year of the World Series meltdown and Bill Buckner’s error. At that point, it seemed like something greater was working against them, and the media happened upon the idea that maybe they were being punished for selling the great Babe Ruth to their hated rivals, the Yankees, back in 1919. Thus, the “Curse of the Bambino” was born.

Like Cub fans, I don’t know that many Red Sox fans literally believed in the curse, but the idea that it was their destiny to lose still weighed on them mentally. The fact that the Yankees were almost always good only served to remind them that they were stuck in Goliath’s shadow. As most people do when they feel helpless against a greater force, Red Sox fans turned to self-pity and desperate lashing out. They might have been saddled with a long drought, but at least they could rejoice in small successes and Yankee failures.

For a long time it seemed as though they defined themselves in opposition to the Yankees. Their rallying cry became “Yankees suck!” which they’d use even when the Yankees weren’t their opponent. They began to believe that despite the Yankees’ greater success, the Red Sox possessed a special moral superiority that the Yankees could never have. After all, unlike Yankee fans, they’d had their loyalty tested with years of struggle. It didn’t hurt either, that the media romanticized them and their sufferings, despite the fact that there was a team in the very same league that had been waiting a year longer for a championship.

When Theo Epstein took over the GM position before the 2003 season, the fan culture began a gradual change. Epstein was a young man who grew up a Red Sox fan, so he attempted to reach out to the people in the stands more than his predecessors did. While the marketing raised the team’s profile significantly, it also led to the rise of what Red Sox diehards derisively call “pink hats,” or more specifically, fans who go to Fenway and root for the Red Sox because it’s trendy and hip. These new fans brought in more money, but many felt they diluted the fanbase’s integrity in the process.

If you’re reading this, you probably know what happened in 2004: The Red Sox met the Yankees in the ALCS and after being down 3-0 in the series, won four straight to take the pennant and eventually their first World Series title in 86 years. It was a storybook season if ever there was one. All talk about the “Curse of the Bambino” was put to rest, and Red Sox fans rejoiced as few fanbases ever had.

Even though the monkey was off their back, cultural values don’t change overnight. They still carried around an underdog complex and whined about the Yankees’ spending despite their own sky-high payroll. They still tried to convince themselves of their own moral superiority and importance despite the fact that they had nothing keeping them down anymore. No longer was it a defense mechanism, but a media-fueled self-hype buying. They began to act as though the entire sport of baseball revolved around not just the Red Sox, but themselves as well. When they lost, everyone was expected to feel their pain, because they were still nursing many previous years of heartbreak.

(Annoying-but-related anecdote: Back in the days when Facebook was a college-only phenomenon, I was part of a group called “I Hate the New York Yankees.” When Johnny Damon signed with the Yankees, some girl started posting a bunch of comments in the discussion section whining about it and asking how he could betray “us,” as though a collection of Yankee-haters were by default a gathering of Red Sox Nation members. I think a lot of “fans” actually believe the entire sport is some big Yankees-Red Sox dichotomy.)

The World Series title of 2007 seemed to put to bed the old way among Red Sox fans. It pretty much forced them to recognize that a championship could now happen to them more than once every several generations, and with their resources, they had every reason to expect a contender every year. Suddenly, there was nothing to distinguish them from Yankee fans except a belief in their own uniqueness. If I recall correctly, the sponsorship message on Baseball-Reference’s page for the 2007 Red Sox used to say something like “2004 was for all the previous generations of Red Sox fans, but 2007 was for us!” Such a statement only suggests that the current generation of the Boston faithful is a special bunch that deserves a title to call its own, and the one they’d witnessed three years earlier didn’t fully count because they had to share it with a bunch of old and dead people. Sigh... I blame ESPN.

While my instinctual feeling about Red Sox fans is a negative one, I’ll admit that I truly do feel some sympathy for the diehard, non-arrogant Red Sox fans that are out there. Their undoubted frustration with the “pink hats” is something I would probably share, as I know what it’s like to root for a team with trendy followers. With declining fortunes the last few years and no more drought to romanticize, the Red Sox seem to be losing some of the hipness they once possessed, and have become just another team in many ways. I hope it continues, because some humility might allow Red Sox fans to become better-known for their good qualities than their bad ones.

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