October 30, 2007

Report from Fenway Park and Game 1 of the World Series

by David Goldstein, Guest writer

In my 20-odd years as a sports fan, I’ve known mostly defeat, bitterness, dashed hopes, and self-loathing, so really it makes sense that my first World Series game should be in the stadium of a team I don’t like. Malcom Gladwell once wrote that rooting for the Red Sox or Yankees is like rooting for Microsoft or GE. I say it’s like rooting for Nitro or Turbo on American Gladiators. But hey, it’s the World Series, and I’m going for free, so I’m not complaining.

We get to Fenway about two hours before game one starts, and there are already hordes of people milling around Yawkey Way – scalpers, vendors, drunken fans, and a handful of homeless people, the latter two distinguishable by the presence or absence of Red Sox jerseys.

As a Phillies fan, I find the tenor at the park remarkably giddy and tension-free, almost like the outcome’s assured, the game serving more as the beginning of a formal coronation than anything. This is partially a testament to the transformative effect of the 2004 World Series – Boston’s aura of impending doom having given way to a breezy swagger – and partially a function of Josh Beckett, whose playoff dominance has basically put Colorado in a psychological 0-2 hole.

I’ve wracked my brain trying to come up with plausible scenarios in which Jeff Francis beats Beckett, but since scenarios that involve a 28 year-old well-conditioned athlete having a stroke or having an existential crisis about the evident meaninglessness of athletic competition when children are starving in Botswana, don’t really qualify as ‘plausible,’ we’ll say that games 1 and 5 have already been decided. (Which, given the inevitability of tonight’s outcome, raises interesting questions about how it can possibly be fun or interesting or entertaining to watch an event where the primary selling point is the supposed unpredictability.)

When I see a couple of fans stumble out of a stretch limo, it finally hits me what tonight’s festivities sort of remind me of – a prom, and not just any prom, but one where everyone knows he’s getting lucky. A Philadelphia World Series would be like a prom with self-conscious computer dorks and theater nerds, a prom where everyone is miserable and self-conscious, and just hoping to survive the night with a level of humiliation that won’t necessitate suicide.

Inside the ushers are handing out laminated sheaths so we can wear our tickets around our necks, kind of like a press pass. I’m really excited about this. I flash my laminated ticket at everyone we pass, which is fun, until it occurs to me that every single person in the stadium has the same laminated doo-hickey, and the idea of a universal status symbol is sort of contradictory…and worse, that taunting other people by showing off something that everyone has not only makes you look like an asshole, it makes you look almost unhinged.

Our seats are in the grandstand in deep foul territory in right field. One of my main gripes with Fenway Park is that the grandstand seats are arranged so that if you sit facing forward, you’re staring at the right fielder, which means that to see the pitcher and batter you have to crane your neck to the left for several hours. Also, there’s a stanchion in our sightline blocking the mound, so in addition to craning your neck, you have to lean at a bizarre 60 degree angle. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I call this twisted position an ergonomic holocaust.

I’ve come to the game with David Bernick.

Bernick’s initial reaction to our seats: Wow, this is a lot closer than I thought it would be. Bernick, evidently thought we’d be sitting in the parking lot.

Now, bear in mind that I am not complaining in the least, as Bernick paid for my very expensive seat and I’m getting to go to a World Series game in which the most dominant post-season pitcher of recent memory is starting for the home team. But these are truly bad seats. The only seats further away are in the bleachers, but the greater distance would then be offset by the far superior sightlines and seat angles. We’re in the worst seats in the house. These cost $500 (that again, I didn’t pay. I don’t intend for this to sound whiny or ungrateful, but journalistic integrity compels me to document the experience with as much precision as I can muster. And these are objectively terrible seats.) I can’t give any rational argument as to why this is preferable to watching a game in Hi-Def on a 50 inch LCD screen while stuffing my face with chicken wings, but it is. I can’t see anything. I’m incredibly uncomfortable. I’m sitting next to a snotty 14 year-old who keeps putting his elbows beyond his armrest, and just shamelessly violating my limited personal space.

Still, it’s weirdly exhilarating to be here. I’m at the World Series. This knowledge trumps all. (Which makes me wonder how uncomfortable I’d need to be for the physical discomfort to override the thrill of simply being here. What if someone were sitting on my lap? Or the person behind me kicked the back of my seat for three hours? Or if I was there, but in some kind of iron maiden type contraption?)

We’re sitting for a few minutes before I decide to try and kill the time by playing “spot the non-whites.”

At Boston sporting events, the degree of difficulty is off the charts. Factor in the obscenely expensive World Series tickets, and the game isn’t so much a game as a damning socioeconomic commentary on Boston - the demography of the crowd is about as diverse as a Klan rally. I assuage my conscience by resolving to vote for Obama in ’08. (And then again in ’09. I don’t play by your ‘rules.’)

About a half hour before Carl Yastremski throws out the first pitch, the PA guy announces a special Taco Bell promotion: If someone steals a base during the World Series, everyone in American gets a free taco. Tacos cost about $.75. I have not eaten a Taco Bell taco in five years. So why am I practically crying tears of joy?

A few minutes before game time the ’67 Red Sox totter out onto the field as the crowd cheers appreciatively. While everyone else is enjoying a moment of nostalgia, I’m studying the old-time players, scrutinizing their hunched backs and trembling hands, and just generally feeling depressed at what 40 years can do to once handsome and muscular athletes. Are the ’07 Red Sox watching this and thinking about how bad they’ll look when they’re trotted onto the field in ’47 (all except for Curt Schilling and Tim Wakefield, who will both be 137)?

The game starts with Beckett running full counts on Willy Tavares and Kaz Matsui before striking both out. He then blows a 95-mph heater by Matt Holliday to end the first. In interviews Beckett has said that it takes him an inning or two to warm up, so if you’re gonna get to him, it’ll be in the first. The Rockies didn’t come close to putting a ball in play. I write ‘game over’ in my notes. (Bernick and I are both scoring the game. A strikeout looking is denoted by a backwards ‘K’ which is just insanely fun to write.)

I’m admiring my backwards ‘K’ when everyone leaps out of their seats and begins cheering wildly. I’ve missed Dustin Pedroia’s leadoff homerun. Dammit.

A drunken middle-aged man behind me starts a “Let’s Go Red Sox” cheer, which changes for each batter, i.e. it becomes a Let’s Go Manny, a Let’s Go Papi, and so on. The guy is red-faced and wears an expression of the dreamiest contentment you can imagine. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this might be the happiest human being I’ve seen in my life. I’d guess he’s in his mid-fifties, and he appears to have come to the game alone. So now I’m looking at the world’s happiest man, and pitying him, which seems odd.

Before the inning is over, the Sox will tack on another two runs. With Beckett on the mound, a three run lead may as well be 20.

(If you dislike pretentious rants, please skip this next paragraph)

One of the most uncomfortable parts about going to a baseball game in which you have zero emotional attachment to either team, is that it forces you to confront the sheer irrationality of being a sports fan at all. When I’m watching the Phillies, I’m too caught up in the game to think about my reactions, but here, I can watch with a certain detachment, and it’s unnerving.

J.D. drew smacks a double to the gap, and the fans erupt. A baseball player, whom you do not personally know, gets a hit, and this hit makes you incredibly happy, even though you don’t benefit from this hit in any tangible way. I thought I’d reconciled the irrationality of being a fan in the following way – even though it might not be rational to root for people you don’t know, if neuroscientists were scanning your brain during the game, they could track a very real physiological effect in response to your team’s success – the dopamine centers of the brain would be activated and so your ‘pleasure’ would not just be real, but experimentally provable.

So in effect, one can argue that while it might not make sense to hope a complete stranger has success in a game, it absolutely makes sense to root for a chain of events that will culminate in your brain’s releasing neurotransmitters that will make you feel good, and root against the chain events that will make you feel bad. Hence, it is absolutely rational to hope your team does well – you’re rooting for your own wellbeing.

Except this doesn’t solve anything, it just kicks the problem from philosophy over to neuroscience – if you’re not rooting for the team so much as hoping for the release of feel-good dopamine, why then does your team’s success trigger the release of dopamine in the first place? If you’re the kind of person who reads Steven Pinker books, you’d probably argue that this reaction stems from an evolutionary mechanism that favors tribal allegiance, and obviously, if you were witnessing a battle between your own tribe and a rival, you’d have a vested interest in the outcome of this battle, and would feel euphoria if they won, and despair if they lost (despair is probably putting it gently, as you’d be killed or enslaved or raped, etc. which, if you ever need a little perspective after a devastating loss, this thought works pretty well)

But now you have to deal with the dilemma of how arbitrary this tribal identification is in the age of free-agency. If the Phillies had played the Minnesota Twins this year, I’d have been booing Tori Huntert. If the Phillies sign Tori Hunter this offseason (stop laughing) I’d then be rooting for him. This because of a change of uniform. I think it was Seinfeld who once said that we’re not rooting for the players so much as we’re rooting for the uniforms.

Except this isn’t entirely true – I identify with the players on the ’07 Phillies to the extent that if the Red Sox and Phillies traded their entire teams, I’d have no choice but to be a Red Sox fan. But if the Phillies traded Cole Hamels for Josh Beckett, I’d stop rooting for Hamels and begin rooting for Beckett. In the first scenario, personality matters, in the second the uniform trumps all. How does that make any sense? Is there a critical mass of number of players you can change in one off-season before the team loses its identity, and the uniform no longer matters? What if the team is traded gradually over 10 years?

(rant complete)

The only question tonight is whether Beckett will throw a no-hitter, which is answered in the second when Garrett Atkins doubles high off the Monster in left.

Francis gets yanked in the fourth, having thrown over 100 pitches. It’s getting ugly.

In the fifth inning, with the sox already up 5-1, all hell breaks loose. The Sox bat around. Colorado relievers walk in three runs. It’s a 13-1 game, and it’s getting so bad that even the hometown faithful are actively encouraging the Colorado pitchers to throw strikes. My notes for this inning read as follows. “Jesus. Kill me.”

I’m still scoring the game, but it’s hard to pay attention in a blow-out. This leads to conversations like the following:

Sarah: Steal a base! I want tacos!

Me: Yeah! The Rockies are Americans. They can’t be mad. They’d get tacos too.

Sarah: Everyone would win. It’s anti-American to root against this.

Me: Wait…how does it work? Do we all get one taco if anyone steals a base, or do we all get one taco per stolen base?

Sarah: Ooh. I don’t know. Can you imagine if they stole four bases. That’s over a billion tacos!

Me: I bet they put less meat in each taco then.

I then start wondering if the ”everyone in America gets a taco” includes illegal immigrants, and if it doesn’t, if you have to bring proof of citizenship, and suddenly I’m picturing taco bell like customs at the airport, lines out into the street as people riffle through their fanny packs for their passports…which makes the whole promotion just way less appealing.

The game is so out of hand that Red Sox manager Terry Francona has Eric Gagne pitch the ninth. Bernick and I had a debate earlier in the game about how big a lead the Sox would need in order to pitch Gagne. Bernick said seven. I said 10. This, about a reliever who was once the most dominant pitcher in the game. The fans cheer him, and it’s unclear if they’re cheering because they’re giddy and in love with everyone on the team, or if they’re being sarcastic. I’m not sure if they know themselves.

Gagne pitches a perfect ninth to seal the 13-1 win. Drunken fans stumble around and high-five.

This was a game between two teams I don’t really care about. Our seats were bad. It was a bad game with zero tension. The fifth inning took 20 years off of my life. I had an existential crisis about the meaning of even being a sports fan at all. Perhaps worst of all, no one stole a base, which means no free tacos. And I had the time of my life. Go figure.

David Goldstein lives in Boston. Morris will return next Tuesday, November 6.

2 Comments:

Blogger David said...

The seats were fine.

:)

5:32 PM  
Anonymous Ilana said...

Kind of ironic that Drew got a hit as you start thinking about rooting for the uniform rather then the player. As a Phillies fan, don't you have a loathing for JD? Granted, the Phils are probably better off in the long run without him, and the Red Sox will be too, but don't you just want to punch him in the face for dissing the Phillies in '97?

9:41 PM  

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