Rejubilation: This is our bleeping city
There’s nothing quite like a championship game to pull the strings of homesickness.
The texts from my dad every time something significant happened in a game. The photo from my sister who somehow finagled her way into Fenway Park for the end of the final game. The memory of the head of school announcing a day off to celebrate victory in 2004. The phone call from the parade passing in front of my parents’ old apartment.
Few things command my fervent attention as well as the Boston Red Sox in the playoffs, but I didn’t always love this sport. For a while I even tried to cast off professional sports altogether.
I hated tee ball so much that I decided, as I stood on an informal first base in the coach’s backyard, that “accidentally” chucking the ball past the catcher and over the fence was a great way to avoid playing. I would occasionally pick up a wiffle ball bat with friends, but that one season of tee ball was as far as my baseball career progressed.
Adults used to enjoy making astute observations about how tall I was, a trait that would’ve been an embarrassment or a curse if it didn’t give me credibility on the playground. My elementary school classmates always picked me near the top of the order even though speed has never been my strength.
I was formidable, able to carelessly slam-dunk on the short playground hoop, proudly noting that I reached the height of the shortest NBA player by fourth grade. They wanted me in the end zone, jumping for the Hail Mary. If kickball allowed for a pinch-kicker the job would’ve been mine for the taking.
People around me thrust sports my way. The Ohio State pajama pants for Christmas. Watching football on New Year’s Day. Adults pairing my height with different athletic endeavors like wines with cheese. The automatic enrollment in Kinder Kick. For the most part, I loved it.
I devoted myself to practicing basketball in my neighbor’s driveway and engrossed myself in the Michael Jordan era, but baseball struggled to hold my attention. I needed an arm-twisting to get into it. I focused more on the celebrity aspect and less on the sport. Give me autographs and I would’ve been happy leaving the game early.
The whole country devours sports, but Boston athletics beget a boisterous brand of booster. Outsiders often view fans and teams alike as smug and obnoxious, an image Tom Brady and Bill Belichick don’t exactly help us eschew. The “Yankees Suck” chants and T-shirts don’t help either, but that’s part of the deal.
Somehow I wound up with a Red Sox hat, the only Boston sports gear I owned as a kid. On a trip to visit my uncle in Manhattan, a stranger on an elevator made a snide remark that it took guts to wear the hat in Pinstripe Country. Moments like this transformed my lackadaisical fandom into a part of my identity, my allegiance built as much in defiant opposition as natural pride.
When I was old enough that my parents let me ride the T alone, I discovered my resentment for the douche factory of inebriated Sox fans clogging the Boston subway system. As a young teenager, sports clashed with my radical politics that considered them a distraction, a true opiate of the masses.
You don’t just shed the place you grew up that easily, though.
By mid high school I gradually accepted a more nuanced self-image, allowing my inner sports bro to breathe. How could I not? The Red Sox faced the Yankees for the 2004 World Series berth. The slowpaced game suddenly radiated drama.
It wasn’t that I ever hated watching football or baseball, just that it didn’t hold my attention. While my childhood best friend espoused encyclopedic knowledge of decades-old batting averages, I focused my attention squarely on girls and revolution. Still, Boston sports teams provided a camaraderie that I didn’t find elsewhere. Fandom became a common language, an excuse to spend an entire Sunday with a dozen friends eating pizza and chips. Maybe I was right in the first place: Sports allegiances are like a drug, but I was able to indulge recreationally.
It didn’t strike me how fundamentally important those bonds were until I left Boston. When the Red Sox returned to the World Series during my sophomore year in college, I rejoiced with strangers in a common room of my dorm. I found friends willing to sit through the Super Bowl and the NBA Finals, but nobody felt invested. Celebrating or mourning when you’re effectively alone is a watered-down experience. I counted on old friends via phone to truly understand the hollow, sullen feeling gripping me as the Patriots and Celtics fell short. It’s been an incredible decade for Boston sports, so much so that I can ignore a championship team — hockey remains marooned where I once stranded America’s pastime — without thinking. But is there a point if you’re experiencing it alone?
I’ve worn the same black-on-black Sox hat daily for over three years. This season I even found true fans to watch with, people who already owned Red Sox memorabilia and earnestly scream at the TV. But as I root, root rooted for the home team all the way to the top, I still felt a sense of loss.
There is no home team here. Sure, our state boasts two big-time pro teams, if you really want to count the Bobcats. You can’t beat walking to a Grasshoppers game and dropping $10 for entry, three beers and a hotdog, but we lack the hometown pride a professional sports team can offer. I like to point out that Greensboro is the only place I’ve ever chosen to live. I try to make this home. “Sweet Caroline” is punchy as hell, and I’ll don that Tarheel blue, but I will always love that dirty water.