The Baseball Desert

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Falling in love

(a.k.a. 'The Conversion Post')

Generally I'm a guy who likes to know where he's going in life - lots of anal-retentive advanced planning as soon as any car journey over about 20 miles is concerned, for example - so it's always a pleasure to open up my inbox on a Monday and go through the MLB.TV schedule for the week to see which games I'll be able to catch.

The past couple of years have seen a change in strategy as far as the broadcast schedule goes. Once upon a time I was simply a baseball fan starved of any possibility of seeing his favouite sport, so when MLB.TV arrived, I was like the proverbial kid in the candy store - my reading of the schedule would be governed simply by the games' start-times. Pirates-Brewers at 1:05, followed by Devil Rays-Mariners at 4:20? My idea of a perfect evening's entertainment.

Back then, I defined myself as a fan of the game - if there were 18 guys chasing a little white ball around the field, then there was a good chance I would watch it. On a certain level, the 'fan of the game' tag is still true – I love the game of baseball and will pretty much watch any two teams play (with the possible exception of the Braves and the Yankees). Weekend evenings will often find me in front of my computer screen watching anything up to three consecutive games, trying to get the fix that isn't possible the rest of the week (assuming that I want to remain in gainful employment and on speaking terms with the members of my family).

However, by some curious process of baseball alchemy, the 'fan of the game' found himself, over the past two or three seasons, being drawn closer one particular team, and now when I look at the schedule, I no longer begin by looking for France-friendly start-times and instead look for three little letters: BOS.

The transition from 'fan of the game' to 'fan of a team' is not hard to understand. Baseball is a great game to watch as a neutral observer, marvelling at the grace, power and all-round athletic ability of the players, but it's also a sporting contest between two teams, and our natural reaction when watching such a contest – be it baseball, badminton or boules – is to root for one side or the other.

Coming, as I do, from a region in which there are dozens of professional soccer teams, rooting is not really a new concept for me – back when I lived in the U.K. I lived and died with the fortunes of Oldham Athletic Football Club. It was often not a pretty sight, although the rare moments of glory did go some way to make up for the mediocre performance that seemed to be the norm the rest of the time. I had friends who rooted for bigger, more prestigious clubs in the area, but that didn't feel right to me – it was just too easy to look around at all the big clubs in the area, say "I like the look of this club" and jump on the bandwagon. My philosophy was a very basic one, based entirely on geographical location: you didn't choose the team, the team chose you. You didn't get any real say in the matter, because you latched on to the team that played closest to where you lived, and that meant rooting for them even when they were terrible. However, there was an upside in rooting for your local team, and that upside, which I suppose was crucial for a teenager looking for some kind of identity, was that you belonged.

I think that this notion of belonging was what finally nudged me out of my broad-minded baseball neutrality. Sitting on the fence, watching all 30 major leagues play their games, was fine for a while, but there came a point when I just wanted to get involved and root wholeheartedly for one team.

The question that has been asked of me on many occasions is: "Why the Red Sox?". I clearly can't claim local allegiance (although I could make a case for them being closest major league team to where I live), so it's going to have to be something a little less concrete and a little more 'mystical': I just plain fell for the team.

Falling for a baseball team - in my case, at least - was like falling in love. It wasn't quite love at first sight, but it was definitely something that grew from a vaguely unsettling feeling into true fandom in a very short space of time, and ended up with me buying into the whole package: the team, the ballpark, the fans, even the announcers.

Falling for the team is a simple one to explain: they had a bunch of good players who I liked to watch play, period. I suppose that I could have fallen for any team - after all, previous flirtations had included the Dodgers and the *cough* Yankees *cough* (I was young, with stars in my eyes) but I just got a real, inexpicable kick out of watching the Sox. If pushed on the matter, I would date my conversion to round about the time of "Cowboy Up!" - I think I liked the idea of this disparate bunch of 25 guys just going out and enjoying playing the game of baseball and gelling as a team. And just like in many love affairs, there was a burning conviction that this was 'The One' - once I'd made that unspoken pledge of allegiance to the Red Sox, it seemed unthinkable that I might be able to fall for any other team. There are teams that I continue to follow and root for actively, such as the the Nationals, but a prolonged absence or a couple of missed games doesn't inspire in me the same melancholy that separation from the Sox does.

That desire to avoid prolonged separation from 'The One' brings me back to the first point about the changes in my baseball-watching habits. My viewing schedule now centres on my team - any other games I can catch are icing on the cake - but this in turn brings with it a whole new set of problems. When I first got access to MLB.TV I used to save my bouts of late, late nights and sleep deprivation for the postseason - come October, friends would not be surprised to see me rolling into work with eyes half-closed, or refusing dinner invitations on the grounds that it was Game 4 of the ALCS. However, like a suitor desperate to see his new love, the new-found allegiance to a team has meant that I'm now willing to burn the candle at both ends during the regular season in order to keep this relationship going. In spite of the anal-retentiveness that surfaces from time to time I try not to plan too far ahead, in order to preserve some of that all-important spontaneity in the relationship. the seven days covered by MLB.TV's e-mail schedule seem just about the right length of time - far enough ahead to work things out, but not so far ahead as to allow it to completely rule my life.

The lot of a sports fan is never an easy one, and that of a sports fan separated from his favourite team by 4,000 miles and 6 time zones is even less so. I check out the game times on, knowing that early in the week is almost always a non-starter, but things generally pick up around Wednesday or Thursday, with the chance of a day game, and then one or two games at the weekend. I used to be happy with one game of the weekend, but I think the Red Sox have gotten under my skin - a one-game weekend is now considered a failure. Friday night games have become a regular fixture on my viewing calendar, despite the 1am or 2am starts, and if I can't catch the game live, then I try to watch the complete archived game sometime the following day.

When you have this kind of long-distance love-affair, communication between the two parties becomes crucial. People often ask about my love of baseball and the Red Sox and are amazed to discover that I've never set foot in a major league ballpark. I would love to be able to do that, and I'm consumed by the green-eyed monster (not to be confused with the Green Monster) when I hear people talking about going to Sox games, but given the distance involved in this relationship, I have - at least some of the time - the next best thing: NESN.

For me, watching NESN has become an integral part of the Red Sox experience. I'll watch the Sox when is broadcasting the other team's feed, but the experience is diminished. Remy and Orsillo are the home-town guys, broadcasting generally - but not exclusively - from the home-town ballpark, and that is about as close as I can get to actually being at the ballgame. If this were a 19th-century novel, NESN would be the trusted friend who reports on the well-being of the love of my life - the eyes and ears of someone physically removed from the object of his affections. And there's just something so specifically Bostonian about NESN that makes it all the more authentic for me. There are any number of reasons for that, from things as ridiculously trivial as those interminable ads for local furniture stores and car dealerships to the fact that the broadcast team has a bunch of former Red Sox players and that the station conducts in-game interviews atop the Green Monster.

I suppose that we are back to square one - the reason I like NESN so much is that it is yet another element that helps to make me feel like I belong. There are other things that have helped me feel like that over the past couple of years - the passionate, inspired, funny, snarky and downright eloquent weblogs that the Sox seem to inspire are the other example that springs to mind. In the virtual world of the early 21st century, fandom is no longer limited by geographical boundaries. When I hear the opening lines of the NESN broadcast - "Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome to Fenway Park" - spoken over that trumpet fanfare, I know that I've found a home in Red Sox Nation, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, 'til death us do part...