(Not Exactly, But Sort of Like) The Faith of My Fathers

For those of you who know me—by which I mean everyone reading this blog, by which I mean my Dad (hello, Dad)—you know that while my admiration for the Boston Red Sox has never waned, my Zeal—in particular, since their dramatic, impossible, unprecedented 2004 Road to Victory—my Zeal has waned pretty hard. Their playoff series loss to the dumb Chicago White Sox in 2005, for example, left nary an emotional scratch. Last year’s Road to Victory, for all its Good Times, was considerably less dramatic and impossible and, in fact, had been precedented just three years earlier. In short, for the foreseeable future, there will be no joy like 2004’s joy in this particular version of Mudville.

On the other hand, there’s something to be said for an ounce of discretion in fandom. As the Baseball Prospectus book Mind Game brings to light, those years of Red Sox futility were the result of poor decision-making by only a handful of people. The organization’s refusal to let black people play, for example (they were the last team to integrate), was not only morally obtuse, but it also cost them wins. And this isn’t the case for just the Red Sox. At any given point, a team’s fate—and sometimes a fan’s well-being along with it—depends almost entirely on the ingenuity of its general manager and the liquid assets of its owners. Which is why right now it’s kind of sad being an Orioles fans. Sorry to you, dudes. (Not you, Dad.)

This has been my sort of rote explanation for my mitigated—if not still pretty substantial—interest in the Red Sox. That is, if it’s almost basically a crap shoot how good a fan’s team will be, then you have to ask: to what end fandom?

But living here in the Portland, OR, I’ve caught whiff of another explanation, and it has to do just as much with actual religion as this other thing (ie being a Red Sox FanTM) which so resembles a religion.

You see, there’s a real dearth of Catholics here. And I’m not really talking about going-to-church-every-Sunday Catholics, but just, you know, people who were baptized Catholic, or at least have last names that fit the part: your Sullivans, your Grappones, your Picards. There aren’t a lot here, and it’s noticeable. On the other hand, in case you didn’t know, New England is full of them. And it’s not like—when I’ve lived there or when I’ve ever been back to visit—it’s not like I make a point of checking in with my friends or family or people on the street about what’s going on at the Vatican these days or in the local diocese; it’s just, there’s generally a tacit understanding that we have something in common, that we have been subjected to the same unpleasantness (as much of it is unpleasant), and that we have dealt with it in a similar way. Still, suffering in unison provides a great, and underestimated, pleasure.

As in every case, G.K. Chesterton says what I mean better than I do. In his book Orthodoxy, he argues on behalf of having religion (versus agnosticism), writing:

The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than consistency.

The freedom to doubt the gods about which Chesterton writes is one that many Catholics take advantage of; yet, it’s hard to say that, despite the lack of a very active worshipful life, that the Catholic ties disintegrate immediately.

Of course, this could have less to do with Catholicism per se than with the religious history of the region, in general. New England has been home to a number of mystics. Jonathan Edwards, Roger Williams, and John Winthrop were all prominent New World theologians who died long before before the first Giuseppes and Guillaumes showed up on the shores of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. And it was the last of those (Winthrop) who prophesied that New England itself would be as a “city on a hill”—that is, subject to tireless scrutiny. That challenge alone, it seems to me, is enough to unite a people—even one that has become considerably more diverse in the interim.

The point is, I think I’ve been mistaken—and I think anyone else would be, as well—in taking this relativist tact in re the Red Sox. Sure, Baseball Prospectus has their point, and, for an Orioles fans to turn in his bird hat and Kevin Millar jersey might actually just be the smartest strategy at this point. But I think I’ve actually sold short the importance of the allegiance itself. As Chesterton says, it’s important to allow space for the Other, even if it’s irrational—or maybe even because it’s irrational. In that case, you give yourself room to doubt and, when the occasion is right, to believe very strongly, as well. To give up on the Red Sox merely because one (read: I) has no control over who shapes the team is to overlook the other considerable pleasures of being a fan—like talking with other fans, for example. Plus, when the spectacular does occur, it’s always felt more deeply.

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