Ball Games

Commentary: In Exile

As a kid, I threw like a girl. Or, I would have, if the girls on my little league team hadn’t thrown better than I could. Twice a week, we’d play a never-ending game of baseball on one of three derelict gravel diamonds located in the mosquito-infested woods in the small Massachusetts town I grew up in. No one could throw a strike to save their lives, so the games would routinely go on for several hours before being cancelled because of darkness. And tedium, as far as I was concerned.

I don’t look back on those days with any sense of nostalgia. I remember one day, after running a series of wind sprints in the sweltering mid-summer heat, vomiting warm 7-Up behind the padlocked shed where the equipment was kept. I remember the bat slipping out of someone’s hand as he swung for the bleachers (had there been any bleachers) and clocking Jeff Smith’s mom in the head, who was brought to the hospital by ambulance — a major event in our extremely quiet town. I remember kneeling down in right field — my position, which remains a sad cliché for boys like me who couldn’t catch a fly ball — and listlessly tearing at the crabgrass while what would become a home run sailed right over my head.

That was about 15 years ago, back when the Boston Red Sox were a bit of a joke. They’d lost the World Series to the Mets just a few years before, in 1986, when an easy grounder rolled between the legs of first baseman Bill Buckner. Bucker, we can only assume, fled the state, but I identified with him. As all of New England rained ire upon him in a frighteningly malevolent way, I thanked God there was someone who played as awfully as I did, and on national television no less.

A few years before that, my parents had taken my brother and me to our first Red Sox game at Fenway Park. That stadium is nearly 100 years old and the corridors underneath are like a labyrinth. We walked through them to our seats in the bleachers; it was freezing cold so my dad bought us sweatshirts. We were both fast asleep by the seventh-inning stretch. We’d go to countless more games after that, increasingly more enthusiastic each time.

Today, I root for the Red Sox with a passion. A few minutes ago, I got home from one of New York’s few designated Red Sox bars, where I watched their second game of the season with my friend, Kate, who’s also from Massachusetts. I don’t care much about sports other than baseball. I don’t even really care about baseball aside from the Sox. I mainly follow them out of a sense of loyalty to where I grew up. It makes me feel connected to my youth and my family.

Red Sox bars in New York are funny. They’re inevitably filled with people who are readily identifiable as New Englanders. The fashion sense trends heavily toward plaid shirts and jeans on the guys, and ponytails pulled through the backs of baseball caps on the girls. Waiting in line for the bathroom, everyone bonds over mutually recognizable hometowns.

”Dude, where ya from?”

”Dude, I’m from Hingham.”

”Dude, I’m from Scituate!”

”No way, dude! My cousin’s from Scituate!”

The vibe is gregarious and patently heterosexual, which is funny for me. I brought my boyfriend, Carl, to a Red Sox bar last season, and he soon felt uncomfortable, saying he felt surrounded by frat guys who were likely homophobic. For some reason, Red Sox bars never strike me that way. I’d probably feel the same way that Carl did in most other kinds of sports bars, but at the Sox bar, I feel like I’m at home, or in high school, or with my parents at Fenway many years ago.

”Dude, Johnny Damon is such a douche, goin’ to the Yankees like that. What a traitor.”

”I know, dude. Where you from?”

”I’m from Swampscott. Where you from?”

”I’m from Malden.”

”I’m from Salisbury.”

”I’m from Saugus”

”I’m from Marshfield” This goes on and on.

Two seasons ago, when I was working at New York magazine, which required working very late on Thursday nights, I watched game four of the World Series in an empty conference room by myself while the Red Sox beat the St. Louis Cardinals. There was something eerie about it, and lovely. Of course I wished that I could have been somewhere among other Red Sox devotees, but the solitude of it had its own appeal, as if this win, which had been in the pipeline since 1918, was just for me.

Tonight, the Sox lost 10 to 6 to the Texas Rangers, that fine outfit once owned by George W. Bush. But it was worth it to sit at the bar with folks from home anyway, and find out where everyone grew up and figure out if we had any mutual friends.

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