Tuesday, June 9, 2009

They grow up so fast

As a Mets fan living in Boston, it's been interesting to observe the behavior of Red Sox fans over time.

For years, of course, the dominant theme in the team-fan relationship was the Curse of the Bambino, the pall hanging over the team that made fans expect the worst in the end, even as the team was relatively successful.

The Sox could be great all season, but they were living on borrowed time, and the fans knew it. Eventually they'd lose, sometimes in spectacular fashion, and the gloom would deepen. All the while, the Yankees kept piling up World Championships and their fans kept taunting their rivals.

(Backstory for those of you who don't know: the Red Sox didn't win a World Championship between 1918 and 2004. In 1919 the Sox sold Babe Ruth, a.k.a The Bambino, to the Yankees. Prior to the sale, the Red Sox had been a dominant team, and since then, the Yankees have been arguably the most successful franchise in all of American sports.)

But hope springs eternal, and you could feel the tension between hope and despair every time the Sox got close. Then, in 2004, a truly remarkable set of circumstances came together and enabled the Sox to finally defeat the hated Yankees en route to their first World Championship in 86 years. New England went bananas. You can't overstate the regional jubilation at this turn of events. The whole country felt it, and every time you ran into a Red Sox fan, you couldn't help but congratulate them. I almost got my shoulder torn off on a high five from a burly Boston transplant out in Seattle that year.

But then what? The defining characteristic of the Red Sox fan -- that determined, passionate loyalty against the backdrop of certain failure -- was now gone. Everyone had felt sorry for Red Sox fans, and the latter paradoxically took pride in their humility. But that didn't really work anymore.

It didn't change overnight. Deeply conditioned fans couldn't immediately shake the fear that 2004 was an anomaly, that the Yankees would resume their dominance and the Sox would have to wait another 86 years for the next one. That, plus the nagging suspicion that they'd dreamt the whole thing.

But not only did the Yankees fail to win (they haven't won a championship since 2000), but the Sox went ahead and won it all again in 2007. Now there could be no doubt that the Sox could compete with the Yankees on equal terms, and the old Sox fan paradigm was a relic of history.

While all of this was going on, the Patriots were the best team in football, and in 2007-2008 the Celtics put together a championship basketball team for the first time in years.

Now Sox fans, those lovable losers, had morphed into something quite different. Against all of this winning, New England fans started to actually expect their teams to win, and in fact started to get cocky. Cocky comes pretty naturally to a large segment of the Boston population anyway, and if you mix in bravado about the hometown team, the results aren't pretty. This did not ingratiate them with fans in places like Houston and Seattle and Buffalo, where wins come dear and championships come dearer.

But they were brought back to earth, first by the impossible Eli Manning-to-David Tyree completion in the Super Bowl that cheated the Patriots out of victory, and then by the upstart Rays beating the Red Sox both in the regular season and the playoffs.

Now, like everyone else, Sox fans are beginning to understand that neither is winning impossible, nor can they take it for granted. They're growing up in front of our eyes. Instead of obsessing over who the Yankees have signed, and how the Sox will lose, they can consider objectively the strength of the Sox bullpen, the issues within the Yankee pitching rotation, or the promise of the Baltimore's young players. In short, they've stopped ascribing Sox results to the fates, and started ascribing them to the quality of the team and their opposition. Just like other fans have been doing for years.

All that's left now is for Sox fans to endure a few losing seasons, in which the home team is just plain bad, something that the current generation of fans doesn't have much experience with (and which distinguishes them from most other baseball fans across the nation). But one step at a time. Sox fans are maturing...

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