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When Red Sox fever hits, it’s hard to shake off. With the World Series underway, we asked sociologist Michael Ian Borer, author of “Faithful to Fenway: Believing in Boston, Baseball, and America’s Most Beloved Ballpark” why spirituality, faith and sportin’ a beard make a good Red Sox fan.
Red Sox fans, Bostonians, and New Englanders will always be excited about their team, a team that has provided great characters and great stories throughout the years. Though competitive sports are often viewed as symbolic battles between cities or between rivals, this year the city of Boston was literally attacked on one of its most celebrated civic holidays, Patriot’s Day. The terrorist attack at the finish of the Boston marathon was not only an attack on the people of Boston and American in general. It was also an attack on the social order of civil society. Fenway Park quickly became a place for healing the collective trauma caused by the attacks.
During the pre-game remembrance ceremony before the Red Sox first home game after the attacks, David “Big Papi” Ortiz caught the first pitch from one of the bombing victims and then spontaneously grabbed the microphone and declared: “This is our f%&king city and nobody is going to dictate our freedom.”
Ortiz is the last remaining Red Sox player from the 2004 World Series Championship team—the team that broke the 86 years championship drought known as the “Curse of the Bambino”—and is currently having an outstanding World Series (batting over .700!).
Ortiz and the rest of the team have help fuel Red Sox fans devotion and, in turn, the fans have helped fuel the team’s hard-nosed winning ways. Though there may not be a direct a causal relationship between the attacks and the success of the Red Sox, people still love a good story with well-defined villains, victims, and heroes. Connecting baseball to current events—especially traumatic events—provides a way for people to make sense of who they are and who they want to be.
Through the myths, symbols, and rituals that take place at Fenway Park and anywhere else that fans are watching or discussing the games, the Red Sox have fostered a deeply faithful and devotional fan base. Wearing jerseys, hats, and other “articles of faith” helps fans display and practice their devotion. This year, fans have another way of connecting with the team: beards. Most of the Red Sox are sporting beards, some of which—like Mike Napoli’s or David Ross’s—are big and burly. After home runs the players are grabbing each other’s beards instead of the traditional high five. Fans have been mimicking the players by either growing their own beards or wearing fake ones. Bearded ladies are no longer the sole property of circuses or freak shows. And this is happening all over the world. The borders of Red Sox Nation stretch well beyond Boston and the U.S.
In a world where people move around a lot more frequently than they have in the past, rituals of solidarity become increasingly important. The World Series is a mediated-ritual event that connects people who choose to participate in it by watching the games and then discussing, arguing, and debating the plays and calls afterwards. Sports are the only true reality shows where inconspicuous pre-production editing doesn’t determine the winners or losers. At least that’s what we think and believe, perhaps necessarily so.
Critics might say a la Karl Marx that sports are the opiate of the masses, that the symbolic battles of teams is less important than the real battles fought on city streets or dense jungles or in the air by drones. Perhaps. But perhaps sports provide a necessary escape, a time out, a relief from the stresses and anxieties of everyday life. Sports also provide a common language. Kurt Vonnegut once said that he read the sport section of the newspaper so he’d have something to talk to strangers about on the subway. Perhaps making those connections between and with strangers—regardless of the content—is a necessary form of interaction that could help soften the likelihood of continued conflicts. Perhaps.