The Selling of a Red Sox Nation
Why have so many people, many of whom have never even followed baseball before, joined the already crowded bandwagon?
"We're just a bunch of idiots"
-- Red Sox centerfielder Johnny Damon
"D-U-M-B, everyone's accusing me!"
-- The Ramones, "Pinhead"
The World Champion Boston Red Sox have a problem that Tampa Bay and Milwaukee would envy: too many fans. Fenway Park, the smallest major league ballpark, has been sold out for a solid two and a half years, which means that tickets can be scarce and are often expensive. Following the Red Sox's headline grabbing World Series win last year, online communities argue daily about the growing number of "bandwagon" fans the way that conservatives grouse about the growing number of immigrants crossing the border. For good or ill, the so-called Red Sox Nation is huge at the moment, and Major League Baseball, hounded by the steroids scandal and growing concerns about publicly-financed stadiums, can only be pleased that the Red Sox (and their much-hyped rivalry with the New York Yankees) have provided positive publicity for the embattled sport.
The Boston Red Sox have always been one of the most storied franchises in baseball. They are one of the classic teams, and have honored their tradition by staying in the same spot (Fenway) since 1912. The team is quick to emphasize its past, as troubled as it can be, and the fans in New England have continued to embrace baseball with the same passion today as fans did years ago, back when baseball really was America's favorite pastime. There's no question that the Red Sox supporters in New England have always been fanatic, despite the team's heartbreaking 86-year World Series drought. The question is, where are all of these new fans coming from?
A lot of the attention, of course, has to do with the team's incredible postseason last year. The way the Red Sox went from perpetual underdogs to victors is one of the great sports stories of the last decade. By defying the odds and winning four straight games against the Yankees after starting the series 0-3, and then going on to finally deliver that long promised World Series win, the team enjoyed a narrative so perfect that (as many writers have noted) it would never have been believable as a movie script. The individual games of the series disproved the popular complaint that baseball is boring. Each game was the height of drama: Curt Schilling pitching after his entire ankle was sown together in full Frankenstein fashion, designated villain Alex Rodriguez slapping the ball out of pitcher Bronson Arroyo's glove in a failed attempt to get on base, and every moment of those two draining games won by designated hitter David Ortiz's bat in extra innings.
More importantly for MLB, last year's Red Sox run was a ratings monster. The American League Championship Series was, without question, one of the best divisional playoffs in baseball history. Game seven of the series, highlighted by newfound celebrity Johnny Damon's grand slam, was the most watched baseball game in years. ESPN.com rated game four of the series, where the Red Sox survived elimination thanks to a single stolen base by hitherto ignored bench player Dave Roberts, as the greatest sports game played since the website's inception ten years ago. For one week, at least, a country that had long ago replaced baseball with football and basketball had no choice but to turn its eyes back to its first love.
Of course, after the Red Sox swept the St. Louis Cardinals in the anticlimactic World Series, there was a lot of money to be made in the victory celebration. Merchandisers made money hand-over-fist, as every Red Sox fan, lifelong or bandwagon, was eager to spend cash to own a piece of memorabilia or to extend the World Series parade well into the winter. After the win, it was wall-to-wall Red Sox coverage on every channel. Johnny Damon, the world's unlikeliest author, garnered a book deal (the resulting Idiot, a self-absorbed, incoherent mess disproves the belief that the "Idiot" tag was a complete pose). Curt Schilling found himself playing poker on Bravo while simultaneously stumping for Bush. And a motley quartet of Red Sox got makeovers courtesy of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. For the first time, the Red Sox were getting the media attention formerly only garnered by the Yankees. To capitalize, MLB began offering official Red Sox Nation cards to the newly converted, squeezing them for money by offering a meaningless card which had the sole purpose of "confirming" their loyalty to the Red Sox. Tickets and concession prices for Fenway Park soared even higher. From T-shirt hawkers to sportswriters to, yes, the players themselves, a lot of people made a lot of money.
Of course, baseball thrives on publicity, so it is inevitable that MLB this year tries to play up the newly charged Red Sox/Yankees rivalry, especially now that the steroid scandal threatens to halt baseball's rising profile (not to mention its ratings, attendance, and profits). It sometimes seems as if that there are only three entities in baseball, judging by the media coverage: the Yankees, the Red Sox, and Barry Bonds. Still, who is buying the approximately thirty thousand books on the Red Sox published during the off-season? Why have so many people, many of whom have never even followed baseball before, joined the already crowded bandwagon?
Beyond the big win, the rapid growth of Red Sox Nation predates the 2004 ALCS, as the front office and the Boston Red Sox players managed to capture interest by establishing themselves as the inverse of their rivals. They decided that the only way to compete with the New York Yankees, both on the field and in the media, was to become the Anti-Yankees. They transformed themselves from a franchise dominated by star players into an entertaining crew of misfits, space cadets, and (if you take the time to notice) a handful of quiet, hardworking average Joes (who just happen to make millions of dollars). If putting on Yankee pinstripes made a player into something of an immortal, allowing him to join icons like Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Lou Gehrig, and countless others, the Red Sox decided that their uniform would bring that player down to Earth. The Red Sox players were, at various points throughout the last few seasons, "cowboys," "dirt dogs", and, yes, "Idiots."
The first way to do this, naturally, is to have a team that actually contends year in and year out, something that decades of mismanagement have only occasionally been able to accomplish in Beantown. After years and years of focusing on what could have been if the correct decisions were made, the Red Sox finally found themselves owned by the team of Larry Lucchino, John Henry, and Tom Werner, who came to correct the managerial mistakes of the past. Their most important decision was to hire twenty-eight year old Theo Epstein, making him the youngest general manager in MLB history. Epstein in turn hired Bill James, an influential baseball statistician considered the father of sabermetrics (an advanced method for computing a players' abilities on the field), and the Boston Red Sox entered the twenty-first century with a new approach and the second highest payroll in baseball. They were all set for the World Series, and fans were starting to take notice.
The team made it to the American League championship in 2003, only to fall to the Yankees in a dramatic, seven-game series. The 2004 season, however, would be different. The team that returned was not a morose group of overpaid ballplayers still fuming over a blown opportunity; in fact they were quite the opposite. The Red Sox managed to acquire Arizona Diamondback, and famed Yankee killer, Curt Schilling as well as a legitimate closer in Keith Foulke. Centerfielder Johnny Damon set the tone by showing up to spring training with long hair and a beard, an unorthodox move that, nevertheless, new manager Terry Francona did not criticize. In fact, star pitcher Pedro Martinez came and went as he felt, and Francona (at least publicly) let it slide. And Manny Ramirez, who the Red Sox practically disowned during the off-season to see if another club was willing to take up his massive contract, went from being a somewhat distant slugger into a charming, and goofy, media personality.
The team's newfound media savvy, of course, was not just some instant bi-product of sudden personality changes. The Red Sox, and their main cable outlet NESN, are partially owned, ironically enough, by the New York Times Company, which also wholly owns the Boston Globe. Hence, the major media outlets for the Boston Red Sox are connected, financially, to the team itself. Thanks to this all-too-common example of media conglomeration, the Red Sox management essentially had a say in which version of the Red Sox story got told in the public, even right down to the supposedly independent voices on the internet. One of the most popular websites about the Red Sox, John Silva's Boston Dirt Dogs, was incorporated into the Boston Globe website, and it is no coincidence that Silva was more than willing to spread rumors and cast aspersions of the very same players that the Red Sox had no intention of re-signing (such as Nomar Garciaparra and Derek Lowe). The image of the happy-go-lucky Red Sox was as much of a marketing gimmick perpetuated by both the management (to sell tickets) and the media markets (to sell papers, or gain more viewers). Luckily, this line-up was a group of grown men, fully aware that they were essentially playing a children's game, who were able to remain calm despite the machinations and the hateful intensity of the notorious Boston sports media.
Even their dominance of the local media could not calm the fires caused by Epstein's most controversial move: the trading of hard-hitting shortstop Nomar Garciaparra. Garciaparra, better known to his Boston fans as "No-mah," was effectively the face of the Boston Red Sox. As the trading deadline was about to close, however, Epstein traded him for shortstop Orlando Cabrerra and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz. Fans at the time were beyond livid, and Epstein had to literally leave town and join the Red Sox on their next road trip. After all, Garciaparra was one of those born superstars, who had the type of old-school charisma and raw skills that made him a throwback to the days when baseball players were almost worshipped. By trading him, for two guys who were hitting below .250, Epstein fully signaled the end of an old era.
With the loss of their trademark player, the Red Sox were finally able to become a real team of equals, not just a revolving door collection of players propping up a handful of stars. Better yet, from a marketing standpoint, they became a fun team to watch. As they inched closer and closer to solidifying their playoff spot, the team became even looser. Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz would joke around while on the bench, and Pedro Martinez would bring little person Nelson De La Rosa into the clubhouse as "a good luck charm." This looseness translated to the field, where they played with the intensity of winners but almost always with a sense of laidback cheerfulness. In a sport filled with countless teams that traded and released players left and right, the Red Sox found an identity that allowed them to differentiate themselves from other teams, playing with a misfit attitude that contrasted sharply with, the obvious counter-example, the New York Yankees.
Where the Yankees were under strict guidelines about not growing facial hair and keeping clean appearances, the Red Sox, in an almost obvious symbolic move, decided to take the opposite approach. Following Johnny Damon's lead, Manny Ramirez grew out his hair into a tangled mess. Pitcher Bronson Arroyo, a skinny white twenty-something pitcher with rock and roll ambitions, decided to put his hair into ridiculous blond cornrows, and kept them once he started pitching better with them. They were playing up to the media, of course, but the media was more than happy to provide attention to athletes who are a little flamboyant. The Yankees would spend every at-bat and every pitch under the constant pressure of knowing that nothing short of a World Series win would satisfy anybody, lest of all George Steinbrenner, while the Red Sox played as if every game was merely an exhibition. If Manny Ramirez missed a routine pop fly, he would just laugh it off. And, inexplicably, so did the typically moody New Englanders.
This was not the Boston Red Sox of the past. The 2004 Boston Red Sox's spiritual leader was not the tightly wound, consummate professional Ted Williams, who literally wrote the book on hitting, but rather junkball pitcher Bill "Spaceman" Lee who, in his book The Wrong Stuff, advocated playing baseball with an empty head and, before the game, making sure to stay as loose as possible. In this sense, the Red Sox took on an almost punk rock attitude towards baseball, which is fitting for a team whose two theme songs are "Dirty Water," by seminal garage band the Standells, and "Tessie," a Red Sox standard remade by punk rock stalwarts Dropkick Murphys. This was a team of people who at least seemed like they were regular people, which, ironically, made them even bigger celebrities as the year went on. By the end of the season, all thoughts about the idolized Garciaparra were displaced by Orlando Cabrerra, who, cushioned by praise from the Boston media in attempt to downplay the Nomar trade, managed to endear himself to the Red Sox fans almost overnight by his glee in turning superb athletic defensive plays at his shortstop position and his penchant for creating complicated handshakes.
While the Globe was building up the Red Sox as populist heroes, their unlikely sister paper The New York Times were doing its part in casting the Red Sox as villains. When the Red Sox were down three-to-zero in the ALCS, Yankee Gary Sheffield called them a "walking disaster" a sentiment shared by most Yankees fans. They were dirty punks who disrespected the game, and the Yankees were rightly going to win the series. What played out, though, was an almost hackneyed example of the "underdogs beat the snobs" plot that underlies nearly every sports film. Fox, in its coverage, attempted to treat the rivalry in terms of Star Wars, with the Boston Red Sox as the Rebel Alliance and the Yankees as the Evil Empire. It was a forced analogy, though. This rivalry was straight from National Lampoon's Animal House, a textbook example of the misfit slobs vs. the polished jocks storyline. Johnny Damon made the famous comment that "we really should be called the Idiots," and the media ran with it, finally having the ideal tag to sell the Red Sox to all of America. It seemed perfect for a team that didn't seem like a group of unreachable superstars like Williams, Carl "Yaz", or Nomar, but rather just happy-go-lucky schmoes who looked as if they just liked to throw a ball around. The Red Sox had a World Championship and countless new fans, the New York Yankees had a legitimate rivalry to boost ticket sales, and baseball in general had a narrative it could ride out during a turbulent time.
Now that the World Series hangover has lifted, the Boston Red Sox are not quite the same team. This is the team with the second highest payroll in baseball, sharing a division with the team with the most wins in MLB history. There is little, in the way of advantages, that separates the Red Sox from the hated rivals. This is not "America's team," as a bandwagoning Tom Hanks called them during the World Series. Although most Red Sox fans are knowledgeable and respectful (though almost obsessively passionate), a select percentage have managed gained the reputation in the media as among the most boorish and offensive in the sport (as an on-field quarrel between a Sox fan and Yankee Gary Sheffield has illustrated). The Red Sox get ten times as much media coverage as most other teams, even when the other teams are playing much better baseball (as the Baltimore Orioles have learned this season). The love affair is over, and the bandwagoners, once properly fleeced by Bud Selig and company, will soon drift away. MLB will ride out the Yankees and Red Sox Rivalry for as long as possible, with ESPN crossing its fingers for a bench clearing brawl or some improbable comeback. Eventually, however, the Red Sox will go back to being just another baseball team. I am sure Red Sox Nation will be more relieved than disappointed.