Monday, October 22, 2007

Pull up your sox!

I have to digress from my usual (well, unusual, lately) diatribes on technology to comment on the Boston Red Sox. I'm a transplanted New Yorker. I went to college in the Boston area, moved back to New York, and then re-settled in the Boston area 5 years later. In all that time, I never once watched a baseball game on TV. In fact, I never watched any professional sports on TV. I had been to a couple of baseball and basketball games, but that was mainly as a social activity. I don't think I understood the games, and frankly, I could not have cared less.

Then came the 1986 playoffs and world series. It was impossible to avoid them. They were everywhere. No suburban restaurant or cafe was so small as to lack a TV showing the game. That was my first exposure to this peculiar addiction to the Red Sox.

Baseball, like all professional sports, is theater. Let me say that again: BASEBALL IS THEATER. In fact, it's theater at it's most elemental. There are obvious protagonists (i.e., your team) and antagonists (the other team), there are carefully orchestrated acts composted of strophes and antistrophes, each of which contains three outs and zero or more hits, runs, etc. It's highly formalized theater.

And like all good theater, and indeed, all good storytelling, your involvement depends on your liking the protagonists. They don't have to be heroic or admirable. Shakespeare's Richard III or Macbeth were certainly no paragons of virtue. But they are likable. And this means we take pleasure in watching them, and actually experience vicarious tension and release along with their actions and reactions. This is what makes theater entertaining.

I mention all this partly in response to Will Leitch's column, Death to the Underdog, on the New York Times Web site . Leitch says

Red Sox fans don’t have to be participants in some sort of Greek tragedy anymore. Being a fan is not a three-act play.
He's missed the point. It's a nine-act play. Otherwise, you might as well just read the box scores.

And the Boston Red Sox are theater par excellence. For one thing, they're likable precisely because they're not straight-laced, pin-striped automatons such as Johnny Damon became upon signing with the New York Yankees. They're wacky. Their hairstyles and rituals are outrageous, almost comic. There's a bit of Emmett Kelly about the way Manny Ramirez wears a uniform, and an almost Lucy-like frenzy to Francona's rocking while chewing what must be a wad of gum bigger than his head.

But beyond that, the Sox are likable precisely because of their penchant for coming in second. They're the ultimate runners-up. They try harder. They consistently perform brilliantly almost to the end of daylight savings time, and then implode. The cliche "Everybody loves a winner" is wrong! Everybody loves a loser. Think of Charlie Chaplin, or Charlie Brown. Think of Lucy or Seinfeld or Frazier. Of course everybody loves Raymond. He's another perennial loser. These are the characters we come back to watch again and again, always wondering "Will they surprise us? Will they make it this time?"

Of course, even the losers have to win once in a while, to keep our interest.

Go, Red Sox!

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