I’ve spent the last few days after the end of the MLB regular season (aka “The Greatest Day in Baseball History”) trying to come to grips with just how much pleasure I derived from seeing the Boston Red Sox complete their historic collapse. Clearly, it goes deeper than simple Schadenfreude and taps into something deeper about the Red Sox specifically. After all, the Braves blowing a similar lead to lose the NL Wild Card on the last day didn’t elicit nearly the same gut response of sheer, unadulterated pleasure.
After some deeper introspection, I’ve come to realize that this all boils down to one fact: Boston fans are incredibly annoying, and seeing them suffer makes me feel good. And I say this as a person who knows a lot of people from Boston, and this is not a knock on them personally. It’s just that as a collective group, they are smug and intolerable – the sports fandom equivalent of the self-satisfied smirk of Pete Campbell from “Mad Men.”
The drama of the end of the regular season needed a hero and a villain, and things were complex in the National League – the St. Louis Cardinals were the team trying to chase down the Wild Card leader, but they are also a team that inspires a range of emotions from fans. At the least, it’s hard to cast a team as an “underdog” when they have the most dominant hitter of his generation (Albert Pujols) and a manager whose reputation as a genius is only matched by his willingness to prove to you that he is a genius (Tony La Russa). In short, they were hard to cast as the underdog.
Things were a lot more straightforward in the American League – the Red Sox were the obvious Goliaths, with the swagger and staggering payroll, while the Tampa Bay Rays were the clear small-market Davids getting by with grit and determination. Of course, Tampa Bay has been quite good for a long time – in fact, they’ve been to World Series more recently than Boston. And it can feel weird to root for a team as a “neutral” fan when the team can’t even generate fans in their city. Tampa Bay was 29th in attendance this year, and only filled their stadium to 81 percent of capacity for a regular season game that couldn’t possibly have meant more. Why should I cheer for the Rays when the people of Tampa Bay can’t be bothered to?
Contrast that to “Red Sox Nation,” which on paper is everything you would want a fan base to be. They are passionate, knowledgeable and show up to the stadium win or lose. No one who has gone to a game at Fenway Park has ever complained about a lackluster atmosphere or that the fans were there to “be seen” rather than watch the game. They are what so many fans in so many markets aren’t. And this is exactly why they are so easy to dislike, and why their pain becomes our pleasure.
Red Sox fans represent what we fear will happen to us as sports fans if we go too far and let our connection with our teams become our identity. Seeing them suffer serves as a reminder that investing yourself too much in a sports team can come at the price of deep, emotional pain when the team falters. It’s reinforcement for the average fan that they aren’t bad fans who don’t “give their all” for the team, but people with perspective on their lives. That’s why it’s funny that your Red Sox friends are going into mourning over their team’s collapse.
It doesn’t help that Red Sox fans certainly haven’t been shy about proclaiming their team’s glory over the last few years. The image of a Boston fan not shutting up about the “Sawks” to anyone who will listen is a stereotype that also happens to be true. Being a sports fan gives you a place at the bar – what you do while you are there is up to you. Tampa Bay fans are the guys in the corner, keeping to themselves while they play Tri-Towers or Strip Poker on the video game machine. Boston fans are the guys who get hammered and then won’t stop TALKING AT FULL VOLUME two inches from your face about God knows what while you’re trying to enjoy a drink before the movie with your wife. (This is sometimes quite literal, FYI.)
So congratulations to the Rays on making the playoffs. Now they’ll get to face the Rangers, and baseball fans can go about ignoring them again because ZOMG THE YANKEES AND THE TIGERS ARE PLAYING AND SABATHIA AND VERLANDER ARE PLAYING AND TY COBB AND BABE RUTH.