My son Paul and I watched the fourth game of the 1998 American League Divisional Series from seats between home and first that had been provided by my other son, Theo. At the start of the eighth inning, with the Sox clinging to a 1-0 lead, Jimy Williams decided to replace Derek Lowe, who had already mowed down what seemed to be 10 (but were in fact five) little Indians, with his closer, Tom Gordon. On the instant, I was filled with foreboding. True, Gordon had pitched brilliantly all season, mixing a 92-mile-per-hour fastball with a curve that dove over the back part of the plate like a cormorant after a herring; no less true, he had been less than brilliant in nonsave situations or when asked to get more than three outs. Four batters later--out, hit, hit, hit, that last a double into the triangle--and the lead was gone, and so, as it happened, was the Red Sox season. Not to mention my self-respect. For to my own amazement, and surely Paul's, I had found myself on my feet, yelling across the dugout: "Who are you pointing at now, Gordon? You jerk! You idiot! Point at yourself! Don't point at God!"
What on earth had possessed me? Even as I was ranting, one part of my brain kept insisting that no one among these tens of thousands felt worse at that moment than Flash Gordon himself; and yet another part was whispering, Your son is here, he's listening, he's watching; and a third part, deeper than the rest, well beneath the cortex, was doing its best to remind me of another time, 17 or 18 years earlier, when I had also lost all respect for myself at Fenway Park.
On that occasion the boys and I had been sitting on the left side of the diamond, up in the grandstand, when we heard a disturbance in the aisle below. There a young fellow, half (but only half) drunk, was waving his hands in the face of an elderly black man, whose own two hands were clamped around a cardboard tray heaped with hot dogs and plastic cups of Sprite and Coke. "Boogie woogie!" shouted the lout, waggling his thumbs like a minstrel. "Boogie woogie, woogie, woogie!"
People all over the world are pretty much the same, alas. In Thailand, in Germany, on an autobus in the nation of Chad, one in a hundred will step forward to reprimand the bully, another one or two will egg him on, and the rest of us will bury our faces in our newspapers--or our box scores, if we were among the thousands of liberal Bostonians who watched the taunting of one out of the handful of black men who had dared to bring his children or grandchildren to this ballpark. I had my own boys on either side. I knew they were waiting for me to do something. I sat on my hands. And two decades later? I was the white man, impervious to the signals semaphored from my better nature, screaming at the black pitcher who had failed me.
The myth, of course, is that fathers and sons bond in baseball parks. When I was a boy my father and uncle took me to Gilmore Field, to watch the triple-A Hollywood Stars: Zesto, whatever that was, and The Brown Derby in bright paint on the outfield walls; Jim Baxis at third, Chuck Stevens at first, Johnny O'Neil making his patented basket catch at short; and my favorite, the free-swinging Frank Kelleher in left. The battery was Mike Sandlock and Pinky Woods--Sandlot, I thought, as in sandlot baseball, and Pinky because the big pitcher was missing a toe.
My own boys have their memories too--being strictly forbidden to put anything on their Fenway franks that might sting the players' eyes or cause one of them, just as he was about to put away a game-ending pop-up, to sneeze. When Theo, the skeptic, questioned this edict, I had only to point to the prominent signs stenciled about the infield: NO PEPPER. And not even he could doubt my assertion that, in addition to the usual chocolate and vanilla, one could purchase Eskimo Pies made out of straw: Could he not, with his own ears, hear the vendor's repeated cry, "Hey, ice cream! Hey, ice cream here!"? The point of it all was to be there when Dwight Evans tied the game in the bottom of the ninth or won it in extra innings with a long looping drive over the left field wall. It wasn't the victory that mattered but the leap we'd take from our seats, the way we'd hug first each other and then the fans in the seats around us, the roar in our ears, the vanishing of the boundary between ourselves and perfect strangers.
Dissolution of the self, transcendence, the feeling of oneness, wholeness, unity: Who can draw the line between, on the one hand, such innocent joy, the return to childhood in the adult, the jump toward manhood in the boy; and, on the other, the echo of a Nuremberg rally or the image of the crowd in that famous photograph in which young Adolf, his pale face bobbing in a sea of identical corks, wishes to volunteer for an army in which he might lose all that he hates in himself and become part of a larger, more powerful, entirely flawless body? Between, finally, the tolerated commonplace, Kill the ump! and the no less sanctioned urge to Kill the Jews?
A week after the Red Sox season ended, I went to the Bronx to watch the Yankees and San Diego in the World Series. Theo worked for the Padres, and I had a Swinging Friar on my cap and a large, entwined S and D on my jacket. Halfway through the game, Tino Martinez decided things with a grand slam, and I went down to indulge in what the boys still call a number one. A Coke bottle, half full, crashed at my feet. Someone or something tugged at my arm. Yankee fans! A half-dozen of them! It was as if they had known that from childhood I'd loathed their team as much as I had the Republican Party--and for much the same reason. Now these top dogs had me surrounded. They were heckling, jeering, drunk on the power of their team. I was the Jew, the scapegoat, damned because in a fit of stubborn Americanism I had refused to doff my cap. What would they do? If I had a beard, would they shave it? Would I have to shine, with a toothbrush, their shoes? A party member shoved me to the right. A fellow fascist pushed me left. Imagine: They were winning; what would my fate be if they were to lose? Then one of their number inexplicably held out his hand. Even less explicably, I took it. Here was the one in a hundred! "Aw, let him alone," my rescuer said, grinning, gap-toothed. Then he added the words that to this moment fill me with preposterous pleasure: "He's got balls."
Long before Freud wrote on the subject (and the quotes that follow are from Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego and Moses and Monotheism), everyone knew that membership in a crowd was a permit to regress to a more primitive form of the instinctual life. What Freud added was the idea that every crowd, indeed every sort of social organization, be it church or army or the aforementioned Republican Party, carries with it some memory of the primal horde. After the original band of repressed brothers had killed and eaten their father, they then renounced the very urges that had driven them to such a crime, creating both a taboo on incest with the desired mother or sister, and a totem animal--a Tiger, Cub, Oriole, or Blue Jay--that embodied the ambivalent feelings, reverence and dread, toward their murdered sire. Sounds pretty reasonable to me, especially when applied to the national pastime. The rule of exogamy explains the male nature of the game and the vague aura of homoeroticism ("homosexual love," wrote Freud, "is far more compatible with group ties") that links the beloved player and his devoted fan. After totemism came "the humanizing of the worshipped being." Animals were replaced by semi-human figures like Giants, Indians, Rangers, Mariners, yes, even Yankees. Freud points out that each year, "in a solemn repetition of the father-murder," there is a great feast and celebration, a ritual enshrined in the idea of victory, of one team left standing after all the others have been defeated. We may even detect a faint echo of the ripping and tearing apart of the totem animal in the cry of the victors as they fall upon their own pitcher, obliterating him beneath the squirming, orgiastic pile of their bodies.
Now and then, because the group "still wishes to be governed by unrestricted force [and] has an extreme passion for authority," a father figure will emerge. Little wonder that the Yankee fans, chafing under a Steinbrenner (the leader "loves no one but himself, or other people only in so far as they serve his needs"), yet unwilling to forgo the glory he has bestowed upon them, will turn their hostility outward upon the stranger who wears the hat of a rival "Padre." Yet other groups remain leaderless, their totem reduced to nothing more than a pair of old socks. Here the only vestige of the father is the anonymous voice that issues from the loudspeaker, urging ("Please do not enter the field of play") good behavior. In these organizations, drifting and bereft, the original renunciation continues unbroken, and abstinence is complete. Its members, in the words of Freud, "demand illusions and cannot do without them": Wait 'til next year.
The next year came this last October. Once again Paul and I took our seats in Fenway Park to watch the Red Sox and Indians play for the divisional title. This time the Sox took it to them, hit after hit, homer after homer, until they had scored a record-breaking 23 runs. Everyone was hugging everyone. My palms stung from the high-fives. My voice was gone from screaming. A few days later, loaded with lozenges, I returned with Paul to watch what would turn out to be the only Red Sox victory over the hated Yankees. On this occasion, another Martinez, Pedro, would outpitch the turncoat, Clemens, who did not make it through the second. "Where is Roger?" crooned the crowd through the later innings, only to answer itself in a delirium of sweet revenge: "In the shower!" Ah, the sheer fun of it! The innocence. After all, the bath that Roger was taking had nothing to do with the showers that had killed the Jews. Why not give full throat to the cry? The answer came the next day, when Clemens's wife revealed in the papers that she had had to leave the stadium during the chant because her eldest boy had broken into inconsolable tears. Even the gods have sons.
And with that answer came, all unbidden, another one: What had possessed me a year earlier, when I had mocked poor Gordon for his habit of pointing his finger toward the heavens? Who are you pointing at now? Point at yourself! My own father had died when I was only 13, with many more games to see; and now Julie, his identical twin (are not the Twins a totem too?), stroke-stricken, lay in a near coma after almost 50 years of serving as that father restored. I was, in my grief, my sorrow, screaming at myself. Don't point at God! For what I had come to realize was that, no matter how great the throng about us, or how deafening its din, we stand upon this earth entirely alone. ¤
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)