October 25, 2010

Book Review: The Red Sox And Philosophy

The Red Sox and Philosophy: Green Monster Meditations (edited by Michael Macomber) is one of the latest books in Open Court's "Popular Culture and Philosophy" series, which "present[s] essays by academic philosophers exploring the meanings, concepts, and puzzles within television shows, movies, music and other icons of popular culture".

I liked this book and would recommend it (with some caveats), but I have also had a very difficult time writing about it. Macomber was kind enough to send me a copy back in the spring and I've been procrastinating ever since.

At some point, I convinced myself that I should combine my thoughts about this book with how my attitude as a Red Sox fan changed after 2004. And as writers will sometimes do, I could imagine only the finished product when I thought about working on it, and felt like I had to knock out the final product as a first draft. There are few better ways to prevent yourself from writing.

As a Red Sox fan of 35 years, I'm not a curious or casual observer of the team and its fans; I have strong opinions. As I read, I wondered if my opinions were clouding my assessment of the contributors. I was taking issue with an author's point of view and then being miffed enough to consider dismissing the entire chapter. I was taking offense at things that probably should not have been provoking offense.

Am I a smarter (or "better") fan because I don't make snide remarks about J.D. Drew? Should I look down on someone because her hat is a different colour than mine or he uses what I believe are irrelevant, out-dated stats? If someone expresses what seems like a dumb idea, should I "penalize" him for it in a review? And if I answer Yes to any of these questions, what exactly does that say about me? I'm not sure how fair this is. It probably is not fair at all. What makes me nod my head in agreement might cause you to roll your eyes.

Several of the 26 essays are exceptional, but I wished that everyone had dug deeper into their subject matter, though I understand that might not have as much appeal to a general reader.

Marcus Giamatti ("What Binds Us Together") is the book's leadoff hitter. His father was a diehard Red Sox fan and his son understood early on that
This was a duty ...a lifelong quest to rise above and persevere. ... To be a true fan ... takes commitment. Total and complete. It takes faith -- faith that one day it will pay off. And if for some reason it doesn't, then the journey -- the process -- is the pay off.
Sander Lee opens his essay, "Why Are They Our Red Sox?": "Why do normally sane adults root for the Boston Red Sox?" His answer:
[B]ecause we choose to. My wife sometimes asks me why I allow myself to feel bad when the Sox lose. She accepts that it might be fun to feel good when they win, but why torture myself when they lose? There's no good way to explain the pleasures and pains of the true fan to those who choose not to enter the magical realm of sports.
John McHugh ("Grady Little, the Impartial Spectator, and My Short Fuse") thinks it is odd to get so riled up by simply watching the Red Sox, when we aren't actually doing anything. But that's the problem, isn't it? We are helpless, at the mercy of these players and the fickle luck of the game.

McHugh cites the stoicism of Epictetus, who believed we should focus only upon the things we can control -- our actions and reactions. That seems like a very Mannyesque way of seeing the world, though Nolen Gertz ("On The Genealogy of a Rivalry") draws a connection between Manny and Nietzsche.

In "Why Red Sox Fans Are Moral Heroes", one of the book's best essays, Karolina Lewestam and Orla Richardson write about the fan's unyielding commitment, her sense of loyalty despite the unpredictability of future events. In a world dominated by hip irony, that vulnerable state of being is "disturbing and obsolete".

But every fan remains blind to the future, so what makes Red Sox fans so special? Depending on the length of our relationship with the team, we have suffered more than most, I suppose. Still, there is a sense of Red Sox exceptionalism in many of these essays and I have to admit it annoyed me.

Corey McCall wonders if "The True Red Sox Fan" exists. He cites Immanuel Kant and talks about the idea of the enlightened individual who can construct his life -- think for himself -- and give his life meaning as he defines it.

He wonders if post-2004 fans are "less worthy" than us older farts who have paid more than our share of dues. It's a question that also comes up in Stephanie St. Martin's provocative exploration of the pink hat, "In Sync With Pink?". Her basic ideas -- we all follow the game at our own level and anyone playing the "superior fan" card is guilty of the same behaviour as the cellphone putzes behind the plate -- are solid, but the piece does not gel quite as well as I hoped.

St. Martin initially says the pink hat was created "to make sure that everyone can be a Red Sox fan, including women", but six pages later, she claims, "The pink hat isn't about women -- it's a bandwagon thing."

Why can't a woman wear a traditional cap? And as much as the term "pink hatter" has come to mean an ignorant follower of the team, it is also unmistakably sexist. Girls wear pink and boys wear blue.*

* Did you know that up until the 1950s, pink was for boys and blue was for girls? It's true. Ladies Home Journal explained: "The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger color is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl."

I am guilty of some of what St. Martin describes. Like many fans, I see my cap as a symbol of my fandom. It is weather-beaten and dirty; it shows the scars of being a diehard. I finally had to replace my old cap a few years ago -- the bill soaked up so much sweat that it never got completely dry (actually quite disgusting) -- but I was not looking forward to putting on a crisp, clean hat. And that hesitancy was mainly because of how I thought it might look to others. I did not want to be confused with someone who had just discovered the team.

In "Wicked Faithful", Patrick Tiernan wonders, when we use religious terms like belief and faith to describe our connection to the Red Sox, what are we keeping faith in? He draws upon William James and Joseph Otto to put forth the idea that our faith is not merely a set of beliefs, but a mindset, an innate disposition, something we are in, not something we have.

From David Roochnik's "The Art of Losing":
Losing is a vastly more complicated experience than winning ... Loss is complicated because it includes both itself and what is not itself. ... Victors relish being who they are; losers feel the pain of who they are not. ...

[R]ationalization [is] a way to defuse the hurt. We diminish the importance of the game only because we were on the losing side. ... "It was only a game." ...

Victors are not driven to become reflective. ... They have no need to think. ... [The Yankees] treat loss as an insult, rather than the life-lesson it is.
Rory E. Kraft Jr. ("Forgiveness, Virtue, and Red Sox Nation") looks at our tendency to evaluate people by the actions they take, seeing them as an extension of those actions. This is why J.D. Drew gets criticized for stuff that mainly exists in fans' heads while Josh Reddick can actually say he is now a better hitter because "I stopped caring so much" and everyone pretty much yawns.

I also enjoyed Kevin Maguire's "What Kant Would Have to Say About Jon Lester's No-Hitter", in which he floats the idea that, since Kansas City had almost no chance of winning that game, "there may have been an obligation for the Royals to make less of an effort".

Matthew Konig is the lone Yankee fan on the roster. He mentions Schopenhauser's philosophy of pessimism and how success only creates a new dissatisfaction -- an idea that reminded me of what David Foster Wallace expressed about the room service on his cruise vacation.

Okay, the complaints.

Joel W. Cade ("Thou Shall Steal! How the 2004 Boston Red Sox Reconciled Faith and Reason") misrepresents Moneyball right away. Everything he says about sabermetrics is wrong. He writes some very strange things about the 2004 team. I swear he thinks it's crazy that wins are directly related to a team's ability to score runs. And he actually refers to "statistics crunched by sabermetricians in their basements".

Jonah P.B. Goldwater ("Bill James and the Science of Red Sox Religion") says some wonderful things about James: he "instigated a baseball revolution" and his work is "a mix of daring hypothesis, meticulously collected data, and acerbic wit .. [with] the detachment of ego that's essential in the search for truth."

But Goldwater also says James is in the business of predicting the future, claims the "new science of Sabermetrics threatens to eliminate the unique, the magical", and this scientific way of looking at baseball -- as opposed to "common sense" -- by James "and his ilk" doesn't accept the notion of unique events at all (though at times it is hard to figure out where he is merely stating what some people think and where he is giving us his own opinions). He sums up by saying these "Jamesean statistics aren't statistics meant for the fans, if by 'fan' one means someone who enjoys the game most when unexpected and seemingly miraculous events occur." Those abstract stats "seems to ruin what's most special for many people" about baseball.

I cannot give these ideas a bigger finger than the one I'm giving them right now.

Weaver Santaniello ("Breaking the Mold: From Ruth to Ramirez") looks at five Boston players who defied convention and had antagonistic relationships with the fans and/or the media: Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Bill Lee, Jim Rice, and Manny Ramirez. Most of the essay is great: Santaniello places the sale of Ruth in the context of Kant, he sees TSW and Lee as existentialists, and notes that all Rice wanted to do was "do his job and go home". Then he ruins his entire enterprise by abandoning the facts and relying solely on his opinion regarding Ramirez, after presenting the previous four players in a neutral light. (He also claims that Sox fans fear a new curse because we traded Manny.)

At least five writers get the history of Bill Buckner wrong, by saying that it was not until 2008 (or maybe 2004) that Red Sox fans showed forgiveness for his sins in 1986. However, Peter Gammons wrote in Sports Illustrated that Buckner was given a standing ovation at a rally in Boston two days after the Red Sox lost Game 7. They also cheered him on Opening Day in 1987 and a couple of years later, as well.

McHugh claims Boston got Curt Schilling by throwing the most money at him. ... Kraft quotes an expression as "Manny to be Manny". ... Joseph Ulatowski ("We Believe"), in noting that Sox fans "treat players who have chosen (albeit unwisely), to abandon us very well" and mentions Nomar Garciaparra -- who did not choose to leave Boston. ... Then there is one essay about which my notes say "this is a fucking mess".

Roochnik also got my blood boiling by writing:
[N]ever forget those dark and haunted days before October 2004. We were special then. Never forget the strange sensation of being cursed ... We understood ourselves back then. ... Maybe when the Curse ended something weirdly valuable was lost as well.
Unfortunately, with so much discussion of faith and fate, even after 2004, the CHB's Meal Ticket gets mentioned quite a bit (under its more well-known moniker, which I have decided never to type or say again), and that soured several essays for me.

Overall, though, I enjoyed reading these essays and I would love to know if some of the writers here have written more extensively about philosophy and the Red Sox.

I'll give the last words to Erin E. Flynn ("Blursed!" (a combination of cursed and blessed)), writing about 2004:
We experienced a bliss that can only be born of impossible disappointment. ... The curse turned out to be a blessing, a necessary condition of the impossible joy that dawned with Roberts's steal of second, overwhelmed us in the rout in Game Seven and culminated in the sweep of the Cardinals in the World Series. ...

2004 couldn't have been what it was without reference to these other events [bad stuff like 1986 and 2003]. ... Hence no team could've done precisely what the Red Sox did in 2004. We experienced something that no other fans could've experienced. ... The suffering itself took on an entirely new significance. It suddenly had a purpose for me, a gift that made possible the singular bliss we felt as the Yankees crumbled and the Red Sox ascended. What else, after all, could a blessing be?


FenFan said...

Sounds like a book I will add to my Christmas wish list. The study of the sports fan is an interesting one, whether they be Sox fans or not.

Your story about your favorite Sox cap reminds of one that I had for years which I finally had to retire because the plastic tabs snapped. I've never been one for fitted caps - my cap size is 7-3/4 and, besides being nearly impossible to find caps in that size, they look ridiculous on my head. :-D

laura k said...

Sander Lee opens his essay, "Why Are They Our Red Sox?": "Why do normally sane adults root for the Boston Red Sox?" His answer:

[B]ecause we choose to.

But it doesn't feel that way, does it? Having left one side of the rivalry for the other - and being a total diehard on each side - I can say it never felt like a choice. It felt like all major life changes - something I was compelled to do.

There's no good way to explain the pleasures and pains of the true fan to those who choose not to enter the magical realm of sports.

If most people you know are not into sports (as is my case), you really know this. People think it's cute, or silly, or low-brow, or whatever - but they do not understand.

laura k said...

but I was not looking forward to putting on a crisp, clean hat. And that hesitancy was mainly because of how I thought it might look to others. I did not want to be confused with someone who had just discovered the team.

And this seemed so unlike you. You pride yourself on not caring what others think of you, and always encourage and urge others to do the same. But wear a new cap? What will other fans think? What if I'm mistaken for a post-2004 fan? Such an interesting exception to the way you normally think!

laura k said...

One more comment...

The parts of this book you like sound interesting. But the parts you dislike sound so completely vile to me that I would never buy or read any of it.

Unknown said...

Not to quibble too much, but the line is "allow 'Manny to be Manny'". I intended there to refer to the phrase "Manny being Manny" while bringing in one aspect of what that meant.

Jim said...

I liked the hat story. I know what you mean. My brother got me an "04 World Series Champ" bumper sticker and I agonized over whether put it on because I didn't want anyone to think that I'd just become a Sox fan (despite my License plate reading JWG SOX). Then in 07, I knew I was going to get a new car, so I saved the 07 sticker for the new one--but asked my mechanic if there was any way of getting the 04 one off and putting it on the new one,too. He looked at me like I was nuts, and he's a baseball fan, too.

Zenslinger said...

This was a very enjoyable post. A lot of work, biases up front, and well done.

Anonymous said...

So it is both inspiring and it frustrates the hell out of you?

Yeah...that sounds like the Red Sox.

mattymatty said...

Sorry I don't have anything else to add but great job.

johngoldfine said...

I really liked your review.

The way you include your own biases is a masterstroke; they become points of sympathy between reader and reviewer and allow you free rein in your comments without your reader nervously looking for a hidden agenda. Nothing hidden, no tricks! Here I stand, says Allan!

I'm working up an essay for my Advanced Nonfiction course, an essay that displays expertise--I'm having my problems even finding a topic, but what a grand example this is of a writer in full control of a huge amount of expertise wearing his learning lightly. I get the same feeling reading Bill James or Joe Posnanski--the feeling of being in good hands--honest, intelligent, sincere, curious, striving-for-truth, deeply knowledgeable hands.

And, oh yeah, hands that know how to interest, amuse, entertain too.

johngoldfine said...

I did not want to be confused with someone who had just discovered the team.

I've been a fan since Walt Dropo moved in down the street and I went to summer camp with Mel Parnell's sons, but I never had a Sox cap until the spring of 2005 when my daughter gave me a top-of-the-line one. So, there I was In May 2005 in my brand new cap, hiking across the North Yorkshire Moors when a couple I later found were from Wisconsin came up from behind.

The guy said, "Hey, Red Sox fan!" with that intonation that let me know he was a little amused and a little contemptuous that someone would be jumping on the bandwagon of the new World Champions with his fancy fresh ball cap.

Half a world away from Fenway, I was still chagrined....

laura k said...

but what a grand example this is of a writer in full control of a huge amount of expertise wearing his learning lightly. I get the same feeling reading Bill James or Joe Posnanski--the feeling of being in good hands--honest, intelligent, sincere, curious, striving-for-truth, deeply knowledgeable hands.

And, oh yeah, hands that know how to interest, amuse, entertain too.

He's good, eh? Nice review of the review.

allan said...

Rory, I apologize if I misunderstood your use of the phrase. Thanks for commenting!

Random stuff:

The editor was glad to see a critical review of the book and I emailed him and said it still felt superficial. I really wanted to get it done before I went to VT for the week and so I pushed myself at work on Sunday. It still seems like I went through and devoted a paragrph to each essay. Which is the easy way out.

(jeez, john: thanks for the praise. i feel like you are about to ask to borrow a big pile of money!)

I wish I knew something about the philosphers being discussed. Also, I worried that if I did not trust the writer's take on something Soxish, then maybe the philosophic reading was skewed, as well. Who knows?

I still want to get into my attitude as a fan, which will likely use some stuff from a few of these essays.

There was good stuff in there about choosing a team when you do not live near them. I do not think VT qualifes, since Boston and Montreal were semi-close.

Hats: I have an 04 cap, which I love wearing. No issues there. Plus I have another mint one for years from now! It is odd, though. I thought about getting a replica cap from the 30s which had the socks logo instead of a B. But I went with the regular cap, though I think it is actually a batting practice cap; it is ventilated more than the usual one.

Anyway, I hope the overall feel of the review matches the balance of how I feel about it. (I may post more about some of the essays later on.) Keep chatting and I will be back on Thursday night.

I wanted to go back to threads for the WS, but I will be in VT at my friend's Ray's house for G1, sans laptop (but I remembered to bring scoresheets and pens!).

laura k said...

(but I remembered to bring scoresheets and pens!)

As if that was in doubt!

Crito said...

Hey, just dropping in to say congratulations to Tim Wakefield (my favorite Red Sock) on his Clemente award.

Go baseball!

tim said...

I've come to this conclusion after reading your excellent review of this book.

If 2004 didn't happen, our lives would be full of so much more angst, so much more sorrow, so much more frustration, so much more pain....but so much more hope, so much more optimism, so much more INTEREST. Our watching of the games, our view of the games would be so much more INTERESTING.

Yes, its probably for the best that furniture isn't destroyed based on a pitching change, and probably for the best that our entire sense of being isn't crushed every october, but as amazing as 04 was (and it was only one tenth amazing for me as i can imagine it was for you, Allan, or anyone else who followed the team through the decades of struggle), a teeny weeny part of me misses the angst/sorrow/frustration/pain from pre-October 2004.

well, maybe its just missed because of what happened that month.

allan said...

I mean this as a simple fact and not as anything negative about you: Only a young person without the back history with the Red Sox would say that.

I'll bet there is not one Red Sox fan in the world who lived through '78 and everything after that who would say that s/he misses any of the angst/sorrow/frustration/pain.

I (and millions of other fans) said for so many years, "All I want is one." And the uncertainty of life being what it is, the sooner it happens the better.

There remains plenty of excitement and drama with the team now. I like not having boiling anger and frustration over losses shaving any more months and years off my life.

tim said...

I hear you, and I totally agree. Not actually living through the shit really changes my perspective on the whole thing. Sure, I was around from 1999-2003 but really, its only a minute fraction of the frustration.

I'm just lucky that it happened one year after 2003. I didn't choose when I was born! ;) (or where, for that matter, fuck nationalism, just had to throw that in) - by no choice of my own, I wasn't there for 86, I wasn't there for 78...I would love to have been, solely for the sake of enjoying 04 as much as everyone else, but still, 04 was great. Clearly not as great as it was for everyone else, but still. I'll take it.

allan said...

Coming back against the Yankees -- humiliating them as no team has ever humiliated another team before -- after what happened in 2003, and then winning it all, makes 2004 pretty sweet no matter when you got on board.