Friday, June 02, 2006

To Front Run is Human, To Forgive Makes Good Business

My former colleague Tony Massarotti had a column in today's Herald decrying the swarms of new, less committed fans surrounding the Red Sox ever since the 2004 World Series. It was well-written, as is all of Tony's work, and surprisingly passionate for a writer who leans more to the analytic mode.

Tony's column was also wrong-headed and above all, futile. King Canute had a better chance of waving back the tide than any human has of thwarting front-runners from latching on to successful sports teams. If some superhero could do just that, it might ruin sports for keeps.

The Sox have always had an inordinate number of irritating camp followers. There are the louts, who're the same in any ballpark. Their granddads got drunk and booed Ted Williams. These clods are a tiny minority, but since Fenway Park is so cramped, they have an effect all out of proportion to their numbers. This was as true at my first Red Sox game on Opening Day of 1969 as it is today.

The poseurs unique to the Old Towne Team are the literati-Ken Burns, Doris Kearns Goodwin, whoever writes those dismal Globe editorials on baseball topics. I used to wonder what drew these types to the Red Sox. It wasn't the fabled curse. Hell, my Phillies lost for a century without attracting a single highbrow.

Sometime last summer, it finally struck me. The Sox have numerous overintellectual fans because of there are a lot of people like that in Boston. In the world's largest college town, things could hardly be otherwise. As long as the eggheads don't write Sox poetry, let them root in peace.

Another phenomenon that irked Mazz that shouldn't have is the traveling Sox fan, the crowds in blue caps who fill stadiums when the team is on the road. Once again, this is nothing new. Rotten weather plus the high cost of living means New England has many exiles. No matter where an American roams, he keeps the team he learned to love in junior high. In Oakland in the early '70s, Sox fans came out of the Berkeley woodwork when Yaz anc company came to call.

I'd also suggest to Tony that while a fan who'd spend big money to follow the Sox through a weekend series IN DETROIT is doubtless deranged, one can't fairly call him or her a dilettante. That's serious overcommittment.

Most of all, my esteemed friend of the game has ignored the essential fact about front-running. The fans who follow the standings are the economic foundation of the baseball business. New customers are essential to any profitable enterprise. More wins equals more fans equals more money for the players and owners. That is the fiscal compact on which the game is run. Those who break it, like Royals owner David Glass, wind up owning teams without new or old fans.

Fans start rooting whenever. Winning attracts their attention, but it's not what keeps them there. Let's take a new Sox fan of my acquaintance. My daughter Hope is 17. As a small child, she didn't follow sports, associating it with Daddy being out of town.

But in 2003, Hope got into baseball in general and the Sox in particular. She watched as much as she could of Boston's stretch run and the post-season-all the post-season.

That Sox story had a memorable and extraordinarily unhappy ending and I wondered if Hope would be back for more Sox rooting in 2004. She was, and still is today. Is she a front-runner, or the makings of a Royal Rooter of 2041? Does it matter?

Those who love baseball too much look down upon those for whom the game's just a casual summer fling. They shouldn't. As much as the gals in pink hats and guys on cell phones may irk card-carrying members of the Sons of Sam Horn, the purists owe the front-runners a debt of gratitude. Without that kind of Sox fan, the club would've salary dumped Manny Ramirez
years ago.


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