Saturday, May 06, 2017

Taken Out of the Ball Game

There is a nontrivial number of people who are just complete assholes. They inhabit every city, town, village, hamlet and unincorporated area of plant Earth.

There's also a nontrivial number of people who're nasty bigots, and they too can be found wherever humans dwell. I'd go so far as to say if one drew a Venn diagram of these two groups, it'd look almost like one perfect circle.

Therefore, that some moron shouted racial slurs at Orioles' outfielder Adam Jones from a seat at Fenway Park and that some other moron at Fenway issued similar slurs at a national anthem singer last week is not that much of a surprise. Nor is it an example of a social problem unique to Boston. Well, not most of it anyway.

Boston has a well-earned reputation for white racism. It's part of our image, and we can't say we didn't earn it. But times do change, and having been lucky enough to visit most of the U.S., I now would categorize this city's racial attitudes as following the same trend as most places. That is, Boston is way less racist than it was say 30 years ago, but there's still plenty of racism around.

What is unique to Boston, and more specifically unique to Fenway Park, is that white racists continue to feel that the ballpark is their safe space to indulge their prejudice openly. So many minority ballplayers for other teams, and from the Red Sox, have pointed this out I don't feel we need to go into chapter and verse. Fans who call talk radio to deny it are either deaf or feel shame at their own attitudes and behavior.

The fundamental insanity of abusing opponents for their ethnicity was best summarized by Braves' utility infielder Micah Johnson, who noted on Twitter that "the racist idiot who did this would weep tears of joy if somebody gave him a Mookie Betts signed jersey." Odds are that if that racist idiot met Jones in person, he would ask the outfielder for his autograph. Logic and hatred, of course, never meet. The point of calling Jones a name was to vent hatred in what was seen as protected speech, abusing an opponent.

Well, it's not protected speech. It's shameful stupidity. To their credit, the Red Sox have banned at least one verbal abuser from their home for life. This kind of aggressive policing is long overdue there. I'm sure the franchise is horrified. But it must bear the responsibility for past passivity. The Sox were letting socioeconomic trends drive fan behavior rather than enforcing a conduct code.

Those trends can be summed up in one word, gentrification. Just as Boston is nowhere near as racist as it was in 1980, Fenway crowds are much less rowdy, too. Tickets to a Sox game are hard to get and many many times more expensive than back in the day. This self-selects a more sedate set of spectators. It's hard to imagine that someone capable of unironically singing alone to "Sweet Caroline" is also capable of starting a fight, no matter how drunk they may be.

Gentrification has had an effect on all of Boston's pro sports crowds, all of which were quire rough in my young adult days. Not as bad as the Philly crowds I grew up with, but bad enough. The great Leigh Montville once said of Bruins crowds at the old Garden "it's a shame the 10,000 bad ones have to spoil it for the 4000 good ones." Sitting at the press tables for Celtics games used to include a wary eye for projectiles launched from the second balcony to protest decisions by the likes of Richie Powers and Earl Strom. People REALLY overestimate their throwing arms.

As for the old Foxboro Stadium, it was inconceivable that one would go to a Pats' game in the company of a grown woman, let alone with a child or children. In the '80s the Pats were in no position to screen customers for behavior. So half-full or sellout, the stands were full of every cop's dream, young men in groups who were drinking too much. There were no Monday night games in Foxboro for over a decade because people died at them.

Now, Gillette Stadium crowds are Lady Byng trophy contenders. Gentrification has a lot to do with it, as does New England's status as a historic dynasty. Season tickets are treasured. Fans don't want to endanger them.

More importantly, they know they can endanger them. Security at Gillette is strict, visible, and enveloping. There's never going to be any kind of crowd of 60,000 plus without a few problems, but those get dealt with. The result is that a Patriots game is now a family friendly event, if your family happened to inherit 5000 shares of Google back in the '90s.

Some have even complained Pats' crowds are too well-behaved, too quiet, spoiled by historic success and without their "true" fans, i.e., the sort of feebs who call Felger and Mazz. Maybe so. Given my druthers, I'd rather go to a sports event where I'm SURE I won't get vomited upon. I used to enjoy watching a good fight in the stands (the sainted Roger Angell loves them!). Now, I see 'em as a pain in the ass. Maybe that's from decades of watching games with deadlines in the front of my mind, or maybe my soul's seen some gentrification, too.

And of course I and everyone else can do without hearing racial slurs. Sports are recreation. It is hard to recreate when reminded or our society's most dreadful problem. The Sox have no need to tolerate horrible customers. They have plenty who aren't horrible, and plenty more non-horribles who'd like to get a ticket if they could.

So the franchise did the right thing this week when it banned that fan. Sad to say, it'll probably have to keep on doing the same thing for some time to come. May it not be as long a time as I've been watching Boston sports.


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