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From the Sunday Magazine

Calling a foul on fans

With the retirement of longtime Globe sports columnist Bob Ryan, we look back at one of his best works. Penned in August 2006, after our home team lost five in a row to the Yankees, he takes Red Sox Nation to task for lashing out with anger and blame.

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Illustration by GREG CLARKE

I APPEARED TO STRIKE A CHORD IN THE READERSHIP earlier this week by writing the following: “The truth is we need to sit down and figure what sports are all about. We’ve lost our way.”

It was in reference to the Yankees’ infamous five-game sweep of the Red Sox, and the need of many, as I saw it, to find someone to blame for all this, rather than to accept it as a pure athletic situation in which one team simply performed better than another over a period, in this case four days. As always, there are plenty of people who are quite unhappy with the manager, but at present people are displeased in much greater numbers with general manager Theo Epstein, who, in their view, either allowed to get away, traded away, or traded for the wrong people in the last two offseasons and who then angered them further by not putting the Mercurochrome bunny on all this by making a cure-all trade at the July 31 deadline.

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Scrutiny of a general manager is not new, but the interpretation of his action or inaction, as the case may be, is now different. Theo has brought some of the criticism on himself because — he can’t be oblivious to this — the events of last offseason were without precedent in the history of American sport. (I’m trying with great difficulty to picture Branch Rickey, Red Auerbach, or Dick O’Connell in a gorilla suit.) But the rest of it is management’s (i.e. Larry Lucchino’s) fault for botching the contract negotiations, which, you can be 100 percent certain, Epstein never wanted to be even remotely public.

My God, I’m doing it, aren’t I? I’m assigning “blame.” Anyway, the result of all that foolishness was that Theo emerged in the public view as an irreplaceable entity in the Red Sox scheme of things. If he’s that smart, people reasoned, then surely he will do all the right things to ensure that we conquer the Evil Empire.

Obviously, he didn’t. And now people are e-mailing to say that he is, among other things, cocky, arrogant, delusionary, egotistical, and overrated. And they are not merely disappointed. They are angry. How dare he spoil their summah!

In other words, it’s personal. And I am here to say that it didn’t used to be personal. It just was.

OK, let’s talk fandom.

I know about being a fan. I fell in love with the 1954 New York Giants (especially Willie Mays), and I rooted for them even after they left for San Francisco. I got a Giants jacket as a confirmation gift. I tossed a shoe out of the dormitory window when I heard they had traded Orlando Cepeda to the Cardinals. Juan Marichal is my all-time favorite pitcher (I used to be able to recite his year-by-year record, starting with his 21-8 for Michigan City, Indiana, in 1958, but I can no longer do so). When I heard Willie McCovey line out to Bobby Richardson in Game 7 of the ’62 Series, I was crushed. But those days are gone. How could anyone root for a team with You Know Who on it? I still have a Giants wastebasket in my home office, but who thinks about replacing wastebaskets?

I rooted for Boston College. I missed only four basketball games (out of 51), home or away, during my junior and senior years. Somehow, someway, I usually figured out a way to get there. I exulted in the wins and took some of the losses quite hard.

I rooted for the 1967 Red Sox. That remains the greatest day-to-day fan experience of my life. I saw a city that had become extremely complacent about the team and the sport come alive thanks to the unexpected rise of a team that had finished ninth the year before and that had not truly contended since 1950, and I was thrilled to participate in the experience. If you’re under 50, you must accept it on good faith when I tell you that as you drove around, or went from neighborhood to neighborhood on foot in those days when not all the games were televised, you could keep track of a game’s progress by the sound of Ken Coleman’s and Ned Martin’s voices, because everyone was tuned to WHDH (850). That’s just what you did. October 1, 1967, was one of the great highlights of a lifetime spent following sports. For me, it will always rank right up there with anything that happened in October 2004.

I still root. I can’t help it. It’s just me.

I know that many writers wear their professional indifference as a badge of honor, but I don’t understand how anyone covering a team wouldn’t prefer to see it win, if only because winning people are more likely to be happy people or, at least, accessible people. Winning is in a writer’s best interest. There are exceptions, sure. The 2001 Red Sox were a miserable lot. They couldn’t lose often enough or fast enough to suit me as that season wore on.

I don’t understand not rooting. Any time I go to a neutral college basketball game, for example, it doesn’t take long for me to line up with one side or the other, usually because there is a player who intrigues me. It enhances my experience to manufacture a little care about the outcome.

To me, being a fan is understanding the ultimate reality that there are winners and losers and that you can’t overreact when the team you happen to be backing loses. But even before you go there, being a fan means you actually like the game they’re playing and appreciate it for its own sake. Sometimes it’s not strictly about wanting your team to win.

Exhibit A would be the night in 2001 when David Cone hooked up with Mike Mussina. For eight innings, the story was this absolutely exhilarating duel between a fine pitcher in the prime of life pitching a superb game (Mussina) and a cagey veteran conjuring up one last flashback effort (Cone). But with the Yankees leading, 1-0, and Mussina having retired the first 26 men he had faced, it became a matter of seeing some history. No true baseball fan wanted to see Carl Everett (ugh) get a hit. A Red Sox victory would have meant nothing in the big scheme of things as opposed to seeing a perfect game. To me, it must start with, and always be about, the baseball, not the blind loyalty to a team. That, I guess, is where I part company with many contemporary Red Sox followers. If that Mussina-Cone matchup had been the seventh game of a playoff series, no, of course not. In that context, you’ve got to root for the win.

It’s a different climate now than it was in 1967. People just inherently knew how to be fans. Red Sox folklore had to do with 1946 (Pesky) and 1948 (Galehouse), but it was pretty benign stuff. No one was taking any of it personally, and that’s the big difference.

Blame it on talk radio. Blame it on websites and chat rooms and blogs. Blame it on Shaughnessy (he can take it). But somewhere along the way, far too many members of this so-called “Red Sox Nation” have perverted the concept of fandom. As a result, there is no more narcissistic group of people rooting for any sports team in North America than that subsection of Red Sox followers who have made the shifting fortunes of the team all about them. When the ball went through Buckner’s legs, it was, “How can he do that to me?”

And so it continues.

But don’t listen to me. Listen to an e-mailer by the name of Lois Kane. She was introduced to baseball and the Red Sox by her grandfather, who listened to all the games on a portable radio and who, she says, taught her that the idea was “companionship and enjoyment of the journey through the game.” She thinks he would be shocked by “the attitude that winning was the only important thing.”

Concluded Lois, “In many ways it was more enjoyable to be a fan before it was fashionable to be one.”

Thank you, Lois. That’s what I’m talking about.

Bob Ryan retired from the Globe in August. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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