I GREW UP ROOTING FOR WILLIE MAYS.
At one point in my childhood, I thought we might become neighbors. The Brinings, the elderly couple next door to us in the New Jersey suburb where I lived, put their house on the market. I’d read that Willie Mays and his wife were looking for a new home. The Brinings’ place was a perfectly nice brick house with a screened front porch and a wooden two-car garage. The garage was overgrown with vines and part of it was rotten, but I was sure that if Willie Mays bought the place, he and I could fix that.
It did not occur to me in the mid-1950s that there were no minority families living on our street. Then again, I didn’t think of Mays as a black man. I thought of him as the magnificent center fielder on my favorite baseball team. I hoped that after he got settled next door, he’d come over to my backyard and begin preparing me to take his place with the New York Giants when the time came for him to retire.
I regarded as fools the people who thought Mickey Mantle was better than Mays. I still do.
In the summer of 1972, I moved to Boston to attend graduate school. Gradually I became a fan of the Red Sox.
Or, actually, not so gradually. Among the players briefly doing business at Fenway Park then were Orlando Cepeda and Juan Marichal, both former Giants, albeit San Francisco Giants. It was natural and easy to root for those familiar faces, though Cepeda and Marichal were both considerably diminished by the time the Sox got around to employing them.
A familiar voice was in Boston, too. I knew itinerant broadcaster Jim Woods from his time working for the Giants. With him and Ned Martin on the radio, I was in the company of two favorite uncles, at once knowledgeable and mischievous. When they were on the job, I didn’t mind rain delays. Sometimes I hoped for them.
The Red Sox of those years and the years that followed employed various other players for whom it was easy to cheer, Luis Tiant most prominent among them. By the time he joined Boston, Tiant, once the possessor of an excellent fastball, had lost 20 games in a season with the Indians. With the Red Sox, his evolving delivery of puzzling twists, turns, eye rolls, kicks, spins, and shuffles alternately tantalized and paralyzed hitters, to the delight of fans.
Tiant also had a sense of humor. Once I stood in line to get an autographed as-told-to biography of him for my cousin’s birthday. When I reached the pitcher and asked him to sign the book “To Dave,” he smiled and asked, “How do you spell that?”
In the fall of 1975, Tiant, the irrepressible Bill Lee, Rick Burleson, and the rest nearly beat the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. Although I didn’t know it at the time, that would be my most passionate year of Red Sox fandom.
This was in part because they traded Lee in 1978 for just being Bill Lee, rather than because he could no longer help the team. He was original, unpredictable, and irreverent, which did not endear him to management, one of whom he referred to as a gerbil. The next summer, Lee went 16-10 with a 3.04 ERA for the Montreal Expos.
My enthusiasm also suffered over the years because I got a job as a sports commentator and began to get a little closer to the players and the organization I’d previously known only as a paying customer. As a kid, I’d hoped Willie Mays would move in next door. As a young adult, I saw that some of the players I met might make less-than-perfect neighbors.
Some historian down the line will determine whether these are the worst of times in that respect. For obvious reasons, the saga of Aaron Hernandez, however it is eventually resolved, is likely to figure in that judgment. People make of fallen idols what they will. Within days of the announcement that the Patriots would supply anyone who wanted to turn in a Hernandez jersey with a different shirt, the signed Hernandez jerseys were fetching top dollar on eBay.
On an entirely different level, in advance of the 100th Tour de France this summer, Lance Armstrong shouldered his way back into the spotlight. For years Armstrong abused, lied about, and sued those who told the truth about his systematic doping program. Most recently he told Le Monde that he still considered himself cycling’s greatest champion and that nobody could have won the Tour during his prime without doping.
Those who demonstrate at an early age that they can run, jump, throw, shoot, hit, or hit somebody extraordinarily well are reinforced for that behavior. The reinforcement warps some of them if they’re not reinforced for much of anything else.
Sometimes it’s the paper cut rather than the knockout punch, the scribbled note rather than the headline, that clarifies that message. At Red Sox spring training in 1987, Al Nipper ran away from me. I’d made arrangements to interview him when he came out of the clubhouse, but evidently he’d changed his mind while he was in the shower. When he did come out, he spotted me and began trotting toward his car. I jogged a few steps after him, my tape recorder bouncing off my leg, before realizing that running after Nipper for an interview was ridiculous. The allegedly “gritty” pitcher drove away in a cloud of sand and pebbles.
But it had begun before that. A year earlier, I was NPR’s game guy for the postseason in Boston. That meant that I was at Fenway Park for Game Five of the World Series, when the Red Sox took a three-games-to-two lead over the Mets. In the early morning directly after that game, Kenmore Square was full of optimists, not all of them drunk. Sure, the next two games were scheduled in New York, but the Sox had won games one and two there. Why shouldn’t they win Game Six? Or at least Game Seven.
My editor had already told me that he wanted a commentary immediately after the final game, no matter who won. As I walked up Commonwealth Avenue, I began thinking about what I’d write if the Red Sox prevailed. They hadn’t done so since 1918. It would be a good story. But it occurred to me in the chill of that early morning that there might be a better tale to tell if this team, so thoroughly identified with perversely disappointing its fans, found yet another macabre way to lose. I’d become a fan of the story rather than a fan of the team.
Years ago, Roger Angell wrote of Major League players that “they are what they do.” But I became more interested in what else they were.
In 1989, Red Sox pitcher Wes Gardner was arrested, accused of pushing his wife into a wall. They were staying in a hotel in Baltimore during a series between the Orioles and the Sox. Gardner’s wife declined to press charges and he agreed to seek counseling. The next day, he was on the mound. When asked about the alleged domestic abuse, the manager would say only that it was a family matter and Gardner would stay in the rotation.
It’s easy to stop rooting for an organization insensitive and dumb enough to respond that way to a question about an employee who’s been accused of assaulting his wife.
Which is not to say that I stopped hoping good things would come to some of the Red Sox players. I began to like and root for the ones who could look me in the eye and laugh and talk about matters beyond what pitches they had hit. When I learned that Dennis Eckersley had found sobriety, I rooted for him wherever he was pitching — Oakland, St. Louis, Boston, it didn’t matter to me. Later, I was similarly inclined to wish the best for Dwight Gooden when he told me in the late ’90s, during his decades-long battle with substance abuse, that he felt each day he could go to work at the ballpark was a gift.
One evening I helped out at a dinner to raise money to fight lupus, and Mo Vaughn was the featured attraction. When the organizer later told me that Vaughn had not only stayed around until the last autograph seeker had been satisfied but had also quietly made a large cash contribution to the cause, I became a Mo Vaughn fan.
More than a century ago, William Butler Yeats wrote “Though I am old with wandering.” Over the years some of my wandering has taken me beyond baseball. I am still a fan of the game. I still relish double plays and patient at-bats and pitchers who set up hitters and managers who tell good stories well. But the three teams about which I care most these days are not in baseball.
One is the men’s basketball team at Curry College in Milton, where I teach. Their coach, Malcolm Wynn, is an old friend who used to run the men’s team at Roxbury Community College. There he was exceptionally successful at doing two things. He consistently led his teams to preposterously successful seasons, including one in which they won a community college national championship, and he guided his players into four-year schools, where many of them earned degrees and subsequently built lives with shape and purpose.
Malcolm faces different challenges at Curry, where he has also been successful. But his achievement at Roxbury, with young men who were often the first members of their families to attend college, was especially impressive. Malcolm never seems to give up on anybody, for which I admire him and wish him wins and other good things.
I also root for the women’s basketball team at Bentley University. The players are coached by Barbara Stevens, who has compiled a winning percentage of about .800 during her 26 years at the school. Among the many things her players understand is that selfishness has no part in a team game.
Stevens has done everything a coach can do on the court except win a national championship. At a game this winter, when her team was 15-0, I spoke to her briefly at halftime.
“I’m sorry it’s been such hard times,” I joked.
“Yes,” she said, deadpan, surveying the court. “We’re going to have to crank it up the second half of the season.”
They finished the regular season 25-1 and made it to their division’s Final Four.
The stories I’ve done on the Bentley team always seem to include many very good players characterized by intelligence and perspective as well as a terrific work ethic. Once, I asked a team star whether she considered herself a basketball player who happened to be attending college or a college student who happened to be playing basketball.
She smiled and asked, “Is that a trick question?”
The young women playing for Stevens do not traffic in cliches.
The third team about which I care powerfully is Football Club Barcelona. Years ago I saw them play at home, in the company of about 100,000 people, lots of whom were children. Everybody seemed happy. Nobody shouted whatever the Catalan equivalent of “Yankees suck!” might be.
The team members play with patience and art. They appear to find joy in their work. There is also charity apparent on their jerseys. Other soccer teams make millions of dollars by selling space on their uniforms to corporate giants. Manchester United’s players used to run around in shirts that bore the initials “AIG.” F.C. Barcelona’s shirts said “UNICEF” on the front. The team paid the charity millions of dollars a year for that honor. Yes, as a wealthy and successful club supported by an enormous and loyal group of fans, Barca can afford it. Nevertheless, it’s easy to cheer for a team characterized in part by charity rather than entirely by greed, though I was disappointed when Barca moved UNICEF to the back of their jerseys a couple of years ago.
Then there’s the history. When Francisco Franco ruled Spain, he tried to silence the people of Catalonia. He outlawed their language and prohibited their dances. But when they gathered to cheer for their soccer team, Franco could not shut them up. The soccer team in the capital, Real Madrid, came to be associated with Franco and his fascist repression. Barcelona was a place where those opposed to Franco could express their support for a team that symbolized the liberation they hoped to achieve one day.
It wasn’t that simple then and it’s not that simple now, but it pleases me to think of F.C. Barcelona in political as well as artistic terms, and so I cheer for them. And I make the allowances characteristic of a fan. If Lionel Messi, Barca’s star among stars, did, in fact, initially pay the government less than what it’s entitled to according to the tax laws, I will think of the mishap as the consequence of a clerically challenged bureaucracy or as the oversight of a child concerned with art rather than finance or the consequence of his deference toward a finagling father or an attack orchestrated by his enemies, or I will not think of it at all. I will choose not to hear of it. And I don’t have to hear of it. That’s one of the advantages of rooting for a team that plays an ocean away.
On the other hand, I don’t have to hear about what a jerk Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo is. Hearing about it would be superfluous. His apartment features an enormous depiction of himself with no clothes on. His arrogance is evident in his every gesture. He is the anti-Messi. He is ridiculously easy to cheer against, and I would do that even if I were not a fan of his team’s chief rival.
So I have not abandoned irrational passion entirely.
Still, the point is that age and experience have altered my allegiances and the rationales for them, suspect as some of those rationales might be. On my better days, I like to think that friendship with a coach and admiration for the way that coach handles his or her responsibilities are good reasons to root for that coach. I like to think that a team’s commitment to playing with imagination, flair, discipline, and patience is good reason to support it. It may be silly to suppose that age and experience have encouraged me to value in the teams for which I cheer the same qualities I admire in art, literature, and friends, but I enjoy thinking something like that has happened, which is as good a reason as any for my becoming the fan I have become.
Bill Littlefield is the host of the NPR sports program Only a Game, produced by WBUR. Send comments to email@example.com.