In politics, sports always in play

Not a game-changer, but errors cost

 Elizabeth Warren has been deliberate in her attempts to differentiate herself from Martha Coakley, but in the arena of sports, it’s really tough to keep up with Scott Brown.
associated press
Elizabeth Warren has been deliberate in her attempts to differentiate herself from Martha Coakley, but in the arena of sports, it’s really tough to keep up with Scott Brown.

On Monday, Senator Scott Brown’s campaign questioned Elizabeth Warren’s Red Sox Nation credentials. On Wednesday, Brown launched a radio ad devoted completely to the home team, his second sports ad this year.

Welcome to Massachusetts politics, where spring training is mandatory, for everyone.

Sure there’s a war in Afghanistan and an employment crisis. But in New England, the Red Sox are the ultimate authenticity test, an easy demonstration of loyalty to the region and a way to connect with people in an instant. Slip-ups can lead to political mockery and charges of elitism.


Brown’s focus on talking sports has been constant, on Twitter, in interviews, and at games he attends. The topic also serves as a sharp campaign tool for the Republican, drawing a contrast with Warren, a Democratic woman who comes from out of state and teaches at Harvard.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
Forget yesterday's news. Get what you need today in this early-morning email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Analysts say Brown is trying both to wrap himself in the warm feelings toward the home teams and to rekindle some of the success he had in the 2010 special election against Attorney General Martha Coakley, who mistakenly said that Red Sox great Curt Schilling played for the Yankees.

Coakley’s gaffe became a touchstone, one of those moments that, fairly or not, helped to brand the Democratic front-runner as a faker.

Warren, who once described herself as an avid Houston Rockets fan, has tried to counter comparisons to Coakley with just enough sports talk to show rooting interest. But she is hardly auditioning for a spot on sports radio.

At a restaurant in Ayer over the weekend, she pointed to a framed photo of the infamous brawl, when the Red Sox’s Jason Varitek stuffed his mitt in the face of Yankee Alex Rodriguez.


“His enthusiasm will be missed,’’ Warren said of the retiring catcher, according to the Lowell Sun. “What a photo. He sure got his point across there, didn’t he? He made it really clear.’’

State Republicans, following up on a Twitter message from Brown’s campaign adviser, saw this as an opening, blasting out a press release Monday that noted: “last summer, she admitted on MSNBC that her husband, fellow Harvard professor Bruce Mann, is the one in her family ‘who keeps up with Red Sox.’ and not her.’’ (Warren actually told MSNBC that she thinks it’s important “to stay up with all the teams.’’)

There was more: the charge that Warren, in a December debate, could not correctly name which years the Sox had most recently won the World Series. She got 2004 right, but said 2008 instead of ’07 on the second one.

Warren has been deliberate in attempts to differentiate herself from Coakley, whose 2010 loss to Brown stunned Democrats.

In January, she made an ostentatious appearance outside the “Frozen Fenway’’ hockey games, shaking hands in the cold. It seemed a direct rebuke to another Coakley sports moment, when she appeared to mock Brown for standing out in the cold shaking hands at Fenway.


Sportswise, it would be all but impossible to keep up with Brown, who has tied himself more closely to local teams than almost any politician in the state. When Varitek retired last month, the Senator penned him a Twitter send-off: “Tek - thanks for 15 years of grit and determination, Red Sox Nation won’t be the same without its Captain.’’

He paid for a radio advertisement in February praising the Patriots for making it to the Super Bowl. He attended the Celtics game against New York last Sunday, speaking to reporters about Knicks phenom Jeremy Lin, a Harvard grad.

Brown has credited basketball - which he turned to during a troubled childhood and used to win a college scholarship - with helping to shape his life.

Political scientists and consultants doubt that sports affinity actually swings elections, though gaffes can help form impressions.

“They think it will allow them to connect to the mythical average voter, and it’s sort of an easy issue, because, presumably, everyone in the particular state is supporting the same team,’’ said David Hopkins, a Boston College political science professor (who grew up in New York, but rooted for the Sox because of his mom).

The Brown campaign, added Hopkins, “caught a break last time with Coakley and what she said about the Red Sox, so they’re trying to go to the well again.’’

But Jay Coakley - professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, who is not related to Martha Coakley - said sports talk can be intentionally used to marginalize women.

“If you want to exclude a woman executive, the best way to do it is invite her to a football game, talk about a sports score, or go to a cigar bar,’’ he said.

At least 60 percent of the public “does not give a damn about sports,’’ he added. But, because there’s a perception that everyone else cares, they play along to avoid feeling left out.

“You could go to the Senate right now and find half the men who couldn’t answer those questions about sport,’’ he said.

That’s certainly true of Brown’s Massachusetts counterpart, Democrat John F. Kerry. The senator received plenty of ribbing in 2004 for calling “Manny Ortez’’ his favorite Red Sox player, an apparent amalgamation of Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz.

But Kerry remains in office, along with other sports gaffers.

Most people just laughed two years ago when Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston gave Varitek, the baseball player, credit for kicking the winning field goal for the Patriots in the 2002 Super Bowl (he meant Adam Vinatieri), or when Menino, credited “Grobowski’’ and “Res Weckler’’ for catching Tom Brady’s passes (He meant Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker).

“It still remains to be seen, but it hasn’t really impacted his political fortunes,’’ said Rob Gray, a Republican political consultant.

President Obama has shown that the sports embrace is a bipartisan phenomenon. He talks up his college basketball Final Four bracket picks on ESPN and even attended a game Tuesday with Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain. In late February, Obama gave an interview to ESPN columnist Bill Simmons, showing detailed knowledge of professional basketball, and this week he revealed opinions to an Orlando television reporter on whether the Magic should trade star center Dwight Howard.

Obama’s political adviser, David Axelrod, even mocked Mitt Romney on Twitter this week after the Republican candidate acknowledged he was not plugged in enough to make his own Final Four picks.

But so far, sports are hardly the determining factor in the presidential election.

In January’s New Hampshire presidential forum, the Republican candidates were asked what they would be doing that night if not for the debate. Rick Perry said he would have gone to a shooting range. Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Romney all agreed they would otherwise be watching the college football championship game that night. It was an easy catch for fact-checkers. The game was taking place two days later.

Never mind, it was Perry who left the race.

Noah Bierman can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.