Waiting for the Bruins and Celtics to start the playoffs, wondering what the Red Sox will look like when they play good teams, I find myself thinking about sportsmanship, taunting, celebrations, and getting old.
Getting old comes first in this sports story because it colors the way one thinks about sportsmanship, taunting, and celebrations.
This is the sports fans’ circle of life.
Old-timers want things to stay the way they were. There’s a (misguided, no doubt) notion that the games, athletes, and traditions were better and more classy in the old days. Guys who hit homers put their heads down and acknowledged their achievement with a polite, Harvard Club handshake as they crossed home plate. Running backs went across the goal line, then turned and pitched the ball back to the official. Our games had a DiMaggio/Barry Sanders dignity. Heroes “acted like they’d been there before.”
In 2023, young fans want action, color, noise, and “look at me” chest-thumping. This is sports. It’s supposed to be fun. There’s nothing wrong with a little celebration — even if that means mocking your opponent. And anybody who doesn’t like it is either Clint Eastwood grumbling “Get off my lawn!” or Abe Simpson yelling at clouds (I’d prefer to be Mick Jagger singing “Get Off Of My Cloud,” but that’s never happening).
Saturday’s Red Sox-Orioles joust at Fenway brought all this to mind.
The Sox fell behind, 7-1. When Alex Verdugo hit a long homer to cut the deficit to 7-3 in the third, he behaved like a man who’d just hit a winning grand slam in Game 7 of the World Series. Flexing, preening, pimping, pointing, Verdugo did everything but moonwalk around the bases. Six innings later, as darkness fell on the Back Bay, Sox center fielder Adam Duvall won it with a walkoff shot to left-center.
Cue the light show.
By the time Duvall was rounding second, the Red Sox Artificial Excitement Team had unleashed its never-before-used LED light effect from the ballpark’s seven towers. While Duvall circled the sacks, the park alternated between greatly dim and blinding/pulsating brightness. Fenway was suddenly the Red Circle Club scene in “John Wick.” A celebration on steroids. It was the festival feel of the WBC in the ancient hardball theatre on Jersey Street.
I was just glad the electric light orchestration didn’t trigger any seizures in the crowd of 29,062.
But did this already-great moment really need artificial enhancement?
“I typically fall on your side of these issues,” said 43-year-old vice president of Red Sox productions John Carter. “I respect Fenway as a venue that’s been here for 111 years, but this is something we’re playing with and for the people who were at the game, this was electric.”
“I think it’s cool,” said former Sox champion-turned-broadcaster Kevin Youkilis, who was in the NESN booth when the drama unfolded. “It brings a different element. It’s entertainment. You can get old and surly about everything. One thing I’ve learned is that entertainment is going to be different from generation to generation. If this is something young people love, go for it.”
The Sox went back to the light show Monday night against the Pirates, going all disco after homers by Rafael Devers, Masataka Yoshida, and Triston Casas, all in the first inning, although the Sox lost, 7-6. It looks like this is going to be a regular thing.
Red Sox manager Alex Cora and his players love it.
“History is history and we respect that,” said Cora. “This is Fenway. We’ve done an amazing job improving the facility and keeping what it means to all of us . . . But you’ve got to catch up. In a sport that we want young people to come and enjoy it and have fun with it. I think we’ve done enough to get that atmosphere.
“I had this conversation with Mookie [Betts] and he was saying, ‘All this stuff about not celebrating. We should get rid of that. We should enjoy the moment.’ The fans love it. Turn on the other sports and they are not breaking any unwritten rules. I played in the big leagues for years and come from a baseball family. I used to believe in a lot of unwritten rules. Not now. We have to make this product better and I think the players are doing it. As long as you are celebrating and not disrespecting the opposition.”
In the good old days (there I go again), we had guys like Don Drysdale and Bob Gibson enforcing those unwritten rules, making sure celebrations didn’t get out of hand. Fastball frontier justice.
About 30 years ago, I remember a rookie hitting his first big league homer off Roger Clemens, then asking Clemens to sign the souvenir ball. The Rocket sighed, then signed.
When I told this story to Gibson, I could see the steam coming off his head as he said, “I’d have hit him in the head next time up, then offered to sign his head!”
Old guy stuff there.
No more of that.
A new generation insists that the game is better now. More fun.
They have seen the light. The LED light.