‘Sweet Caroline’? To some fans, the longstanding tradition is no good (no good, no good)
For a good portion of his life, Rob Gauvin swore by "Sweet Caroline." He considered it a fundamental part of the Fenway Park experience — like the Pesky Pole or the sausages on Lansdowne. He liked that it was unique to the Red Sox, that it brought people together, and when the 1969 Neil Diamond hit kicked in midway through the eighth inning, as it did during every Red Sox home game, he'd stand with the masses and belt out verse after verse.
"It used to be something special," says the 26-year-old Boston resident, who goes to about a half-dozen games a year.
"I don't sing it at all," he says. "It's lost its luster."
There was a time when such open disenchantment with the delirious nightly anthem would have been considered sacrilege in a town that worships baseball and its local traditions. But after 16 years, more than 1,200 regular-season renditions, and dozens more in the postseason, even some of the song's once-ardent supporters are starting to grow weary.
"It's definitely run its course," says Jake Parris, who works as a Major League Baseball technician and spends most Red Sox home games at Fenway. "For sure."
While the song still gets rousing treatment at Fenway, it has also inspired aggravation from a small but vocal contingent whose response has ranged from irritated eye-rolling — there was groaning in the bleachers when it began playing during last month's home opener, according to one social media report — to outright rebellion.
"I refuse to spend another dollar at Fenway Park until they stop playing that song," says Josh Williams, 47, of Sturbridge, a lifelong Red Sox fan who became so annoyed by the song during a game in 2013 that he hasn't returned to the ballpark since.
There have long been hard-core critics of "Sweet Caroline," mostly baseball purists who say the eighth-inning ritual is manufactured for tourists and a more casual post-Curse fan base. Its popularity may have been dinged, too, after Diamond said his inspiration for the song's seemingly romantic lyrics was a photo of a pre-teen Caroline Kennedy. (He later said that it was, in fact, his then-wife who inspired the song.)
But the biggest problem, some say, is that's it's simply become inescapable.
Though indelibly linked to Boston, the song is now regularly played — right down to the chant of "so good, so good" — at sporting events across the country. The University of Pittsburgh football team and the NFL's Carolina Panthers are among the teams that have introduced it into game-day stadium productions. It made an appearance, too, during last month's NCAA men's basketball title game, prompting Esquire writer Charles P. Pierce to tweet an apology, on behalf of all Red Sox fans, for turning the song "into a stadium anthem."
And that's to say nothing of its near-total permeation of New England culture — a staple of the region's barrooms and wedding receptions.
"It's a catchy song," admits Zack Minsk, 26, a hockey coach in Boston who initially enjoyed the tradition before souring on it over time. "But like anything, you do it 3,000 times . . . ''
The song's roots at Fenway go back to the 1990s, when, the story goes, an employee in charge of music fired it up during a game because an acquaintance had just given birth to a baby named Caroline. It became an occasional part of the ballpark playlist.
In 2002, however, noticing the crowd's lively response to the song, then-team executive Charles Steinberg made it a game-day staple, to be played midway through the eighth inning of every home Red Sox game.
A tradition was born.
Recently, it's become a running press box joke, says Parris, to head to the bathroom during the eighth inning to avoid hearing it. Local wedding bands now report fewer requests to play the song — or mandates to keep it completely off the playlist.
"I used to announce it saying, 'Hey, this one's going out to all the Red Sox fans,' and it would always get a very big rise out of the crowd," says Ron Barth of Clockwork, a Boston-based wedding band. "Over the past couple of years, I think I remember playing it maybe once."
Still, it's too early to pen the song's obituary.
"Sweet Caroline," like Diamond himself, has proven to be durable over the years, successfully dodging periodic calls for its retirement, including one from this newspaper. And though the team's dismal 2012 season did prompt the front office to briefly discuss doing away with the song, a Red Sox official said in an e-mail recently that the song was "here to stay."
"It's an easy ping-pong ball to slam," says Steinberg, current president of the Pawtucket Red Sox and one of the song's ardent supporters. "But my heavens, there are baseball franchises all over the world that long for a piece of music that galvanizes, unifies, and invigorates their fans."
And it's hard not to notice that any groans that might have come during cold, early-season games seemed to get swallowed up when the weather turned and the team started winning.
On a recent glorious evening when the Red Sox went ahead 3-2 just an inning before, the ballpark thundered, so good, so good . . .