I moved to Boston in 2018 and bought a Red Sox hat. I’m not from Boston, not even New England. Real locals, guys who pronounce khakis and car keys the same, these guys would call me a poser. And they’re right. My dad and I didn’t bond at Fenway after he’d scored tickets at work. I didn’t suffer like Sox fans’ 86 years of losing. I’m the guy who swooped in after they’d won and started waving their flag.
That same year, I was having dinner with my girlfriend’s parents and removed said hat at the dinner table.
“Ahh you a Red Sox fan?” Mom asked me as her dad took a bite. She and Bob were high school sweethearts, grew up beside Fenway. “Didn’t you used to live in New York?” She asked. I think I saw her dad stop chewing to listen.
Earlier that day, when I asked Amy what was for dinner she joked. “We’re Irish, we eat potatoes.” If her parents had another cultural motto, it was “We’re Boston, we Red Sox.”
It seemed innocent enough, but I couldn’t help feel like mom was interrogating me. I shouldn’t have been surprised though. Amy and I hadn’t been dating that long, and they didn’t know me. Every parent wants assurance their kids are safe, particularly with a new boyfriend. To Mrs. Sullivan, this could be answered with one question.
“Ahh you a Yankees fan?”
Yes, Yes, I tell her. No I mean, yes to the first two questions. I was suddenly nervous. Yes fan. Yes New York. No Yankees. I love the Red Sox. Love love. Sox Sox. Was I being defensive? Could I be trusted she must have wondered—trusted to cheer for the right team at dinner, trusted to date their daughter?
“We go to a lot of games,” I assured her. And we still do. Fenway is our date night. I wear the hat, she wears the shirt. I get the beers, she gets the dogs. We sit close, talk and laugh and wonder where that stitched ball will fly next. Of course we hope the Sox win, but it’s like we win just being there.
I tried explaining all of this, but it came out muddled like I was making it up just to sleep with their daughter. Maybe I was being paranoid. I was a fan. I am a fan. I had to settle it. I had tell the story—the whole story—of when I became a Red Sox fan.
It was May 2005. I’d just visited a friend in Newburyport and was leaving, riding a commuter train back to Boston for a flight home. I remember it being gray outside. The inside of the worn-out train somehow felt gray too. I’ve always enjoyed looking nice when flying, but on this train, I felt overdressed and preppy on a ripped vinyl bench.
The conductor, a stout, clean-shaven man, leaned in the doorway. Collar pressed, shirt stiff, belt tight. The ride was about over, nothing to do but wait until it ended at North Station. He checked his watch, zipped his thumb over his ticket book. A white scruffy passenger near him may have been asleep or drunk, his faded Red Sox hat falling over his eyes. The men faced each other—a suited authority and an unkempt patron. These men were clearly not friends.
At the time, I lived in the country and worked in the city. This was how cities were to me. Everyone was different and everyone minded their own business. A brown-skinned woman in a scarf read across the aisle. A pony-tailed blonde stared into her phone. I hugged a leather laptop bag. The only thing that seemed to make us the same was how we’d all mastered the job of keeping to ourselves. City folks are skilled at looking unapproachable.
The conductor leaned to look under the man’s hat brim, maybe checking if this guy was alive and about to ask, you ok buddy? But he did none of these things.
“Wakefield pitched good last night, huh?” He said.
Wait, who’s Wakefield? They talking baseball? Later, I learned he was referring to Tim Wakefield, who pitched 7 innings against Detroit the night before.
The seemingly asleep passenger popped up like he just heard his dead wife speak.
“Yeah,” He said, practically slapping his knee like I’m so glad you asked. “And how ‘bout that mynah, Youk.” I still had no idea who they were talking about. Did he say “minor”? Again, I learned later he was cheering Kevin Youkilis, then a part timer, just summoned from the minor leagues to single in the 8th for the win.
“I think they’ll keep him,” the conductor said, like forecasting the storyline of something they were both reading. He was right after all, as years later, Youk landed in the Red Sox Hall of Fame.
They talked about ballplayers like characters on Game of Thrones. Who will take the crown? Can he beat the Green Monstah? Like all baseball seasons, they were going to have 162 games to find out. These two Bostonians, and millions of fans like them, would spend half of every year of their lives, watching their local team create a compelling story.
They went on to talk about Manny Ramirez, who would hit his 400th home run a week later. And Johnny Damon, who would go from being one of the most loved to the most hated player in Red Sox history. That season, the Sox ended up squeaking into the playoffs and losing every game. But none of this had happened yet, they were then just enjoying the most recent episode.
At North Station, the conductor went back to work, opening the doors and resuming the motions of everyday work. He gave his talkative passenger a final look. ”Go Sox.”
“Go Sox,” the man replied, then stepped into the rainy Boston day. It was like knew each other. If that passenger hadn’t seen the game, that conversation would have died. But he did. So did the conductor. It’s what you do in Boston.
13 years later, I moved here and bought my hat, knowing that it came with great responsibility. I had to be ready at any moment to discuss the team. On a train, in the subway, standing in line at Dunkin’ Donuts. I’ll never know what it’s like to watch Big Papi hit a homer, or understand the debate welcoming Wade Boggs back to Boston after he sold his dignity to the Yankees. But to me, the history of the Red Sox is only part of the story. Its saga unfolds everyday. This year they traded their MVP, their coach has been suspended, and their 23-year-old third baseman may become the best to ever play. Boston folks get to live this adventure every year while inside America’s oldest ball field, sharing highlights with strangers, and wearing hats that mean something more than a sports team.
Would this have happened in New York? A train conductor approach a stranger in a Yankees hat for the simple enjoyment of banter? No way. This camaraderie is what makes Boston a great city. That, I tell Mrs. Sullivan, is when I wanted to join the Red Sox family.
“Well that’s good to hee-ah,” she said with a welcoming smile. “May I serve you some potatoes?”