Boston sports fans, what ails ‘ya?

Boston’s prominence as a sports city has been documented in various places, including here and here. It’s been said that the Hub’s sports fans are a nation onto their own; loud, boisterous, but yet knowledgeable and fair.

Jim Rome, a sports talker of national renown refers to Boston fans as “chowds,” and has often been much kinder to Boston’s fans than he usually is to other sports hubs.

Boston’s baseball fans are reputedly more  well-versed on the nuances of the national pastime than in most of the other 29 MLB cities, although former Sox closer, Jonathan Papelbon, would demur.

While these acknowledgements may be true, you would never know it from tuning in to Boston’s sports talk stations like, WEEI, or on the occasions when I’ve happened to catch some of that afternoon train wreck called Felger & Massarotti, originating on 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston, and broadcast on Comcast’s SportsNet NewEngland. Neither the callers and/or the show hosts in both places exhibit anything that makes me think that Boston is some unique sports Mecca, and a cut above anywhere else.

Like many young boys growing up in New England, I became enamored of Boston’s sports teams through my father’s influence. After church, on Sunday afternoons, I’d sit on the couch watching our old black and white console and wait through the between-innings  Schaefer Beer commercials. I loved the ebb and flow and the unique rhythm of baseball,which drew me to the game.  The pace of the game is what drew me in and I have been a fan ever since.

My father, not always patient in all things with me, seemed to enjoy explaining the particulars of baseball to his young son. It was also around this time that I learned to read a box score, and began listening to the legendary Bob Wilson on my tiny transistor, as he called Bruins’ games on the radio. I was becoming a fan of Boston’s sports teams.

More than four decades have passed since I asked my father why Red Sox fans were booing Carl Yastrzemski. This would have been 1969, or 1970, just a few seasons removed from his amazing Triple Crown season in 1967, when the Sox made it to the World Series, losing in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals. The season that Yaz put up is arguably one of the greatest seasons of all time by a Boston-based player.

I loved Yaz. The way he hitched his pants between swings and would then hold his hands unnaturally high in his stance. All us young boys pretended we were Yaz, imitating that style when we played Wiffle Ball. Why would Boston’s fans boo such a beloved player? I was just beginning to understand the fickle nature of Beantown’s fandom.

The way my father explained it was that the fans expected Yaz to duplicate
his once-in-a-lifetime season; when he popped up instead of hitting a game-winning homer (and this happened more than the so-called fans thought was tolerable) they began booing.

What’s amazing to me, when I go back and research the years following Yaz’s Triple Crown season is that the 1969 and 1970 seasons were remarkable production years for the vaunted Boston slugger, following a sub par 1968 season. The difference for Boston fans, I’m sure, is that the team didn’t come close to their 1967 success and Yaz became their scapegoat. Just ask Nomar Garciaparra about this.

Boston's fickle sports fanned eventually soured on Nomar Garciaparra.

Boston’s fickle sports fanned eventually soured on Nomar Garciaparra.

Garciaparra, another amazingly talented Red Sox slugger, who rained piss rods all over Fenway Park and elsewhere, soon became persona non grata to Boston’s baseball fans turned on him, just like they had on Yaz. He was soon traded and the fans lauded the move by Theo Epstein.

Last season, during the strike-shortened NBA season, callers began ranting to the on-air personalities, dismissing the Celtics. The calls were a litany of “Pierce is too old,” or “KG is done,” and then, the Rondo-hating started and it hasn’t abated much except when the Celtics made their run deep into the NBA playoffs.

Then some of those same complainers were probably in the crowd, raining cheers down on the very group they had written off just two months before, capping it with the very cool “let’s go Celtics” chant during the waning moments of that final game, when the outcome was decided and it was clear Miami was moving on to the next round, and the Celts were done for the year.

For the briefest of periods after that series, mainly on the strength of his game two playoff performance against the Heat; a 44 point, 12 assist breakout; Rondo was their darling, again.

This schizophrenic yo-yoing, and the angst projected by Boston’s fans is probably a sign of a deeper psychic malady. Maybe it’s a manifestation coming from miserable lives, or a world that they feel is spinning out of control; maybe it’s that their sports teams and figures are all they have left.  Is it the only thing they still feel an attachment to, or even any control over?

Unfortunately, there is a paucity of research and writing about the centrality of sports in American culture. A few writers/researchers, like Michael Oriard, a scholar of football in American cultural history and a former player with the Kansas City Chiefs, have done a credible job defining some of this obsessive fan behavior.

Back in September I wrote a blog post titled, “We know less than we think.”  In it, I mentioned something called the Dunning-Kruger effect, named after the two researchers at Cornell who came up with the hypothesis. It involves illusory superiority and people’s cognitive bias that makes them overestimate their own qualities and undervalue the abilities of others.

I think this nails some of what I hear coming across the airwaves each day on Boston sports talk radio. Announcers and callers alike rail against athletes that are uniquely gifted. Even the worst player on the Celtics would absolutely school what I imagine are an overweight and athletically untalented sea of callers that criticize every aspect of a professional athlete’s game.

Those callers also think that they could run a team like the Celtics better than Danny Ainge, skillfully crafting trade after trade that would deliver that coveted 18th banner to hang in the rafters at TD Garden, or they would have had a better offensive scheme against Baltimore than Bill Belichick did. We’ll hear the same cast of characters second-guessing John Farrell this spring as soon as the Red Sox hit a patch of consecutive losses. This group will turn on Ben Cherington, too.

Rajon Rondo; the new bane of Boston's sports dolts.

Rajon Rondo; the new bane of Boston’s sports dolts.

On Monday, we got a great illustration of this kind of Monday morning quarterbacking, the day after the Celtics learned that Rondo was lost for the rest of the year, with a torn ACL. Quickly, the fandom shifted from “I can run the Celtics better than Danny Ainge,” to Rondo-hating, claiming the Celtics will be better than they were without the talented, but mercurial point guard.

Boston fans. Check yourself, alright? Take a deep breath and cut the players some slack. Don’t fall for the tricks and traps laid by misanthropes like Gerry Callahan and John Dennis, or the daily hand-wringing endemic every afternoon on The Big Show.

The week’s kicker for me was Callahan’s rant directed at Bruins’ TV
play-by-play announcer Jack Edwards, on Tuesday morning.  Callahan has
called him a “cartoon character” in the past; his miserable talk-radio
personality doesn’t allow him to say anything good about anyone, anyway.

I’m not a huge Bruins fan, but Edwards is a quality announcer. He’s smart, entertaining, and he makes watching the Bruins a pleasure. I’d even say he’s following in the footsteps of a legend like Bob Wilson, creating his own body of work that will be viewed favorably in the future.

Oh no! The Bruins, immune so far from criticism, just seven games into their shortened 48-game, post-lockout season, were badly beaten at home last night by dreaded Northeast Division rival, Buffalo. The sports dolts will be calling for Claude’s scalp and crapping all over Tuukka Rask, I know it!