If I may, I’d like to recapture my first true immigrant encounter with America’s national pastime.
This was in Boston. In 2004.
(Safe to say your average Boston sports fan knows this year well.)
The World Series fascinated me when I first started living in America and it was in Boston that I really understood just what a big deal it was. Having grown up on am American pop culture diet, I knew the World Series was the ultimate baseball prize, the one all baseball players coveted, won by playing in a final of a grueling yearlong tournament. But I was still unsure of the scale of the tournament. Indeed, when I first heard about it as a child, I wondered if maybe it was baseball’s equivalent of the FIFA World Cup.
Thwarting my shameful ignorance, I learnt that the World Series was in fact played between two American cities. (I now know that one of my adopted home-towns up north – the very Canadian city of Toronto – plays in the MLB too, but I’ve never actually seen them win, so I doubt that the World Series is going to have Canadian representation any time soon.)
Now, I am not one to nitpick.
Scratch that, I’m actually very nitpicky.
So I feel compelled to point out that when one names a tournament The World Series often with emphasis on World, there ought to be an obligation to the lay public that it be little more than a domestic club tournament. And merely thinking of it as a global tournament because of the high quality of players, or arguing that baseball is played at the highest level in America, is simply not enough. In England, the club football league (as in soccer, not the oblong object thrown around by armor-plated ‘roid-monsters) is not called the World Cup. It’s called the English Premier League, because that is precisely what it is. There is a separate World Cup for teams representing countries and not clubs. The national table tennis championship in China is not called the World Championship. It’s called the Chinese Table Tennis Super League, because that is again precisely what it is. There is a separate World Championship for players representing their countries rather than clubs.
In India, almost everyone plays cricket. A lot of cricket. Indians play a whole load of other sports too, but they all pale in comparison to cricket. In fact India is the most dominant country in terms of revenue, influence, and clout in the world of cricket. The dominance is so vast that due to India and the larger South Asian subcontinent, cricket is the second most watched team sport in the world. Bet you didn’t think that was true did you? Look it up, I’m not kidding you. The reason I bring this to your attention is not some asinine attempt at sporting nationalism, something I consider to be crude and trite (not to mention the fact that India is monumentally pathetic at most other sports), but rather to point out that India is, I daresay, even more to cricket than the US is to baseball. In 2008 the Indian cricket board decided to organize an annual, multi-billion dollar club championship along the lines of the English Premier League, the NFL, and the NBA. Yet, the club championship in India does not have a moniker serving itself up as an international tournament, no matter how fervently Indian cricket officials might want it to. Mired as they might be in corruption and delusion, it just wouldn’t fool anyone. The tournament is called the Indian Premier League, again because that’s what it is, a domestic tournament in a country with the highest pedigree players in that sport, played between city-based clubs, who have the money to bring in high quality foreign players onto their roster.
I can actually understand, albeit only notionally, if the Super Bowl was called the World Bowl or something (which, granted, sounds stupid when it rolls of the tongue), considering the US and the world are pretty much the same in the sport. The NFL could lay claim with some degree of legitimacy to being a world championship since no one else on earth plays American Football.
(Except Canada of course. Because Canada seems to do everything America does, except in slightly more unassuming and modest ways. For gridiron football, the Canadian equivalent is the remarkably proletarian Canadian Football League, with most CFL players working other jobs to make ends meet.)
And there’s no shortage of sports like that with potential “world” championships that could be organized by creative entrepreneurs in their respective countries – the Buzkashi World Cup held every four years in Afghanistan; the World Oil Wrestling Grand Prix held annually in Turkey; the International Haggis Hurling Championships held biannually in Scotland; or the Naked Rugby World Cup held biweekly in New Zealand. (Please note, any of these could well be a thing. I haven’t done my research. And if they’re not a thing, then they should be a thing, and if any of them do ever end up becoming a thing – you’re welcome, future sports fans.)
But with baseball? Isn’t it played in, like, pretty much every Central and South American country? And Japan? And Australia or something? The World Series between two US clubs is a bit of a stretch in my humble opinion.
Nevertheless, it was something I would experience with much joy.
I was just starting to find my feet in Boston when there was a buzz around town that “it could be Boston’s year.” Being a sports buff, I was intrigued. When I started following the games, the American League Championship Series, that I discovered was seven games played between the top two teams of that league, was taking place. To the non-American reader, you might think this to be the national championships of baseball, but you might be surprised to learn (as I was) that there is also the National League Championship Series. I learnt that these two championships are essentially two halves of Major League Baseball. The winners of these two championships then compete in the World Series. (Again, do you see the contradictions here? Whatever…)
Now, I don’t know what it takes to be considered a part of any city you live in. I didn’t know what it was that made me a Bostonian for instance. I do know this – in American cities, you can artificially assimilate, albeit temporarily, by claiming allegiance to the local sports team. And if that sports team happens to have a dream run to championship glory, even better. Come to think of it, the success of the sports team might be pretty crucial here. I doubt immigrants have been able to artificially assimilate by latching on to losing sports teams. Indeed, the trauma of sporting failure might just translate to even more xenophobia.
This artificial assimilation happened to me purely by providence rather than design. I essentially stumbled upon what was quite possibly the most sports-orgasm-inducing, shrieking-with-drunken-merrymaking, oh-I’m-so-proud-of-my-team-that-I-think-I’m-going-to-cry-and-french-kiss-my-pet moment in Boston’s history. And I owe it all to the Boston Red Sox, which is one of the more self-descriptive monikers for a team anywhere in the world.
I started watching from the fourth game onwards of the American League Championship Series. It was the year 2004. The Red Sox fan will know what is about to come. The Red Sox fan will understand the magnitude of this moment. The Red Sox fan probably masturbates to reruns of this game. The Red Sox fan remembers 2004 with a warmth and fuzziness that even their marriage or the birth of their first child wouldn’t hold a candle to. The Red Sox fan can tell you exactly where they were for this game.
The Sox (cos, you know, that’s what you called them I learnt) had lost their first three games to the dreaded New York Yankees. And that third game, they didn’t just lose, they were hammered 19-8. I saw the score line in the Metro while riding the subway to work the next morning and wondered what kinds of skewed match-ups in other sports could have resulted in such a mauling. USA vs. India in basketball? Rafael Nadal vs. my dad in tennis? Three raging bulls vs. me dressed ever-so-flamboyantly as a matador? I remember reading articles in the Boston Globe lamenting the state of affairs with the Sox, how demoralizing it was, how they would need to go through another year without a World Series title (the last one coming in 19 bloody 18 – I mean 1918 was a time when typhoid could well have been considered the national pastime).
The writing was on the wall. Nay, it wasn’t just on the wall; it had been sand-blasted into it with ruthless efficiency. The Fat Lady was jiggling her adipose-laden jowls, clearing her magnificently taught vocal chords, setting her Viking helmet in place with pudgy fingers, and was all but ready to burst out in song. Only the heartiest of souls would have denied it. The Sox were going to lose ignominiously in the league championships, while the Yankees would go on to yet another World Series and probably win that as well. Yankees fans were probably already figuring out ways to fake illnesses and kill off ageing relatives to play hooky from work so they could see their irritatingly great franchise in action for the ultimate prize in baseball.
And it almost came to that in the fourth game. I was watching the game in my apartment in Jamaica Plains, primarily because I had nothing better to do. The Yankees were leading the Sox 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth inning. The Sox were down to their final three outs. I told myself that I didn’t really care what happened, but sporting tension has a way of drawing you in. I decided to support the Sox in my head, just to make the game more interesting for me.
And boy did it get interesting.
There is a name in baseball that I will always remember. In fact, when I think of baseball, his is the first name that pops into my head. I don’t believe he was ever a big star. In fact, he was probably one of those players in baseball spending very little time under the limelight hogged by major stars. His name is Dave Roberts, and he gave me my most exciting moment in American sports-viewing.
When thinking about this game, I have to look up articles on it to remember what others did and their names, but I never have to do anything to remember what Dave Roberts did. That guy could run!
This batter called Kevin Millar (had to look it up) was walked off by the Yankees pitcher (don’t really care who) and the iconic Dave Roberts was called in as a pinch runner for Millar. This was the moment.
Now, I didn’t know shit about baseball. It was the first game I had ever watched with real interest. I was figuring out the rules on the fly as I watched it. But I had played enough competitive sports, to know this was a make-or-break moment. Why the hell did they bring in this apparent non-star nobody to replace a full-fledged batter at a time when the Sox absolutely had to score to stay in the freaking championship? Roberts was to soon allay any doubts I had. After getting checked three times by the Yankees pitcher (still don’t care what his name is), Roberts stole a brilliant second when the pitch was ultimately thrown to the new batter, Bill Mueller (again, had to look it up). Scurrying like an Olympic sprinter whose muscular glutes were very recently lit on fire, Roberts got the Fenway Park faithful roaring with what I imagine was the faintest of hopes residing in their long-suffering hearts.
And he didn’t disappoint. The Yankees pitcher (fuck him) was hit for a single by Mueller, and Roberts ran home, tying the game and forcing an extra inning.
That moment changed everything and it went into extra innings. At the bottom of the twelfth, this gargantuan Dominican, David Ortiz, hit a monstrous two-run homer to send the series into Game Five. Damn the wall and the supposed writing on it. Go home Fat Lady. The Sox were going to keep on fighting thanks to Dave “Glutes on Fire” Roberts.
That moment also did something else for me. I decided to support the Sox from then on because it added a touch of excitement to watching the rest of the championship. I bought a Red Sox hat and wore it in a show of city-pride. As I got into it, I soon realized that the biggest stars of the Sox were not from Boston. In fact, three of their biggest stars weren’t even from the States. I’d already mentioned this mound of muscle, David “Big Pappi” Ortiz, and it turned out there were two other magnificent Dominicans – batter extraordinaire Manny Ramirez and princely pitcher Pedro Martinez. It made me actually feel ok about this shameless show of city-pride I was subconsciously putting on for the sake of blending in. It was almost like supporting a baseball team from the local Pan-American cultural attaché of the UN.
So the Red Sox hat stayed on almost permanently for the rest of the baseball season.
What a transformation it did for my own quality of life too. Talk about artificial assimilation. People looked at me and nodded, smiled, gave a little fist bump. Folks would cheerily shout a “Yeah…Go Sox!” or unwaveringly declare a “Keepin’ the faith bro!” It was nice. It was such a welcome change from the customary look of anger, curiosity, uneasiness, or some combination thereof that I had grown accustomed to. I realized then that one of the best ways one could artificially assimilate into any American city was to visibly showcase your support for the local team by wearing a hat or jersey. It needed to be noticeable though, not something hidden like an ass-tattoo, but a prominent part of one’s attire. It didn’t matter whether you cared about the team or even enjoyed the damn sport. Immigrants suffering from assimilation anxiety – take note of this survival strategy. It works like magic. Better than any amount of hard work or claims to human rights.
Make no mistake however – I got into it.
Sure, blending in and feeling like I could be a part of the city played a huge role. But it was also infectious. It must have been the athlete in me; perhaps an attempt at recreating the times my dad and I would watch cricket in India and lose ourselves in the game. I had an innate love for sporting endeavors that was nurtured in me from a very young age. The idea of supporting a team, however parochial and contrived, added to the excitement of sport.
And the Sox didn’t disappoint. They went on what can only be described as a fairy tale run. They won the next three games against the Yankees; the final one in the evil lair of Yankee Stadium itself. They became the first team in MLB history to win a seven-game series after losing their first three games. Hollywood couldn’t have scripted such an underdog, come-from-behind story if it tried. (While the Yankees are the richest MLB team, the Sox happen to languish all the way down in second place.)
But there was still the small matter of, ahem, The World Series.
The Sox were to meet the team from St. Louis, the Cardinals, with mascots in the form of mean-spirited little birds, frowns, gnashing teeth and all.
It was almost anti-climactic.
Boston never once looked like losing. It was probably one of the most one-sided World Series in MLB history. They beat the Cardinals 4-0 and ended up winning it for the first time in eighty-six years, apparently also smashing a curse of sorts which released the floodgates of cheap beer and riot police.
Talk about artificial assimilation again. I had been warned by my workmates to leave early during Game Four, which Boston were expected to win rather easily – I mean, c’mon, hadn’t anyone heard of kismet? But I didn’t heed their warning. I followed the game via live-streaming in my office and then, when Boston was looking like winning for sure, left to take the subway home. There was a little voice inside my head that told me to be a part of the city when the Sox won.
And it happened on the subway ride home. Somewhere along the way, a large, cheery black man who was following the last minutes of the game on his handheld radio got up in the middle of the ride and announced with much fanfare, “Ladies and Gentlemen! It is my privilege to let you all know that the Boston Red Sox have just won the World Series!”
The entire subway coach erupted. People jumped and shouted for joy, hugging each other. I could see older men with tears in their eyes.
The same chap who announced the joyous moment, clutched me in a tight hug, and screamed, “Show me some love brother! Show me some love!”
He was hugging me! The man was taking me in his arms out of pure communal sporting joy. For a brief moment, I didn’t have the label of the immigrant and didn’t have to play the role. For a brief moment, I was as Bostonian as he was.
I was to partake in the celebration on the streets too, in ways that caught me by surprise. As I walked home from the subway stop that night, I drank in the bucolic atmosphere. Every street corner and every bar had people partying inside and out with unmitigated joy. As I got closer to my apartment, four large, young white men pulled me into their drunken revelry. But this time there was no hostility or anger, instead they thanked me profusely, slurs and all, for the contributions of my people.
I was thrilled that someone from India had contributed to this historic victory.
“Really?” I asked in joy, as they twirled me around in a circle. “Who?”
“You know!” shouted one, drunkenly waving a rather large foam finger. “Manny, Pedro, and “Big Pappi” bro!!! They’re the bomb!”
Not wishing to spoil this moment of reflected glory I had just received, I went with it.
I pumped my fist in the air, and nodded happily.
“Viva La Raza!” I shouted.
“Hell yeah, hombre!” one screamed back in inebriated delight.
Ok, please don’t judge me. I was thrilled that they confused me for a Latino. Being from India, I was always jealous of the oomph that came with the stereotypes of my Latino brothers, something that the stereotype of a software engineer, doctor, or convenience store owner could never emulate. The Indian male stereotypes in America just didn’t have the kind of sexiness that the Latino male stereotypes did. The Guevaresque revolutionary, the macho soccer player, the sultry acoustic guitarist and now, the kick-ass baseball player. I was happy to bask in reflected glory with my brown skin, which I conveniently rationalized as connecting me with my Latino brethren.
After a couple of sweaty bear hugs, I left with a soft glow on my face. The Red Sox had given me the briefest of moments where I could consider myself a part of the city in a rather enjoyable way. It was done via a combination of parochial sports nationalism, commercialized notions of city-identity, and the utilization of team paraphernalia as a temporary tool to prevent marginalization. But it was nice to be a part of popular merrymaking and made for a cool experience.