Why I had to watch the World Series

At press time, Game No. 7 had not been played. I admit it: I'm not what you'd call a fan. It's not that I avoid baseball. Now and then, as the summer unrolls, I catch a few innings on the car radio or check the standings on the sports pages. But I never give it much thought. I guess I'm part of the great American majority who has other things to do. But I must now confess something else. I was hooked, to my surprise, by the World Series. I'm trying to figure out why.

Maybe it's simply that once again I was part of a different majority -- the bulk of New Englanders who, for the first time since 1975, have had a ``local'' team to root for in the Series. And root for it they have, not only in Boston but in the rural towns up in foliage country. We were up there during the first weekend of the Series and had occasion to walk the family dog midway through Game Two. We usually keep him close to us as cars pass. That night there were no cars. Every street was empty -- and almost every living room was aflicker with television light.

So is it simply that I was ambushed by a herd mentality -- sitting indoors for evening after evening? I doubt it. After all, I could have gone with the flow and rooted for the championship Boston Celtics this year, too. That was big stuff around New England. But I didn't.

Then why this October fascination? Does it have to do with the team itself -- the old never-say-win Red Sox who, year after year during my boyhood in Western Massachusetts, consistently managed to amuse and disappoint? For a couple of summers, back then, I knew them well. I had a job mowing lawns, and one of my customers had planted his entire front yard with one-foot-tall tree seedlings. I had to hand-clip around them each week -- a two-hour task I would carefully schedule to coincide with Sox games on the radio. I heard a lot of baseball in those summers. And each year, as the Red Sox pendulumed between promise and ineptitude, I would sigh over their tarnishing hopes. Actually, I suppose even then I was part of a majority: None of my friends could believe that the Sox would do it, either.

But that doesn't quite explain why, this past week, books lay unread and calls went unreturned as I watched the tube. For I found that I wasn't interested only in the Sox: I was applauding the Mets as well. Maybe there was something compelling about this particular match up -- the sheer symbolism, the overtones of history in this great event played out between two great cities.

In nearly every way imaginable, after all, New York and Boston are polar opposites. Boston, until the end of last century, was the nation's cultural capital -- the Athens of America, the magnet and reflector for all that was worth knowing and doing. New York, that brash upstart down the coast, muscled its way up to spectacular success and gradually displaced Boston as the center of finance, commerce, publishing, and the arts. Even to this day, Boston retains a whiff of European living among a crazy tangle of streets that were once cow paths -- while New York, laid out in a geometer's grid of numbers and letters, is alive with urban cliff-dwellers.

As the cities, so the ball clubs. The new-made Mets were invented in 1960 and refused, like the city they represented, to take no for an answer. The old Red Sox, who began life in 1901 as the Somersets, used to play Harvard -- whom they defeated in the 1912 game that inaugurated Fenway Park. Sox fans still can walk to games played at that quirky and changeless antique, and those at home can hear the cheers in the night sky over Boston. Getting to the efficiently modern Shea Stadium, by contrast, must soak up at least an hour for most Mets fans.

So, in a way, the Series has been a battle for the heart and soul of America -- a standoff between the old, small-town reserve of Yankee decorum and the vigorous modernity of the city that never sleeps. Which America do we want to win? What do we want to become? Watching our televisions, are we really watching ourselves?

Maybe so. And that's reason enough to think hard about the Series. But why have I actually watched so many games?

I guess, in the end, what got to me was not only the symbolism, not only the chance to redeem the emotional investments I'd made during high school, not only the sense of history. It was also the realization that the World Series is, after all, more than a game. It's a system of communication. It's set of a wordy, slow-paced, contemplative evenings not run by any clock. It's something that speaks to you, and about which you talk.

For the announcers, of course, it's a chance to participate in something that has almost entirely disappeared in our print-heavy age: an oral tradition of lively story-telling. What else but the warmth and sparkle of spontaneous language can fill the gaping holes between those few brief seconds of action that constitute an inning? ``The early Boyd was for the worms,'' quipped one announcer, summarizing Red Sox pitcher Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd's first-inning drubbing by the Mets in game No. 3 Another commentator, noting that Mets first-baseman Keith Hernandez had suddenly become clean-shaven, noted that the night before ``he looked like he came here on a raft.''

And for the fans? For us, too, it's a game of words. At World Series time, people relate to one another in different ways. It's as though the Series had provided us, a nation of individuals, with a kind of hearth around which to gather. I noticed the difference the other day in an elevator here. As we descended, its silence filled with perfect strangers. By the time we landed, it was a babble of conversation. About what? The things we all had in common: Wade Boggs's great diving catches, the next night's great pitchers, and the great game of baseball.

A Monday column

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