The heart of a fan

How the Red Sox recession-proofed my husband

By Julianna Baggott
April 19, 2009
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The other night, while watching news stories tally the economic crisis, my husband turned to me and said, "Nothing's prepared me better for all of this than being a Red Sox fan."

He is a diehard, lifelong Red Sox fan, and over the course of our 16-year marriage, I've gotten used to bold declarations about Red Sox Nation, but I couldn't wrap my head around this one. "What do you mean?" I asked.

He didn't miss a beat. "Red Sox fans have steel-lined hearts - completely recession-proof."

I looked at my husband and he gave me this sad, tough smile - one I hadn't seen for a while but recognized immediately. It was the smile that used to show up at the bitter end of every Red Sox season - before the World Series win of 2004, that is. It was the smile of someone toughened to losses and proud of that toughness - almost, dare I say it? - comfortable with it.

The truth is that for those 86 long years when the Red Sox went without a World Series win, fans were not only in a recession, but trapped in a longstanding, deeply entrenched sports depression. And my husband is right, they are tougher as a result. But it's not just some tough New England durability or dour chin-uppedness in the face of adversity that has rendered the hearts of Red Sox fans possibly recession-proof. I've come to think that they've learned deeper truths that the whole nation could benefit from these days.

In the fall of 1978, during one of the most heartbreaking Red Sox seasons in history, my husband was 12 years old. His family lived in Westmoreland, N.H. That season, his parents were getting divorced. By the end of the year, they'd sell the family farm and move to the "big city" of Keene, where the four kids would be traded back and forth between their parents at the Texaco on West Street. The world seemed to be coming apart at its seams.

He and his little brother listened to the 1978 American League East Division playoff game against the Yankees on a handheld transistor radio while walking home from school. With the radio between them, they fiddled with the antenna like a divining rod. They heard Bucky Dent's name and the words, "Home run." And there, on the gravel of East Village Road, the two boys broke down and cried.

The loss that season, of course, echoed the larger losses of their family. My husband and his little brother didn't feel like they were allowed to cry about the dissolution of their family, and, so young, they didn't have the language to talk about their parents' failed marriage. Instead, they each carried their own grief inside of themselves, in isolation. But my husband and his brother were allowed to cry about the Red Sox, and they had all the language they needed to try to understand how the '78 loss came to be and what might happen next.

The Red Sox helped them express grief, and although the catharsis of their crying appeared to be solely fixed on the lost season, it wasn't. There was more to it. Throughout my husband's life, the Red Sox have provided him this outlet for sorrow. In the grim fall of '78, in light of the unbearable, my husband and his little brother did what they could. They obsessed over stats - each trade, each injury, who was coming up from the minors. And in this recent economic downturn, the Red Sox are still there for them. At this very moment, the stock market is in a heap, but they can fixate on Dice-K's shoulder and losing two out of three to the Rays.

But amid all of the desperation, the Red Sox have also always provided hope. Just last week, it came in the form of Tim Wakefield's near no-hitter. No matter what losses happen in a given season, the Red Sox always have next year. And so, at a very young age, my husband and his little brother learned how to stay open to possibility. They learned to have faith.

Of course, it's always an option to shut down on a team, but a true fan would never do this. Red Sox fans have been pushed to the brink over the years, but that's how faith grows stronger. The Red Sox taught my husband to have faith, but it is a faith that isn't reserved for the Sox, and it comes in handy now.

My husband and his little brother still don't talk about their parents' divorce. But they often go back to that moment on the road when they started sobbing. And every Red Sox fan has stories like this one. They swap them like baseball cards, because Red Sox fans know you don't have to suffer in silence. It's communal. In fact, being a part of the team's fortunes doesn't just build deep bonds between brothers. It builds deep bonds between strangers passing each other on the street in matching caps.

Now we're all suffering under the weight of a miserable economy. My husband - who sleeps soundly these nights while I toss and turn - has an advantage. Not just because he knows how to suffer, but because he understands that there's something in the struggle that makes the comeback season that much more beautiful.

Julianna Baggott is the author of the new novel "The Prince of Fenway Park," which is dedicated to Red Sox Nation.