To be a Red Sox fan is not just a cult, it's a diagnosis. Why would anyone in their right mind support a baseball team that always loses in the end?
Because, the experts would say, Red Sox fans have a sick relationship with their home team.
Everybody knows the Boston Red Sox are deeply flawed. It's not that they aren't great players. It's just that they always blow it. Just at the point of glory -- the Red Sox collapse. They've been doing it nearly this whole century.
Like they did last week in the final game of the American League championship with the Oakland Athletics when pitcher Roger Clemens threw a temper tantrum instead of a shutout and the Red Sox lost. It was just the kind of humiliating end Sox fans have come to expect -- and, perversely, savor.
"The Red Sox had that ultimate charm, the charm of losers," novelist John Updike wrote in 1986. That year, the team once again made it to the World Series against the New York Mets and then fell apart.
Like they did in 1975 against the Cincinnati Reds and in 1967 against the St. Louis Cardinals. Like the 1978 playoff game against the Yankees. Somehow, Updike found solace in all this: "All men are mortal, and therefore all men are losers; our profoundest loyalty goes out to the fallible."
Ah, if it were only that noble, our unfailing support for the underdog, our dutiful respect for the mighty heroic struggle. But I'm afraid the team-fan relationship in Red Sox mania has a much more tawdry explanation.
The popular Freudian lore about Red Sox Fear-of-Success points to an early traumatic loss that set in motion the expectation -- no, the inevitability -- of failure. It comes from the shameful 1920 sale by the team owners of Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in order to underwrite a frivolous Broadway musical. My baseball kingdom for "No, No, Nanette"! Ever since, the Sox have been doomed to lose, as Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe has observed in his aptly titled book "The Curse of the Bambino." They haven't won a World Series in 72 years.
The Bambino Curse still seems to haunt the Red Sox. As Harvey L. Rich, president of the Washington Psychoanalytic Foundation, notes of such victims: "At the last moment, they will do something to sabotage their success."
True enough. And from now until April when the next season begins, the (second) most popular indoor sport in the backwaters of Boston will be to psych out the Sox.
But blaming the team is too easy. I think it's time for us fans take a hard look at ourselves and our own murky psyches. Mental health experts probing this dark area would use the analogy of a dysfunctional family. For every compulsive gambler, for example, caught in the cycle of winning a little to lose a lot, there is a person who sup- At the last moment, they always do something to sabotage their success.
ports this behavior and enables the gambler to crash and crash again.
In the jargon of psychology, I guess that makes me and other Sox fans co-dependent enablers. Nothing shakes our support. Sure, the Sox get our hopes up. They win the pennant. But then they crash. The more they crash, it seems, the tighter the bond between us.
So I have searched my childhood, growing up in the swamps of Boston's North Shore 25 miles north of Fenway Park, for the seminal experience that makes me love a losing team.
I am spending a hot summer afternoon with my grandmother. A large woman with liquid blue eyes, Gran is a baseball addict. Outside, the sprinkler is on: Henry, the black springer spaniel, is sprawled next to the flower bed, panting. Inside, the radio is on: we sit in silence, Gran and I, on a chintz sofa in a darkened room, side by side, generation to generation, and listen: two and two . . . top of the ninth . . . runner on third . . . batter up. The tension is electric.
But we have a dirty family secret: We're not rooting for the Red Sox, those sleazy sellouts who exiled the Babe to Broadway. We're cheering for the Braves. We don't give a hoot for the Sox. The Braves are our team.
In 1953, the Braves abandoned Gran and me. They went to Milwaukee and soon won the World Series. Another sellout.
So if the team has the curse of the Bambino, I have the curse of the Braves. In time, I thought I had healed and re-attached to the Sox, rooting for Ted Williams and shouting GO SAWKS with the most loyal of fans.
But deep down, I suspect I believe that the Sox will never measure up to the Braves, even though they did desert my hometown. Perhaps I want the Sox to lose. That's how I keep my loyalty to a real winning team and to Gran's beloved pitcher Warren Spahn.
"Co-dependency in relationship problems means you need the other person to be sick," says social worker Babette Wise, who runs the alcohol and drug clinic at Georgetown Hospital. "You get something out of them losing a lot."
The Sox give me that pleasure in abundance. Which is why, apparently, I go to Memorial Stadium in Baltimore every year to see the Red Sox lose to the Orioles. I am a high-performance fan. I wear my BoSox cap. I whoop and yelp -- a winter's worth of repressed emotions released in my primal scream: GO SAWKS!
"If the fans pulled back and demanded more, perhaps the team would rise to the occasion," says Wise, using the analogy of a dysfunctional family. "The fans think they are helping, but they are making it worse."
I fear the prognosis is not good. Could I really stand a Sox championship? Those in my co-dependent fan support group have their doubts.