Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Sports, race, dance, and class: BoSox rule

Warning/disclaimer: This entry is partisan, over-written, and hyperbolic. I fully recognize this. But it’s also an experiment in trying to articulate in effectively evocative language some of the layers of signification some sporting events can evoke, particularly when they involve teams with a long history based in a city with a complicated past which ties into complex American tropes. Such events tend to wake some deep echoes. And, I'm the first to admit I'm no sports blogger; for that, go here. But you can't grow up in New England and not have some deep (and deeply ambivalent) connection with the Sox. Elsewhere, your mileage may vary.

The first time I actually saw Jonathan Papelbon’s notorious Riverdance/pogoing/Tony Montana - if - Travolta - was - a - tight-jointed - Cajun - instead - of - a - narcissistic - and - fey - Hollywood - scumbug dance was actually after the BoSox had won the 2007 World Series, digging themselves out of a 3-games-to-1 deficit against the California Angels and then beating the Colorado Rockies “like redheaded stepchildren”, to quote the blogger and BoSox fanatic Tits McGee. As Mike Lowell said of Terry Francona—the old-school tobacco-chewing impassive manager who took them to their first two championships in 90 years: “they never panicked: management never panicked, coaches never panicked, the players never panicked.” I honestly believe that’s why, even when the Angels picked themselves up off the asphalt in Game 4 and made a run, having previously been dusted like school-kids, I never believed the Sox were going to lose even a single game: not even when the Angels pulled within one and Francona had to yank Okajime in the 8th and send in Papelbon.

It was that loose, focused, calm that drove those seven win-or-go-home games: when Josh Beckett came in against the Angels in Game 5 and, like a gunfighter, pitched the Sox out of elimination, blowing past the Angels batters as if they were swinging at shadows, and, when California’s Lofton, embarrassed (I think) by a previous-inning fielding error, decided to charge the mound, Beckett just stood there and waited. You could feel Lofton pulling back, hoping that his coach and team-mates would intercept him before he got to the mound, because you knew that if Lofton was stupid enough to get within reach, Beckett would clean Lofton’s clock with his fists, as he just done with his arm. Lofton was leaning backward even as he was "running" forward.

You could feel that calm in the veterans, especially Ramirez (who’d jog deceptively slowly toward the deep base hits but always get to them, and who provoked a lot of bullshit false fury among Boston writers when he observed, before Game 5 with the Angels, the reality that it was a fucking game and that even if the Sox lost there’d be another year); in Mike Lowell—the Sam Elliott of the American League—who calmly, like Virgil Earp at the OK Corral, stood tall in the firestorm and gunned down pitchers and base-runners alike; and even in Big Papi David Ortiz, whose hitting was pretty much horrific, but who understood that just by standing up in that batting box like a dog team’s Alpha Male, looming over the Rockies pitchers even though they were 60-feet-six away, he could pull his team into line behind him.

You could feel it in the rookies, who built on the veterans’ deadly calm but played with the ferocity of talented kids who always knew they could hack the Big Show but hadn’t ‘til this year had the opportunity to show it: in Dustin Pedroia, the kid who in the WWII movies would have had to fill himself up on bananas and water just to make the minimum weight, but stood against pitchers half again as big as he and blasted them off the mound by sheer force of desire; in Jacoby Ellsbury, who must have had every Diné person in Four Corners (and maybe a few of the Ancestors too) glued to the screen and singing the old songs as he faked-out fastball pitchers like buffalo and ran down long doubles as if they were deer; in Dice-K Matsuzaka, who after an abysmal performance in Game 2 against the Angels, sat and stared silently into his empty locker for an hour, mystifying the brain-dead ethnocentric Boston sportswriters, who were too ignorant to recognize the depth of the samurai's code of bushido—and who redeemed his honor in Game 3 against Colorado; in JD Drew, who shook off a bad month and, in another win-or-go-home situation, blasted out a season’s worth of RBI’s with a grand slam when the team most needed it; in Bobby Kielty, who, in the final game in Colorado, led off the opening at-bat of the first inning with a solo blast over the left-field wall—and at that moment even the Rockies knew the Series was done: you could feel the last air go out of their dugout;

And you could feel it in Papelbon, the tall bony nut-job who loves ribbing the sportswriters and dances like a spastic Irish chicken but who, when he stands up on the mound, stares down the pitching alley like he’s zeroing in a gun-site. He might be one of the scariest-looking pitchers I’ve ever seen—you know he’s thinking, not about hitting the zone, or even the batter, but about pitching right through him. You can tell the hitters are petrified—they’re just glad he doesn’t actually have a gun. There’s a mentality to a closer: the really great ones like having the entire weight of the game, the series, or the season on their shoulders. They like having an entire stadium of opposing fans screaming for their heart’s blood. They’re like duelists—to them, every single at-bat is mano a mano single combat.

And so to Papelbon. He may act goofy off the mound, but when he came in to close the deal in the 8th inning of Game 4—with this time the Rockies in the bottom of a deep hole—there was really no question about the outcome: he was going to blow them down, and the only real question was how brutal the obliteration would be. And in the event it was pretty brutal: he wasn’t impeccable, but (with the assistance of Ellsbury’s great long pickoff against the wall, and Coco Crisp’s consistent legs in center) the outcome was never in doubt. It wasn’t in any way anticlimactic, but it damned sure felt inevitable.

And then there’s the dance. As I say, I never saw Papelbon do it until after the Series ended, though of course the sportswriters have hardly ever talked about him without mentioning the dancing (just like Joel Lester's lymphoma or Mike Lowell's testicular cancer or Manny being the space cadet or Pedroia’s size or whatever lazy-ass bullshit peg they can employ in place of, you know, actual insight). But after they won, I got out on the Web and found numerous examples, mostly uploaded by fans taping from their TVs, and which show up and then fade off YouTube like dandelions after rain.

It’s pretty disgusting, but it’s also pretty funny: you can tell that there’s some imitation Riverdance in there, but also some Appalachian clogging and some Cajun two-stepping, and some (as I said) sub-Tony-Montana busting-of-moves. Yet, watching Papelbon out there on the diamond, with his team-mates goofy-assed around him and the ecstatic fans bum-rushing the field, you’re reminded of some older resonances:

Boston is an immigrant city, a city of docks and factories and (now) banking and high-tech. There’s always been massive intra-ethnic tension—hell, massive and blatant neighborhood-by-neighborhood racism—and it’s usually been focused between those most recently off the boat and those next-most-recently. It’s always, ever since the massive influx of the Famine Irish in the 1840s, been the peoples at the bottom end of the economic scale, those most recently arrived, who’ve represented the biggest economic threat to those with a half-generation’s foothold in the New World. And so the Nativists fought the Irish and the Irish fought the Italians and the Italians fought the Jews & Poles and the Poles & Greeks fought the Chinese and the Chinese fought the Vietnamese and the Vietnamese fought the Hmong and the Hmong fought the Somalis and Nigerians and on and on and on.

But all that intra-ethnic strife—all that marching and picketing and name-calling and political pandering (I still remember the notorious Louise Day Hicks, a thick-headed shrew from South Boston who ran for Mayor on an anti-“forced”-busing platform in the early ‘70s)—was actually smoke & mirrors, because it’s always been about class. And greed. And the sophisticated ways in which the wealthy--the Cotton Mathers and Adams’s and Beacon Hill patricians and bankers and developers and ship-owners and codfish aristocracy—have used the most contemptible and opportunistic wedge issues to drive divisions between the poor, and to distract the poor from the realization that the real war is not between one ethnicity and another, between one neighborhood and another, between one immigrant group and the next—but between the rich, who will do absolutely anything to hold on to power and privilege, and everyone else, over whose faces they’ll walk to keep control.

And Papelbon stands up, in Rockies stadium, a mile higher in altitude and over 2000 miles away from both his birthplace and his home town, in the stadium of a team whose leadership and ownership have been not-shy about claiming Jesus as both their inspiration and their source of strength (nothing wrong with that—but such a claim, in George W. Bush's 21st American political environment, carries certain implications and, typically, entitlements), and as the Dropkick Murphys, a good loud snotty-attitude trad/punk Irish band from Boston, begin to blare over the stadium speakers, he starts to dance.

And it’s goofy and silly and faintly disturbing and about as terpsichoreally effective as most jocks usually are—but there are other, older echoes there: of the longshoremen and shanghaied sailors dancing on the wharves and foc’sles, and the shillelaigh-wielding Paddies mocked (and feared) in the pages of Punch and the New York Herald, and the blacked-up singers, fiddlers, and banjo-players who built the canals in the North and the levees in the South, and were Barbardozed away from the Gaeltachtai of Ireland to work the sugar plantations of the Caribbean, and the Cape Breton Islanders who were deporting out by the post-Revolution retreating British colonials and shipped off to the swamps of Louisiana, and of Johnny Rotten howling “God Save the Queen” to a crowd full of drunken cowboys in Texas on the Sex Pistols’ final tour, and John Lennon (Liverpool Irish himself) standing up at a Command Performance in 1963 and telling the Royals to “rattle their jewelry” instead of clapping along. It’s the liminal, coarse-voiced, bird-flipping ferocity of the Underclass, who’d ride sports or music or machine politics or crime out of the slums and into a place of power—and dance defiantly while they did it.

Too much meaning to put on the goofy “excessive celebration” dance of a gangley Cajun with a rifle for an arm and two left feet?


But if you’re from Boston, or of immigrant stock, or you know the history of that place, in your head or in your bones?

Maybe not.

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