Sunday, April 22, 2012

Occupy Fenway? Red Sox Nation as a Protest Movement

Here's a fact that would have been unfathomable in the days before social media: after 14 games, Boston is calling for Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine's dismissal. While this would be a foolish overreaction, it's born of a very real problem: they may cost $146 million, but the 4-10 Red Sox aren't playing like it.

The team's struggles famously stretch back to last year, when the Bloody Hose went 7-20 in September and blew a massive Wild Card lead. After the season, Red Sox Nation reacted with unprecedented ferocity, leading to the departure of foundational leaders Terry Francona and Theo Epstein—victims of one of the most unforgiving PR firestorms in memory.

Obviously, when a team is floundering, it attracts its fair share of vitriol. The 2012 Red Sox have picked up just where the 2011 version left off—earlier this week, their lightning rod of a manager was perceived to have slandered one of his players, prompting rebukes and a mini-mutiny from the rest of the clubhouse. There are already columns saying he has lost control of his players and that he's not long for the city of Boston.

But I believe there is a another dimension to the bad press that isn't so ordinary, one that can be teased out from some of the most extreme excoriations of last year's Red Sox. That team struck a chord with Bostonians, and not a good one either. It's a chord that was already sensitive from another event that shared the headlines with the Sox' epic collapse that September and October: Occupy Wall Street.

You see, the 2011 Red Sox were attacked not just for poor performance on the field, nor even for poor managerial decisions. They were attacked for being lazy, entitled, and—most interestingly—rich.

The first rumblings can be seen in a story by Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy from September 23 arguing that the Red Sox were "not worthy" of a playoff spot. "Really, how do you root for these guys anymore? They have the third-highest payroll in baseball," Shaughnessy wrote, rather starkly connecting the two. In a line straight out of the French Revolution, he concluded, "These Sox have simply been too fat and too happy too long."

Then came the post-season post mortem, in which it was infamously revealed that the Red Sox' imploding starting pitchers, including $82.5 million bust John Lackey, were eating chicken and drinking beer in the clubhouse instead of hitting the gym to correct the fact that they were out of shape. It's the baseball equivalent of AIG throwing a lavish party two weeks after receiving a government bailout—except instead of revelry funded by taxpayer money, it was sloth funded (indirectly) by the ticket purchases of hardworking Bostonians. (Without that record sellout streak, the Red Sox wouldn't have one of the game's highest payrolls.) In both cases, the recipients of those public monies acted as if they were entitled to the money and/or the attendant indulgence, despite the fact that they used the cash for the opposite purpose for which it was intended (i.e., to do their jobs). Perhaps it would have been different if they had been doing these things while also performing at an acceptable level, but between AIG's role in the financial meltdown and the Red Sox' awful play, neither was showing why they deserved the massive salaries they were making. It is that kind of perceived upper-class greed that Occupy Wall Street was formed in response to.

The article also revealed that the unhappy Red Sox were treated to a night on owner John Henry's luxury yacht as a conciliatory gesture—reminding fans of his own privileged position. In the immediate aftermath of the September collapse, much of the rage in Boston actually centered on Henry, Larry Lucchino, et al. for this very reason. As the organization they had built appeared to crumble and, eventually, implode, Henry was cast as impotent and aloof. Accusations that his attention had turned to his "shiny new toy"—the Liverpool soccer club he recently acquired—at the expense of the Red Sox persist to this day. This, too, is not so different from, say, a noble-purposed investment-banking firm becoming more and more obsessed with profit and forsaking the customers who trusted it.

I believe that the rage against the Red Sox last October—and, perhaps, to some extent this April—was so very tinged with populism because it came from the same place within society as more traditional, "legitimate" social movements. I don't think you would have seen the same timbre of reaction if the economy hadn't been in the tank, or if income inequality hadn't become the issue of the moment. But they were, and Occupy Wall Street was hardly the only protest movement to reflect it. While it sits at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, the Tea Party has similar roots: dissatisfaction, anti-elitism, disillusionment, and even desperation—the feeling that the only recourse left open to effect change is getting up and shouting. History is filled with other examples from similarly desperate times: the rise of the pro-silver Populist Party in the 1890s, the Depression-era Bonus Army, and more.

All of these things could also explain the anger against the BoSox. Red Sox Nation, already in a fragile state of mind due to the economy and the Occupy-related turmoil around them, wanted to turn to its baseball team for solace—but instead experienced only more heartbreak. Just like the Occupy protesters, fans grasped for an explanation of what had happened to them, and why something that had seemed so secure did not work out. How did it happen that millions who did everything right—saved for retirement, lived within their means, worked hard at their jobs—still lost everything when the recession hit? How did a team that was supposed to be the Greatest Team Ever suddenly forget how to win? To be clear, I'm not equating the two in importance or severity; I'm merely pointing out that they are different degrees of the same emotion.

When confronted with such confusing and inexplicable realities, an inevitable reaction throughout history has been to lash out at elites, whose success during difficult times has always made them an easy target. For Red Sox fans, instead of Barack Obama or Wall Street bankers, their elites were the owners and the millionaire players, and their proletariat was the most price-gauged fan base in baseball. I'll never forget one conversation I had with a Red Sox fan last October—she practically spat her disgust at the monied interests on Yawkey Way. "These ballplayers are paid millions of dollars to do what, exactly?" she said. "They've completely forgotten about the fans who are paying their salaries." Just replace "ballplayers" with "politicians" and "fans" with "taxpayers," and you have a pretty good summary of the discontent felt all around America these days.

Today, with both Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Boston evicted from their respective parks and the Tea Party's influence on the wane, the criticism for the Red Sox and Bobby Valentine does not appear to carry the same loaded associations—despite the fact that the political discontent is still very much alive. Perhaps this is simply because the sports media does not find those associations relevant or timely any longer. After all, most of the baseball populism in October originated from columnists and pundits—ironically elites themselves—and then trickled down to the fan base. So is it truly populism, then? Was the Tea Party (led by Senator Jim DeMint and millionaire Sarah Palin)? Was Occupy (whose "intellectual foundation" was laid by a Harvard professor)?

These are questions that may only be answerable with a sociology degree with a special focus on protest movements—certainly a fascinating field at this particular moment in history. Hopefully, such a degree would not ignore how these social movements come to consume other aspects of our daily life, including sports. It may not be as "important," academically speaking (or even practically speaking), but it can teach us just as much about how these movements are birthed and nourished. When the textbook on the Great Recession is written, it would be a mistake not to include a chapter on the 2011 Boston Red Sox.

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