It’s hard to know the precise moment one falls in love. But in 1974, I spent seven glorious days with my best friend, Jeff, watching the Red Sox at spring training in Winter Haven, Florida.
At dawn we hopped the fence of an orange orchard behind the right-field fence of the ballpark, scooping home run balls out of the sand so we could take batting practice with the real thing.
We hung outside the clubhouse long after the games had ended, just to get a nod or an autograph on a scrap of paper from Yaz or the Spaceman or Carlton Fisk.
They probably had no idea how powerfully that slight contact affected us. For a couple of 12-year-old kids from Walpole, New Hampshire, who dreamed of playing one day in Boston ourselves, the experience marked us for life.
I know now that I was part of a growing love affair “‘twixt a town and a team,” as my LP of the Impossible Dream season of 1967 put it — except in the case of the Red Sox, the “town” included most of six states.
The Boston Globe‘s Nathan Cobb coined the phrase “Red Sox Nation” while reporting from Connecticut during the ’86 World Series between the Red Sox and the New York Mets. Later he would write, “Exit 40 off I-95 seems such an unlikely place for the birth of a nation.” But in truth, the Nation was born before the phrase was even known, probably during that incredible ’67 season when an anonymous band of perennial losers went from near-last place to first in the American League and brought together an entire region. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, New England cheered when the Sox won — which they did often, and dramatically — and mourned when the Sox lost — which they did more often, and in such heartbreaking ways. The near-misses burned images into our collective memory and gave us part of our identity.
The Sox distracted us from the realities of war and recession and united us in ways that went beyond race and class. Intense battles against the New York Yankees grew into one of the great rivalries in all of sport. The team’s misfortunes created “the Curse of the Bambino,” a story that the national press spread far beyond our borders. The long-awaited World Series championship in 2004 belonged to all of us, it seemed, from Fort Kent to Montpelier, from Woonsocket to Walpole.
Forty years after the Impossible Dream, the Red Sox will open spring training with a fanatical following that few professional teams anywhere can equal. A staggering 2,930,588 fans watched the Sox last year in the American League’s smallest stadium, ending the season with 307 consecutive sellouts of Fenway Park despite the highest ticket prices in the majors. There will be new faces to get to know, and old faces who want out. The region’s constant glare is too intense for some players — players who have carried the hopes and dreams of cities elsewhere but find too heavy the weight of a whole Nation.
In March, thousands of the Nation’s citizens will flock to Florida to herald the true start of spring. Old feelings will rise once again, along with high expectations, along with a new generation of 12-year-olds. Along with first love.
For schedule and ticket information, visit redsox.com.