The Abomination of the Pink Baseball Cap

Modern Culture Through A Major League Lens

ONE

It is April 2004, a sunny and cool afternoon, and I go to a baseball game. It’s a daytime make-up for a game rained out the week before: the Boston Red Sox versus some team from Tampa (Tampa??) I’ve never heard of. Liz guides me through the bewildering warren of tunnels inside Fenway Park till we emerge, suddenly, to a shocking span of green. We sit in the left-field stands, near the Green Monster, and I realize that none of the boo-birds can tell whether that pitch was really a strike or not. In the fifth inning, the empty seats around us start to fill up with office workers playing hooky and parents who have successfully lunched the children. Two seats lie tantalizingly empty through the seventh, a couple of rows down, clear of the obstructed views, calling for us.

I am twenty-eight and have never been to a baseball game before. Liz shows me the pitch-count display on one side of the field, the pitch-speed on the other. She flips open her Boston Baseball program to the scoresheet and narrates the arcane marks she’s created on the page. Everything has its place, she tells me. Every outcome has been anticipated and given a code or abbreviation to be writ in a tiny square next to the batter’s name. Out on the field, the first baseman and right fielder are pointing, probably shouting, as a base runner stands up at second. The umpires converge, tiny on the far side of the field. Up comes the fist — you’re out — and the manager comes out to argue.

“What happened?” I ask. “How do you score that?”

“I don’t know. Got to be runner interference. It’s the only thing that makes sense.” She writes on her sheet of paper.

“How do you know?” I ask, peevish.

“Well, he wasn’t tagged, and it wasn’t a force-out. What else would it be?”

Somehow, I had been expecting the television commentators to explain everything. They are in a booth somewhere, over our heads, and I am not in front of a TV. “Okay,“ I say.

“It makes sense,” says Liz. “There are only so many things that can happen on the field. That’s the beauty of it.”

The knuckleballer Tim Wakefield comes in in relief and closes out the game, holding the ball with his fingertips as if it were a teacup for that slow, mesmerizing pitch of his. I do not understand the laws of physics that make knuckleballs work. I’ll be comforted, later, to learn that nobody does, really. They remain a mystery, a hundred years after their invention.

Those seats down front are taken at last, less than half an hour before the end of the game, by a pair of hefty teenaged girls in low-slung jeans. They have outlined lips in dark brown and styled tendrils of hair in their faces; they wear wide hoop earrings and tight, pink baby-doll t-shirts with numbers on them. They turn around. BOSTON, say the t-shirts. The numbers on the back are 24, 34 — players on my team. Those white-on-pink caps they wear artfully askew on their heads — my team logo. Those foolish girls who don’t bother to show up till the game is almost over — fans of my team.

I tally up their expenditures and realize they have spent more than $100 apiece for their fashionable moment. The very idea of a pink baseball cap — as if girls can’t bear navy and red, the actual team colors. I laugh at these girls, behind my hand.

I see pink baseball caps a lot, in the following months.

TWO

With seven months of near-continuous play, the families of baseball players tend to hew towards the extremely traditional. Players tend to marry young, and their wives tend to stay at home with the children. (There have been plenty of bachelor major leaguers, but to date, no openly gay ones.) The players spend days and nights on the road, and many indulge in extramarital affairs, drink, do drugs, or make fools of themselves in public places. Since Jim Bouton’s 1970 memoir, Ball Four, which detailed the drinking and Peeping Tom activities of no less than Mickey Mantle, it has been hard to pretend that baseball players are all fine, upstanding young gentlemen.

Their wives tend to disappear behind the wins and losses and the amorous tabloid gossip. Some, like Shonda Schilling, wife of Boston pitcher Curt Schilling, act as spokeswomen for their husbands, volunteer for high-profile charity events, and become known in that way. Others, like Mets pitcher Kris Benson’s wife Anna, made herself famous by going on Howard Stern’s radio show, and talking about her sex life. Most of the time, though, women are invisible in baseball. They are not advance scouts or trainers or coaches. They do not own teams.

Online discussion spaces about baseball skew heavily male, some of them exclusively so. It is a routine tactic to express one’s hatred of one’s rivals in effeminacy terms, impugning their manhood, implying that they are like those lesser creatures: women. T-shirts abound: A-Rod Sucks Randy’s Johnson, Derek Jeter Drinks Wine Coolers. Success is masculinity; a pitcher’s ability to intimidate correlates positively with the size of his testicles. Sometimes, as a female fan, it is hard to express one’s opinion about a player without being accused of romantic feelings.

It does get tiresome after a while, looking into the mirror of the fandom and not seeing my own reflection.

THREE

I am a klutz and the child of klutzes.

I grew up in almost total ignorance of baseball, the Red Sox, and the crushing defeat of the 1986 World Series, which occurred when I was eleven years old. Baseball was just a disruption of the fall TV schedule, and the excuse for Kevin Costner to paint Susan Sarandon’s toenails in Bull Durham. I just didn’t get it. I moved back to Boston in adulthood and was always surprised when I got caught in game traffic as I traveled through the Fens. By womanful effort and brake-stomping, I managed never to run over a fan, but only barely.

Then, in the course of young adult poverty, I moved in with a new flatmate named Liz in 2003. We shared one cable outlet, and there the games were, most nights, on the Red Sox-owned cable station NESN, a channel I hadn’t known we had until Liz flipped to it.

It was a really small apartment. I converted to baseball the way that political prisoners convert to Communism.

I got into the habit of reading magazines or sewing or paying the bills in front of the game, absorbing Liz’s longtime fandom. We got to know each other through curiosity and enjoyment of the intricacies of rules. I asked, What happens if he just runs the other way, to avoid being tagged? and Where exactly is the strike zone? and If three people assemble under a pop fly, why can’t any of them catch it? (That last plagues me to this day.)

I watched this new game into the playoffs, into the championship series. In the sixth game, I found myself tense, pretending nonchalance as I clutched my unread New Yorker. The seventh game, I sat at Liz’s elbow as she ranted over the manager’s pitching changes. Runs dribbled in, and I bent over my mending, embarrassed to be so worried about this silly game.

You know how the game and the 2003 season ended: the knuckleballer Tim Wakefield on the mound in extra innings. He was in line for the series MVP award, for the baffling reliability of his pitch. As it left his fingertips, it wafted toward the plate without spin, hiccupping on air currents as if Bugs Bunny had thrown it and each batter could swing at it three times and strike himself out before it hit the catcher’s mitt.

When Wakefield’s knuckler doesn’t knuckle, it becomes a big, fat, 60-mph meatball over the plate. A forgettable infielder named Aaron Boone hit a home run, an instant game-ender, and that was it for the season for the Red Sox. Liz got up and turned off the TV in silence — but I didn’t know what to do. I felt sorry for the players, but could not locate this loss in the burdensome tradition of Boston losses. I darned my socks and let the whole affair slip my mind.

Over the winter, commercials emerged, starring a cheerful, paunchy blond man who looked like the kind of middle-manager who adores trust-building exercises. I pointed him out, and Liz stared at me. “That’s Curt Schilling,” she said. “He’s on our team now.” I hadn’t heard. If I had, I wouldn’t have been able to say what position he played. Mightily as he tried, he did not induce me to buy a Ford truck or a Dunkin Donuts breakfast sandwich.

FOUR

Baseball’s a funny game. It’s as old as this country (don’t let Abner Doubleday tell you different), a tradition; chronicled with such loving exactitude that a dedicated nerd can scan through old newspaper microforms with an adding machine and re-calculate, accurately this time, what Ty Cobb’s batting average actually was in any given year. Baseball is a timeless game, counting in completed innings rather than a game clock; it is the only game where the defenders possess the ball; it is that romantic adventure where the runner ventures forth, only in the end to come home. It is a trinity, with mom and apple pie. It is Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Sandy Koufax, Christy Mathewson, Cy Young, and the Babe.

It is also, I’m afraid, so overloaded with shlocky myth that you have to look hard to find the game under all that signification.

Among an older generation of culture-observers, baseball fandom is not just a quirk. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Daniel Okrent, and even George Will use baseball to talk about America. Books come out every year, marking anniversaries of the Giants winning the pennant, the Dodgers winning the World Series, the Yankees being Yankees, and the Red Sox flailing and failing in some way. But these books, and so many others, are written in the past tense: tradition without a throughline to now. Ken Burns did a loving nine-plus hour documentary about the National Pastime, and spared only one sentence for the rise of free-agent contracts in the 1970s. It seemed as if all those credentialed and august talking heads were too embarrassed to discuss the money in the game. Essays about the Designated Hitter rule, or the rise of Latino players, or endorsement deals, are consigned to the ghetto of Sports Illustrated or to the daily grind of the sports pages in local newspapers.

It might almost seem, to one new to the game as I am, that baseball no longer reflects America — at least, not in the singular — or else it reflects something so new and different that lifelong observers don’t know what to say.

So, is it that baseball and America have come apart? Did that long 1960s attendance drought (or the shorter one after the 1994 strike) signal the end of the national pastime and the beginning of a niche market? Maybe the trouble is that baseball never was one America or, for that matter, any America at all. Fully one-third of major league players this year were foreign-born, as were half of all minor leaguers. Baseball is a multitude, a mess, a bellwether reflecting the larger social trends. It is too complex, as a sporting culture, to hew to any one romantic vision of itself. With its recent steroid scandals, baseball is not pure. With its bigtime paydays, it is not solely a game of love. With its on-field violent antics and outbursts, it is not (despite official yearnings to the contrary) a family game.

There is nothing political about the arc of a ball hit high to left, and the Fenway Park crowd instantly on its feet. The ball flies that gentle parabola at its zenith, hanging, and disappears into (or over) the Green Monster seats at the top of the wall. The home-team roar is infectious, galvanizing.

Then the shouting dies down, and the next batter steps in. Fans sit down, reposition their butts in creaky seats. Maybe they stop a roving vendor for peanuts. They turn to their neighbor, and in the leisure of a clockless game, the forgotten signifiers of culture and politics reassert themselves.

FIVE

My first game in the famous Fenway Park bleachers. Here sit the crazies and beer-swilling college students, because the tickets cost only several fingers instead of a whole arm and leg. The most intense crackpottery, drunken rambling, racist epithets, Yankee-baiting, and fervent worship are distilled in the bleachers, where we look at the backs of all the players’ heads: those far-away seats where home runs go to be caught for souvenirs, and where people reach over the bullpen walls to slap hands with nameless relief pitchers. Here, in the second-to-last row, actually behind the scoreboard, so that the details of any given play are completely undiscernable, sit two preteen girls with their mothers, next to me.

The girls are wearing pink baseball caps.

They stand up between innings, while Johnny Damon is tossing in the outfield, and shout his name, as if he could hear them in the din. They have a poster with his name on it, and a slogan. “Johnny!” they shout. “Johnny!” They are tiny peals, completely drowned out.

After an inning, their mothers escort them down the stairs to stand closer to their hero, in the seeming hopes that their falsettos will carry. It takes me another three batters to realize that the real reason they have moved is the two men behind me, both of whom are wasted, both of whom have very serious opinions about Manny Ramirez and his batting stance. They are dropping f-bombs like Dick Cheney.

In the eighth, when the bases are loaded (the beloved Johnny on first), the girls and their mothers return to their seats, next to me. In the hubbub, I haven’t managed to notice whether they ever got their hero’s attention. The mothers in their thick Boston accents mutter about parking to each other. The younger of the preteen girls, blonde and lanky, like a birch sapling, sees that Manny is coming to the plate. “Oh no,” she says. “He’s terrible against lefties this year.”

She’s right. Manny is batting about .230 against left-handed pitchers, and above .300 against right-handers. This is rather backwards from the norm, and unheard-of for Manny. Splits like this are not gleaned from shallow romantic glorification, but from constant attention during game broadcasts, or perusal of the mind-numbing recorded details at MLB.com.

The girl flips over her cap, turns it inside out, and puts it back on, to symbolize the need for a rally. On the inside, pink baseball caps are white.

Manny strikes out, and nobody scores that inning. We groan in unison, the pink girls and I.

SIX

Sabermetrics, the mathematical study of baseball outcomes, attempts to sift through the hoary rhetoric of times past (and present) to discern what really happened and what strategies actually work. Every outcome has been anticipated, now more than ever, with visual plotting of batted balls on scoresheets, space for the count of each plate approach, space for the pitch-count of an inning. Scoresheets record in exquisite detail every fact on the field, and every game has a scoresheet, and soon enough you’ve got a database with which to examine trends. Sabermetrics is all about piercing the haze of inherited wisdom in search of provable fact. It is a scrappy counterculture within baseball, only recently gaining credence among owners. Sabermetricians are an intellectual revolution, the rebels of the game, which makes it ironic that their pitiless work facilitates a fan’s staying loyal to an organization over individual players.

Tommy LaSorda said, “Dodger fans bleed Dodger blue,” meaning that fans loved the team, no matter who was on it. Now, it is possible to quantify a player’s ability to cause the team to win, to judge him relative to the ratio of contribution to remuneration, compared to others at his same position. How much easier to dismiss the aging veteran now, with proof that he is past his prime? How easy to think of oneself as the general manager, guarding the team’s purse strings with thrifty zeal against grossly capitalist player demands.

This is dumbfounding — fans identify with players all season long, and then in winter switch their allegiances to the corporate colossus that is responsible for raising ticket prices every year. Boston is a union city. The Major League Baseball Players’ Association is the longest-lived, most powerful union in professional sports, veteran of court battles and strikes and lockouts and collective bargaining. Baseball owners have a hundred-year history of the dirtiest tricks in the book. I can’t make heads or tails of it.

Members of the championship team consider their options. Future Hall-of-Famer Pedro Martinez turns down a Boston deal and signs with the Mets, and the press and fansites instantly turn on him, recalling his irritating diva antics and forgetting his pitching guile. As others negotiate, they are kissed goodbye with dismissive satire.

In the late spring, while the 2005 season is already going on, the knuckleballer Tim Wakefield signs a new contract. It is for one year, but perpetually renewable for the same base salary as long as the Red Sox want him. He is unlikely ever to make more money than he does now, although he may pitch for another eight or ten years. In some ways, it is a contract that smacks of the reserve clause, a contractual dirty trick from earlier in this century that gave a team total and lifelong control over its players. The Players’ Association outmaneuvered and then outlawed the reserve clause in the 1970s, beginning the era of free-agency that exists now. To go back to that era would be disastrous to the union.

Wakefield signs it anyway. He wants to stay in Boston, and so he shall. The Players’ Association has freed players to sign whatever contracts they can negotiate, and the din of sluggers landing five-year, eight- or nine-figure deals easily drowns out the noise of one gentle, 39-year-old, slightly retro pitcher.

SEVEN

Exactly one member of the 2004 World Series winning team was actually born in New England. Ballplayers these days come from warm parts of the country: California, Florida, Mississippi. The players come here from away, and they must think we’re aliens. Certainly, they often look like aliens to me.

With daily games, and daily dissections of same, it is possible to get to know players quite well, as if they were coworkers at a satellite office. That daily intimacy of the television camera can be remarkable — players and fans instantaneously pick up neologisms from each other, repeat or refute one another’s opinions, and seem, on game matters at least, to share a brain. On non-game matters, it is evident that the connection that baseball allows among strangers does not fill in all the interpersonal gaps.

Mike Timlin is a tall, freckled, aging Texan with blunt planes for a face. He is personable, well-liked for his reliability, and that sort of Christian that has to talk about it to everyone. Quite a few of the Red Sox are one form or another of evangelical Christian, an oddity without much significance in day-to-day play. But when Timlin gets in front of cameras, there he is, talking like a man from away, talking about his close personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

We don’t talk like that here in New England. We’re standoffish folk, polite and slow to volunteer intimacy. That goes double on religious matters, as if the legacy of colonial Protestant hair-splitting had gotten so bad that we all agreed never to talk about religion in public again. Talking about the finer points of your spiritual life is like talking about the fit of your underpants — important, surely, but private. And anyway, these days, Jesus talk outside of a church feels like a political shibboleth, divisive, provocative. Timlin cannot help himself; he comes from a different culture, and talks the only way he knows how.

With practice, it is possible to go almost completely deaf long enough to miss the Jesus talk, and then reacquire hearing when discussion of the game resumes. That’s part of the standoffish culture too.

EIGHT

Every possible outcome has been anticipated, on the field. Off it, strange corporate synergies continue to occur. Bravo, the NBC-owned cable channel, struck a deal with the Red Sox in the spring of 2005 for a special episode of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. This sport where players — no less than fans — deride their enemies by implying their effeminacy? The very same.

The show is filmed during Spring Training but not aired till June. It is the tail end of Pride, a month of marches and rainbow logos. This is the second year of Massachusetts’ endorsement of equal marriage rights, and though some of the giddiness has worn off, the assertion of gay presence in the city and state still matter.

Local sports radio gets wind that the Fab Five will be throwing out the first pitch of a Sunday game, as advertising for their upcoming Red Sox episode. What is surprising is how many people don’t care. One host persists in complaining. The Red Sox should not be endorsing the “alternative lifestyle,” he says. Won’t somebody think of the children? He gives the issue enough attention that his complaint begins to sound like backhanded advertising for Queer Eye.

The first pitch is thrown (oh so badly), the national anthem sung. Three days later, the Red Sox episode airs. Five players submit to facials and back waxing in good humor, making what jokes they can. As makeovers go, the show is somewhat of a failure: Johnny Damon has his own stylist and needs no help; and nobody will ever convince Kevin Millar not to dye his hair orange with bleach. The catcher, Jason Varitek, burnishes his stalwart image by claiming that the waxing of his back does not hurt, while the others shriek in pain. Tim Wakefield gets his eyebrows plucked, painstakingly. They hand him a mirror to see the effect. He can’t discern a difference.

They all laugh, on my TV screen. I had been so afraid that they wouldn’t be able to play along.

The beneficiaries of all this corporate synergy are the children of a local Florida baseball field that has been ruined over the course of the previous fall’s hurricane season. The charity project described and begun, the children are split up into teams and play each other with the Red Sox as coaches. Now the Fab Five are persuaded to play along, despite thorough ignorance of the baseball fundamentals. They leap and cheer and run out infield hits. They high-five ten year olds. They seem caught up, suddenly, in the excitement of what happens inside the diamond. Carson Kressley slides into home to beat the tag.

He is wearing a custom pink jersey with his name on the back — and a pink baseball cap. Of course.

NINE

The Red Sox won the World Series in my first full year of fandom. It became important to distinguish myself from the kind of person who only tunes in in September, when things get dramatic. I collected newspapers, folded them carefully, stored them for posterity. I read the Boston Herald, a fatuous tabloid, because the respectable Globe was not enough coverage.

I had not known this sense of team pride before: it was a new, unsettling sensation. I went to the city parade and added my hoarse screams to the tumult of triumph. I bought the commemorative DVD.

People joked that the Red Sox win was a sure predictor for the presidential election, the following week. Curt Schilling turned his attention from Ford trucks and Dunkin Donuts to stump for George W. Bush, while the team owners campaigned for Kerry. I employed my deaf ear and the TV remote, unwilling to let go of the simple sensation of winning on the diamond. I couldn’t bear, not then, to allow the culture wars back in to inflect the game. Most of the players had already gone home, anyway, to their houses in warm parts of the country.

The election happened. The winter darkened. In the long, cold January, I found myself rereading my old newspapers compulsively, impatient for new baseball. I wanted a symbol for the ardency of my interest, something that marked me and the seriousness of my fandom. I forbade team paraphernalia as holiday gifts, both to avoid the wrong kind of symbol and to find the right one myself. I prowled websites and sporting good stores.

In the end, I bought a baseball cap. It is the first baseball cap I have ever purchased, and the only one I own. It is an object I would not wear, if not for the game. It is not an in-joke or a stupid slogan, like the popular t-shirts. It will never expire, like the 2004 World Series logo.

I couldn’t bear to buy the pink one; I just don’t look that good in pink. I bought navy and red, the team colors, the ordinary cap that everyone else wears. I didn’t buy it to look like everyone else; that is coincidence. I needed something to symbolize my abiding interest in the actions on the field, and it was the most convenient thing.

I needed something to shade my eyes for the next time I went to the ballpark.