Paris, the City of Light. Cheese and wine. Merci beaucoup. The land of football and pétanque, not baseball.
Fresh from my overnight flight, I went to the art historical wonderland known as the Louvre. While I was waiting in line to see the Mona Lisa, possibly the world’s most famous artwork, I spotted a guy in a Red Sox hat. He was posing for a picture in front of the painting, standing next to his wife and holding his baby up in the air to fit everyone in the frame. Of course I went over to say hello and “Go Sox.” I always do this when I see a Sox hat out and about—not an everyday occurrence in Seattle, where I live, but not totally uncommon, either.
The guy was already happy—I mean, he’s in Paris, he has a new baby, he just hit a bucket-list item with the Mona Lisa—but his smiling widened into beaming once we made the Sox connection. I felt great too. My jet lag got a little lighter.
When the Louvre closed, I came up onto the street, floating on an art historical cloud…and emerged directly into the middle of a riot. It was as quick as changing the TV channel: one minute, Rococo landscapes and the next, urban dystopia featuring dozens of Darth Vaders on the move.
The street protests are because outrage has boiled over after police killed a young man, a teenager, of color during a traffic stop recently. The Darth Vaders (yes, the riot police actually wear Darth Vader-shaped helmets; I couldn’t stop staring) were chasing after people who sprinted by me in packs. Everyone ran in every direction; some bystanders tried to confuse the cops by sending them around a different corner. I could hear the thunking sound of metal canisters hitting pavement.
What do you think is the next thing I saw?
A Red Sox hat.
Different hat, different guy. I didn’t try to talk with this guy because, you know, we were in the middle of a riot, we were all busy…but it took everything I had not to.
I tried to talk about it later with my girlfriend. She casually called it “boosterism,” my love for the Red Sox, but that cheapened it, and I indignantly retorted, “No! It’s hometown pride!”
But that’s not quite it, either.
People who don’t care about sports don’t see what can lie underneath. Yes, there’s admiration of technical mastery of skills. An appreciation of artistry. Sometimes alchemy—making something out of nothing—and sometimes true magic. The thrill of the unexpected. Good old-fashioned fun.
I feel all of these things at different times, but I also feel something emotional that’s not entirely about the action on the field. I deeply love the connection of large groups of people doing something together. Collectively appreciating what’s unfolding in front of us. I love when the whole crowd holds their breath, together, as they wait to see whether a soaring ball will become a home run. When the entire ballpark tacitly agrees to stay quiet as Jon Lester spins out a no-hitter. How everyone, whether in person or in front of a screen, erupts when the ball goes over the wall.
It’s awesome, right?
Now that I don’t live in New England anymore, I feel a real connection with anyone who wears that Sox hat. I’m absolutely compelled to make eye contact, say hello, and usually ask if they’re from Massachusetts like me. If I saw them on the street in Boston, probably nothing would happen between us (too many hats and not enough time) and maybe we wouldn’t even be friends if we got to know each other. But now I feel like my hometown extends farther somehow, like it got bigger, and the grace I extend to others is deeper. I have room for everybody, especially if they like the Red Sox. We get each other, somehow, in that collective way.
This connection, this click, can be even more fun and meaningful while traveling abroad. (And for those who are counting, I saw a third Sox hat at the Eiffel Tower, and a fourth through the window on the Metro, all in my first two days) In fact, some of my best, most cherished travel memories have involved connecting with other folks over baseball.
In Cuba I had long conversations with every taxi driver in Havana because we all could talk baseball all day long. At that time, El Duque played for the Yankees. I lived in New York then and got to share that with the drivers, while one of them pointed out to me the areas where he said El Duque had grown up and played. Priceless.
I was teaching art in a small town in Italy when they won the World Cup in 2006. That night, at the celebration in the town square was a young local guy wearing a counterfeit t-shirt that said “i Rags Sox” (“the Rags Sox”) in cursive script, no logo or anything. But I knew what this meant; incorrect spelling is pretty common on American-style t-shirts in Italy. I was overcome, honestly, because you don’t usually see baseball attire in Italy, and the Red Sox? Come on. In my beginner’s Italian I tried to make my feelings known.
“Many congratulations! I like your shirt. It tells me i Rags Sox—my team! Yes, my team in America, next to my home. My favorite, my love. In my heart, yes yes. Your team, the championship, now, today? So happy! My team, the championship too. Yes! Many years we don’t win. I understand. Very very happy!”
He was so thrilled for me and for i Rags Sox and their hard-won campionato that it was like 2004 all over again for me. Our hearts were both full.
One morning a few years ago in Venice, I went to a small city museum. It wasn’t very full; it was early and it didn’t own any masterpieces. Across the lobby, in the light shining down through the windows up top, I saw an older gentleman wearing a satin baseball jacket, a bright blue and yellow Mariners one with the striped cuffs and the hat and everything. Well, I live in Seattle, and they’re my AL West team.
“Buon giorno! Hey, go Mariners, are you from Seattle like me?”
He gave me the universal look that we all make when we don’t understand the language: blank, and almost a little afraid. I knew right away; he wasn’t from Seattle, he was from Japan.
I pointed to his jacket. “Ichiro?”
His smile lit up the whole museum. There was nothing else we could do but point and smile and give each other about a thousand thumbs-ups. This swelling of emotion reached a crescendo as we regaled each other, loudly, joyfully, with the only word that we had in common: “Ichi-ro! Ichi-ro! Ichi-ro!”
This is not boosterism, never that. All of this is shared passion, with a sweetness to it. A desire and willingness to share what we can. A hunger, even, for connection. Some people may think we’re only sharing a hat, or a slogan, but we know better.