Fanboys aren’t all bad boys

Fanboys aren’t all bad boys
December 19, 2013, 2:00 pm
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Yesterday in the Boston Globe, Dan Shaughnessy wrote a column entitled “I’m here to write, not to root for Boston sports teams”, in which, among other things, he admits to having zero emotional investment in the teams that he covers, laments the current state of sports journalism, lays down the hammer on the Internet (aka the wild west of fanboys) and compares himself to Tommy Lee Jones’ character in The Fugitive. It was a whirlwind 1000 words. And obviously, it caused a stir. What follows is my response:
 
Bang! Bang! Bang! Stay outta the Internet, Dan! *blows out cyberpistol*
 
No. Come on, guys. That’s childish. Instead, I want to start with something that happened yesterday morning, before I had a chance to read Shaughnessy’s mission statement, because it very much relates —
 
It was about 8 am, and I was sitting at my desk, doing some work, when I received a Direct Message on Twitter.
 
It read: ‘Dennis & Callahan have been roasting your Ortiz column this AM, calling you a "stooge" and "a pom-pom waving fanboy”’
 
In the column, which ran on Monday, I argued that David Ortiz deserves an extension from the Red Sox, and did so while admittedly describing Ortiz in glowing terms. Hey, he’s only one of the most accomplished, significant and beloved athletes in Boston sports history, right? And I thought that, combined with the fact that, you know, he just wrapped up a season in which he finished in the top 10 in the American League in hits, homers, RBI, batting average and OPS, delivered one of the most dominant postseasons in Major League history, and plays a position that allows a certain caliber of player to remain effective into his 40s, was worth one extra year from the Sox.
 
The radio guys were offended. Not only by my opinion, but by the way I expressed it. Which is to say, like a fan. From the perspective of someone who’s emotionally invested in the Red Sox and David Ortiz.
 
Full disclosure: I am emotionally invested. I was born and raised in Boston. I was too young to relate to most of the pain inflicted on generations of Red Sox fans, but I experienced enough torture that 2004 meant the world to me. I’m undeniably appreciative and grateful for David Ortiz’s role in the those Four Nights in October, and the World Series sweep that followed. Not to mention, the dozen years and additional pair of rings that followed that. I can’t help it. It’s part of who I am. As is the fact that I cried when the Patriots won their first Super Bowl. And cried when the confetti rained down on the Celtics in 2008. That I was despondent for days and weeks after Aaron Boone’s home run and David Tyree’s catch.
 
Of course, I’m older now. I’m more mature(ish). In some ways, all the winning has numbed me, but I still care. I still go to games with my friends and my father (as a fan) and walk out the door happier when the home team wins than when they lose.
 
I feed off that passion and those emotions when I write about this stuff, because I believe that others can relate. That readers — Boston sports fans — will want to read it. And because it’s honest. It’s me. Not the obsessed 15-year-old who hung out in the Foxborough Stadium parking lot every Saturday morning hoping for an autograph from Ty Law or Dave Meggett or Vincent Brown. Not the drunk 23-year-old who nearly broke his hand punching a wall after Grady Little stuck with Pedro. But the logical, I’d like to think somewhat intelligent, 33-year-old fan who now writes about sports for a living. Who spends hours upon hours upon hours a day reading stories, watching games, researching stats, searching for unique angles and forming opinions about the teams that I grew up rooting for. That doesn’t mean that I’m always right or haven’t said things that ultimately look stupid or haven’t written entire columns that I regret. You can’t win them all. But I’d be happy to hit anywhere in the neighborhood of David Ortiz’s super duper totally awesome World Series batting average. LOL!
 
Anyway, I didn’t have a problem with Dennis & Callahan (mostly the former) tearing into my take as much as I did with the personal attacks. Still, I ignored the first message. After all, I’ve definitely said negative things about that show in the past. Nothing all that flagrant, but what goes around comes around. However, after two or three more messages from a few different people, relaying quotes like  . . .
 
‘Dennis: “This, this STOOGE Rich Levine from CSNNE...”’
 
 . . . I couldn’t resist. So, I sent him a not-so-nice message on Twitter, and it escalated quickly. Back and forth. Blow for blow. And his replies, although not always coherent, were very pointed. They all revolved around that same old accusation: I was a fan boy. A ball washer. A pom pom waver. Etc.
 
For instance, the day after the Ortiz story, and the morning after the Celtics beat the Timberwolves, I wrote a column entitled, “Love could be the Celtics answer during rebuild” in which I discussed the chances of Kevin Love someday ending up on the Celtics. When I tweeted the story, I teased it with the headline: “Couldn't watch last night's game without dreaming of a future w/Kevin Love in Boston.”
 
Dennis’ response: “DREAMING ?? REALLY ??”
 
Of course, I’m sure he didn’t read the column. It didn’t matter that on the other side of those 140 characters, I laid out all the Celtics’ options, why Love was the best option, why the Celtics should want to make Love happen and how they might go about doing it. Instead, the only takeaway was that I wanted them to do it. That I was “dreaming” about them doing it. That I would love to see Kevin Love in a Celtics uniform because it would make the Celtics a better team. That I want the Celtics to be a better team at all.
 
Because I’m a fan boy. Because I care.
 
Typically, I’d never incorporate a silly Twitter feud into a column, but in this case the timing was too perfect. No sooner was I done cyber dueling with Mr. Dennis (the title of my upcoming memoir, by the way), I came across Shaughnessy’s column. Which basically reiterated Dennis’ entire point, only without as much CAPS LOCK.
 
Shaughnessy’s larger message was that he isn’t in the business of rooting for and/caring about the success of Boston sports teams. His only mission is to watch what unfolds and tell the story. And over the years, he’s become disenchanted with readers who expect otherwise. Who are shocked that he doesn’t care and don’t react well when he writes something even the least bit negative about the local teams.
 
“This is how we were trained a few decades ago,” he wrote. “We were instructed not to root for the home team. Just deliver the story and the analysis.”
 
Whether or not that’s actually what Shaughnessy does or the real reason so many fans become enraged with many of his columns is another issue altogether. But for now, I want to focus on these two paragraphs:
 
“Trust me when I tell you this whole thing has changed. When I came into this business in the 1970s, it was OK for sports reporters to be skeptical and critical. It was not a crime against humanity if you suggested the Patriots or Red Sox might not win the championship, or perhaps might not be serving the best interests of their fans. It was OK to occasionally poke fun at Haywood Sullivan or Billy Sullivan.
 
Naturally, the Internet is a good source of explanation for this new dynamic. The web gives fans an infinite forum. Fans have a place to read like-minded people. It’s like one giant sports-talk show with no hosts interrupting. It turns out that fans love reading other fans. And, naturally, they all love their teams. What a surprise. Now they expect everyone else to love a team. It’s the wild west of fanboys.”
 
The problem here is that Shaughnessy is speaking and reacting to the very vocal minority. In most cases, the lowest common denominator. Are there people out there among the hundreds of millions who use the Internet every day who subscribe to that type of fandom and only want fairy tale takes on their team? Of course. And yes, it’s true. The Internet gave those people a voice. Mostly in the comment sections. But more importantly, the Internet gave everyone a voice.
 
People much smarter than Dan. People much smarter than me. People who can take a joke about an owner acting like a moron or coach who can’t handle his team or an athlete who’s performing far below expectations. That infinite forum has provided an opportunity to raise commentary and analysis to another level. To work with statistics and video and other technologies that have ascended discourse to sights that couldn’t have been fathomed in the 70s. We’re all better for it. And much of the time, the people at the root of this discourse are fans. After all, who do you think is going to work harder to analyze the numbers, explore previously unexplored theories and figure out the truth behind what it will take for their team to get better: Those with something invested, or those who just don’t care? Those who want to make a difference, or those who are just looking for an easy, above the surface story to fill an 800 word column under deadline?
 
Sure, maybe this technology has diluted the press box experience. It’s changed access. It’s hurt the relationship between the media and athletes. In some cases, athletes don’t need the media, as much as they just need their own Twitter account. Teams don’t need media, because they have their own media, on their own site, which can churn out all the same quotes and information.
 
Of course, there’s a bias involved there. It’s still so important to have an independent voice in those locker rooms. It’s important to have traditional media. We still need that and depend on that. There are so many beat writers and reporters in this city and beyond who are doing fantastic work on a daily basis. It’s also important to have dissenting figures inside to stand up and ask the tough questions.
 
Even if you disagree with the way Shaughnessy went about berating Ortiz earlier this year about potential steroid use, you can appreciate that someone was there to ask. Even if you disagree with the way Shaughnessy berated Jacoby Ellsbury back in Spring Training about whether he was coming back to the Red Sox, you can appreciate that someone was there to ask. But at the end of the day, how much insight is provided in those answers? Ortiz said he’s not using. Does that mean he’s definitely not? Ellsbury said he wasn’t sure what he was going to do, and was just focused on winning this year. Do you really believe that he wasn’t sure? Just because those questions are being asked doesn’t mean the public is getting any closer to the truth. Ultimately, those are stories that aren’t really stories. They’re fabricated. They lack depth. The public wants more. And if traditional media — not all, but the “old guard” — isn’t willing to give it to them, they no longer have to sit back and take it. And they’re not. Because they care.
 
I’m not sure how that’s a bad thing. But today, caring makes you a fan boy. Regardless of the work you do, or insight you provide or how committed you are to fulfilling the job title on your contract, caring draws the ire of some folks in the business. Folks who miss the days when caring didn’t have a voice. Folks who will go on forever lamenting how much everything has changed, totally obsessed with the negative, while ignoring just how much good that change has really done.
 
Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine