On an October night in 2004, it finally happened. Eighty-six years of ignominious futility were over. The Bambino was finally banished. The Curse was lifted. The Boston Red Sox had won the World Series.
For more than eight decades Bostonians were haunted by the Curse of the Bambino (the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1919) as New York piled up title after title.
Then the miracle: The Red Sox, down 3-0 in their best-of-seven series, beat the hated Yankees four straight to win the American League pennant. They went on to the World Series, pasting the St. Louis Cardinals. That four-game series provided little drama for the most of the country; not so for Bostonians.
They flooded the streets around their Fenway Park; they had to be part of the crowd as the series came to a close. That the final game was taking place in St. Louis seemed not to matter. "Bostonians wanted to be together, outside the place that anchored their devotion to the team they've suffered with for so many years," says sociology professor Michael Ian Borer. "Fenway Park is the axis mundi of 'Red Sox Nation.'"
Borer was there too. A doctoral student at Boston University, he was working on his dissertation on urban culture and the relationship between people and places. Nearby Fenway Park, professional baseball's oldest ballpark, was his lab.
"As the game came to a close," he says, "I managed to climb over a 10-foot fence to get in the middle of the frenzied crowd, packed in like sardines to get as close to the ol' ballpark and to each other as possible. The sun never shined so brightly as it did the next day, the first day that Boston hadn't felt cursed in 86 years."
The sociologist recounts that night in the introduction to Faithful to Fenway, then turns to a scholarly examination of a place that one interviewee likened to watching a Shakespeare play in London's Globe Theatre. He cites an anthropologist who draws parallels between baseball and traditional religion. Like religion, baseball and Fenway give Bostonians something larger than themselves to believe in, "something that transcends the here and now."
In addition to attending games, Borer spent hours with players, local fans, officials in the Red Sox organization, tavern owners, and out-of-town supporters. With his accessible writing style, Borer presents an academic text with lay audience appeal, and vice versa.
Borer argues that communities, "especially those in urban areas, need stories to help define who they are for themselves, for future generations, and for outsiders. Fenway Park helps Boston tell its story. Fenway Park is where people have been able to construct personal and collective narratives. But Fenway is not simply the setting for these stories. Often, Fenway Park is a character in their stories, and, depending on whom you talk to, has been a victim, a villain, and a hero."
After Boston, Borer found an oddly natural sequel in Las Vegas.
"The importance and use of places in Las Vegas is one of the issues that drew me here," he says. "And the juxtaposition is terrific. Boston, arguably the most historic American city where change is hard to find, and Las Vegas, a young and immature city where change regularly trumps stasis and stability."
He is now exploring the common Las Vegas pastime of people watching, which he calls an "everyday practice that affects the social order of urban life."
Using a sociologist's mix of detailed interviews and intensive observation, he has identified three forms of people watching: for pleasure; for profit, as marketing strategy; and for protection, a key element of surveillance. But, of course, there's one more: for knowledge, which may lead to Borer's next book.