There is a special kind of loneliness and melancholy that follows a momentous and joyous event that cannot be shared or expressed. Last night the world changed for the better, across a whole region millions are smiling throughout their day as they find quiet opportunities to stare off and remember, their burdens lighter, the pain inflicted by a madman lessened if only for a short time. I want to be one of those people. But I cannot be, because through my own silly decisions I put myself in a part of the world where nobody knows or cares about the fact that last night the Boston Red Sox won the World Series.
I’m writing in grandiose terms because the environment around me is so willfully indifferent to what has happened I feel like I have to compensate. I feel like some government agent who knows the world has just been saved from a mad man or a monster, but can’t share the news or his joy with any oblivious civilians.
This is why I’m wearing my Boston Red Sox hat at the Barcelona airport, hoping someone will share a high five, a congratulations, dare I hope a beer, or at the very least a nod of recognition on this Halloween day, 2013, the day the world awoke to see the Red Sox improbably hold the title of World Series Champions, an accomplishment and designation that I’m suddenly finding maddeningly inappropriate, since the world, like the cruise ship I just spent the last week on in order to ghostwrite a travel blog article about spa cruises, is giving precisely zero fucks about all of this.
Hell, right now I would even take a Cardinals fan that I could fake empathy with.
I went on a free Mediterranean cruise the week the Red Sox were in the World Series. And the viewing opportunities I imagined might be available to me never materialized and so I missed pretty much everything. David Foster Wallace wrote about the despair of cruise ships, but he never had to feel that despair multiplied by the longing to watch and celebrate a team that I spent the whole summer rooting for as they battle for a championship. Here’s what he said:
“There’s something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that’s unbearably sad. Like most unbearably sad things, it seems incredibly elusive and complex in its causes yet simple in its effect: on board the Nadir (especially at night, when all the ship’s structured fun and reassurances and gaiety ceased) I felt despair. The word “despair”is overused and banalized now, but it’s a serious word, and I’m using it seriously. It’s close to what people call dread or angst, but it’s not these things, quite. It’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable sadness of knowing I’m small and weak and selfish and going, without doubt, to die. It’s wanting to jump overboard.”
Now my cruise wasn’t a luxury cruise in quite the way Wallace’s was, but the despair was palpable and real at night, because I wasn’t just made to despair by the emptiness of the vast ocean or the end of bacchanalian drinking and eating, but the knowledge that across the dark ocean my Red Sox were in for the fight of their life and I couldn’t watch them, or even worse, really talk about it with anybody.
This has happened to me before, being abroad when my team wins a championship, but never was I so sequestered in my joy, which is an emotion that, I know believe, has a rapidly self-devouring half-life if kept in such isolation.
I was in a small little village North of Seville in Spain named Galaroza in June of 2008 when the Celtics defeated the Lakers in the NBA finals. I was backpacking after college and I was volunteering with a friend at a nearby farm. The game was televised during the day, tape-delayed from the night before, and there was at least a modicum of interest because of the Laker’s seven-foot Spaniard, Pau Gasol. There was a tiny bar in town where I could watch the game with my backpacking companion, also a New Englander, as well as the same three old Spanish men who were perched atop the same bar stools every day, drinking watery Spanish beer. They didn’t care about the series, but they seemed to find my cursing at the refs and requests for celebratory high fives amusing (I spoke very little Spanish, they spoke no English). By the end I believe they were pro-Celtic by osmosis.
There was not anyone to turn to my side aboard the ship. There was no one watching because there was no way to watch it, and I’ve realized that the inability to watch and the inability to watch with anyone, even if it’s just a few strangers at the bar who are willing to discuss the game (or share cross-lingual high-fives) are very nearly the same thing. The joy in sports lies in the shared experience of the thing being viewed, not so much the viewing in and of itself. Of course the worst part is that I choose to put myself in this situation based on my ignorance of international viewing options on a boat, my hubris in believing I could find a place to watch and thinking watching by myself would be satisfactory, and my greed for wanting to get fed and massaged while half-drunk like a cow that will soon be Kobe beef.
I’m writing this for atonement, so here is the worst of it:
1) The cruise was free. I would have lost no money by not going.
2) I was not going with a girlfriend or any significant other or best friend or anyone that would have been really crushed had I chosen not to go. I went with my boss who is certainly a friend, but this was for work and not required. He is also not baseball fan at all.
3) I got the opportunity a little more than a month ago when I had full knowledge of the fact that the Red Sox might play in the World Series. Optimist that I am, I actually expected them to be there.
4) I was going to ghostwrite a piece. On a travel blog.
Blogging is already pretty low on the hierarchy of written word quality and legitimacy. Ghostwriting a travel blog is even lower, I would say it falls somewhere between writing copy for porn sites (rule number 1#: “come” is always three letters) and penning missives on behalf of desperate Nigerian princes looking for a safe place to store their fortunes. So when the offer came up to ghostwrite a travel blog for a five-day spa cruise around the Mediterranean with buffet lines filled with soccer-loving infidels, I took it. And I went around and shook hands with cruise industry people while me and my boss both pretended that he was the one who would write the article and I was just a colleague and the recipient of the free guest pass that all the writers received, a pass so coveted that only one of the twelve people in our group besides my boss elected to use it.
I ate a lot, drank a lot, and stumbled around some medieval towns. I got a couple of massages. Mostly I wondered about the Red Sox, and as the despair that D.F. Wallace described in his famous Harper’s piece set in I started to wonder whether I was even fit to wear the beard I had let grow longer than usual throughout October.
When Judas got his sack of silver, was there enough in it for a cruise?
I thought that I might be able to watch the Series on the cruise. I actually expected to, but I admit that my complete lack of research on viewing possibilities beforehand might have been a way to allay the early rumblings of guilt I had about the real chance that there would be no such viewing opportunities. I didn’t ask because, I think, I didn’t want to know.
The cruise spanned most of the northwest part of the Mediterranean. After departing Barcelona we traveled to Palma de Mallorca, Corsica, Marseille, and finally Savona before returning to Barcelona. So this was mostly an Italian, French, German, Spanish, and British crowd. I knew there probably wouldn’t be much of a baseball contingent, but I did assume that a floating fortress dedicated to entertainment would be full of glowing screens, one of which I might be able to commandeer in the morning hours for my own purposes. There were TVs in the cabin at least, a fact which initially gave me hope since the six-hour time difference would make watching the games at a bar difficult.
When I first boarded, I had some vague hope that the bars or the casino would be open 24 hours based on the idea that if the boat was in international waters there would be no legal reason to shut anything down. But after dropping my bags off and doing a quick inspection of the listings of the bars and clubs on board, I saw that none were opened past one, except for the disco, which, like all the bars on board, had no TV. Unlike most of the bars onboard, the disco, I would later find out, was filled with over-caffeinated tweens clutching red bulls while swaying in awkward circles. This was not only a depressing development in my hopes to watch the Sox, it made me realize that the demographics of the boat were not going to be conducive to meeting any Italian models, unless there was an Italian model taking her parents on a cruise after her first high paying gig, or moonlighting as some kind of au pair.
The TV in the cabin room had twenty or so channels, not a few of which looped safety demonstrations or various shots of the ship’s deck taken from the ever present CCTV cameras. I didn’t have to find a schedule to know the BBC was not broadcasting the World Series, although I did flip on the TV during game times to check.
In spite of all of this, I really thought I was going to be able to watch Game 3. Game 1 I had watched at my apartment in Brooklyn with a mixed crowd of Sox and Cardinal fans. I had jumped about during Napoli’s 3-run double, and I gloated that Jon Lester had beat cancer, and that the Cardinals lineup and the supposedly great Adam Wainwright were not anywhere near as potent an adversary as cancer, and that if they were a disease they would be a weak form of VD, easily cleaned with a simple regimen of antibiotics and Lester cutters.
You see, like all Red Sox fans, I am obnoxious.
But honestly, I didn’t pour it on too heavy, and we were all having fun, and it was my apartment, and we were drinking, and mocking those hilariously over narrated Chevy commercials in which a gruff, weathered voice describes exactly what’s on the screen (“A man. A man and his truck. A man driving his truck. A lost cow. A man looking at the lost cow. A man picking up the cow.”) We were having fun, it was social, and the Red Sox won.
I missed all that on board.
Game 2 I missed as it occurred while I was on a transatlantic flight. But I was sure I could watch Game 3 because I had bought MLB.TV’s international post-season package before I left, which allowed me, in theory, to stream games online from outside the U.S. (the networks had all the postseason rights domestically, so like fashionable mullets and legal public male beach nudity, it was only available abroad). My roommate and I, a fellow Mainer and Sox fan, had bought the MLB package at the all-star break when we both agreed that this was a special Red Sox team and that we owed it to ourselves to splurge for the $300 package and ensure near-nightly viewing. (We live in Brooklyn, deep in enemy territory, so no NESN). It had not worked over the PS3 as promised, but we attached my computer to the TV with an HDMI cable and watched the games that way, never experiencing much in the way of technical difficulties and always watching the game with clear audio and video.
But that was with a decent Wi-Fi connection. The Wi-Fi on the boat and was expensive and weak. For three hours of Wi-Fi I had to pay 24 euro, or about $32. I paid this for what I thought was Game 3. I stayed up until two drinking with the VP of Marketing for the cruise line and his wife, both American and surprisingly cool and fun, as well as with the more adventurous members of a media group that were experts on “cruising” (like any experience with serious devotees, the cruise ship experience is turned into a verb, because then it something you do, not something that happens to you, although I can’t think of any activity that implies less action or agency on the part of the participant than “cruising”).
Stumbling from both booze and rough seas, I wandered back to my room, turned on my computer, paid the extortionary WI-FI fee and logged into MLB.TV. The video did not work for whatever reason. I could listen to the audio, but it was choppy at best. Realizing I might not be able to find enough bandwidth to actually watch the game, I searched for and found an illegal stream of the game which, given the setting, was the most pirate-y thing I’d ever done.
As the streaming video kicked in, I realized 1) it was game four and a I had SOMEHOW MISSED GAME 3, 2) The Sox were down 2-1 in the series, 3) it was already the sixth inning, so I had gotten the time difference wrong and 4) I was seeing about every fifth frame of the video and hearing every fourth word out of the announcer’s mouth.
Off to a great start.
The first at bat I saw, and I swear this is true, was Johnny Gomes’. And when I say I saw the at bat, I mean I saw him walk toward the plate and then I suddenly saw the catcher react to a pitch. Watching the video on board that ship was like watching one of those flip books you make when you’re a kid, the ones that when flipped fast enough create little animations of stick men running. Although in this case, it was like the person flipping and simultaneously narrating was suffering from Parkinson’s and a pretty serious case of the stutters.
I saw Johnny in the batter’s box waiting the 2-2 pitch, then a shot of the left field stands, then Johnny rounding second. Using context clues, I surmised that Johnny had hit a three run homer, blowing Game 4 wide open. I drunkenly danced around the room, the room I was sharing with my passed out boss. I silently did a fist pump in the dark, which sounds like a not-so-subtle euphemism for masturbation for a reason. Joy so isolated and hidden in darkness and silence is the emotional equivalent of jerking off. It’s hollow and leaves you feeling weirdly guilty.
Four pixelated and choppy innings later, I saw Koji go from the stretch to jumping in the air for joy. Series tied 2-2. I looked around my dark room, my headphones filled with garbled and intermittent words of praise for Boston’s effort. I turned off my computer, and went to sleep with feeling of elation that, having no outlet, quickly became a sort of weird pit-of-the-stomach warmth that I guess they call melancholy but just felt like high-five blue balls. At least I was spared the knowledge that I had just seen my last live image of the 2013 World Series.
I don’t know if the slideshow I witnessed even really counts as watching, but somehow I told myself it did, especially since I had fought sleep, jet lag, and AV difficulties until the last pitch. I realized the next day that I counted difficulty as something that made the quality of my watching better, as if one could really watch badly or watch well, which I suppose is sort of like cruising badly or well. It’s weird that the price we pay as a fan somehow dictates how great the experience was. We pride ourselves on going to great lengths to support our team, but when we say support our team, what we are really talking about is watching, with some yelling thrown in. How are we really supporting our teams? What do we mean by cheering or rooting, especially when we aren’t even at the game? At the game, we can measure a fan base’s impact by volume and the loudest stadiums are said to have the best fans, but I often wonder how much of that is really just a measure of arena acoustics and how easily fans can get beer from their seats.
Why do we still feel the need to cheer, to yell, even when we aren’t there? Why was I jumping around my room, and why did I feel immediately sad after when I realized there was no one to share it with?
I think the answer is that being a fan isn’t really about the team, or the game, although fandom certainly wouldn’t exist without them. Being a fan allows us to tap into a hive mind, a kind of consciousness larger then ourselves that is not new age or mystical but very tangible and real. Sports allow 60,000 people to scream and enter a state of group ecstasy while piled on top of each other. It allows us to enter a group consciousness, which is a beautiful and wonderful temporary cure for the kind of existential dread and despair that DFW attributed to cruise ships (although given how DFW turned out, it’s possible he mistakenly attributed that sort of despair to cruise ships instead of his own brain chemistry). Sports and cheering allow us to lower our inhibitions and harmonize feelings with a crowd of other people. This is why we drink when we watch sports, because it contributes to the lowering of ego and consciousness that we need to go crazy and be one with the crowd we sit in, or connect the strangers at the bar wearing our team gear.
That’s why the cruise was extra depressing for me, I realize now, because I had so closely associated this feeling of blissful temporary ego death with my teams success, and now, when they were achieving the highest level of success possible, I wasn’t feeling it at all.
Some people go to religion for that feeling, some go to drugs, some art, the worst among us go to hate. Sports allow us to get to that place of diminished individuality safely, because, outside of a few random maniacs who drink too much, it’s safe. You don’t want whole stadiums of people losing their minds over a politician’s speech. Art and drugs aren’t the same because they are open to individual interpretation. When you’re a fan, and your team does something spectacular, you are feeling the same thing as all the other fans. There’s no individual interpretation like there is with art or music or drugs. And it’s all based on a gaze toward an arbitrary act some dudes are performing with a stick or a ball. The fact that it persists across cultures shows how fundamental it is to the human experience, and why we speak of the places where we can experience it, like Fenway, in reverent semi-religous tones.
In spite of talk I heard from the other writers on the ship about the magical ability of cruises to provide an escape from worry, I daresay that a cruise ship is not a place to experience that.
I met up with the press group the next morning. One of the writers was from Rhode Island and we immediately informed the other that the Sox had won, a fact she had learned while reading an email from her son that morning. I wanted to talk about the game and Johnny Gomes and Papi’s unbelievable hot streak, but I quickly realized that she was being friendly and sort of humoring me and she had no real knowledge of the team and was mostly just happy for her son and me.
The group all listened politely as I explained the outcome of the game and blamed my bleary-eyed quietness on the late finish, and they were happy for me, but I didn’t want them to be happy for me, I wanted them not to be happy for anyone in particular, but happy themselves because the Red Sox won and that made them happy. If they were able to produce that kind of happiness we could combine happiness and feel an exponential happiness increase, since combining sports happiness has an multiplying effect. That’s what I’ve come to believe anyway.
After my overview of the game there was nothing more to say about it or discuss because nobody cared. Then we started our tour of the kitchen facilities and I wished I could get a coffee to carry around with me during the tour but I couldn’t because they don’t do that in Europe, they drink thimbles of coffee aggravatingly slowly while sitting around medieval squares.
Between the charge for another three hours of internet, the head-ache inducing video connection, and the disheartening lack of satisfaction I got from a huge Red Sox win, I did not watch Game 5. I did read about it with the few minutes of internet time I had left, and when I relayed the information to the group, I got the same warm but ultimately indifferent response. I wanted to talk to anybody about the game. I was looking high and low for any kind of New England affiliations displayed across t-shirts or hats, but there were very few Americans, and the few that were there all seemed to be from the upper Midwest. I felt jealous of the soccer loving infidels around me. One afternoon I played basketball on an eight-foot rim with a group of French teenagers who knew a handful of English words, all of which were R-rated, and although they enjoyed yelling “Carmelo Anthony!” and “LeBron James!” at me, when I tried to pantomime Baseball they looked at me like I was an insane person and that it wasn’t their country that had invented pantomiming in the first place.
The five-day cruise ended in Barcelona, where I stayed the night in a hotel before flying back to Newark. When I put my bags down in my hotel room there were nine hours until the first pitch of Game 6, which was back at Fenway and with the Sox riding the momentum of another late inning comeback in Game 5 and the reentry of the DH into the series, it seemed like this would be the clincher and that Sox were just hours away from what Koji called a “champagne fight.”
I was sure I could watch the game in Barcelona. I was there for a few nights in 2008 when I was more or less permanently attached to a fifty pound backpack. I was sure I remembered bars open until four in the morning. If nothing else, the Wi-Fi in the hotel room would be superior to that on the ship. I had time to hike around the city and while I did I stuck my head into a few English style pubs and sports bars and asked about the possibility of watching the game. I slowly realized that none of the sports bars were open past two, which was right about the time of the first pitch. Each bar gave me a suggestion for a place that might be open later, which seemed like a lead, but each new suggestion would bring me to another bartender telling me the establishment closed at one or two and that they probably didn’t even have a channel carrying the game, although maybe bar x would have it. Pretty soon bar x was always somewhere I had already been and my explorations, combined with some Googling back at my room, made it clear there was nowhere to watch the game. The Googling in my room led me to the final heartbreaking discovery: the internet at this hotel was somehow even worse than the ship. And I was still five hours away from game time. I tried to watch YouTube clips but the connection made that impossible as well.
So I drank some in Barcelona, came home early, and went to bed, hoping for a strong start from Lackey.
When I woke up I immediately reached for my laptop and part of me hoped, and I don’t even dare to quantify the strength of this feeling, that they had lost so I would have a chance of seeing at least part of game seven back home that night. But they won, and I smiled to myself as I read about Victorino’s double and Drew’s solo shot and the crowning of Papi as series MVP.
I was happy, of course, but now I know, more than ever, that sports are an experience to be shared. It doesn’t have to be with friends or family, although that is best, and it doesn’t have to be shared with 38,000 people under the lights at Fenway. It can be shared at a bar with one other person, a stranger who for a brief time feels the same thing you do before he goes off his own way, happy to have some time outside of his own head.
You don’t need to board a boat halfway around the world to get that escape. But you do have to get to a certain level of dedication to access those shared experiences that make up fandom, in all its silliness and hysteria. You have to really genuinely care about something that you know is arbitrary. I like to think I’ve gotten there, which is why not being able to tap into the warmth of regional championship joy feels not just like I’m missing out on something fun, but like the whole thing didn’t even really happen. And the cruise was fine, it was fun, but knowing I was missing out on an opportunity to join the hive mind made the outlying status of my demographic and nationality feel that much more isolating (and I usually love traveling). So I ended up feeling this strange paradox: I felt jealous – the most brazen ego-driven emotion – that I didn’t get to escape my narrow ego for just a few moments.
Thank god it’s only sports, so none of this is life and death. And thank god I’m a New Englander, so I’ll (hopefully) get another chance at that championship feeling soon enough.