The Red Sox and me

All across New York City, baseball fans are pinching themselves and wondering: Is this the year? Is this the magical season when it all comes together and maybe, just maybe, the Yankees finally win that coveted twenty-seventh world championship, their first in over two and a half years?

As a Red Sox fan, I have a hard time getting excited for them. In fact, after the agonizing conclusion of the recent American League Championship Series, I had to write down some thoughts before I could go to sleep. Here is the result.

Maybe you don’t cheer for the Red Sox, but indulge me. Pretend like you do and read what I have to say…

What Being the Father of an Autistic Son Taught Me About Being a Red Sox Fan (and vice versa)

Which Red Sox fan do you choose to be? The embittered one that mumbles about curses and looks forward to defeat with perverse relief, or the one who is pained but pleased with an excellent season and some extraordinary post-season play? What I really want to know is: why is it so damned easy to be the first one? Why are there so many people eager to say “I told you so” or “See… they always let you down”? But really I do understand this urge. I understand living with chronic disappointment because my son is autistic. The connection to baseball may not seem so obvious, but bear with me for a few minutes while I explain.

Some years ago I was flying out of Miami after a hectic family vacation. We were running late getting to the airport, and since we couldn’t find a gas station to fill up the rental car, we had to shell out $5 a gallon at the car return. I was already fuming about that, and then the rental guy found a dent in the car we’d have to pay to fix. A few minutes later I was angrily shoving a tottering heap of rolling luggage through the stifling heat outside the airport, and I remember thinking “Oh, wouldn’t it be JUST GREAT if all this luggage fell over?” And because the sentence was so clearly formed in my mind, I suddenly realized it was literally true. Some part of me thought it actually would be great if the luggage all fell over. Why? Lots of reasons. It would justify my shitty mood. I would have something to kick. I could curse and shout and do a little stomping dance. But my realization calmed me down. I was able to say to myself “I don’t want this luggage to fall over.” I wheeled it carefully through the airport and the day improved dramatically from that point on.

My son Jay was a year old then (he took his first steps in Miami). He is now four years old and completely unable to talk. He shows little interest in his parents or anyone else. He is a struggle to deal with every day. Working with him is, as a general rule, tedious and unrewarding. When he does something new or successful, it is a small victory — he pulls his socks off on command, or maybe he pedals a tricycle ten feet before losing all interest in the exercise. I am always tempted to measure these small victories against his larger dysfunction. I am tempted to say “Great, but he’s still hopelessly retarded.” Because I don’t want him to make me hope. I have nursed hopes, coaxed dreams along superstitiously and been crushed again and again. At this point it is very unlikely that Jay will “recover.” A manageable status quo is what I hope for now. I recede into bitterness. Damn you for making me hope! Keep up your predictable failings and my heart can take it. But if I keep hoping it will kill me.

I have only lived in Boston for 12 years, and to tell the truth, I’ve never really been that much of a baseball fan. But I’m amazed at how this history just seeps into you, as if I’ve had season tickets at Fenway since Babe Ruth’s last season here. It’s hard work to be a Red Sox fan, but you get drawn into it anyway. On the other hand it couldn’t be easier to be a Yankees fan. Just put your car in cruise control and watch the championships pile up. Yogi Berra has a championship ring for each of his ten fat fingers. Ted Williams went into his icebox without a single one. Former Boston ace Roger Clemens finally got his — he moved to New York. Similarly, it’s so easy to have a normal son. I see them at the playground, these fathers and sons, kicking the ball back and forth, laughing at each other’s jokes. They can speak to each other! Then I look at my son running around in circles making squealing noises, lost in his own world. And I lose myself in a whirlwind of anger and jealousy.

It’s so easy to be a Yankees fan.

Only recently have I managed to enjoy my son’s small successes by celebrating them as successes. A good day is a good day. Let it be a good day. A good day is not an instrument of torture designed to ratchet up the agony of your ultimate and inevitable anguish. When you start to fear good days, you have gone down a dangerous path. A good day can lead to hope, and hope can later be extinguished, but a good day is a good day, and you have to find a way to weave that into your life.

The day you think of a post-season victory by the Red Sox as an act of cruelty aimed at your heart, you have become less human. A post-season victory is a good day. Happiness is not an end state, but a fleeting moment. When it catches you (it never seems to work the other way around) gather it like a thirsty, shipwrecked sailor gathers rain. Honor it. There were some beautiful moments this season before that crushing Yankee home run in the eleventh inning that pulled down the curtain on it all. Does that home run have the power to turn all those gemstones into daggers? No… a beautiful moment is a beautiful moment. I hate the Yankees. And I don’t give a good goddamn about building character by losing. I wish my son’s brain wasn’t so cruelly ravaged by this hateful malady. I am not well-adjusted. I am angry and unreformed. Every day I ache. But a beautiful moment must not be denied. If I can see my son smiling and that makes me smile, that’s a good moment. And for all the Sox did this season, well, I challenge you to take away from them what they did for you. They gave you something wonderful and you took it. That’s as happy as happy gets. They were not taunting you. They were not setting you up. They were playing their hearts out. As I say to Jay when bitterness wells up in my throat and my teeth clench in frustration, “It’s not my fault. It’s not your fault.” No one can make you hope. You have to take responsibility for it yourself when you do hope. You cannot make happiness conditional, because there is no end to conditions. Make up your mind now: either let victories be victories when they happen or live forever in the dark shadow of defeat. Some days grind you into bitterness. But a good day is a good day.

As the cruel Red Sox losses accumulate, the lore deepens and the story only gets richer. It’s so painful! But how can you not fall more tragically and completely under their spell? As for me, after a long day of dealing with Jay, dealing with scratching and screeching, I want you to see him on my lap with his sippy cup, smiling and looking into my eyes. Do I dare fall more deeply and tragically in love with him?

Yes.

11 thoughts on “The Red Sox and me”

  1. I just read your essay on the Red Sox and your son, Jay. What a beautifully written piece! I am a children’s case manager working with families and their children who have Autism here in southern Maine. I am also a recent Red Sox fan. You have given me much to think about today and I’m passing this link on to all of my friends so they, too, can appreciate what you have shared here. Thank you very much!

    –Alan

  2. I am also passing along this information to others and the story it is heartwarming especially since I am the Mother of a now adult son with Autism. I also am a major Red Sox fan and from Boston as well and know some of the Red Sox players. I also know a major sportscaster that I am sending this to in Boston. How awesome!
    `a

  3. I’m a mother of a 10 year old boy with autism living in India. I know nothing about Baseball – but I just loved your article. I’ve sent it on to several other parents who I know will also love it. Thank you for reminding us so beautifully of the joy and unique triumph that we share.

  4. Nice piece. I am both a Red Sox fan and the father of a 6-year-old autistic boy. Your writing moved me to tears today because it resonated so darn much (I’m sure I’ll stop crying pretty soon now…). Thanks for sharing it.

    – Jeff

  5. Nice writing about autism and the Sox. I had season tickets and worked at Fenway as a kid. I saw Williams play. I decided to take a break from autism when the playoffs started and didn’t read or respond to anything about it. I wanted to just enjoy baseball the way I did before autism destroyed my life. The Bruins and Patriots are helping the numbness go away. Here’s the difference with autism. 10 million of us can scream at our TVs to take Pedro out and it will never matter. After trying to get my 7 year old to swing a golf club for 6 years, he finally did it two weeks ago. I can manage his care and maybe he will win. I haven’t given up on the Red Sox in 50 years and there is nothing I can do to help them but I can be just as persistent in trying to help my son and I can make a difference. This year, I didn’t expect defeat. I thought Rivera was vulnerable. It was crushing to watch game 7. Keep fighting the autism. People are beating it.

  6. As both a parent and participant in the border war between the Yankees and Sox, I found your piece to be very, very powerful. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    P.S. Full disclosure: I’m a dyed-in-the-wool, born-in-the-Bronx, Yankee fan, who happens to live in the epicenter of Red Sox nation!

  7. As someone who cherishes parenthood, the Red Sox and my abiding friendship with a Yankees fan, I loved the intricacy of this piece. I too will share it so others can learn from you on so many counts, Ned. With this writing, it felt good to face some facts and to cry for the Sox, for dear sweet Jay, and the plight of hopeful hearts everywhere. again. Thank you for the opportunity.

  8. Thanks for putting into words the emotions that I feel on a daily basis. I am the father of an 8 year old autistic son. I grew up in NY but never liked the Yankees. I lived in Chicago for 2 years and fell in love with the Cubs….so I feel your pain. I just forwarded your piece to a close friend in Boston who is a huge Red Sox fan and the father of an autistic son. I know he will thank you as well. Take care.

  9. Thank you for such an eloquent, well-written piece – I’m the mom of two boys with autism and all too well how easy the road towards defeat is to travel. (I hope the fact that I’m also a Yankees fan doesn’t discredit me for liking your story – I figure, I’m entitled to SOMETHING in life that’s easy, even if it’s only baseball!)

  10. Your piece moved me to tears. I am also the parent of an autistic son and have been struggling with hopelessness quite a lot recently. You really put my own feelings into words and helped me to put it all into perspective.
    Thank you

  11. WOW! Your story is so great-I have an 8 year old autistic daughter & yes, the days & nights are tough & yes, it seems hopeless, but when they squeeze you in their own way & smile in their own way, it is a good day! As for the Red Sox, our family loves them & always will-they played their hearts out & we’re looking forward to next season! For all of us, let us cherish today & look forward to tomorrow!

Comments are closed.