Back in February, fellow Situationist Contributor Emily Pronin wrote a great post about her recent research with Daniel Wegner, Sylvia Rodriguez, and Kimberly McCarthy on how people sometimes claim magical powers—and thus personal responsibility—for events that they couldn’t possibly have controlled. This phenomenon is quite apparent in sports fandom. We can be sure, for instance, that on last Thursday night countless Dallas Mavericks’ fans were wishing and voodooing their team to a playoff victory against the underdog Golden State Warriors (unfortunately for them, we know some wishes don’t come true).
In her article “Think You’ve Got Magical Powers?,” Pronin described how, although most people do not believe that their thoughts alone can cause external events, they also, in certain situations, claim responsibility for events that they had only willed to occur. As to why we believe in the power of situational magic, Pronin wrote:
Belief in magic gives us hope, causal explanations, and the illusion of control – all of which we tend to crave – at times when any of those things might be hard to come by. Fears can be assuaged, threats can be tamed, stress can be eased, physical constraints can be transcended, and smoldering embers of hope can be rekindled when magic is possible.
Pronin’s findings certainly hit close to home for Boston Red Sox fans (a.k.a. Red Sox Nation), of which at least two Situationists are full-fledged members. Just go back to 2004, when the Sox, by winning the World Series for the first time since 1918, reversed what many thought was an 86-year “curse” (resulting, of course, from the team selling the contractual rights to Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1920). Many commentators attributed the victory in part to the “faith” of Sox fans–their faith in the team, their wishing, their believing–it all mattered in helping to break the curse.
And on one level, there may be some truth to the idea that passionate fans in a ballpark, especially one as close to the field and as always sold out as Fenway Park, can make a difference in the outcomes of games. That’s because these fans likely raise the stress level of the opposing team’s players, perhaps through good natured poking; perhaps through obscenity-laced tirades. Their encouragement might also help the home team’s players do well — perhaps by creating expectations of success.
In football, such effects are called “The 12th Man,” which might be defined as the capacity of fans collectively to enhance the playing situation of the home team and to diminish that of the opposing team. To the extent the 12th Man can matter, it can also benefit the Sox away from Fenway, as many diehard Sox fans travel to cheer their team in other ballparks. When there, they presumably mute the opposing team’s 12th Man. (However, as the video below — taken by a Red Sox fan — suggests, the presence of Red Sox fans at Yankee Stadium may actually stoke the the ugly groupist passions of the Yankees’ 12th.)
But what about fans who merely wish? Does wishing make a difference? And if not, why would they still wish? Pronin’s research, again, indicates that wishing satisfies our urge for control at those times when actual control over outcomes we care about is in short supply.
This phenomenon was certainly apparent in the buildup to Red Sox victory in 2004. Consider the classic thread “Win it For” on the popular Red Sox fan messageboard Sons of Sam Horn (also known as “SoSH,” of which principal owner John Henry and ace pitcher Curt Schilling are members). The thread was started by high school teacher and diehard Sox fan Shaun Kelly right before Game 7 of the Sox-Yankees American League Championship Series. By urging fellow fans to dedicate the game to “the special people in their lives who had loved the team through thick and thin,” Kelly hoped that he would create some “mojo” for the Sox. He concluded his message with the following:
Most of all, win it for James Lawrence Kelly, 1913-1986. This one’s for you, Daddy. You always told me that loyalty and perseverance go hand in hand. Thanks for sharing the best part of you with me.
Win it for my Grandfather (1917-2004) who never got to see the Red Sox win it all but always believed. And for my Dad who watches each and every game wishing his Dad was there to watch with him.
Win it for my boss, a dear friend who lost his dad unexpectedly in March of this year. More than once this season, I’ve seen him glance at the phone after a game, half-expecting his father to call to commiserate, rejoice, or just shoot the breeze — I’ve also seen the sadness in his eyes as he realizes that the call isn’t coming. Win it for his dad, a lifelong fan who never had the opportunity to witness his beloved team taking it all.
Win it for my 10-year-old son Charlie who fell asleep listening to Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS assuming the Sox would win. When he awakened the next morning, he asked me, eagerly, “Did we win, Dad?” When I told him, gently, No, we did not win, his anguished moan startled me. I knew I had raised him as a Red Sox fan and I began to question whether that was a good thing.
The “Win it For” thread would eventually become a book, “Win it For . . . : What a World Championship Means to a Generation of Red Sox fans.” It wasn’t alone in representing the spirit of Red Sox Nation. Many other books and videos were published celebrating Sox fans as much as Sox players. Of course, there is the 2005 love story, Fever Pitch, in which Jimmy Fallon’s character plays a devout Red Sox fan(atic) who must learn to temper his life-long zeal in order to maintain his relationship with Drew Barrymore’s character. Then there was the video “Faith Rewarded” and the book “Faithful,” which was co-authored by horror writer and diehard Sox fan Stephen King. King had examined Red Sox foxlore earlier in his career, as in 2000 he published “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon,” a novel about a young girl lost in the woods of Maine finding solace and, dare we say it, “faith,” in the pitching of then Sox closer Tom Gordon. We now learn through Michael Fleming of Variety Magazine that the “faith” of Red Sox fans will be featured in an upcoming HBO miniseries based on King’s book. We apparently can’t get enough of these stories.
So maybe there is something magical about the Sox. Or at least something profitable.