North of New Haven but south of Hartford, running the breadth of
central Connecticut, is the border that separates Yankees and Red
Sox fans. It's a baseball Mason-Dixon Line--a kind of
Munson-Nixon Line, below which you love Thurman, above which you
love Trot. Just last week I moved north of that line, from
Manhattan to New England, which share a currency but not a clam
chowder. Nor much of anything else.
And so, like all relocated sports fans, I'm now forced to learn a
new set of secret handshakes: The in-jokes, the back stories, the
cultural touchstones my neighbors have been accruing since birth.
Like the subtle difference between NESN and Nissen. The former, I
know now, is a cable carrier for the Red Sox, while the latter is
a brand of bread endorsed for countless years by Ted Williams. In
manifold local TV commercials, Williams could be seen fishing
with Maine sportswriter Bud Leavitt, when talk would turn, as it
naturally does between two grizzled men in a boat, to the
orgiastic pleasures of J.J. Nissen's Buttertop Wheat.
This is not to be confused with Big Yaz Special Fitness White
Bread, whose Carl Yastrzemski-adorned wrapper enlivened
supermarket shelves in the 1960s. If Ted Williams was the best
thing since sliced bread, this was the best sliced bread since
Or so I'm now learning. But absorbing all of this is rather like
learning a foreign language. Indeed, it is a foreign language
when you consider that tuna in Boston is a stereo component,
while tuner in Boston is former Pats coach Bill Parcells.
And thus I'm literally illiterate in parts of New England. An
enormous billboard that hangs in left centerfield at Fenway
communicates entirely in Morse code. But any Fenway fan can tell
you what it says: Red Sox Nation.
A resident alien in Red Sox Nation, I have much remedial research
remaining. It isn't easy to commit to memory every beer-sponsor
jingle in the history of New England sports. But I must try, if
I'm to hold my own at parties. The Sox have pushed both Carling
("Hey Mabel, Black Label!") and Narragansett ("Hi, Neighbor! Have
a Gansett!"), and the Pats once plied fans with Schaefer, whose
slogan--"The One Beer to Have When You're Having More Than
One"--was a bold invitation to binge drinking.
Indeed, I was having more than one last Friday night, inside the
venerable Cask 'n' Flagon, the bar behind the Green Monster at
Fenway, imbibing beers near a man whose T-shirt bore the phrase,
libelously inaccurate, JETER'S GAY.
"There's a whole range of hatred T-shirts for sale out there,"
Sox season-ticket holder Kathy Gilmour, 31, explained to me at
the Cask. "That one makes YANKEES SUCK look classy." She appeared
mournful for a moment and then added, apologetically, "Yay,
John Burkett moved to Boston two seasons ago. That's when the
38-year-old Red Sox righthander--who has bowled 10 perfect games
in his lifetime--learned that the lanes in New England are
largely devoted to candlepin bowling. "Smaller ball, smaller
pins, they leave the deadwood on the lanes," sighs Burkett. "I
tried it once, two years ago, and haven't done it since. But I'd
like to go again this summer."
Give him Tommy Points for perseverance. Tommy Points, awarded to
hustling Celtics players by color analyst Tommy Heinsohn, are now
bestowed, throughout New England, by ordinary citizens--as, say,
when a friend agrees to take your shift at the Steak Loft.
The Steak Loft, in Mystic, Conn., is distinct from The Movie
Loft, the late late show airing after Red Sox games on Channel 38
in Boston. If you've never heard of that, you're doubtless
ignorant of Brass Bonanza, the fight song of the Hartford
Whalers, whose presence is still felt, like the phantom leg of an
amputee, six years after the franchise fled for North Carolina.
So you can still consult devotional Whalers websites with names
like The Blowhole. And you can still hear radio reports, like
this one from Hartford last week, which identified white-hot
Anaheim goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere as "Whalers draft pick
But then this is New England, where Whalers are heroes and heros
are grinders, which it helps to know when buying a sandwich.
Indeed, all of this is vital information for anyone hoping to
hold even the simplest conversation. So if you're asked to meet
at the Red Seat, beyond the Pesky Pole, beneath the Jimmy Fund
sign, will you know that it's in rightfield at Fenway, in the
bleacher seat, painted scarlet in a sea of green, where Williams
deposited the longest homer in park history, beneath a sign for
the ubiquitous New England charity that honors a 12-year-old
cancer patient from 1948 whose name was not Jimmy but...Einar?
It's all very confusing, and I often mistake the Chowder Pot (a
seafood joint on I-91) with the Beanpot (a college hockey
tournament in Boston). But there's so much more that confounds
me. The Big Dig. Wicked pissah. Make Mine Moxie. And the grin
some grownups get when they think of George Scott, late of the
Red Sox, examining his bats to see which ones had taters in
B/W PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER
I'm now forced to learn the in-jokes and back stories my
neighbors have been accruing since birth.