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bleeding red

16 march 2006

Some sport fans are stamped with an allegiance at birth, imprinting on the uniform of the local club like a duckling on its dam. They can be transplanted to Missoula or Tananarive and continue to scour the available papers for their native box scores. Derek Catsam is one of them.

I'm the other kind of fan. Born in the suburbs of Chicago, I grew up with the Cubs, but abandoned them early for the Phillies after a cross-country move. I've split my adult life between North Texas and New York City, and my fan's anemometer seems to sway toward the Yankees or the Rangers depending on the length of my current stay. I'd like to think that I cheer no less strongly for being so fundamentally fickle. But when I read a fan's diary like Catsam's Bleeding Red, I suspect that there are depths of obsession that can only proceed from a lifelong attachment.

Derek Catsam, a native New Englander on his way to an academic appointment in Texas via one in Virginia, began to keep a baseball diary in the 2003-04 off-season. It was an act of faith. The Boston Red Sox had just come off one of the most devastating defeats in even their history, losing the pennant to the Yankees in the final at-bat in extra innings of a seventh game. For Catsam, as for a surprising number of Sox fans, the Aaron Boone home run was not the end of all earthly hopes, however. Baseball always provides a next year, and the 2004 Red Sox, for once, were plausible favorites to unseat the Yankees.

The 2004 regular season, however, was rather unremarkable. Briefly ahead of New York in late May and early June, the Sox played well thereafter but never could match the Yankees' pace. They finished three games back, but easily bested Oakland for the Wild Card.

Catsam's diary covers just about every game that the Sox played in the regular season, skipping contests only when work took him out of the range of media coverage. Frankly, this can get dull if you are not a Sox fan. The intensity of interest and identification (for Catsam, the Sox are always "we," never "they") is remarkable. But it can be difficult for non-Sox-fans to share, and at times almost trying for one who follows the Rangers or the Yankees.

In fact, I became more interested in the personal aspects of the diary, the accounts of a young, single, peripatetic academic life. Bleeding Red truly is a journal, not a crafted exposition, but during the long regular season, Catsam tells the reader a great deal about himself, his family history, and the long night of the Sox fan's soul.

Unless you've lived under a rock, you know that there is a great story waiting at the end of Bleeding Red: the 2004 postseason, notably the David Ortiz home run that broke the back of the Angels to win the opening series and then the unprecedented comeback from three games down against New York. Even an infidel from outside the Nation can appreciate the unalloyed bliss of the 2004 pennant.

Derek Catsam is a historian, and the ultimate value of Bleeding Red is historical. It's a good example of a topical book that will be of even more interest to researchers a century from now than to its contemporaries. When future generations want to know the minute texture of the life of a baseball fan in early 21st-century America, they will be well-advised to start with Bleeding Red.

Catsam, Derek. Bleeding Red: A Red Sox fan's diary of the 2004 season. Washington, DC: Vellum, 2005.