In his 10YA debut, “Boston-born-and-raised lifelong Red Sox fan” Eric Maloney traces his fanaticism through this better-than-you-remember-it Americanization of Nick Hornby’s sports-and-romance autobiography.
Pardon my bias. As a Boston-born-and-raised lifelong Red Sox fan who has spent over a hundred days and nights at Fenway Park and dozens more to watch my team elsewhere as a visiting fan, I experience Fever Pitch through the eyes of a New Englander as well as a person who enjoys film, going to the movies, and talking about it. In the ten years since its release, my bias has resided in an incubator. Waking it up for a re-view and re-examination of what it means to me has been interesting. Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, or as I’ll call it here, a Then, a Since, and a Now. I’ll give you mine as it pertains to the film, but first, a plot recap of the film.
Ben (Jimmy Fallon) is a romantic Sox fan of the highest order who teaches 9th grade geometry at East Boston High. Lindsey (Drew Barrymore) is an executive. Ben gets a case of the giddies when he takes his honor students to her office on a field trip. Even the kids pick up on it, to which a mildly frazzled Ben responds, “You think she’s out of my league? I don’t have the bat speed? I can hit her best cheese!” At times, I quite enjoy the dialogue and banter in this film. Ben’s character is established early, as Lindsey is sick and pukey on their first date and he takes care of her, putting her to bed and into her jammies, giving her bedside Gatorade, cleaning her toilet, brushing her dog’s teeth (he’d eaten some vomit), renting movies for the next day (she’s an Annie Hall person, he’s a Road House). At a party, Ben enjoys instant credibility among her male friends courtesy of his Red Sox season tickets, inherited from his Uncle Carl (Boston standup comic legend Lenny Clarke) who began taking him to games at age seven. Here and in the real world, a shared love of the Red Sox transcends social class and status. In contrast, as Lindsey’s friends have seen her relationships come and go and they’re understandably skeptical, looking for whatever must wrong with Ben, be it his lower-paying occupation or that he’s 30 and still single (though so is Lindsey), and thus our female lead doesn’t have it as easy.
As the relationship and baseball season play out, we see the Type-A Lindsey making concessions to facilitate things: Early on, she brushes off work while at the ballpark on Opening Day, reads books on the Red Sox to better understand her partner’s passion; later, she storms the field at Fenway to save him and their relationship (more on that later). Ben, the good-natured man-child, takes a little more time. His youthful inner self is demonstrated by his wardrobe comprising virtually all Sox jerseys and t-shirts, his apartment decked out floor to ceiling with memorabilia and team-logoed products from pillow cases and baseball mitt telephone to shower curtain and toothbrush holder, as well as the fact that he begins squealing gibberish while at dinner with Lindsey’s parents for the first time in order to avoid overhearing the next table’s party from discussing the ballgame’s outcome as he’s got it DVR’d at home. He recovers by using a personal day and taking her folks golfing the next morning at the prestigious country club at which Lindsey’s golf-cart-salesman dad lamented about never being able to get a tee time (one of Ben’s student’s dads is a groundskeeper on the course).
Later, he declines her invitation for a whirlwind trip to Paris because the Mariners are coming to town and the Sox are in the playoff hunt. As Lindsey appropriately says in that scene, “When your girlfriend asks you to go to Paris, YOU GO TO PARIS.” Planting a seed for further use, after bending a junior varsity player’s ear with his adult problem, the kid says, “You love the Sox, but have they ever loved you back?” Ben will later embrace the notion that they do, and he has argued with his Fenway Family that the team does love him back, but for now it takes a 9th grader to speak reason to his 30-year-old teacher. Ben is almost there. Digging the relationship’s grave, the couple enjoys a wonderful evening at a friend’sGatsby-themed 30th birthday party, which Ben later describes in bed as the greatest night of his life, until he gets a call from his friends who’ve attended the Sox-Yankees game in which Boston came back from a 7-0 deficit to score 8 runs in the bottom of the 9th inning, winning what is called the greatest comeback win in the team’s history, or as the local news reporter in the film describes the aftermath, “…nuns dancing on top of moving vehicles! Police toasting beer with underage children! Bedlam!” Ben freaks out over not being there with his Fenway Family, regrets his decision to have attended the party, and it’s Splitsville for him and Lindsey.
While Lindsey moves on, Ben hits rock bottom and recovers. In my favorite scene of the film, his friends execute a reconnaissance mission as they race up the stairs to his apartment to find the nearly-catatonic sad sack in his underwear, pile of chicken wings on a TV tray, buffalo sauce on his face, windows covered (with Red Sox material) to keep the sunlight out, he’s watching the Buckner play repeatedly on VHS and listening to “The Man We Call Yaz” on vinyl, a musical tribute to Sox great Carl Yastrzemski done by the local AM radio station WHDH after the 1967 Impossible Dream season. They drag their mumbling friend into the shower and clean him up. Why is this my favorite scene? Not because the anesthesiologist Kevin (Willie Garson) attempts to shave Ben’s nuts in the shower (“Relax, I’m a doctor… well, if you don’t want me to…”). Save for the recon and shower, I’ve been to this place and I understand.
Ben has his revelation after a Red Sox loss, with his friends at Bill’s Bar where Sox stars Johnny Damon, Jason Varitek, and Trot Nixon are having dinner. While his buddies are offended that the players can enjoy dinner after losing an important game, Ben finds his center of gravity, defends the players on the basis of them having balance in their lives, and rushes out to see Lindsey at her apartment, where to his dismay she’s on what appears to be a double date. Soon after, she learns he’s so heartbroken that he’s selling his season tickets to her friend Chris. At the champagne celebration for having earned the big promotion she’s been working 90-hours a week for, Lindsey has her own revelation. She abruptly leaves the party for Fenway, where she buys a pair of scalped tickets for $600 to gain access to the ballpark, storms the field, reaches Ben just in time to block the sale, getting arrested in the process. Lindsey is a gamer. The Red Sox go on to win the World Series for the first time in 86 years and our couple lives happily ever after.
Each of our flawed lead characters enjoys revelation driven by their good-natured hearts. That’s why we spend the film rooting for their relationship to work out, and that’s why it ultimately does. Lindsey is the more logical, cerebral, adult character. Ben, the romantic soul, messes up like the goofball he is, and recovers multiple times. The film inspires us to ask foundational relationship questions: Do opposites attract? Can opposites work together? Should you try and change your partner into the person you think they can be, who you want them to be? Do you meet somewhere in the middle? Should you? Is it enough to love and accept someone for who and what they are, celebrating, supporting your differences? Home-hitting relationship stuff with a bunch of Red Sox content? I’m a sucker for it.
Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
THEN, SINCE, and NOW.
I found Fever Pitch an agreeable-enough rom-com. Films of the genre, in a way, mostly seem the same to me: goofy boy whose inner child becomes something hopeful meets the smart and driven career woman, each learns to live with and love a slightly curbed version of the other. Add some hilarious friends like Marissa Jaret Winokur and Jack Kehler, funny parents, a dog, a few bits of witty banter, and a timely soundtrack into the mix, and you’ve got the ingredients for an enjoyable film. That said, my enjoyable experience with the film was largely based on the personal and cultural elements.
2004 was a magical time for any New Englander. For sports fans and nerds, guys and gals, kids and old folks alike, unconditional love of the Red Sox is an essential part of the community’s fabric. People who otherwise loathe sports are engaged in an eternally intimate relationship with the team, which in 2004 hadn’t won a World Series in 86 years but had lost a bunch in heartbreaking seven-game fashion in 1946, ’67, ’75, and ’86—not to mention the one-game playoff in ’78 (BUCKY F***ING DENT) and the 2003 American League Championship Series (goddamn Grady Little, goddamn Aaron Boone), both vs. the goddamn Yankees. The ’04 ALCS felt like more of the same. Sox were down three games to none, to the goddamn Yankees. No team had ever come back from 0-3. We were done, the series going back to the Bronx, no less. In the greatest comeback in sports history, the Sox ran the table, won the next four games to advance to the World Series, which they won in a four-game sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals. The euphoria from that time is impossible to describe. Not everyone’s grandparents lived to see it, but Nana & Grandpa Maloney did, and that counts for a lot. I spent weeks of summers and school breaks with grandpa, tending to his garden, walking, playing catch, watching the Sox on channel 38 with the audio from AM radio, listening to his tales of everything from pre-radio life to watching Babe Ruth, Harry the Hat, Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio, and a young Yaz play the game on Yawkey Way. Growing up, I’d feel the same romance for the players of the day. Dwight Evans, Jim Rice, Luis Tiant, Bill Lee, George Scott, an older Yaz (I was at his final game in ’83)… I didn’t want to be president or an astronaut. I wanted to be Red Sox center fielder Fred Lynn.
At the time, the Red Sox were still the loveable losers of sports’ tragic comedy. Their story being a vehicle for a Hollywood rom-com, audiences embraced it. That it’s loosely based on a European football equivalent team playing a similar role in Nick Hornby’s autobiography probably explains the story’s sensibilities and balance as the love and sports stories serve one another. I enjoyed the American movie-going world at large celebrating this thing. We were the underdogs, finally winning The Big One. Nobody was rooting for us, but it seemed like the world loved that we finally got one. Folks across the land seemed happy for us.
Fever Pitch was an early date with my wife, a decidedly sports-uninterested woman. Watching together at Portland, Oregon’s Kennedy School, it registered on both fronts. A couple with some but not too much overlap in interests falling in love, my irrational relationship with Springsteen and my hometown sports teams paired with hers of roller derby, theater, and burlesque, it informed our dynamic. She’s not Lindsey, I’m not Ben, but the characters served our understanding of one another in some fashion.
I didn’t watch Fever Pitch between Then and Now, other than a handful of scenes while channel surfing, never considering its story. I’d dismissed it as a cookie-cutter rom-com, which in many ways it is.
The Red Sox are no longer the lovable losers. They’ve won a couple more World Series, in ’07 and ’13 (the later coming after finishing in last place the prior year). Where folks seemed to enjoy their 2004 win, the masses are now tired of them being good. Such is life. The dynamic of ’04 is something I liken to the Macarena dance: an unforgettable moment, undeniably galvanizing in a way that you can only know if you’re old enough or were engaged with popular culture at the time. Otherwise, unless you’re a baseball fan or from New England, that 2004 moment is a short segment on a VH1 flashback show.
Fever Pitch has aged far better than I’d estimated it would. Dialogue in the early scenes at Fenway offer a serviceable Readers Digest history lesson on the Red Sox, albeit very broad-brushed—it’s probably as much context as the uninitiated may need. I particularly enjoy Jack Kehler’s masterful turn as Al Waterman, “sponge guy” and the film’s narrator who, despite being a Philly native, offers a better Boston accent than Ben Affleck does in other films. My loathing for “Sweet Caroline” being played as a sing-a-long at the 7th inning stretch only runs deeper; I like the song, but Neil Diamond is a New York guy and it’s a creepy love song about a then-tween-aged Caroline Kennedy.
In addition to appreciating the characters and story as described above, in 2015 I find myself even more nostalgic for the film’s respectable dash of local color and the specific personal experiences it recalls. At Ben’s first game at age seven (same age as mine), he’s watching the same players warm up as I did throughout my youth. “By game’s end, Ben had become one of god’s most pathetic creatures: a Red Sox fan.” Ain’t that the truth. When Lindsey takes a foul ball to the squash while working on her laptop during a game, I’m reminded of being at a Sox-Mariners game in Seattle a few years ago. My brother and I went for a pop foul, we both lost it in the lights, it bounced off the dugout and into my hand, and I proceeded to celebrate on national television before looking down to see Ed had first taken that ball on the wrist, which was already big as a grapefruit and purple as Prince’s shoes. SafeCo Field personnel came down with an ice pack and bandage wrap (and an incident form), he’d live and I gave him the ball.
Though at times Craig Armstrong’s score sounds like that of a mid-grade sitcom, music by Boston-based recording artists the Dropkick Murphys, J. Geils Band, and Jonathan Richman are a nice touch. Small roles for locally based comics, each of whom I used to see in the clubs in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s—Lenny Clarke as Uncle Carl, Kenny Rogerson as the scalper, Don Gavin as the cop, plus local sports anchor Bob Lobel and die-hard fan Stephen King, further the film’s residual success of bringing me back home. As the credits roll to the Dropkick Murphys’ instant classic “Tessie,” released during that 2004 playoff run, in my heart, I am home.