On Pride Night…

With his final dispatch from his Stateside trip, John’s back…

The line in the box score doesn’t do justice to Jalen Beeks‘ Red Sox debut. The zeroes and ones show he lasted four innings and gave up six earned runs on seven hits and three walks. The most in a first inning of any Red Sox career. Record books are cruel.

They ignore Beeks misfortune. The wind blew out and a scrub outfield of Sam Travis and JD Martinez watched as it first blew a hanger from Nick Castellanos into the Green Monster, and then  caught a Leonys Martin flyout in its midst, landing it at the very edge of the Monster’s lip. Fenway Specials. Real rinky-dink.

They forget Beeks’ own emotion, too – “…I was just missing pitches in the first and that’s what happens.” he told the Boston Globe. “But you’ve just got to learn from it and that’s what I’m going to do.”

Outside of the mound, and on it, the Red Sox themselves – and a sport at large – was learning to deal with emotions.

Jalen Beeks debut – an aberration in Red Sox history – happened on the club’s annual Pride Night, which falls in the midst of the Boston’s own city-wide June celebrations.

I was not a ballpark first-timer, nor was it my first experience of a positive expression, a celebration, of LGBTQ+ culture. Living in Manchester, with its thriving Gay Village and its own internationally renowned drag scene and Pride celebration, I’m no stranger to the positive social (and economic) benefits that a culture founded on diversity and inclusion can bring.

Boston that week felt like Manchester during Pride – thronging, vibrant, politically engaged and outraged, and delightful. My visit’s coincidental clash with the wider cultural goings-on was entirely serendipitous, but brought a welcome atmosphere and colourful edge to the already welcoming city I knew.

This was, nevertheless, my first first-hand experience of such a celebration in a sporting venue. In the UK’s Premier League the ‘Rainbow Laces‘ campaign has run for many years, and the work of organisations like Stonewall, and bravery of ex-pros such as Robbie Rogers and Thomas Hitzlsperger has helped off some of the stigma of LGBTQ+ football fandom.

Nevertheless, for all the warm words of those in positions of administrative power, many British football terraces remain forbidding for fans of all but the Whitest of ‘Cis’ males. As positive a statement as the Rainbow Laces may be, it smacks of the most modest tokenism.

With the exception of the valiant Billy Bean, baseball has no facsimile to the short list of ‘out’ footballers. But there remains a sense that this issue ‘matters’ more to the MLB; a point which chimes with the engaged, engaging and inclusive nature of the majority baseball fans.

So to Boston and Pride Night.

I’d no idea it was Pride Night. It came on Thursday, and despite travelling on Monday I was still jet lagged, jet lagged and hungover. I’d only scantly registered that Beeks was pitching.

I arrived early and crabbed my way to a seat in section 32, along the left field line – adjacent to the Monster, with a handy viewpoint for those first innings Tigers ‘long balls’. I’m not sure if I slept, but I certainly rested my eyes.

And when I opened them I noticed…

The rainbow flag.

Then the rainbow patterned ‘Sox’ resplendent on the pitching mound.

And in the stands, peppered, rainbow insignias and logos on caps – a Red Sox ‘B’ here, the famous ‘Curly W’ of the Nationals there, even a smattering of Yankees ‘rainbows’ within a few metres of my seat.

This wasn’t just Jalen Beeks debut. It was nothing so normal as that.

As any of you who have visited a ballpark will know, they don’t scrimp on ceremony.

There wasn’t one opening pitch, but several. The mound was lined with representatives of the Beantown Softball League – New England’s oldest, and largest ‘…athletic organization open to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and heterosexual people’.

Each delivered their own ball with vim, delight.

And there was something in my eye.

By the time the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus gave what was – by far – the week’s outstanding rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, my chest was swelled, and my eyes were welled with tears.

Some might have found the proceedings trite, overly flamboyant, unsubtle – ‘too American’.

But they moved this British normie – a white cis male, bordering on middle age, worried about a waxing and waning paunch – more than anything else I saw or experienced that week.

For context, visiting Fenway Park is an assault on the senses.

The famous ‘bandbox ballpark’ sits crouched in Boston’s back streets, which teem with life, fervour and excitement in the build up to any game. The air is smacked with the acrid smells of frying onions, and ticket hawks compete for air space with house bands of old-timers cracking out passable renditions of Tom Petty and ‘The Boss’ on both Lansdowne and Jersey Streets.

Boylston Street offers the famous drinking dens – The Baseball Tavern and Tony C’s – and if you’re lucky you might bump into Luis Tiant in his own taqueria ‘El Tiante or, as I did, ‘Bullpen Cop’ Steve Morgan doing his rounds before taking up his famous post to salute the moonshots of Red Sox lefties.

The park itself is no different. It is as immaculate and forbidding as anticipated. Every inch the place that Simon Schama claimed he’d ‘…never get over’.

Sign the Pesky Pole.

Gape at the Green Monster.

Feel the hairs of your neck raise as the ‘Theme from Cheers’ introduces a ballpark ‘where everyone knows your name’.

‘Magic beyond magic’ – as the great historian had it, in a rare moment of bald speechlessness.

But it was national anthem on Thursday 8 June that really got me.

My mouth agape at the level of detail and pizazz.

A playlist of ‘gay anthems’, and no hackneyed choices here – not ‘I Will Survive’, but The Magnetic Fields’ heartfelt paean to lost love ‘It’s Only Time’.

An organ rendition of Bronski Beat’s seminal 80’s coming out anthem ‘Small-town Boy’.

And the coup-de-grace, a marriage proposal on the big screen.

Between two women, the second of whose reaction set my tear ducts to work again.

I cannot, and wouldn’t wish to, express the hopes of the LGBTQ+ community. They are many, differing and labyrinth.

But if they are seeking joy, hope and celebration in acceptance, it was here in abundance.

The following two games – which included a cycle parade for the Jimmy Fund, Mookie Betts being presented with a ring to commemorate his own ‘perfect game’ in bowling, and Chris Sale throwing a 100mph pitch – were prosaic in comparison. Dull.

I came to Boston seeking life-affirming experiences from my favourite sport, and found them in the unlikeliest of places.

It wasn’t the first sight of Fenway, my favourite player breaking a slump with a home run, or the special access to batting practice I was offered by the Sox brass.

It was that hot knot in my sternum, which lit at first pitch and pulsed all night, keeping me awake way too late.

It was a sense that they do it different here, that it matters.

It was the night Jalen Beeks made his debut.

But forgive me if I forget the box score. Forget history.

It was Pride Night at Fenway Park.

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