What Stephen King and ”Fever Pitch” have in common
Like Shakespearean tragedy, the course of romantic comedy is immutable: In Act 1, the boy gets the girl; in Act 2, he loses her; in Act 3, he gets her back. A good story, but it’s a little long in the tooth. At this point it better have something else going for it. What the Farrelly brothers’ sweetly amusing Fever Pitch offers is the familiarity of the manic sports-obsessive. You’ve probably had one sitting next to you on the couch from time to time, drinking a gentlemanly beer if the big game is going his way, eating the bottle from the neck down if it’s not. Or staring back at you (out of bloodshot eyes) from the bathroom mirror on a workday morning after you stayed up to watch a West Coast game that ended around 2 a.m. Or, if you happen to be married to one, you’ve probably heard him bellowing like a moose in rut from the living room while you hid out in the bedroom, trying to talk about The Secret Life of Bees to your sister in St. Paul. You don’t have to be a Red Sox fan to recognize the manic-obsessive subtext (which isn’t very sub) in Fever Pitch, but it certainly helps.
In early 2004, with snow blanketing the ground in New England, a guy named Stewart O’Nan got in touch with me. He was a fellow writer, so we had a connection. But we were also long-suffering Red Sox fans, which made us soul brothers. Members of the Lodge of Losers. Partners in pain. Fenway fanatics. In a word, obsessives.
Stewart proposed that we spend the season following this team that always found a way to choke on the brass ring, writing a book called Faithful (nobody thought Crazy in New England would sell). I knew it would be madness to accept his offer, not only because I had too many other things to do, but because…well, it would be like an alcoholic agreeing to half ownership of a bar. A couple of compulsive gamblers renting a condo in Reno. Giving the Tasmanian Devil a new GTO.
I said yes.
So probably it’s not surprising that when I watched Ben Wrightman (Jimmy Fallon) at his Red Sox-obsessed wonkiest, I said to myself, Holy s—! He’s just like O’Nan! And I’m 99 percent sure that when my collaborator sees the film — as he will, as probably everyone in New England who can make his or her way into a theater will, if only to relive the sweetness of Boston’s incredible run to the Series — he’ll turn to his wife and say, Holy s—! It’s King!
Fallon’s character has Red Sox sheets on his bed. I have a Red Sox comforter. Ben Wrightman has a Red Sox shower curtain. I have a Red Sox bath mat. We both have framed photographs of Carl Yastrzemski (although I also have — ahem — a signed Yaz ball). Judging from Ben Wrightman’s closet, we have roughly the same number of Red Sox shirts: say, two thousand apiece. (I draw the line at Yankee toilet paper, though.) And the best thing in my office? A mural on the ceiling that shows all of Fenway Park on a sunny summer day. Sometimes — especially when I have the mean reds — I can dream on that sucker for hours.
And O’Nan? Always shows up at the park in his old PawSox cap (that’s Pawtucket Red Sox to you), always has this bread bag filled with signed baseballs (and a few more signatures scrawled on his shirt for good luck), always has the baseball cards, the scorebook, and the endless stream of facts, figures…and, of course, a few shouted corrections for the umps.
Ben’s girlfriend, Lindsey (Drew Barrymore), is first amused by the fanboy side of her guy’s life, then horrified. Horror sets in when she sees him in an ESPN spring training clip, explaining that the three most important things in life are the Red Sox, sex, and breathing — in that order. Clarity comes when Lindsey realizes that obsession is a part of every life, even her own, where it goes under the name of ”work.” And, as Ben and his friends could surely point out, nonbaseball fans have real perspective problems. If asked to choose, for instance, between saving a life and turning a double play, many will opt for lifesaving without even considering how many men are on base.
For 86 years, the Red Sox confounded their fans and foiled generations of players — some, like Yastrzemski and Ted Williams, among the greatest. It should come as no surprise that in the end they crossed up the Farrelly brothers, too. Lindsey was supposed to learn to live with and accept Ben’s obsession (in her most astute moment, she encapsulates his affliction by calling him two men in one body: Summer Guy and Winter Guy), just as Ben Wrightman has learned to live with rooting for New England’s perpetually wrong men, the team that swoons in September or chokes in October.
Instead, the Sox blew past the Cards in four straight. The filmmakers had to rewrite their ending (happily, without cutting my cameo), but no one in New England is going to mind. In fact, they’ll probably hear us cheering in St. Louis when the lights go down at the start of Fever Pitch and the Standells crank up ”Dirty Water.” That’s the one that goes ”Boston, you’re my home.” Because up here, the Red Sox are karma, dharma, and obsession.
Sox first, while sex and breathing will take care of themselves? Sounds like a plan.