Of all the Johnny Pesky stories to come out the past week, one mentioned in an article by Martine Powers of the Boston Globe stood out. When Pesky visited the Perkins School for the Blind several years back, Powers relayed, students at the facility just outside Boston had reportedly serenaded the beloved Red Sox legend with a song that caused the old shortstop to tear up:
OK, smart alecks, before you start in with snappy comebacks like, “He was crying because he had to listen to those awful lyrics again,” just think for a moment. Can a song that causes a wonderful old man to cry—let's assume it was for joy—and can get parents and children to put their arms around each other and belt out the words as they sway side-to-side, really be so bad?
According to some people, yes.
The bottom of the eighth inning at Fenway Park has been preceded by a recording of Neil Diamond singing his signature 1969 hit for the past decade. It doesn't matter if the Red Sox are winning 2-1, losing 2-1 or losing 12-1, Sweet Caroline always gets her airtime.
If you listen to the crowd reaction, it sounds like most people love this tradition; thousands sing along as strong and loud as they did when Bruce Springsteen opened with Thunder Road at Fenway last week, and with just as much unabashed joy. Yet many sports radio hosts and callers are passionately opposed to the ritual, which one can assume means there are many fans at the games who share their displeasure.
Why such hatred? Some pundits point to Sweet Caroline as a prime example of Fenway's “woosification” from an old-school ballpark of real fans into a mass of “pink hat” idiots who know nothing about baseball. These clueless ditzes jumped on the Red Sox bandwagon after the 2004 World Series season, and will sing a silly tune no matter what the score.
My friend Nancy, a very sharp fan who has season tickets in left field, is squarely in this anti-Caroline camp. She was so disgusted by the sing-along during a particularly dismal home performance by the Red Sox this summer that she leaped up and started berating the swaying masses around her. What would cause an otherwise lovely woman to do this?
I asked her.
“How can they be so happy with the Red Sox getting killed?” she told me. “Don't they care about the game at all?”
That's decent logic, and it's shared by many of the other fans I polled. Some said Sweet Caroline is OK but shouldn't be played when the Red Sox are losing, while others think it has run its course altogether and should be scrapped. Some like Nancy think it's the worst thing to hit at Fenway since Bucky Dent.
The history behind the song isn't enough to sway these nay-singers. Neil Diamond revealed in 2007 that the Caroline he wrote it for back in '69 was the 12-year-old daughter of President John Kennedy, who after the assassination of both her father and beloved uncle Bobby had every reason to think the world was an awful place. Diamond was motivated to write it, he said, after he saw a photo of Caroline and her pony.
This seems very nice, the nay-singers will exclaim, until you start closely examining the lyrics. “Look at the night... now it don't seem so lonely... we fill it up with only two...Warm, touchin' warm...reaching out... touchin' me, touchin' you.” There are actually anti-Sweet Caroline websites pondering what a grown man was doing thinking about a preteen girl in such a manner.
Yes, the words do seem a little weird since Diamond revealed who Caroline was, but you can spin it another way; perhaps he was thinking of a little girl being lonely after her father's death, and that memories of them together would help her through the darkest times. If Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg was upset by the lyrics, she never made these feelings public. In fact, Diamond was at her 50th birthday party to sing it to her live.
I stopped short of asking Diamond himself, but did go to another expert for answers. Steve O'Neill has been a Red Sox season ticket holder since the 1990s and is also a social work manager at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He helps sick people and their loved ones get through their hardest hours, and has had quite a few serious medical scares in his own nuclear family. He also has a son who's seen several tours of duty in Iraq leading a U.S. Army National Guard unit charged with detecting and disarming bombs and other explosive devices.
O'Neill is about as level-headed and un-pink-hattish an individual as you'll find, but he looks at this whole Sweet Caroline thing a bit differently.
“When I go to a ballgame, I think of being at games with my father and grandfather years ago,” he says. “Sweet Caroline reminds me of that time. I imagine Caroline thinking about her dad, just like I'm thinking about mine. Fenway is about making memories, and when I come to a game with my own daughter and we sing it together, we really make a connection.”
I know what he's talking about, because I've sung Sweet Caroline with my own 8-year-old daughter at every Red Sox game she's attended. I've even called her a few nights to sing it with her before bedtime—Rachel with her stuffed Wally on one end of the phone, me at Fenway on the other.
Does this mean I'm not a real fan if the Red Sox happen to be losing during our duet? Hardly. It just means I'm a dad making his little girl smile.
O'Neill again: “The feeling behind the song is very meaningful. It reminds you that there is more to life than just games. It puts perspective on things.”
I'm no Neil Diamond groupie, and when I tell O'Neill I'm actually among those who think Sweet Caroline is great if the Red Sox are winning, but not otherwise, he frowns and offers another pearl of wisdom.
“If you're down, and you sing, it can lift you up,” he says.
Kind of like an audio rally cap.
I'm no pink hat, but for now I'm going to keep singing no matter what the score. The Sox need all the talismans they can get.
Saul Wisnia lives less than seven miles from Fenway Park and works 300 yards from Yawkey Way. His latest book, Fenway Park: The Centennial, is available at http://amzn.to/qWjQRS, and his Fenway Reflections can be found athttp://saulwisnia.blogspot.com. He can be reached at email@example.com and @saulwizz.