In defence of Fever Pitch, the greatest Red Sox movie of all-time

Fever Pitch has gained a terrible reputation among diehard Boston Red Sox fans. Anyone who likes the film is suspected of being a pink-hat wearing, bandwagon-jumping Sweet Caroline enthusiast. Indeed, loathing the 2005 Farrelly brothers film is a symbolic virtue signal in Red Sox Nation, showing you have transcended the realm of mortal Beantown rooters. Not for you the sugary sweet synergy of Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore. There are much more important things to worry about – like luxury tax thresholds, or the Rule 5 draft, or Wins Above Replacement.

Well, I love Fever Pitch. Sure, it is schmaltzy. Yes, it is a little contrived. But it is also infinitely watchable and unfailingly entertaining. I have watched it more than any other movie, and its laidback cadence is redolent of a simpler age. There is also more nuanced baseball tchotchke baked into the film than is typically acknowledged – from Fallon’s character, Ben, wearing a Boston Dirt Dogs t-shirt, to obscure players like Roger Moret enriching dialogue. All told, Fever Pitch is a 2000s classic, and I’m here to tell you why.

Fever Pitch plot

First, a primer for the uninitiated. An American film adaptation of the classic Nick Hornby book, Fever Pitch was released in 2005. It tells the story of Ben Wrightman, whose obsessive Red Sox fandom repeatedly scuppers his romantic conquests. Ben moved to Boston from New Jersey in 1980, aged seven, following a parental divorce. With no friends in a new city, Ben was forced to hang out with his uncle, Carl, who reluctantly took him to Fenway Park for a Red Sox game. The Sox won, and Ben became a Red Sox addict, never to experience a normal life again.

Indeed, baseball occupies a deeper space in the soul of Ben Wrightman. It is more than grass and beer, peanuts and crackerjack. To Ben, baseball represents community and belonging, acceptance and camaraderie. When Carl dies, he leaves his season tickets to Ben, who becomes hopelessly obsessed with the Red Sox, to a point where, aged 30, he is an unlikely schoolteacher whose Boston apartment resembles a Fenway memorabilia store. The Red Sox are everything to Ben, and that avid fandom stunts his growth in other areas of life – chiefly romance.

One day, however, while leading students on a school trip, Ben meets Lindsey Meeks, a successful corporate executive. After a flirtatious exchange, they begin dating and embark on a whirlwind relationship – until baseball season rolls around, and then things get complicated. An unlikely love triangle emerges, involving a man, a woman and 25 ballplayers on a Major League Baseball team. 

At first, Lindsey attends games and enjoys the trappings of Red Sox mania. Ben gets down on one knee and invites her to Opening Day. She learns about the Curse of the Bambino, which supposedly prevented a Boston World Series championship for 86 years. She even wears Red Sox regalia, attempting to become a social chameleon. Nevertheless, tension arises when Lindsey, seeking a promotion, begins working on a laptop at Fenway during games. She subsequently stops attending, and a tense miscommunication over a trip to Paris puts the relationship on rocky ground.

To show his dedication upon Lindsey’s return, Ben skips a marquee game against the rival New York Yankees at Fenway, opting instead to attend a birthday party with his beau. However, when the Red Sox win in unprecedented comeback fashion, Ben blames Lindsey for making him miss one of the greatest games of all-time. The pair separate, and Ben tries to win Lindsey back, to no avail.

Finally, Ben vows to sell his season tickets to prove his dedication to Lindsey. After catching wind of such a hairbrained scheme, Lindsey scalps a ticket outside Fenway, scales the outfield wall, races across the sacred field and prevents Ben from signing a sales contract worth $125,000. Lindsey rips up the contract; the couple reunite; the Red Sox finally win the World Series; and they all live happily ever after. There is something for everyone here. Fever Pitch makes date night bearable.

Fever Pitch quotes

Fever Pitch is eminently quotable, and these pearls of wisdom will warm your cynical baseball heart:

  •  “Eighty-six years of banging our heads against the big green wall, but we finally did it.” – Al.
  • “Well, Dwight Evans parked a couple homers, the Sox won, and by day’s end, poor Ben had become one of god’s most pathetic creatures: a Red Sox fan.” – Al.
  • “Careful, kid. They’ll break your heart.” – Uncle Carl.
  • “There’s something you don’t know about me. The thing is, I am a Red Sox fan.” – Ben.
  • “Did you know the Titanic sank the same week Fenway Park opened?” – Teresa.
  • “They’re here. Every April, they’re here. At 1:05 or at 7:05, there is a game. And if it gets rained out, guess what? They make it up to you. Does anyone else in your life do that? The Red Sox don’t get divorced. This is a real family. This is the family that’s here for you.” – Ben.
  • “Johnny Damon, you got the sweetest ass in the league.” – Viv.
  • “All those feelings that you feel for that team, I feel them, too – for you.” – Lindsey.
  • “You don’t see us tangled up in the sheets with the Eiffel Tower in the background. You see the Mariners are coming in, and Pedro’s pitching Friday.” – Lindsey. “No, on Saturday. Schilling’s Friday.” – Ben.
  • “Clearly, it’s not just a game. If it was, then obviously I wouldn’t care about it this much. Twenty-three years. Do you still care about anything you cared about twenty-three years ago?” – Ben.
  • “They’re one game from elimination. You’re becoming Winter Guy again. I already know I like Winter Guy. It’s Summer Guy who broke my heart.” – Lindsey.
  • “You love the Sox, but have they ever loved you back?” – Ryan.
  • “You love me enough to sell your tickets. I love you enough not to let you.” – Lindsey.

How was Fever Pitch supposed to end? Inside the Fever Pitch rewrite

The original Fever Pitch script had the Red Sox fading in September and dropping out of the pennant race, true to their cursed kismet. However, the film was shot during the real life 2004 MLB season, and production executives asked the Farrelly brothers what would happen if – against all odds – the Red Sox actually won the World Series. The brothers declined to answer, true to the paranoid Red Sox fan archetype, but contingency plans had to be hastily formulated when Boston did embark on a fairytale ride through the 2004 postseason.

Indeed, when the Red Sox produced an unprecedented comeback in the American League Championship Series, recovering from 3-0 down to beat the hated Yankees in seven games, the Fever Pitch script required urgent surgery. When Boston then won the first three games of an anticlimactic World Series against the St Louis Cardinals, a rushed rewrite fused fantasy and reality. Barrymore and Fallon were bundled on a plane to St Louis, where they attended Game 4 – the historic clincher – in character. After the final out, the pair ran onto the diamond at Busch Stadium and filmed an impromptu Fever Pitch finale, kissing and hugging in authentic delirium.

Such was the rush, those final scenes at Busch Stadium were shot using cameras borrowed from Fox Sports, which also caught Barrymore and Fallon on their live World Series broadcast. Unsuspecting viewers were bemused to see Fallon high-fiving reliever Curtis Leskanic and hugging Kevin Youkilis’ mom on the field, while Barrymore later said her then-boyfriend was confused by the entire scenario. Drew did not have time to inform him of the spontaneous St Louis trip, hence an uncomfortable shock hidden in the landmark ballgame.

Looking back, the quality of those final scenes is incredible. The small camera crew had one shot, on the spot, under intense scrutiny, using borrowed equipment, to get the material it needed. That moment – the Red Sox finally winning it all – had been 86 years in the making. There was no chance of a do-over. Nobody could ask for a mulligan. Some Red Sox diehards resented the presence of Fallon and Barrymore amid the definitive Boston sports moment, but the raw footage captured on that field looms as an evocative first draft of history. We should be thankful someone recorded it.

To that end, the poetry of Fever Pitch coalescing with a long-awaited Red Sox championship is truly remarkable. The movie is often criticised for piggybacking on Boston’s success, akin to a cinematic groupie, but Fever Pitch is unique in its timing. Red Sox mania swept the globe following that 2004 title, with books, documentaries and exhibits retelling the story in retrospect. In contrast, Fever Pitch was shot amid the glory, in real-time, and that authenticity permeates the production. Perhaps Fever Pitch even contributed to the karmic reversal that swept New England – Barrymore and Fallon succeeding where Yastrzemski and Williams had failed. Stranger thing have happened.

Why Red Sox fans hate Fever Pitch

Among Red Sox fans, however, Fever Pitch has developed a far more odious reputation. Red Sox rooters consider the film overly simplistic – if not outright patronising – in its depiction of Boston sports fandom. Early in the new millennium, many Red Sox fans detested the fatalism baked into coverage of their team by a morbid mainstream media. Bostonians grew tired of hearing about Boone and Buckner, Dent and Slaughter, Shaughnessy and Frazee. According to Red Sox fans, Fever Pitch regurgitated those hyperbolic narratives and amplified those tired tropes. The Red Sox finally won, but Hollywood could not surrender the curse.

“I know, I know, it’s all been written,” wrote Bill Simmons, the quintessential Red Sox fan, in Now I Can Die in Peace. “For much of the country, the Sox transformed from ‘lovable losers’ to ‘oversaturated’ and ‘annoying’ in a scant six months, culminating in a morass of lame documentaries, gratuitous TV appearances, exploitative books and the indefensible Fever Pitch, which played into every outsider’s stereotype of Sox fans and even invented a few new ones.”

Indeed, Fever Pitch was lumped in with pink hats and Sweet Caroline as sickly-sweet trinkets of the runaway Red Sox bandwagon. The film became a pawn in the civil war that destabilised the Red Sox. Some embraced Fever Pitch as a conduit to Boston sports fanaticism, while others rejected it as a vapid distraction from on-field success.

Even internally, philosophical fissures developed as the Red Sox sought to capitalise on their newfound relevance. In one camp, part-owner Tom Werner – a prominent television impresario – and public relations czar Charles Steinberg pushed for splashy moves to ‘feed the monster’ and appease a growing fanbase. In another camp, general manager Theo Epstein preached patience and reiterated the need to build organically from within – via a strong farm system – towards sustainable success. And somewhere in the middle, majority owner John Henry and CEO Larry Lucchino were pulled in myriad directions, confused and conflicted on the best approach to endorse.

“For two weeks, Fenway was overrun with stars, directors and extras,” wrote Shaughnessy in Reversing the Curse. “The moviemakers gained unparalleled access to the ballpark, and it seemed that Steinberg was intent on seeing his team become the first franchise to win the World Series and the Cannes Film Festival in a span of eight months.”

Such ulterior motives and opportunistic distractions frustrated veteran Red Sox fans, who accused Fever Pitch of infantilising – and monetising – their signature obsession. Indeed, perhaps it can be argued that Red Sox fans hate Fever Pitch because the truth hurts. Maybe the film is too accurate, too authentic and too relatable. Perhaps it is a raw glimpse in the mirror, and we all know how disconcerting that can be.

“You never can accept Fallon cast as a real Red Sox fan,” write Jim Caple and Steve Buckley in The Best Boston Sports Arguments. “This is the worst casting decision since Francis Ford Coppola put his daughter, Sofia, in Godfather III.” That Caple and Buckley are veteran Boston sportswriters deeply invested in the Red Sox affirms my point: parody is all well and good, until it strikes a little too close to home.

Why Fever Pitch is better than you think

For all the bile aimed at Fever Pitch – ‘more harmful to the game than steroids,’ according to Isaac Wolf of the Chicago Maroon – it is a remarkably durable film that stands the test of time. More importantly, it is a compelling movie that imbues a clichéd narrative with enough esoteric arcana to keep hardcore sports fans engaged. Ultimately, Fever Pitch is better than most people think, and you should re-watch it with a more sympathetic eye. Drop the tough guy bluster and enjoy a feel-good baseball flick. You will smile within seconds.

You see, Fever Pitch is a guilty pleasure of the archetypal baseball fan. Yes, even Red Sox fans. They will never admit to liking the film, but they will sit motionless in their boxer shorts on a Saturday morning, gawping – and smiling – at another television rerun. If anyone asks what they are watching, they will quickly change the channel, only to rent Fever Pitch on Amazon Prime later that night, when they are safely alone. Just as Ben replays the Buckner game during vulnerable moments of self-contemplation, Red Sox fans replay Fever Pitch – because it reminds them of baseball’s inimitable romance. It reminds them how tingly this game can make you feel.

When all is said and done, bashing Fever Pitch is similar to trashing ESPN Sunday Night Baseball. Sure, both can be annoying at times. Yes, they appeal broadly to mainstream audiences. But for many of us, such mainstream delights are the gateway drug. Without the holistic overview and cornerstone knowledge imparted by these mainstream products, subsequent specialisation would never occur.

Ultimately, Fever Pitch is a harmless time capsule of an evocative baseball epoch. It is incredibly difficult to name a better Red Sox movie, and few contemporary baseball films surpass it, either. Give Fever Pitch a break, then. Drop the phony antagonism. Life is too short to be angry at romcoms, so jump aboard the bandwagon. Ben and Lindsey will always be there – even when the real Red Sox drive you mad.

Sources


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