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Sports fervor: part of Boston tradition

CURTIS WILLIAMS is a fan of free enterprise and the Red Sox. Not necessarily in that order, of course, but lately the two have become rather inextricably entwined for the enterprising young Williams. ``Sweat shirts here, T-shirts, Boston Red Sox hats!'' Mr. Williams called from his vendor's pushcart to the crowds swirling into tiny Fenway Park for the third game of the World Series.

``Right now, this is phenomenal,'' crows Williams, who says fans have snapped up four dozen hooded Red Sox sweat shirts in the past 45 minutes. ``Between the money I've made during the playoffs and the World Series, I'll be able to make the down payment on that Volvo 240 DL I've been wanting.''

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Williams isn't the only one cashing in on Boston's beloved Sox; local tourism officials figure that between the American League playoffs and the Series, some $39 million is being pumped into the Hub's economy.

But there's more to all this sports hoopla than making a fast buck -- there are the ambiguous, elusive things that sports psychologists like to tick off, things like image and pride and spirit that don't necessarily translate into hard cash or hard statistics. Not to mention the golden opportunity to bask in a prime-time media spotlight from coast to coast.

And while these are all things that any city or state with a winning sports teams enjoys from time to time, in the case of Boston and the surrounding region these intangibles are multiplied exponentially, because the Red Sox are just one team in a formidable local sports lineup that includes the continually triumphant Boston Celtics, the New England Patriots, who made it to the Super Bowl last January, and the Boston Bruins (whose luster, admittedly, has dulled in recent years, but who enjoy a certain legendary aura nonetheless).

The impact of all this winning? It depends on whom you talk to. Business people wax particularly enthusiastic.

``You can't say that these things mean X number of dollars,'' says Jonathan Hyde of the Massachusetts Division of Tourism. ``But winning is an important thing. There's a psychology in travel that relates to success. People like to go to places that appear successful.

``Think about it,'' he says. ``How many times have you turned in to a restaurant where there are no cars in the parking lot? To have that image out there of Massachusetts as a winning state is certainly very helpful to us.''

Becky Heinz, of the Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau, agrees. ``This is definitely a positive thing. All the media attention that's highlighting the city -- you just can't get any publicity better than that.

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``People who see Boston on TV during the Series may say to themselves, `Gee, we haven't been to Boston for a while. I'd like to go see Fenway Park,' '' she says. ``I'm sure we'll reap those benefits throughout the year.''

Then there's the matter of civic pride, which takes on peculiar dimensions in a place like Boston. For all its stature as one of the nation's big, booming cities, Boston proper is really a small town at heart -- a parochial city of some half million people, where sports stadiums like Fenway Park and the Boston Garden are nestled right in the center of neighborhoods.

``There are two things that are important to the average Bostonian, sports and politics,'' says Eddie Andelman, the host of a radio talk show, ``The Sports Huddle,'' which has been on the air here for more than 18 years. ``We're very provincial and very opinionated people, and in those two arenas, everybody can be an expert.''

A key to understanding a Bostonian's passion, Mr. Andelman says, is the sheer weight of tradition. ``My grandfather went to Fenway Park to see Babe Ruth play, and he took my father along with him,'' he explains. ``My father took me, and now I take my sons. It's part of our lives.''

Larry DiCara, an ardent Red Sox fan and former president of the Boston City Council (in that order), insists -- as do many enthusiasts here -- that sports are an absolutely integral part of Boston.

``If the Red Sox ever thought about moving, I think there'd be a revolution,'' he says with total gravity. ``It's just too important to us. Fenway Park, in my opinion, is sacred ground.''

Mr. DiCara opines that a Bostonian's sports fervor is wrapped up with the fact that unlike Los Angelenos, Bostonians remain cooped up during the long winter months and live vicariously through their sports teams (a theory that, admittedly, wears a little thin when it comes to baseball). It may be worth noting here that for some vaguely competitive reason, folk around here, especially the sporting ones, love to compare Boston to Los Angeles.

Sports psychologists, on the other hand, like to dwell on the fact that winning teams make people feel good about themselves and their city. People feel themselves part of a larger, more meaningful whole, according to this reasoning, and in turn experience what one sports psychologist calls ``self-efficacy,'' a term used in psychological circles for ``self-worth.''

``People feel expanded, they feel a sense of mastery, a sense of completeness,'' says Dr. Dallas Willard, an expert on the role of sports in society, at the University of Southern California. ``And to not sense that you're part of a whole is to be alienated.''

Which raises a point that has tended to go by the wayside in all the mania surrounding what's come to be known as the Shuttle Series. That point is this: Boston breaks the mold when it comes to sports psychology. Because contrary to the norm of rifts within a city being smoothed over -- however temporarily -- during times of sports victories, Boston's urban clefts, if anything, are highlighted.

As beloved as the Red Sox and Celtics are to white Bostonians, that affection simply isn't shared by many members of the city's black community. The Red Sox are particularly suspect in some blacks' eyes, based at least partly on the fact that the team was the last major-league ball team to integrate. Even the Celtics, with black coach K. C. Jones, are seen as an overly ``white'' team, with one of the lowest percentages of black players in basketball.

So while Boston turns itself inside out with frenzy over the World Series (``We're still 1 Up,'' read one optimistic headline in the wake of the Sox' decisive defeat Tuesday night), many of the city's blacks are cheering for individual black players like Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd and Jim Rice. But when it comes to team loyalties, many blacks are rooting for the Mets.

``A lot of people just don't like anything in Boston, especially the Celtics and the Sox,'' says Robert Foggie, a Red Sox fan whose barbershop is a hangout for black sports fans and athletes. ``A lot of people think they're racist.''

Mel King, a black former state representative who has run for mayor and Congress, notes the irony of the fact that while many people speak of a surge of civic pride, within less than two weeks voters will have to decide whether a predominantly black section of Boston should be allowed to secede and form a city called Mandela.

``I'm not convinced that sports brings a city together,'' he says, ``particularly when I see folks in Roxbury who want to incorporate because they don't feel they can remain within the city.

``Teams don't unite a city,'' he says. ``People do.''

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