Writers on the Range: Navajo Nation joins Red Sox Nation
Writers on the Range
Not long ago, I watched the third game of the World Series at the Chuck E. Cheese pizza parlor in Gallup, N.M. Like anyone who grew up in New England, I inherited a lifelong devotion to the Red Sox, a non-exchangeable patrimony that you carry with you ” some would say are saddled with ” forever.
Living in the rural West and being a fan of a team 2,000 miles away isn’t easy. I don’t have a television, so during the past 25 years I’ve followed the team through radio, newspaper, the occasional game in sports bars or on friends’ couches and, more recently, the Internet. The team’s failures are well-documented ” 86 years between championships ” but recently its fortunes have improved, and to miss an inning of the World Series would be sacrilege. We call ourselves Red Sox Nation, this diaspora of displaced fans, so I put on my lucky cap, rubbed my Tony Conigliaro autographed baseball, and drove the 40 miles into town.
Neither Pal Joey’s nor Sports Page was carrying the game, the first sports bar because it didn’t have the right cable package, the other because there was a football game the patrons preferred. Someone mentioned that Chuck E. often puts sports on its big screen to mollify parents while their kids play video games. With the first inning already under way, I hurried across town. I was in luck: The game was on, and I settled in with a beer. Between innings, I surveyed the crowd. Gallup is a border town on the edge of the Navajo Nation, and it draws people from the small outlying communities to shop and eat. All the patrons but me were Native American, mostly parents with young kids.
I thought I was the only one paying much attention to the screen, but in the Red Sox half of the third inning I began to hear murmurings about Jacoby. “Jacoby’s on deck.” “Jacoby’s almost up.” “Here comes Jacoby.” As he strode to the plate, everyone in the restaurant turned their chairs to watch.
Jacoby Ellsbury had been a late replacement because of an injury to the starting center fielder. He is so green, having played in only 33 games during the season, that even next year he will be considered a rookie. He’s an athletic fielder with a little power, but his greatest asset is the havoc he creates for opponents when on base.
He was perfect in stolen-base attempts this year and, in his first game, scored from second base on a ball that slipped by the catcher, a feat even veteran baseball people had never seen.
He is the shining star of the Red Sox minor league system, the one position player they would not trade, despite repeated offers.
But though he was the youngest and least-experienced player on the field, everyone in the restaurant knew his name: He’s the only member of the Navajo Nation to ever play in the big leagues.
African-Americans were banned from the big leagues until Jackie Robinson’s appearance in ’47, but Native Americans have played since the late ’20s. Albert Bender of the White Earth Tribe, Mose Yellowhorse, a Pawnee, John Meyers, Cahuilla, and Lou Sockalexis, Penobscot, all played in the majors before World War II. Bender won more 200 games and is in the Hall of Fame. The Cleveland Indians were named ” in a time of less cultural sensitivity ” in honor of Sockalexis, though their logo, the goofy, grinning Chief Wahoo, is a racist caricature. In all, about 50 players with full or partial Native American ancestry have gone on to play in the major leagues.
In New Mexico, a state with no major professional sports, most baseball fans follow teams from the neighboring states of Arizona, Colorado or Texas. The Colorado Rockies did make the series this year, so I expected to be the only Red Sox fan at Chuck E. But when Jacoby slapped a double down the left field line, everybody in the restaurant cheered. They applauded each Red Sox run and good defensive play.
The Red Sox won and Jacoby Ellsbury had a stellar game of three doubles, including two in one inning, tying a World Series record, and four hits overall. On my way out the door, I turned and gave a silent wave to my fellow fans ” the 200,000 new members of Red Sox Nation.
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