North of New Haven but south of Hartford, running the breadth of central Connecticut, is the border that separates Yankees and Red Sox fans. It's a baseball Mason-Dixon Line—a kind of Munson-Nixon Line, below which you love Thurman, above which you love Trot. Just last week I moved north of that line, from Manhattan to New England, which share a currency but not a clam chowder. Nor much of anything else.
And so, like all relocated sports fans, I'm now forced to learn a new set of secret handshakes: The in-jokes, the back stories, the cultural touchstones my neighbors have been accruing since birth. Like the subtle difference between NESN and Nissen. The former, I know now, is a cable carrier for the Red Sox, while the latter is a brand of. bread endorsed for countless years by Ted Williams. In manifold local TV commercials, Williams could be seen fishing with Maine sportswriter Bud Leavitt, when talk would turn, as it naturally does between two grizzled men in a boat, to the orgiastic pleasures of J.J. Nissen's Buttertop Wheat.
This is not to be confused with Big Yaz Special Fitness White Bread, whose Carl Yastrzemski-adorned wrapper enlivened supermarket shelves in the 1960s. If Ted Williams was the best thing since sliced bread, this was the best sliced bread since Ted Williams.
Or so I'm now learning. But absorbing all of this is rather like learning a foreign language. Indeed, it is a foreign language when you consider that tuna in Boston is a stereo component, while tuner in Boston is former Pats coach Bill Parcells.
And thus I'm literally illiterate in parts of New England. An enormous billboard that hangs in left centerfield at Fenway communicates entirely in Morse code. But any Fenway fan can tell you what it says: Red Sox Nation.
A resident alien in Red Sox Nation, I have much remedial research remaining. It isn't easy to commit to memory every beer-sponsor jingle in the history of New England sports. But I must try, if I'm to hold my own at parties. The Sox have pushed both Carling ("Hey Mabel, Black Label!") and Narragansett ("Hi, Neighbor! Have a Gansett!"), and the Pats once plied fans with Schaefer, whose slogan—"The One Beer to Have When You're Having More Than One"—was a bold invitation to binge drinking.
Indeed, I was having more than one last Friday night, inside the venerable Cask 'n' Flagon, the bar behind the Green Monster at Fenway, imbibing beers near a man whose T-shirt bore the phrase, libelously inaccurate, JETER'S GAY.
"There's a whole range of hatred T-shirts for sale out there," Sox season-ticket holder Kathy Gilmour, 31, explained to me at the Cask. "That one makes YANKEES SUCK look classy." She appeared mournful for a moment and then added, apologetically, "Yay, Boston!"
John Burkett moved to Boston two seasons ago. That's when the 38-year-old Red Sox righthander—who has bowled 10 perfect games in his lifetime—learned that the lanes in New England are largely devoted to candlepin bowling. "Smaller ball, smaller pins, they leave the deadwood on the lanes," sighs Burkett. "I tried it once, two years ago, and haven't done it since. But I'd like to go again this summer."
Give him Tommy Points for perseverance. Tommy Points, awarded to hustling Celtics players by color analyst Tommy Heinsohn, are now bestowed, throughout New England, by ordinary citizens—as, say, when a friend agrees to take your shift at the Steak Loft.