Where Do Rivals Draw the Line?

August 18, 2006


Where Do Rivals Draw the Line?

By JOHN BRANCH

Published: August 18, 2006_The New York Times



The City of New Britain, near the geographical center of Connecticut and the midpoint between New York City and Boston, is home to the Rock Cats, the Minnesota Twins’ Class AA affiliate in the Eastern League. But the Twins do not have much of a fan base in New Britain. As is the case across much of the state, there is a debate in New Britain about which is the more popular team, the Red Sox or the Yankees.



Last summer, the Rock Cats staged a Rivalry Night. They had 2,000 Yankees caps and 2,000 Red Sox caps. Paying customers could choose one.



“The Red Sox caps ran out first, so we declared this Red Sox territory, although it’s probably 51-49,” said Bob Dowling, the team’s media relations director.



A city divided. A region and state, too. But where, exactly?



The idea for this exercise was simple in design but complicated in application: Plot the length of the border between Red Sox Nation and Yankees Country, a sort of Mason-Dixon Line separating baseball’s fiercest rivals, who will play five games in the next four days in Boston.



The midpoint between Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium is approximately Rocky Hill, Conn., a few miles south of Hartford and east of New Britain. Some adventurers have dared to guess where allegiances are perfectly balanced, usually pointing to a place near Route 91, anywhere from north of Hartford to New Haven in the south.



But few have set out on an expedition — Lewis and Clark meet Rand McNally — to draw baseball’s bitterest border, to learn where it makes landfall along Long Island Sound to where it peters out in complacency in upstate New York, a serpentine span of nearly 200 miles.



“The border’s probably as wide as Connecticut,” Tom Brown, a volunteer firefighter in Old Lyme, Conn., said.



But the point was to narrow the boundary until each adjacent town fell to one side or the other. The border would be a continuous line, allowing no recognized islands of hostility in enemy territory. Such bastions would be viewed as anomalies, like Union sympathizers in Tennessee. True borders, after all, are no wider than a dotted line.



Polling a representative sample of people in every town would be impossible, so the method was simplified: Use a company-issued 2002 Pontiac Grand Am to traverse the highways and back roads of Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts. Roll into towns unannounced. Choose a person or group of people — preferably those with a bead on the area, like police officers and firefighters, politicians and postal carriers, bartenders and barbers — to be the proxy for their village. Excuse me, but is this a Yankees town or Red Sox one?



When possible, irrefutable data — a choice of baseball caps, for example, or the sale of team-logo cookies, or an office straw poll — would be used for confirmation.





This one is a Red Sox town? That one is for the Yankees? The border goes between. And so on.



That is how it was determined that the divide goes north of Southington but south of Northfield, that New Haven belongs to the Yankees, New London to the Red Sox.



Connecticut Yankees?



The results of a poll by Connecticut’s Quinnipiac University, released in May, served as a loose guide, like a AAA TripTik. Of those in Connecticut who said they were “somewhat interested” or “very interested” in major league baseball, 42 percent of them claimed the Yankees as their favorite team. The Red Sox were preferred by 35 percent. The Mets, at 12 percent, were a distant third.



Fairfield County, the southwestern spout of Connecticut, which spills toward New York City, belongs to the Yankees, 55 percent to 14 percent.



But five of Connecticut’s eight counties, the poll found, are part of Red Sox Nation. That includes Hartford County, which favors the Red Sox by 52 percent to 30 percent. That jibes with television ratings, which show that the Red Sox usually get a larger audience in the area.



The first goal of the expedition was to determine where the border crosses the Connecticut shoreline, hugged by Route 95. A pair of Lids stores, which sell a large variety of caps, revealed that it begins somewhere on the 55-mile stretch between Exit 39B and Exit 82.



At the Connecticut Post Mall in Milford, west of New Haven, a wall near the register was dominated by classic Yankees caps and about 40 variations. Red Sox caps were displayed on the low racks, like bargain cereal in the supermarket aisle.



“It’s supply and demand,” the assistant manager Luis Sanchez said. He wore a Yankees cap. “Obviously, the Yankees hats are doing their thing.”



An hour later, at the Crystal Mall in Waterford, near New London, the Lids store was dominated by Red Sox caps.



It prompted the first of countless U-turns. Focus shifted to the Connecticut River.



“In one word: brackish,” said Joan Welch of the Wheatmarket deli in Chester, applying the term both to the river — near its mouth, a mix of seawater and fresh water — and to the baseball allegiances that it symbolically dissects.



Old Saybrook sits on the west side of the river. The executive director of its chamber of commerce, Linanne Lee, said she thought the town leaned toward the Yankees. The office manager Judy Sullivan, a Yankees fan, said it leaned toward the Red Sox. After much deliberation, it was decided: Line the streets of Old Saybrook with pinstripes, but do it faintly.



Across the river, members of the Old Lyme volunteer fire department, in two engines with lights flashing and sirens blaring, rushed to the Hideaway Restaurant and Pub. A car in the parking lot had a gas leak and could not be towed until it was examined.



Inside the Hideaway, a television showed the Yankees playing an afternoon game. Two others showed a tape of the Red Sox game from the night before. Outside, 10 firefighters stood in the midday sun. Six of them liked the Red Sox, three the Yankees. One, perhaps a Mets fan, abstained.



Cookie-Cutter Answers



The baseball border quickly abandons the river. There is little doubt that everything east of the Connecticut River leans to the Red Sox. But crossing to the west on the Chester-Hadlyme Ferry, the river-as-border theory crumbles like a cookie at Kristen Lynn Bakery in Chester.



The owner Kristen Ehrlich makes cookies shaped like ball caps, frosted with near-perfect logos of the Yankees and the Red Sox.



“I make the Yankees when they run out, but I’m making the Red Sox all the time,” she said. “The Red Sox are definitely the better seller.”



Backtracking again found that the border bends sharply west from the river’s mouth, back along I-95. The Yankees claim most of the beach towns. The Red Sox scoop up many inland villages, which feel quintessentially New England rather than metropolitan New York.



The border swings back to the river at aptly named Middletown. Employees at Bill’s Sport Shop said the city favored the Yankees, thanks to its substantial, but aging, Italian-American population, fans who once rooted for DiMaggio, Berra and Rizzuto.



But Eli Cannon’s, a tavern where regulars keep their mugs hanging behind the bar, was filled largely with Red Sox fans.



Five firefighters and a paramedic watching darkness fall outside the station on Main Street debated the topic — three said Yankees, three said Red Sox — until an alarm sent them scurrying.



Brian O’Connor broke the tie. A state representative and a director of the Middlesex County Chamber of Commerce, he risked alienating his Red Sox constituents and put Middletown on the Yankees side.



North of Middletown, in Cromwell, a woman flipping eggs on the grill at Mama Roux’s Kitchen declared the area Yankees Country. She could tell by the T-shirts worn by customers.



In the next town to the north, Rocky Hill, near the edge of Hartford’s sprawl, employees at the post office said the town was part of Red Sox Nation. More evidence was provided by the post office’s sales of team-logo door magnets: Red Sox 15, Yankees 12.



Rocky Hill is where the border takes a hard turn west, toward New Britain and then Bristol.



Thrown a Curve



Satellite dishes, part of the vast ESPN complex, stand sentry to Bristol’s east side. Chris LaPlaca, ESPN’s senior vice president for communications, placed Bristol on the Red Sox side. Bristol was the home of the Bristol Red Sox, who moved to New Britain and later became the Rock Cats, helping to tinge the area red.



South of Bristol is Southington, where Yankees pitcher Carl Pavano grew up and, with little debate, a Yankees town.



As the border ducks into the hills of western Connecticut, there seemed no better place to break the near-deadlock in Terryville, a border town, than the Lock Museum of America. Alas, on this afternoon, during posted business hours, the museum was closed — and locked.



Reached at home, the museum’s curator, Tom Hennessy, put tiny Terryville in the Red Sox camp with conviction, enough to throw away the key.



From Terryville, the border curves north again and forms a backward “S” across Route 8. In Torrington, a query at the aptly named Yankee Pedlar Inn was deferred to Dick’s Restaurant. In this narrow throwback of a bar, a wall is lined with Yankees memorabilia, including photographs of the restaurant owner, Raymond Colangelo, with famous Yankees, like Mickey Mantle. Colangelo, known as Brooklyn, grew up in Torrington and has been at Dick’s for 43 years. Torrington is a Yankees town, he said.



It is there that tracing the border through the hilly northwest corner of Connecticut becomes tricky, the result of a decrease in population and an increase in apathy. The Quinnipiac poll found 64 percent of Litchfield County residents were “not at all” interested in baseball — a number 20 points higher than any other part of the state.



Still, patrons at the Speckled Hen Pub in Norfolk quickly dubbed the town part of Red Sox Nation. Against the Massachusetts border a few miles northwest, at the Steppin’ Stone, a restaurant in Canaan, it was agreed that that town was part of Yankees Country.



This is the area where the swerves of the baseball boundary harden into straight lines. A Red Sox town in New York is more likely than a Yankees town in Massachusetts, though the state line seems built on baseball as much as colonial politics.



Kristin Keeler was raised in Hillsdale, N.Y., minutes from Massachusetts. From behind the counter at Hillsdale Electronics, she professed her hometown’s allegiance to the Yankees.



A few miles east over the hills, Sheffield, Mass., is closer to New York City than to Boston, but its heart is with the Red Sox.



“It’s 157 miles to Yawkey Way,” said Edward Gulotta, who runs a Mobile gas station with his brother, Tony, referring to the street address of Fenway Park. “We’re pretty loyal to the state.”



Inside, above the candy racks, were framed photographs of the 2004 World Series trophy taken in front of the station when the team took the trophy on a statewide tour. A nearby shelf held disposable lighters decorated with the Yankees logo. There were none with the Red Sox emblem.



“That’s a good test,” Tony Gulotta said. “We had the same number of Red Sox lighters. And these are still here.”



His brother lifted one. “These cost $100, and they don’t work,” he said.



Next door, five people worked inside town hall, and all were Red Sox fans. Only the absent tax collector was a Yankees fan, threatening his popularity on two counts.



A few miles north, in Great Barrington, a police officer, Paul Montgomery, directed traffic around a large hole in the street where workers were repairing a water pipe. Red Sox, he declared without hesitation. And two out of three workers agreed.



Beyond Borders



Still, there are complicated allegiances in the Berkshires region of western Massachusetts, especially during baseball season. Dan Duquette, the former Red Sox general manager, runs a sports academy in Hinsdale, where the population doubles in the summer.



“You get a number of New Yorkers who spend summers here,” Duquette said. “When you get all these transplanted New Yorkers up here, you can almost get more Yankees fans.”



But not quite. WBRK, a Pittsfield radio station, broadcasts Yankees games, and the station’s president, Chip Hodgkins, estimates that there is nearly a 50-50 split in the area’s allegiances. Pressed, he conceded a 60-40 split, advantage to the Red Sox. In the end, the search found no Massachusetts town outside Red Sox Nation.



But a couple of New York towns might fall to the Red Sox side. New Lebanon is about a mile from the state line, a quick jaunt from Pittsfield. Several stops — at the fire station, a coffee shop and a bar — were met with conflicting responses. At the post office, three employees delivered the town’s allegiance to the Red Sox. A customer claimed it for the Yankees, and a teenager in a Yankees cap deemed it too close to call.



A more telling sign was needed. On a house across the street, a Red Sox flag hung from the porch.



Farther north, along the Vermont state line, the crowd at Helvi’s BBQ in Hoosick, N.Y. — where a full pig was baking in a barbecue set on a trailer hitched to a truck, ready to be taken to a party — leaned toward the Red Sox. Nearby Hoosick Falls, however, was firmly in the Yankees camp.



To see if the Yankees had moved deep into New England, a side trip to nearby Bennington, Vt., found it in Red Sox Nation.



“I have to go to Hoosick to watch the games,” said a lone Yankees fan at Carmody’s Irish Pub. He was headed there that night.



The border extends north, surely, and probably a little west, perhaps beyond Lake Champlain and into Canada. But allegiances are dulled by distance, and every mile on the Grand Am — 600 and counting on this expedition — was met with diminishing returns.



Increasingly, there were no exact answers. Only debatable ones. As it should be.



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