Today is Opening Day for most teams, and gloryosky for that, but spring training had just begun when Kevin Youkilis rocked my world. Over the winter, the longtime infielder for the Boston Red Sox had signed a contract with that team’s hated rival, the New York Yankees. In an interview with diamond scribes, Youkilis uttered these immortal words:
“I’ll always be a Red Sox.”
What gobsmacked me wasn’t the scandal of Youkilis’s expressing fealty to his old mates, but rather his choice regarding grammatical number. That is, he did not say, “I’ll always be a Red Sock.”
Backing up just a little bit, I have for some time tracked the pluralification of sports-teams names. I am referring not to issues of what to do when the name itself is a singular or collective noun, such as Miami Heat or Utah Jazz, or to the British custom of using plural verbs for seemingly singular names. (“Manchester United are playing tomorrow.”) Rather, in the case of a team called the Cityname Nouns, historically (roughly pre-1980), it was customary to refer to “a Noun fan,” a “Noun game,” or a “Noun player.” This was analogous to other situations, where one would call someone who loved cookies “a cookie [not cookies] lover” or a place where shoes were sold “a shoe [not shoes] store.”
However, things started to change dramatically in the ’80s. Today, the norm is to talk of (for example) a Yankees game and a Yankees fan; the use of “Yankee” in those contexts is pretty much limited to the over-50 set. I’ve discussed this change, and the possible reasons for it, at greater length in my Chronicle essay “The Elements of Clunk” and in my book When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse, but if you don’t care to read those texts and are at least moderately curious about the issue, you could take a look at the Google Ngram chart below, which graphs the use of the phrases Cubs fan and Cub fan in American English between 1950 and 2008 (the most recent year for which Google has data). Until the ’70s, Cubs fan was virtually nonexistent, but it overtook Cub fan in 1979 and by 2008 was more than three times more common.
And speaking of the Cubbies, here, for a special Opening Day treat, is Steve Goodman singing his wonderful 1983 song “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request.” (The YouTube clip incorrectly lists the third word of the title as “Cubs.”)
You can get another, rather elegant, glimpse at the issue via baseball stadia, seven of which carry the name of the team that plays there: Yankee Stadium (built in 1923), Dodger Stadium (1962), Angel Stadium of Anaheim (1964), Oriole Park at Camden Yards (1992, and kind of a straggler), Rangers Ballpark in Arlington (1994), Nationals Park (2008), and Marlins Park (2012)
So why was Kevin Youkilis’s quote so noteworthy? Because my Great White Whale is the plural-for-team-member (PTM). That is, I have been waiting for the day someone will talk about a ballplayer being “a Yankees.” Such a locution may seem absurd—but in 1930, talking of “a Yankees game” would have probably seemed absurd, too. And it made sense that either the Red Sox or the Chicago White Sox would have been the pioneer. “Sox” is obviously meant to be plural of “sock,” but the spelling obscures the etymology. And further, where it might make a certain sense for a player for other teams to be called a Giant, a Cub, or even a Cardinal, it’s kind of cuckoo to think of any human being as a “sock.” As a result, references to a Red Sox [as opposed to Sock] fan or a Red Sox game became common before such formulations were the norm for other teams.
In any case, when I read what Youkilis said, I climbed to the crow’s nest and shouted, “Thar she blows!” Then I had to climb down. When I investigated, I discovered that in the original interview, the ballplayer had been quoted as saying, yes, “I’ll always be a Red Sock.” The writer of the article I read had taken it upon himself to change the number of the s-word. Until you’ve tried, you can’t really know how hard it is to put a champagne cork back in the bottle.
But I have some consolation. Not only was that writer somehow inspired to make this particular change, but he was not alone. A Google search for “I’ll always be a Red Sock” yields 58,000 hits, but one for (the inaccurate!) “I’ll always be a Red Sox” yields 101,000.
That led me to do some more searching, and ultimately I found not one but two references to “a Red Sox,” meaning a Red Sox player. The only trouble is, they were both transcriptions of speech, and therefore I can’t be sure they weren’t the result of operator error, along the lines of the reporters who misquoted Youkilis. One of them was reported to have been uttered several years back by a very famous person indeed, and if any intrepid Lingua Franca reader can tell me who and when, I will send him or her a signed copy of When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It.
Meanwhile, I’ve picked up my binoculars, polished the lenses, and started scanning the horizon again.
[Update, April 1, 4:35 PM EDT. Sara Stambaugh was the first to find a reference to "a Red Sox." However, Theo Epstein is not "a very famous person indeed," except maybe in certain parts of the Boston metropolitan area. Nonetheless, I will send both Sara--and Katherine C. Martin, who found a written reference--a copy of the book if they'll e-mail me their mailing address at email@example.com. My offer still holds for the celebrity utterance. Here's a clue: it happened in 2003.]
[Final update, April 2. We have a winner. Matt McClellan of Cambridge, Mass., found the quote I was looking for, which came from none other than Jennifer Lopez. In 2003, Dateline NBC aired an interview with J-Lo and her then, squeeze, Ben Affleck (remember "Bennifer"?), in which, according to the Corpus of Contemporary American English, the following exchange occurred:
Mr-AFFLECK: Oh, come on now. You don't even -- you're not even really a Yankees family.
Ms-LOPEZ: What do you mean?
Mr-AFFLECK: Your father is a Mets fan.
Ms-LOPEZ: My father is a Mets fan.
Mr-AFFLECK: The Mets is fine, I can put up with the Mets. I can't -- pinstripes can't be in the house. I can't abide it. I can't...
Ms-LOPEZ: Our child will pick what he wants to be: A Yankee or a Red Sox.]
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