In Defense of Dan Shaughnessy, Baseball Hall of Famer

Love him or hate him, you have to respect the Curly-Haired Boyfriend.

Illustration by Kyle Clauss

Illustration by Kyle Clauss

It’s May 14, 2014, and I’m gorging myself on the buffet set up for media types in the underbelly of TD Garden. There’s a palpable anxiety mixing with the resurfacer fumes. In a few moments, the Bruins will face their oldest rival, the Montreal Canadiens, in the final game of their best-of-seven series with an Eastern Conference Finals berth at stake.

Hockey media is inordinately cliquey, especially during these pregame meals, and even more so when the Canadian press is in town. It’s a scene from a high school cafeteria: the greying beat writers of traditional media at one table, a handful of bloggers at another. I was still new to the beat back then, so that often relegated me to eating with the Garden timekeeper or a TV reporter who got stuck in traffic on I-93 and couldn’t find a seat with his cameraman.

Fortunately, Steve Buckley of the Herald, one of the nicest guys in the business, invites me to sit with him. Not long after, Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy takes the seat across from me. He’s feeding off that anxiety. “The Bruins win tonight. They have to, right? How could they not?” he says to everyone he encounters. On paper, sure; the Bruins ought to win, coming off a Presidents’ Trophy-winning season and a decisive series win over an injury-ravaged Detroit Red Wings. But this is Montreal. Handing the Bruins heartbreaking losses is sort of their thing. And the grander the stage, the better.

Yet that beautiful shit-stirrer, the Pride of Groton, Massachusetts, keeps going, building the Bruins up to be some unstoppable force, but never expressing much tangible belief in what he’s saying. “They have to win!” Before departing for the press box high above the ice, I introduce myself. “You know, Dan, the best compliment I’ve ever gotten about my writing was when I did a piece on Seguin and someone said, ‘This guy’s worse than Shaughnessy.'” He manages an uncomfortable chuckle.

Listen: I like Shaughnessy.

I do! Not in a normcore, ironic way, as one would feel about a pair of Birkenstocks. I have an earnest, straightforward admiration for the guy, who was named winner of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award on Tuesday, landing him in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. (Perhaps more importantly, Boston magazine named him one of the “82 Faces to Watch in ’82.” Also listed: now-imprisoned former House Speaker Sal DiMasi.)

I realize this places me in something of a minority in Boston. That’s just fine.

Love him or hate him (as many of my other favorite writers do), no one has shaped the way Boston sports fans view, feel, and talk about their teams more than Shaughnessy. This is the guy who coined the “Curse of the Bambino,” and fit eight decades of suffering into a neat, poetic narrative. This is the guy whose prodding caused Kevin Millar to launch into his “Don’t let the Sox win tonight” speech, immortalized in ESPN’s Four Days in October. Though he wasn’t the first to use it in a newspaper column, Shaughnessy popularized “Red Sox Nation,” a concept that’s been ruthlessly marketed into oblivion by Dr. Charles Steinberg and the like.

It was Shaughnessy who, in a time of unprecedented success for the New England Patriots, shrugged and called all the teams that lay in Brady and Belichick’s wake on the road to four Super Bowl victories “tomato cans,” a la Rocky III. Whether or not he actually believes that is irrelevant. He knows exactly what will send fans into a fury, and keep them coming back.

Shaughnessy has earned a reputation for being too critical or too negative. But that’s perfectly representative of the sports culture he inhabits. And for every barb he writes, he’s front and center at the next practice to answer for it. That’s unique.

As the Globe stumped for the Boston 2024 bid week after week, Shaughnessy was one of the few voices of dissent on Morrissey Boulevard. “In six short months, Boston 2024 has become a punchline,” he wrote. “Someday folks will look back at this misguided effort and compare it to ‘Gigli,’ the PT Cruiser, and Google Glass…one more bad idea from the early part of the 21st century. Boston 2024 needs to be put out of its misery. The sooner the better.”

And while he isn’t soccer’s greatest advocate, and hasn’t been for quite some time, nobody’s perfect. Shaughnessy can always be counted on to provide Boston sports fans, drunk off their teams’ abundant success in the new millennium, a sorely needed reality check.