The Folklore of P. J. Forbes
It was early one morning on a spring day in 1997 when P.J. first walked into the store. He looked liked someone who hadn't slept much the night before, maybe even for a few nights. As with many of my other friends, there is something that tells me we were going to get on well the first time I met him. He is a personal and friendly guy, but that’s not the only thing that gives me that feeling. It was some combination of his polite nature and controlled openness that made me believe. Some or all of that made me know that he was not just looking to complete a mere business transaction. He was looking for something and I don’t think either one of us knew the details of our individual parts of that unknown transaction.
Call it an aura, call in “a gut feeling”, call it whatever you like. I just knew. He started coming in on a very regular basis and that leads me to take notice and to make myself available. There wasn’t much hesitation in our friendship and it soon became clear as to the reason.
P.J. told me he was from Kansas and had just moved to town with the Rochester Red Wings, our local AAA baseball team. A new stadium had been built downtown very close to o’Bagelo’s and he was staying at the hotel up the street. It wasn’t clear from his appearance what he did for the team, and I didn’t ask at first. His friendly midwestern smile matched his sparkling blue eyes. P.J. was slender, lean, athletic, and stood about 5’10’’, a bit short for a ballplayer. The standard cut out ball player is 6’2”, muscular, about 220, square jaw, and 24 years old. So when P.J. said he was with the Red Wings, it wasn't obvious he was a player.
This was going to be the first full year baseball would be played at Frontier Field, our new stadium. I soon learned that other players were staying at the same hotel while looking for a semi permanent place for the season. As the summer got into full swing, I learned that visiting teams would use the same hotel when in town. My bagel shop quickly became a common lunch spot for the players from both teams.
That first year P.J. didn't bring his car to town and needed a place to live that was close the stadium. Fortunately, there was a renovated old building not far from both the stadium and the store He and few guys rented a unit for the summer and so he still was stopping in on his way to the field
P.J. had the work ethic of a farmer and probably needed it to succeed in a sport that looked for 6 inches and 40 pounds more from its prospects. That work ethic brought him by the store most mornings before the other players were awake. He’d come back for lunch with the others on his way to the stadium before games.
During the next few months P.J. and I became better friends. I often found myself at the games cheering supporting his road to more success. Being on the players’ comp list for tickets was certainly an added incentive and I was starting to enjoy the game again.
We are very different people in some senses, and quite connected in others. P.J. is heartland conservative and I lean East Coast liberal. We had similar class and moral upbringings, including the fact that both of our fathers had been our high school principals.
We both had a way with people, but his was more media savvy and first impression positive. My connection takes a few interactions but the good ones come around and overlook the limitations from that first exposure. In addition P.J. has an innate sense and public relations and after a few weeks he had made regulars out of a whole bunch of players on his team. I took the time to introduce him to customers and friends that were a good match for his kindness. Now, along with the cops, legal professionals, business people, and public servants, we had a new dimension within our customer base: professional athletes. And they all were mingling well.
About mid season, P.J. was looking even more worn out than he did that first day. By this time I felt comfortable enough to tell him exactly that. “You look like shit”, was my first reaction as he walked in the store. He just smiled and smirked backed at me with an unspoken response of “Yeah, thanks. Like I don’t feel as bad as I look.” But his catholic schooling and mannerisms filtered all that out.
It wasn't just physical; it looked like mental stress had piled on as well. He spoke as if he was doing an interview, but never ignored the truth. His responses were honest and T.V. appropriate. The schedule of a AAA player is not an easy one. The long travel on buses, the less than healthy meals, the constant demand to perform to keep your job, are just a few of the issues. Add on a new organization, a new city, new teammates, and there is barely a break in the stress. Especially when you need to work harder than most to get recognized.
He had been slumping a bit at the plate and in addition to taking more batting practice and working with the hitting coach, P.J. was looking for that little something extra to change his luck. Most players I came to know are very superstitious and don’t like making changes in their daily habits when things are going well. But with a sustaining run of stats below expectations, a change can be entertained.
After he had lunch, P.J. came up to the counter to pay. He had his usual confident look but it was covering a real concern. His next statement came across just as his interviews. Smiling, sincere, and a little light hearted, but still emanating some the truth.
“Pick me out a cookie. One with some Hits.” We both laughed a bit but I knew exactly what he intended. He was hoping to find something that might help out, outside the more realistic avenues he had already taken. I smiled, and then with great focus I scanned the available options on the counter. Studying the differences as if it were a science I had been well trained in, and with a serious nature believing my efforts would work. I choose one from the group and handed it to him. He took the cookie in hand and we both acted as if this was a systematic ritual that couldn’t fail. It was meant to be light hearted but deep down, we both knew the seriousness of the demand.
Whether is was good timing, dumb luck, or fate intervening, P.J. got a few hits in the game that night. If you are even a bit superstitious or know someone that is, you know this was a big deal. At least for the time being a new tradition was started and it would last until it stopped working. That’s how those things work. No argument, upbringing, other faith, or rationale was going to change that. Period.
For the next several games we went thought the same ritual. As time went on we even withheld the objective stimulus infrequently to assess the impact. You know, like any good scientist working in a bakery and playing baseball.
Although the introduction of the cookie didn't work every night, it worked more often than not. That’s damn good for a sport where a 30% success rate at the plate is way above average. In addition, withholding the item was having a consistent negative impact. More proof for our budding theory.
So this is how it worked. P.J. would take the cookie with him to the field. The team would work out before most games, and them go into the locker room to change into their game uniforms. This is when he would costume the product. Because of this, other players
started to inquire. The clubhouse provides food for the players for a small per diem but this didn’t look like anything they saw offered on the daily menu. At first he was hesitant to share the information (who knows how that might affect the mojo). He withheld the info and this just made the intrigue boil. All the while P.J.’s batting average was rising, his leadership skills were emergin and his sense of team was about to take over. He started letting a few of the guys in on his secret, cautiously and monitoring the impact on his own efforts.
As one might expect, there wasn’t a mad run on the cookies, but it put the idea in the backs of the minds of a few guys. When things were looking down and all else had failed, a few quietly approached the counter. Since ost of the guys stopped by in small groups, one guy would lag behind and joke about P.J.’s ritual making sure the other guys were gone. A few were bolder and came right out and said they could use some help. Others were coy, looking like pitcher Nuke LaLoosh from “Bull Durham” when he was putting on that garter belt and preparing to breath out of his eyes.
Either way, the folklore was building and not just during that first season. After the first year many of the local players found apartments outside the city, making my store less convenient. One of the inherent aspects of free agency is that players at this level are often traded on a yearly basis. A player that was here last year will be on an opposing team in the same league next year. When they return to town, however, they would act the pied piper bringing teammates into the store for lunch and the lore of the cookies. After a few years, baseball season became a big part of the business and the cookies were just one aspect of that boom.
At one point, a former player turned scout was even telling new players about the place and the cookies with hits. “When you are in Rochester go in and ask for John, and tell him I sent you. Don’t touch the cookies! Let him pick one out for you.” We were hearing this more and more and not even the employees were allowed to choose.
After P.J. was traded to another team my interest in baseball held strong. I can trace it back to the childhood ritual of trading cards in my neighbor’s garage when we were about 8 years old. I can’t explain why, but it was in that garage that I choose to follow for the Red Sox, a choice a have never shaken through the years.
It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I made my first trip to Fenway Park and I still remember every aspect of that first game. The team only had a few good years since I was out of college and my interest was building since the appearance of P.J. Or maybe it was because the girl I was dating lived there. Maybe it was a little bit of both.
Even though P.J. had been traded we still kept in touch. When he was in town with his new team it was an event both in and out of the baseball park. He knew my affinity for the Red Sox and had told me if I ever wanted to see a game he might be able to help out. It was always in the back of my mind, but I never thought about it seriously. Not until the day I found myself visiting my girlfriend in Boston.
We were having dinner in the North End. Euno. A restaurant on Salem Street that I later found out is one of the only non-Italian owned places there. Still it was delicious. She and I were talking about our weekend plans and we both thought it would fun to go to a game. So I called P.J. and left a message. It was a Friday night and I’m sure he was working (at a game). I didn’t have much faith in being able to work this out at such short notice, but why not try.
I was pretty happy to see my phone light up towards the end of dinner and see P.J.’s name light up. After a brief chat, he said he would get back to me. Well, I tried. It was a good effort. But then the phone lit up again. This time it was a short call and he told me “You’re all set. Pick up the tickets at Will Call. And have fun.” Wow. Was is really going to be that easy? Could he really just do that? Having never done this through a third party, I almost didn’t believe it was true. But it was.
P.J. had roomed with Mike Lansing in college, and Lansing was currently playing second base for the Red Sox. Done and done, just like that. A few phone calls and their are tickets in my name at the park for Saturday night.
Whether it was the first-time experience of a big league game, the comp tickets from a ballplayer, the wonderment of Fenway Park, or just the access to someone who could or would do me such a favor, I was now fully vested in my Red Sox obsession. Sitting in the seats behind home plate and absorbing all that Fenway Park has to offer is something most baseball fans should experience.
As my interest in the game was building, the connection to the Red Sox was front and center. Even at my age it’s easy to understand how the first experience at a major league park can solidify personal fandom. I imagine the effects on a young boy or girl is tenfold.
It was the era of Manny Ramirez hitting balls out of the park and acting goofy when he wasn’t. Big Papi was still just a nickname in the Dominican and hadn’t joined the Sox yet. But the team was getting better and the long drought of a World Series was all the buzz. The team was consistently finishing second in the division and they were even making the playoffs on occasion.
There is famous line, from a famous song (if you are a Bruce fan) that goes like this: “. . . When the change was made uptown and the big man had joined the band. . . “. That wasn’t written about Big Papi, but it might as well have been. “I’m going to sit back and laugh while Scooter and the big man bust this city in half.”
So when those two guys were paired in the lineup, the media coverage and the hopes of the fans were growing.
It was in 2004 during the divisional playoffs that I had an opportunity to challenge my sanity and put a long time theory to a test. The Sox were playing the Yankees and the disappointment and cynicism that converge during the playoffs for Red Sox fans was showing some clearing. Hope was creeping in, albeit with great caution.
The superstitious nature of the ballplayers was also creeping into my life. I was sitting on the edge my seat every game. I started repeating any behavior that preceded success in anyway and hoping for a better ending than in years past. I don’t know exactly what part of the brain allows for this type of belief, on any subject matter, but there is no denying it exists or it’s strength. The attempt to balance that part of the brain with logic, reason, and education can be a constant struggle.
So this is how I worked it out. It couldn’t hurt. And if for some reason, if all the energy of all the fans added one iota of additional positive energy, then it was worth it. Oh, and it’s fun. Let’s not forget that part.
Baseball fans (and certainly Red Sox fans) may remember the Yankee/Red Sox series in 2004. The Yankees were up two games to none and it wasn't looking good, again. That clearing in the clouds of despair and disappointment was closing fast. Now that I was back in the fandom saddle, I exposed myself to the reopening of all the old wounds of the Red Sox failures of years past. All of this led me to a decision that had been standing next to me waiting to be acknowledged. A decision that rolled it’s eyes at me when I finally figured it out. There was no question what I had to do and I had to act quickly.
It was Thursday and a travel day for the teams. Game three was scheduled for Friday at Fenway Park. I made a fresh batch of cookies that morning and carefully weeded out the hitless ones. I packed up two dozen and send them Fed Ex Next Day Air to Red Sox GM Theo Epstein. I did my best in a handwritten note to explain the local folklore and to not sound absolutely crazy. I included several menus to prove that it was from a business and of course the cookies were safe. Whether any one was going to believe the cookies, or I for that matter, were safe was up for debate. I was quite happy to learn that a return receipt showed the package was signed for by a woman in the main office. They had arrived. Now what?
I may never know exactly what happened with that package of cookies I sent. I did some namedropping in my note to help verify my story and frankly in hopes of not being barred from the park in the future. I had called my friend Dan Mason, the GM of our local team, prior to sending the package and asked if I would be put on any list of crazed fans if I followed through with this plan. When he relieved me of that risk, he said he would vouch for the folklore if contacted. He didn’t say anything about vouching for my sanity. I would have loved to see the reaction of the person who opened that package and read that note.
I have no delusions about what I did. If there was an impact, it was merely that I added my 2 cents to a pile of superstitious behaviors of all the other fans wishing for the same result. That and I would never have known “What if. . . “ if I didn’t sent them. But let’s examine the post package results, setting aside logic and belief.
The game scheduled for Friday was cancelled due to rain. On Saturday the Red Sox scored 8 runs but unfortunately the Yankees racked up 19. The mojo my cookies deliver has always been for hitters only. I never promised they could prevent hits. However, I had consistently warned against feeding them to pitchers, kind of like feeding a gremlin after midnight. Untested and who knows what could happen.
Down 0-3 in a seven game series is just about the kiss of death in baseball. No team had ever come back from that deficit. But you still have the play the game and this meant watching 2 plus hours of painful agony awaiting the inevitable. As they old saying goes, one game at time, which meant that the agony could go on for several days if the Sox could pull out a win or two.
For the next several nights anxiety over a silly baseball game superseded life’s important issues. The next two games went into extra innings and that only added to the potential level of distress at the end. The Sox won both those games at home and now had to head back to New York to finish out the series. Losing to the Yankees is bad. Losing to them at the their park in just salt in the wound.
What followed is considered the greatest playoff comeback in baseball history and it was against their greatest rival. The Red Sox won the next two games in New York to advance to the biggest event of “The Show”, the oddly named World Series. That was four straight wins, each of which could have ended their season, and possibly the careers of a few members of the organization. The Red Sox went on to sweep the Cardinals in the World Series erasing a curse that had stuck since the long-regretted trade of Babe Ruth, if you believe in that sort of thing.
That would be enough for me to continue to tell this story and frankly to glide into a lifelong comfort of being a fan. But there was going to be more. After all, a good scientist knows that a theory has to hold up through many data points. Replicability is one of the primary principles of the scientific method and is needed to support the underlying hypothesis. That hypothesis being that I make cookies with hits.
Riding high from the 2004 season and the positive results of the my ongoing experiment, I had the opportunity to put my hypothesis through another test. It was 2007 and I had the chance to go to my first playoff game. The Red Sox were playing in Cleveland, but it was still the playoffs. Perfect. I could now change of a few of the variables in my theory and see if I produced the same results. I’d told the friends at the game with me about the “Cookies with Hits” theory and they were on board to assist with the project. I had brought a bag of my special cookies with me to the game without any idea of what to do with them. It was game four, with the Sox leading 2 games to 1. Being surrounded by Cleveland fans and having snuck in a bag of cookies made me a bit uncomfortable, and I really didn’t know what I was going to do to help out the team.
It was a scoreless game going into the bottom of the fifth inning when the Indians put up 7 runs in their half. The fans were going crazy and my friends urged me out my fear to break out the stash. We started indulging and my friends started telling a version of the folklore while we shared the goodies with others in our section. Everyone seemed happy (except for the two of us Boston fans) and the sixth inning was about to start.
That happiness was quickly reversed. The Red Sox answered with a home run, then a second, and then a third. Back-to-back-to-back home runs. Big Papi, Manny, Youklis. The power punch plus one. Another first in a League Championship Series. The mood changed quickly in our section and I was not a particularly a well-liked person for an inning or two. Cookies were being tossed on the ground and stomped on while no one outside of our group kept eating. The game ended without any more scoring and I was happy to get out of there safely. Oh, and the Red Sox went on to win that series and sweep Colorado in the World Series. I’d say that not only have I replicated the experiment, but I have added to the number of data points.
It wasn't until I wrote this story that I remembered a pretty important fact. The year all this started was 1997. P.J.’s had just signed a contract with the Rochester Red Wings and just moved to town. It was the first full year of baseball at the new stadium. That was the year that team won the AAA championship. And to this date it was the only year that’s happened since the opening of Frontier Field. To me that was the development year of the hypothesis. Oh, and remember that most of the local team started to live outside the city and my impact was on visiting players. My understanding of scientific theory suggests you can use those data points also. So there you have it. A proven theory in my books. From premise to folklore. From hypothesis to experimentation. From replication to proof.
As I used to tell the ballplayers who looked a little leery about this whole process, “Believe or do not believe, but the results work out better if you choose the positive.” A lot of things work out like that.
Several of the Red Wings players returned this year for a reunion of that 1997 victory year. P.J. and his family came back to town for the event. Many things have changed in all our lives, but it’s nice to know that our friendship isn’t one of them. Thanks for all that, P.J.