A story of the Red Sox, Romanian and how sports can bridge language barriers, how meaning can be conveyed between two people who don’t quite share a common tongue.
I am the world’s foremost Romainglish speaker. I know this because Romainglish is not a real language. It is a combination of Romanian and English that I developed in order to communicate with my grandfather. I can’t quite speak Romanian, and he couldn’t quite speak English, hence this pidgin form of communication. My grandfather, Stelica, was the world’s second most advanced Romainglish speaker.
A decade ago, Stelica, visiting from Bucharest, sat with me as the Red Sox faced the Orioles in a must-win baseball game. The Sox and Tampa Bay Rays were in a dead heat for the AL Wild Card spot heading into the season’s final game. Boston’s epic collapse in the month of September was either going to be laughed off with a brow-swiping phew, if we won and the Rays lost, or taken like a punch to the gut if the opposite happened. A win or a loss for both would mean a one-game, winner-advances showdown.
Baseball is a difficult game to explain to those who have not grown up with it, even if they are proficient English speakers. My parents, born and raised in Bucharest, made a courageous effort to learn the game after seeing my childhood obsession was not a phase. Prior to our first family trip to a Red Sox game, my dad scoured Baseball for Dummies like an archaeologist scouring hieroglyphics. Within a couple of innings, he was asleep in the grandstand. My sister was happily reading a book. And as my mom asked my friend Will which team was the Red Sox (they kept switching sides after all, and neither team actually was wearing red socks), I buried my face in my hands.
Little league brought much of the same; bewilderment (my parents) and embarrassment (me). During one game, as I was playing shortstop, the umpire called time and began shouting at someone in left field. “Excuse me! There is a game going on! Please go around!” I turned to see my mother, having just arrived, strolling obviously across the outfield grass. How was she to know that such an open expanse was part of the playing field? A couple of innings later, as I sat on the bench, the ump called time again. Another trespasser was making his way across the outfield, prompting a delay. “Who is that?” a teammate asked. I buried my face in my hands. It was my dad, arriving from work.
Being a Red Sox fan also gave me ample opportunities to facepalm. The 1999 and 2003 ALCS losses to the Yankees were harrowing. Aaron Boone’s Game 7 home run to end the 2003 ALCS was easily one of the hardest losses to swallow in my life as a fan. But the Sox turned a new leaf and exorcised old demons following their dramatic 2004 comeback victory over the Yankees. By 2011, a couple World Series championships had a way of making you expect the best from a franchise that raised you on expecting the worst.
How do you explain the experience of being a Red Sox fan to someone who doesn’t understand English or the game of baseball?
This history is hard to convey in Romainglish. Luckily, Stelica had caught a glimpse of what being a Red Sox fan is all about. During a visit a few years prior, my mother and I brought him to his first game. We sat high up in the grandstand at Fenway, and if one of the oldest and most beautiful parks in professional sports awed him, he showed no sign. He was, however, awed by the fan sitting directly behind him. On every controversial call, a booming voice would holler “BULLSHIT!” at a tremendous decibel level. We turned around to see a petite woman in Sox regalia, with pipes suitable for the most diehard bleacher bum. Stelica, encouraged by this display of fandom (“bullshit” was one word that didn’t require translation), decided to show his support as well. Every now and then, my grandfather, then in his late seventies, would stand up and shout “BULLSHIT!” He got the annunciation right, only, he couldn’t quite get the timing. He shouted it during pitching changes, Red Sox runs, and even the seventh-inning stretch.
As we watched the decisive final game of the season together, he peppered me with questions about the on-field action. But without my mother there to translate, I found it amazingly difficult to explain what was happening. I managed to convey that Boston needed to win, but how to explain strikes and outs? Three of one equals one of the other, and three of the other makes the players “schimbe” (change), and when the Red Sox are hitting, only then can they make a “punct” (point). I labeled foul balls as “afare” (out), but then Dustin Pedroia hit a tie-breaking solo home run that also landed “afare,” in the bleachers, only this one was an automatic “punct.” I gave up not even a quarter-way through attempting to explain a double play, and when the rain delay hit in the 7th inning with the Sox clinging to a 3-2 lead, it was a reprieve for both of us.
Stelica and I took the dogs out to the park. We had a late-night snack of tea and cheese. Using my hands I explained where Baltimore was relative to Boston. We returned to the TV in time to see that the Rays had mounted an incredible comeback, scoring six 8th-inning runs to cut the Yankees’ lead to one. We watched as Dan Johnson, batting .108 on the season, with two outs and two strikes in the bottom of the 9th, hit a season-saving home run for the Rays.
It stopped “plo-ing” in Baltimore (A Romainglish term taking the Romanian “ploua” — rain, and adding the English suffix) and the game resumed. The Red Sox could have easily broken the game open in the 8th and 9th innings, getting a runner thrown out at the plate, and grounding into a bases-loaded double play. No matter, we had Jonathan Papelbon coming in to close out the game. With the Rays and Yankees in extra innings, at the very least we’d force a one-game playoff, and at best, we’d be moving on to the AL Division Series.
Stelica, now 84, had gone to bed. So I watched alone as Papelbon, tight-lipped and crazy-eyed as always, blew away the first two Oriole batters with a succession of unhittable fireballs. Then Chris Davis stroked a double by seemingly closing his eyes, praying, and connecting. Nolan Reimold, the number-nine hitter on the worst team in the division, faced a two-strike count. Boston was one Papelbon fireball away from continuing their season. Only the next Papelbon fireball was tagged to the right-field gap, and suddenly it was a tie game. Just as suddenly, Carl Crawford couldn’t come up with a Robert Andino line drive and — ballgame! The Orioles celebrated their last-place finish like Little League World Series champs.
In shock, I flipped over to the Rays – Yankees game in time to hear the Rays crowd celebrating in disbelief as the news of the Sox loss reached Tampa Bay. Evan Longoria was at the plate. And I could already sense that this was the Rays fairy tale, and we just happened to be the foil. Longoria smoked a line drive over the left-field wall. I buried my face in my hands.
In the morning Stelica asked me how the game ended.
“Stelica,” I said, “cum se zice ‘broken’ en Romanesta?” (How do you say “broken” in Romanian?).
“Rupe,” answered Stelica.
“Inima rupe,” I told him.
Heartbroken. A phrase that transcends all languages. Even made-up ones.