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How many teams consider 'Sweet Caroline' their song? Too many.

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A sign near Fenway Park in Boston reminds fans how to sing "Sweet Caroline" at Red Sox home games. (Photo by Mark Newman/MLB.com)

Across the United States nearly every week of the year, in bars, ballparks, arenas and stadiums, sports fans join together to belt out a ballad in honor of Caroline Kennedy.

From coast to coast, few songs bring fans together in such spirited fashion. So much so, in fact, that entire fan bases have begun co-opting it as their own. Few know that the 1969 Neil Diamond standard “Sweet Caroline,” was written for the former president’s daughter, and perhaps fewer care.

“It’s catchy, it’s easy to sing and it’s the kind of song anyone can sing without the person next to you looking at you like you’re crazy,” says Dave Jedlicka, a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh and the president of the school’s student fan organization, who recently requested the song be played during Pitt’s home football games. “It just works.”

The song was rarely heard at sporting events before 1998. That summer, former Boston Red Sox public address announcer Ed Brickley requested that the song be played during a game in honor of Caroline Fitzpatrick, the baby daughter of Billy Fitzpatrick, a former control room employee. Fans loved it, and the team started playing it when games were close in the late innings. After the chorus began with “Sweet Caroline,” fans filled in the following three beats with “ba ba ba!” and repeated the words “So good” three times after Diamond sang them.

In 2003, the Red Sox decided to play it in the middle of the eighth inning of every home game.

But then, in the past five years, a few other teams began adopting the song for themselves, often playing it ritualistically during the same part of the game each time. And then a few more joined in. Those teams’ fans adopted it as their own.

At Pitt, for example, the athletic department began playing it before the fourth quarter at football games in 2008. Though the fans replace the “ba ba ba” with “let’s go Pitt” and “so good, so good, so good” with three repetitions of “go Pitt,” Pitt students admit they’re struggling to make the song their own.

But for all its national popularity, it is still widely thought of as a Red Sox song. Its use elsewhere has prompted confusion among fans and annoyance in Boston.

“After our home game against West Virginia, their fans wrote all over message boards about how the Red Sox suck and why were we using their song,” Jedlicka says. “But we’ve tried. When you go into a bar in Pittsburgh and the song comes on, everyone sings the Pitt lyrics.”

It’s unlikely many Red Sox fans would tolerate that for long.

“Listen, I don’t love ‘Sweet Caroline,’ but clearly that is a Red Sox song,” wrote Dave Portnoy, the founder and publisher of the popular Boston blog BarstoolSports.com. “You can’t just steal a song that is already established somewhere else and make it your own. It’s unfathomable, unconscionable and unethical.”

But that attitude hasn’t stopped other teams from using the song. The NFL’s Carolina Panthers play it at Bank of America Stadium after every victory. The Johnstown, Pa., Chiefs, a minor-league hockey team, play it during the second intermission at Cambria County War Memorial Arena.

“Our music director always jokes that the fans would run him out of here if he didn’t play it,” says Ray Schmitt, the Chiefs’ director of communication and corporate relations.

The NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers use it at Quicken Loans Arena at the beginning of halftime. “It’s a fun, interactive kind of song. The fans know what to do,” says Amanda Greco, the Cavs’ director of game day operations. “In sports, in general, any kind of song that involves the fans is a gift from God.”

Despite the Red Sox’s close association with the song, even other Major League Baseball teams have made the song a tradition at home games. Because most fans closely associate it with the Red Sox, it is perhaps a touchy subject for teams that have tried to make it their own.

“We have played the song as part of our eighth-inning sing-along since 2007,” says a New York Mets spokesperson. “But that’s all we are able to comment on.”

And just when it seemed the Mets had taken things too far, the unthinkable happened: A 10-piece orchestra played the song at opening day at the new Yankee Stadium, home of the Red Sox’s bitter, ancient rival. The Yankees blew a late lead to lose that game and, two days later, gave up the most runs at home in team history, losing to the Cleveland Indians 22-4.

Though it’s unlikely that song will ever be heard again anywhere near Yankee Stadium, for many of these teams—and the Red Sox—the song represents more than simply fan interaction. Indeed, it embodies something fundamental to sports in general.

“Sport is laced in and out with rituals,” said Jerry M. Lewis, professor emeritus of sociology at Kent State University and a specialist on group behavior. “Predictability is a key part of it. Ritual is about linking yourself to a group, about feeling a part of things. Rituals have a clear start and end, and fans band together because they know when it’s coming and they know the rules. In ‘Sweet Caroline,’ it doesn’t matter if you can hit the high C. It doesn’t matter if you’re tone-deaf. It’s about participating in a ritual.”

For his part, Diamond waited until 2007 to reveal the motivation for the song. As a young songwriter, he noticed a picture of Kennedy in a magazine.

“It was a picture of a little girl dressed to the nines in her riding gear, next to her pony,” he told The Associated Press. “It was such an innocent, wonderful picture, I immediately felt there was a song in there.”

A little strange? Perhaps. But fans at Fenway Park and elsewhere couldn’t care less.

E-mail: jwy2103@columbia.edu