Fifty-one years ago, I went to my first Red Sox game. Many presidents, fashions and shortstops later, it’s still nice to visit home again…
We boarded the Green Line at the Arlington Station a couple Thursdays ago, 90 minutes before a 7:00 game with Houston. There was no room to sit, precious little to stand, and none at all to grasp. I took a foolhardy dare from my son, spread my feet apart, and attempted to “surf” through the Copley and Hines stops, only losing my balance and spilling slow motion into a small forest of shorts, backpacks and arms when the subway car lurched before Kenmore Square.
The throng de-trained, stuffed their way up a narrow escalator and poured into the streets. Manic, aggressive scalpers surrounded us immediately. I didn’t stop to ask what their tickets were going for, but it couldn’t have been less than the last time I took the black market plunge in 2004, when four of us ended up with hideous views in deep right field for $75 a pop. The Sox had gone all the way three times since then, and even though they were currently in the AL East cellar, nothing about this evening felt that way. Nomar, Pedro, the Rocket and Joe Castiglione were being inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame on the field before the game, putting a buzz in the air and surely adding to every ticket’s face value.
The bridge over the Mass Pike had turned into a very wide sidewalk, vehicles in quicksand and with little chance of movement. I thought again of my first visit to Fenway, when the park was so empty, even for a game with the World Champion Yankees, that my dad was able to park in the only official lot across Brookline Avenue — the one sporting the same old sign that says BOSTON RED SOX on a lit-up baseball — and exit the thing in less than fifteen minutes.
After a brief pat-down at a security table for Gate A, we entered the concession bowels of the park, and my mind drifted back to 1963, like it always does, when this area was so dark, sweltering, foul-smelling and congested I thought my dad was taking us to work in a factory. Not anymore. It still isn’t for the claustrophobic, with its poor signage and Escher-like ramp system, but the lighting has improved tremendously, and all roads eventually lead upward to that first exhilarating slice of green.
Our last visit was in 2012. The Sox had collapsed miserably the September before, Bobby Valentine was in the dugout, and Beckett, Crawford, Gonzalez and Punto were about to be marooned on Chavez Ravine Island. Anger and despair filled the yard, and the lifeless towne team mustered just two hits off Twins rookie Samuel Deduno.
This year’s last place club was the polar opposite. We had just lost Lester, Lackey, and Peavy, but there were plenty of promising kids to watch, three or four other teams had worse records, and to be honest, after enjoying a full season of good health, timely hitting and another surprise title, it was going to take a lot to depress us.
A long row of chairs had been set up in front of the Red Sox dugout for the four inductees’ families, and Tom Flavin, poet laureate of the Red Sox (How could they not have one?) delighted the crowd with a short, humorous ode to the four men before they emerged from the Sox dugout to claim their awards. Roger Clemens, despite departing for Toronto, spending time on the Yankees and being investigated for juicing, received nothing but warm applause. Pedro got cheers and roars.
And then the game began. The Astros built an early 4-0 lead on Allen Webster while the Sox were succumbing helplessly to Scott Feldman, and my acid Deduno flashbacks returned. In the bottom of the 4th, though, Dustin Pedroia lined an outside fastball into right for the first Sox baserunner and scored on a double play grounder by Cespedes. No big thing, but at least they were on the board, and the crowd was kind of sort of back in the game.
It was a funny crowd; not as many pink hats, but lots and lots of tourists. Our seats were behind the main walking aisle between home and first, and I must have counted at least two dozen people stopping there to have their picture taken with the Monster in the background. (My wife nabbed a selfie with the same view.) It does say WELCOME TO AMERICA’S MOST BELOVED BALLPARK on the center field board before the game, and much of the crowd had a “thrilled to be here” grin that’s replaced the anxious expressions we had in all those decades of dancing with doom.
The sounds have also changed. In pre-Impossible Dream Days olden days all we had was an incessant kid-chant of “We want a hit! We want a hit!” that would start up in the middle innings and last for the rest of the game. There was also the slow “oooooooooooohhhWOOOOP!” sound accompanying every foul ball that hit on the backstop screen and rolled back down. There was even an annual Nun’s Day.
Now there’s a brief atrocity in the monster seats called the “Wally Wave”, and a sure sign of the apocalypse, an actual wave sweeping through the grandstand soon after. Living in Los Angeles, I’m used to ACS syndrome (Artifical Crowd Stimulation), but it’s always a shock to see it in action at Fenway. The “Sweet Caroline” singalong in the 8th does nothing for me, and as far as I can tell, has nothing to do with baseball, but I was very impressed with the rock music pouring from the loudspeakers between innings, everything from Queen to Icona Pop to Marshall Crenshaw singing his great “Someday, Someway.”
Sports columnist Joe Posnanski, who ranked Fenway 4th in his recent survey of all thirty ballparks behind Wrigley Field, PNC in Pittsburgh and AT&T in San Francisco, called it “inconvenient, crumbling, lousy sightlines and magical.” He hit the nail on the head, and the magic now happened out of nowhere in the 6th. Feldman had been starting to get behind the hitters in the previous two innings, and now Brock Holt led with a double to deep right center. Pedroia singled him to third. Ortiz singled in Holt to make it 4-2. After a Cespedes force out, Napoli singled in Pedroia. Nava walked to load the bases. Middlebrooks singled to center to tie the game.
Bo Porter finally relieved Feldman with Darin Downs, but the magic faucet kept running. Bradley Jr. walked to force in the go-ahead run. Christian Vazquez hit a deep fly to right for another. Holt came up for the second time and walked to re-load the bases. Pedroia came back from an 0-2 count to drop a ground rule double inside the right field line and score three more. Seven runs on six hits were across, the park was delirious, and we entered two and a half rollicking innings of garbage time. Just as the crowd stayed calm and good-natured when they were down 4-0, so too had the Sox.
We filed out to re-clog the streets, but this time ditched the subway and decided on a half hour walk back to our hotel across from Cambridge. We strolled way up Commonwealth Avenue, then crossed two bridges to get there. On the first one, a half dozen people had stopped to take in the breathtaking reflection of the super moon reflecting on the Charles. The enchantment was everywhere.
Yeah okay, the Sox were dead last and not going anywhere this year. Little did we know the Angels were about to arrive and sweep us four straight, but it’s unlikely that would have mattered either. Beloved for sure, but despite its punishingly narrow aisles, cramped seats, and doubles down each line that go unseen by a third of the place, Fenway Park has managed to remain a big box of magic, day in and night out.