Sonya and I were deciding how to spend our afternoon and evening. I'd been ensconced in some decidedly anti-social creative work for the past two days, trying desperately to refill my Interaction Tolerance before going back in for three more days of Red Shift performances starting tomorrow. (It's the Spring Sci-Fi Spectacular, running this Thursday, Friday and Saturday! We're doing a new Red Shift episode and then an adaptation of the classic ant sci-fi flick THEM! See if it you can! Or come to the special event at the MIT Museum on Sunday the 21st!)
At any rate, today was the first day I felt like I could conceivably go out and do things and actually hold conversations with people instead of merely grunt-whimpering and ducking back in my room for to stare at a computer screen, so we decided to have a grand day out together. We planned to head out around 3:00 or so, and had very much wanted to visit a museum. Unfortunately the Museum of Science, which we can walk to from Sonya's house, closed at 5:00 and it seemed like a waste to just go for an hour or so. The Museum of Fine Arts stays open until 9:00 or so on Wednesday nights, so we got the idea to go eat in the Back Bay and then walk over to the museum.
"Ooh," I said, "We can walk into Kenmore and then take my favorite shortcut past Fenway Park to Park Drive, then walk across the Fens to the museum... oh, wait, that's only if it's not a game day." Kenmore is an absolute zoo on game day, and so is Yawkey Way, the thoroughfare that goes right by the park. I did what any good Internet-using person would do, and checked the Red Sox website. Sure enough, there was a game today, the second game in their opening week series against the Baltimore Orioles. On a whim, I checked the tickets page and found tickets available in a price range I felt comfortable in. This was very surprising for several reasons, the first of which being that there was a price range at Fenway I felt comfortable in. Being the smallest and oldest ballpark in America, tickets don't come cheap.
The second reason this was surprising was that the Red Sox have sold out every home game since May of 2003. I've never checked the ticket office on the day of a game. It's always felt like a foregone conclusion. Doubly so if the Yankees are in town; those games sell out quicker than ice cream on a hot day as soon as tickets go on sale in the winter. I don't truck with ticket brokers even after having worked with them on a business-to-business basis for four years; they're banking on you thinking you can't acquire tickets any other way. (And yet I felt it was a foregone conclusion...) This, however, felt like another stroke of strange luck to me, and I decided we most certainly should take advantage of it. Sonya, who hadn't been to a home game in years, thought it was a terrific idea, so we immediately secured two grandstand seats and felt pretty damn chuffed about the whole thing.
Dinner was at the Salty Pig in the Back Bay, a place Sonya and I went to on one of our first dates last year. It has since become one of our favorite places to go when we're feeling a little flush and want to eat pig parts and smelly cheese. (No, really. That's how the menu lists their offerings.) I'd tell you what we had but it would turn into some kind of Redwall chapter only with meat instead of acorn pie with clotted cream or whatever it is those nutty rodents are eating this time around. We did, however, have some awesome bone marrow in a huge cross-section. After dinner it took us around twenty minutes to walk down Boylston to Fenway Park, bypassing Kenmore Square by way of Ipswich. It's quicker and you don't have to brave that bridge across I-90 teeming with insane hawkers, touts and scalpers, and you don't have to step around people cramming themselves into the Cask 'n Flagon. This put us in about an hour before gametime.
This is the best time of all.
Countless writers both sports- and non- have described the feeling of walking up from underneath the stands and emerging, blinking, into an open space with a beautiful ballpark all around you. Fenway Park gets you every. Single. Time. We walked up into the bleachers and stood around the bullpen for a while, watching the Oriole outfielders run after some practice hits. You can do that here. Down below, kids and their parents were hanging out on the edge of the fence, clamoring for balls and joking with the guy in right field. You can do that here. "All right, which one of you booed?" the Oriole said, hands on hips, after a solitary boo from the box seats heralded his fine catch. The kids all laughed, and he grinned back. You can do that here.
As it got closer to game time we headed towards our grandstand seats along the first base line. Our row was the second to last and it didn't matter. In any other park this would be considered a nosebleed seat, but Fenway is so small and intimate that you don't feel far from the field at all. (Even the bleacher seats by center field don't feel so darn far away to the Fenway Faithful.) It's true that in the grandstand you run the risk of having a support pole in the way and the overhang prevents you from seeing 2/3 of the giant scoreboard, but we lucked out in the pole department and who needs the giant scoreboard anyway?
We were among the first to take our seats and the crowd filtered slowly in as we got closer to 7:10 pm. It's a slow trickle and really doesn't stop until around the third inning when the final stragglers, who naturally are sitting in the middle of your row, try to scoot on down. It had begun to drizzle as the grounds crew spread about dry dirt on the infield, and by the time we'd had the Honorary Bat Boys-For-A-Day and Blood Donor of the Day introduced and the nice schoolteacher from Waltham sang the national anthem (she kept it short and sweet, no grandstanding, no unnecessary melisma, A+++ would listen to again) we could see the light rain coming down, illuminated by the park's giant lights. This was something I only usually see on TV. I don't think I've ever been to Fenway in threateningly-inclement weather. While it looked dramatic, the rain wasn't heavy enough to prevent play, and the grounds crew spread around dry infield dirt at the top of every inning or so.
The game began ignobly with the Orioles taking a quick 1-0 lead in the first inning. Our starting pitcher was Ryan Dempster, making his Fenway Park debut. He came to us from the White Sox, one of the many new players making up this season's Red Sox roster after last year's circus of failure with manager Bobby Valentine as the ringmaster of disaster. (I will never forgive Valentine for many things, not the least of which is trading Kevin Youkilis away.) We're waiting to see what our new manager John Farrell will do once he gets warmed up and we're just thrilled to watch Jackie Bradley, Jr starting his major league career because the kid's gonna go places believe you me, but the fact of the matter is that we got a lot of new blood this season and, at the start of this game, the Sox led the American League East with a respectable 5-2 record for the first week of play.
But even with that kind of start putting a spring in your step (suck it, Yankees!) you must never expect anything from the Red Sox. This is the team that can suddenly and inexplicably collapse under a ton of positive momentum, the team that somehow forgets to win when it counts, the team that breaks your heart in October after winning it over in July and August. The philosophy a good Red Sox fan must have, besides the old bromide "There's always next year", is best summed up by an exchange I heard on a sports radio show many many years ago, well before 2004. As I remember it, the Sox had had a strong April start then and were doing great as May went along.
"So do you think this is The Year?" a caller asked the radio host. He pronounced the capital T and Y, as you do.
"No," replied the sage of the airwaves, "but I do think this is The Month of May."
As a Red Sox fan, you learn to enjoy your victories as you get them, but never to count on them building up to something bigger. You will almost invariably be let down. I'm talking Bill Buckner, I'm talking Bucky F'n Dent, I'm talking Pedro Martinez staying in the game after pointing at the sky. I'm also talking any number of post-season fizzles, and years we never even made the playoffs. We go out with both bangs and whimpers.
The Sox weren't too happy with that run so they decided to take one for themselves in the second inning. And two more in the third. Baltimore, thinking it unfair, took two as well in the fourth, and it would have made for a fun ballgame if it wasn't rife with errors and what felt like rookie mistakes. Dempster, for example, couldn't seem to find the strike zone with both hands and a map. He consistently kept throwing low and to the left. To be fair he wasn't bad on strikes, when he threw one, but every time he threw a ball, it was low and to the left. And he was throwing lots of balls.
Sonya said, "He's obviously got some specialty which is just not working for him tonight." I agreed; he's probably got some kind of wicked slider which on a good day barely brushes up against the edge of the strike zone. But he was throwing mostly fastballs landing that way. Sonya said maybe they should have let him warm up with a few pitches before the first inning, you know, to get him ready or something. She also thought maybe he should rely another strategy because this one tonight seemed to be "peg the batter in the foot".
"Try something new already!" she cried out to him, after yet another pitch gone southwest. So he threw high and to the right. "That's not what I was looking for!" Sonya responded. You can do that here. To be fair (again) Dempster played defense very well, successfully covering first after a near-disastrous bobble on Mike Napoli's part. Even so, his pitching was woeful enough that I started calling him Mr. Noodle out of frustration. "No, Mr. Noodle!" I said. "Throw the baseball across the plate!" Finally, after watching our erstwhile catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia picking up way too many balls in the dirt ("Hey, Salty! Looks like the game's picking up!") I sighed "Maybe Dempster's praying for a rainout with the game tied at this point."
He almost got one. The rain had been picking up steadily since the third inning and after the bottom of the fifth, the infield was getting swampy despite the best efforts of the grounds crew and their seemingly inexhaustible supply of fresh dry dirt. As the Orioles retired our side, the ump waved his hands and a cadre of red-shirted crewmembers started dancing a jig on a giant roll of white tarpaulin. (No, seriously, that's how they started it rolling.) Once rolled out they unfolded it once, twice, and then finally a third time, spreading a lovely corporate logo across the entire infield.
They got the best applause of anybody in the entire game.
We decided to wait out the rain delay, because we didn't have anywhere to be any time soon and as far as I'm concerned, it's always better to wait it out than it is go home and realize you missed something incredibly awesome. Sometimes this produces failed results, like the time I waited out a Brooklyn Cyclones rain delay in an open grandstand only to have the game called forty-five minutes later. It hadn't even started yet. (Fortunately it was FREE T-SHIRT NIGHT and we all used ours as handy chair chamoises and rain cover. Thanks, whatever charity!)
We were thankfully covered in our Fenway grandstand seats, but as the rain continued to come down the entire lower sections emptied out. By the time the game thankfully resumed, thirty or forty minutes later, a full third of the stadium had gone home. So had Dempster, who was replaced by a succession of pitchers. I think we got one each subsequent inning. The Orioles did the same. Our patience paid off with a pair of back-to-back home runs: first by Daniel Nava over the Green Monster, and the second by good ol' Salty himself, powering one into the right field stands. The crowd, while lessened in number, grew in volume and enthusiasm. We'd weeded out the weak, you see. The Fenway Faithful had remained, and they had been well rewarded.
We kept our lead as the final innings progressed. I was impressed by the Orioles pitcher Daniel O'Day, who's got a brilliantly eclectic low profile pitch. Windup? What windup? I don't think he even raises a leg off the ground. Sonya said, "I keep thinking he's about to throw underhanded." He knocked our side out, one two three, before being replaced in the next inning. I don't know why. Perhaps tonight was Everybody Gets To Pitch Night.
Happily I sang along with Take Me Out To The Ballgame--rejoice, the one true Seventh Inning Stretch has returned, may we never again be subject to somebody's godawful murdering of God Bless America--and dutifully sang the chorus of Sweet Caroline at the bottom of the eighth, naturally including the counterpoint Neil Diamond never wrote. Someone in front of us had stood up and was thoughtfully performing an interpretive dance to illustrate hands, touching hands, reaching out, touching me, touching yooooooooou.
And then we entered the ninth with a new pitcher. Here came Joel Hanrahan, one of our new closers fresh from Pittsburgh. He was heralded by a big-ass display on all the scoreboards, booming bass and flashing HAMMER in big awesome letters. Awwww yeah! Forget Andrew Bailey, who just pitched a respectable eighth inning for us, walking only one and putting the next three down thank you kindly. Here comes THE HAMMER! Time to close the Orioles out, win the game, and go home!
Hanrahan heroically gives up a home run on his first at-bat. I should have known this would happen; the people in front of us simply got up and left as we took the field for the ninth. No! No! No! Remember what I said about missing out on something awesome? Well, yes, it's pretty bad, but it's inspiring awe among the remaining fans all right and somebody's now missing it.
The HAMMER recovers, strikes Matt Wieters out, and then we get a second out after Will Middlebrooks chases a pop in foul territory. He's a good guy, that Middlebrooks. Now all that's left is one out. One single, solitary out. Three strikes, a well-caught line drive, a dribbling blooper up the first base line, you see where I'm going here. Oh yeah.
The HAMMER gives up a hit, and allows the pinch runner to steal second. He walks the next two batters. How did we allow the bases to get loaded here?! With every new dispiriting development the Sox fans, who had moments before been standing on their feet clapping and stomping for the last out, turn sour. The HAMMER gets booed. Every new Oriole batter gets booed, no matter how good or badly he's played or how much of a threat he represents. The second pinch runner gets booed. Then Hanrahan throws a wild pitch at Manny Machado and Alexi Casilla scores from third. The boos get louder. Now we're tied, and we're gonna sit here for another inning half at least. (But we're gonna sit here, dammit; it ain't over until Yogi Berra says something silly.)
And on the next pitch, Machado hits a three-run homer and suddenly the Orioles are up by three. The Sox don't give up any more runs, but they don't recover either. The bottom of the ninth is best left undescribed. Final score Baltimore 8, Boston 5.
So it goes.
It was an accurate encapsulation of a Red Sox season, honestly: A shaky start, an encouraging leap forward, a strange setback or two, a crowning moment of damn fine glory (I've never seen back-to-back homers at Fenway before!) and then a completely absurd meltdown leading to an ignominious end. I couldn't have been happier to have seen it with Sonya. You can't stay mad at the Red Sox. You can boo 'em, and that certainly happened tonight, but you can't stay mad for long. Hanrahan took his loss in stride during the post-game interview: "That's the life of a reliever. One day you're the goat, the next day you're the hero. That's just how it goes. I'll come in tomorrow ready to go." And that's what they do, day in, day out. I know Dempster is going to come in some day this season and absolutely blow the other team away. Maybe he'll pitch a no-hitter. (Derek Lowe did in 2002, and he was a notoriously lousy closer. He did much better once they let him start for a change.)
And you can't begrudge your attendance, either. A game at Fenway is a wonderful experience no matter how the Sox manage to louse things up. That's why Fenway Park still stands, that's why we won't let 'em tear the thing down to build a godawful shiny shrine to corporate America (and some baseball team or other.) That's why you go. You sit in your slightly uncomfortable seat, you watch the kids interacting with the players, you grin as the park organist goes effortlessly from David Bowie to a medley of rain songs, you enjoy an activity generations before you have enjoyed in that very spot. And you start it all by walking up through that tunnel into the fresh air and green grass and the very spirit of baseball all around you. You think of the stories of games past, and you remember stories of games you've witnessed. Cal Ripken's last Fenway appearance? I was there. Mo Vaughn's return as a player for Oakland (and getting an ovation?) I was there. Somewhere in a seat nearby, someone reminisces about Carlton Fisk's home run in '75. He was there. (Maybe. I think that particular World Series game is the Woodstock of Red Sox games.)
However, I should not have felt so surprised about snagging gameday tickets. Near the end of the game the announcer gave us the number of paid attendances that evening, and then added that this was the first Red Sox home game since May, 2003 to not be sold out. The longest attendance streak in Major League Baseball, 820 sold-out games (794 of them regular season), has ended.
And we were there.