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June 14, 2006
A Kid (finally) Bids Fenway Hello
"Fenway Park is a little lyrical bandbox of a ballpark. Everything is painted green and seems in curiously sharp focus like the inside of an old fashioned Easter Egg. It was built in 1912 and rebuilt in 1934 and offers, as do most Boston artifacts, a compromise between man's Euclidean determinations and nature's beguiling irregularities."
"It was beautiful. So many times because of a key play we get David or Manny to the plate and we feel like we have a chance. It's a tough way to win, but what a great swing."
My earliest memory of attending a major league baseball game dates from July 1973, when my family attended an Astros/Mets game at the Astrodome on our summer vacation. That game had special meaning for my Mother and Grandfather, because Mets reliever Jim McAndrew had attended the same grade school in eastern Iowa as my Mom. As a result, my parents and Grandfather went down close to the field before the game, had pictures taken with McAndrew, and were presented with an autographed program and a ball signed by the entire team, including Willie Mays who was playing out his final season during the Mets' improbable pennant run.
Although I was only five at the time, I remember that game for two reasons: the gigantic scoreboard in left field that combined cartoon images of shooting cowboys and music that kept us entertained during the game, and the fact that from our seats high above home plate in the upper deck my brother and I discussed how the players looked like ants.
I wasn't much of a baseball fan at the time, but that changed two years later. As I've related elsewhere, that fall I spent the night at my friend's house and we watched Game Six of the 1975 World Series. The excitement of that game and the experience of watching Carlton Fisk wave that home run to the right of the left field foul pole and over the Green Monster played a large role in making me a baseball fan. Although I've attended games at Wrigley Field many times and more than a dozen parks across the country--including old Comiskey Park and Tiger Stadium--ever since that October over 30 years ago, this kid has wanted to see a game at Fenway Park.
Well, at long last my first visit came last weekend, so today I'll commemorate it with this column. For those readers expecting the usual dose of numbers I can only apologize and hope that you'll indulge me.
The History and Lore
As a first-timer to Fenway Park, I wanted to make sure to soak in the lore of the ballpark. I arrived plenty early after a short cab ride from the hotel in Cambridge so that I could walk the neighborhood and take in the sites.
Built in 1912 by owner and Civil War veteran Charles Henry Taylor who had become tired of leasing the Huntington Avenue Grounds, their home since 1901, Fenway saw its inaugural big-league game April 20th--the same day as Tiger Stadium's first game, and just five days after the sinking of the Titanic. Appropriately enough, the Sox beat the Yankees (then called the Highlanders) 7-6 in eleven innings. And of course Fenway is now the oldest ballpark in the Major Leagues with Wrigley Field, opened in 1914, a close second. In fact, it's a bit jarring to consider that with the opening of the new Busch Stadium this season, the Mets breaking ground on a new park later this year, and the Nationals getting their new stadium, by Opening Day 2009 Coors Field in Denver will become the third-oldest park in the National League.
I started at the corner of Yawkey Way (named for owner Thomas A. Yawkey who bought the team in 1933) and Van Ness Street, and strolled north parallel to the third base line to see where each of the Red Sox championship banners are displayed.
Taking a right on Brookline Avenue and then again on Lansdowne Street, I caught my first glimpse of the back of the famed Green Monster, installed by Yawkey, and not originally green when he overhauled the park in 1934. Before that time there had been a 25-foot wooden fence and a ten-foot embankment dubbed "Duffy's Cliff" originally created to support the wall and compensate for the elevation differences between Lansdowne Street and the field. The cliff, running as it did in front of the wall, was named for outfielder Duffy Lewis, who mastered its intricacies. The Cliff would also occasionally serve as extra seating for fans allowed to sit on it behind ropes. Four hours before game time, fans were already beginning to congregate at the outfield gates, probably hoping to buy one of the few Green Monster seats installed in 2003 that go on sale on game day.
Another right on Van Ness Street takes you to the statue of Ted Williams and a boy. Installed in 2004, it's the only statue at the park, and fittingly commemorates Williams' war service and contributions to the Jimmy Fund and cancer research.
A little further and walking back along the first base line you encounter banners of Sox greats of the past. It's certainly a unique feeling when you pause to consider their accomplishments spread across the almost 100-year history of Fenway. My mind immediately went to Smoky Joe Wood's outstanding year coinciding with Fenway's first season when he recorded 34 wins, ten shutouts, and three World Series victories (but also one loss some blamed on the petulance of the Royal Rooters) juxtaposed with the image of Roger Clemens striking out 20 Mariners in 1986. Prominently displayed are the retired numbers of Bobby Doerr (# 1), Joe Cronin (# 4), Carl Yastrzemski (# 8), Ted Williams (# 9), and Carlton Fisk (# 27), along with that of Jackie Robinson (# 42).
With the tour of the outside complete I headed into the park via the media entrance at Gate D on the corner of Yawkey and Van Ness. After taking the elevator to the fifth floor and before making my way into the press box I took a seat in the pavilion area and soaked in the skyline contrasted with the green of the field and the sharp angles of the grandstand and the center field wall. The grounds crew was in busily grooming a field that had sustained record-breaking rains over the course of the last weeks. Even so, the field looked to be in surprisingly good shape, perhaps due to the installation of a new drainage system following the 2004 season.
The press box area and concourses throughout the park are awash in Red Sox history, making the park a kind of living museum. Historic photographs and advertisements can be found nearly everywhere, and serve to enhance the park's appeal. I was especially struck by an ad for "Ted's Creamy Root Beer" on the wall near one of the concession stands which, freshly painted, looked as it must have fifty years ago. The walls that line the hallways of the offices and media area are fully stocked as well, and perusing the photographs slowed me down considerably. One wall is lined with photos, while the other features the front pages of newspapers from all over the region the day after the 2004 World Championship.
After finding a good seat in the third row of the press box and parking my laptop, I embarked on a kind of self-guided tour that began by walking along the upper deck concourse and out to the right field bleachers. The first stop was the famed lone red seat (Section 42, Row 37, Seat 21) where fan Joseph Boucher was reportedly struck in his straw hat by a Williams blast (perhaps while napping) on June 9, 1946 off Fred Hutchinson of the Tigers. The 502-foot home run remains the longest homer hit inside Fenway, and sitting in Mr. Boucher's seat certainly gives one perspective on the prowess of "The Splendid Splinter." The blast was hit well over the bullpen in right field that had been installed in 1940, ostensibly to make it a bit easier for Williams to record his clouts--it was therefore dubbed "Williamsburg."
Before moving on I made my way to the right field grandstand behind "Pesky's Pole," the right field foul pole and namesake of 1940s infielder Johnny Pesky, some of whose 17 career home runs--much like Mark Bellhorn's in Game One of the 2004 World Series--snaked around or hit the pole. I sat in one of the old wooden seats, both to get a perspective on the obstructed seats (more about those later) and to remind myself how much smaller people must have been in the early twentieth century.
From there I proceeded down to the field, and although batting practice was not being held because of the soggy conditions, it was still a thrill to examine the seemingly very cramped Sox dugout and pause behind the plate where Williams, Jimmie Foxx, Cronin, Jim Rice, and David Ortiz et. al. have taken their cuts, not to mention just 60'6" beyond where a young southpaw named Babe Ruth got his start and helped the Sox to World Championships in 1915, 1916, and 1918.
This is one of the beauties of baseball. Like no other sport, and indeed like little else in our culture, the game creates a bridge, or rather several bridges running in parallel, that connect the past to the present. Not only do we as fans feel that connection through the numbers (which incidentally is why the Barry Bonds debacle takes on special significance beyond the Grimsley investigation and the steroids era itself) but also through team loyalty passed down, the experience of playing the game, and, yes, the desire we have to be in close proximity to where history unfolds.
Continuing off the field on the third base side and up through the grandstand, I neared the Green Monster. A tour group was perched on the seats atop the wall. This, the second incarnation of the wall which in 1934 was originally made of railroad ties covered by sheet metal, painted green in 1947, and replaced with plastic in 1976, is pock-marked and still includes the ladder once used to retrieve balls caught by the 23 ½ foot screen removed when the new seats were added.
A quick trip up the stairs and I found myself among the 270-plus Monster seats--or rather bar stools--that surely provide the most unique vantage point there is from which to take in a game.
Oh yeah, and there were games too.
A Walk-off Win
Logistically, my visit to Fenway did not go exactly as planned. Also in town for a software development conference, my co-workers and I had planned on sitting in the right field grandstand on Saturday night in the second game of a day/night doubleheader as the Rangers battled the Sox. But the wet weather caused that game to be postponed as part of the day/night double header played on Sunday.
The first game featured Kevin Millwood, undefeated on the road, against a struggling Josh Beckett, most recently tagged for seven earned runs against the Yankees in an inning and third. The Rangers jumped on top in the first thanks to a dropped throw by Kevin Youkilis playing first, who also struggled in the field on Saturday. The Sox tied it in the bottom of the second on a windblown leadoff home run to right by Manny Ramirez, the 451st of his career that, temporarily anyway, matched him with Jim Thome for 30th on the all-time list. The Sox took the lead with a single run in the third, and the Rangers tied it in the 5th. The big blow, however, came from the bat of Kevin Mench when he hit a two-run homer off of Beckett (his first since May 9th, a span of 88 at-bats) in the 6th frame. Beckett had good stuff, reaching 95 on the gun and striking out 7 in 5 2/3 innings, and was able to get out of jams in the first and fifth, the latter by striking Hank Blalock out looking with runners on first and second amid roars from the Fenway Faithful.
But before it was over, Ortiz came to the plate with two runners on in the bottom of the ninth and two outs. Rangers closer Akinori Otsuka worked the count to 2-2 before Ortiz deposited a fastball into the right field stands just beyond Williamsburg for his sixth career walk-off home run, giving the a Red Sox a 5-4 victory. This was the second time Otsuka had been victimized by a game-ending home run this season, the previous time being the historic 14-13 Yankees win courtesy of Jorge Posada in May.
Since we've been discussing Win Expectancy the last couple of weeks, it should be noted that before the Ortiz home run the Red Sox had a WX of just under 5%, making it a bigger impact hit than any of those discussed for 2005 in the previous columns. See, there were numbers in this column after all.
Perhaps the most humorous part of the day was this exchange between a reporter and Rangers manager Buck Showalter after the game:
Q: Have you ever seen a player like David?
Q: Did that pitch not go where Aki wanted it?
Prior to Big Papi's blast I wanted to take in the atmosphere of a Fenway game amongst Red Sox Nation, so I made my way down to the seats that my co-workers and I were supposed to occupy the evening before. As suspected, they were indeed obstructed view seats (note to self: only go through a ticket broker that guarantees unobstructed seats), but not as obstructed as the poor guys a couple rows down who could only gaze out at the center field wall and watch the scoreboard.
As I sat in a seat that faced directly towards "the triangle" in center field, absorbing the sights, sounds, and smells, I was struck by how engrossed in the game most everyone in the 253rd consecutive sellout crowd of 36,232 was. Amid the groans and cheers in reaction to each pitch, various chants, the singing of "Sweet Caroline" in the 8th inning, and the frenzy that accompanied the walk-off home run, I felt like I was transported to a World Cup match more than a big league game. In fact, the only baseball game that I've attended that matched the atmosphere, although not the size of the crowd, was a Texas A&M/Texas matchup at College Station that pitted A&M's Jeff Granger against Brooks Kieschnick in the early 90s.
After a quick turnaround that saw the park emptied, cleaned, and then repopulated in about an hour and half, the second game was ready to start. This time, however, there were no heroics for the home team, and the Rangers jumped all over starter David Pauley for five runs in the first two innings en route to a 13-6 victory on the strength of 22 hits. In addition to the fact that scheduled starter Matt Clement was scratched, the Sox were no doubt distressed by Keith Foulke continued struggles, giving up four runs and seven hits in his two innings of work. Foulke was put on the DL on Tuesday with what's being called elbow tendonitis.
In the end, this kid's first visit to Fenway included two games, 28 runs, 53 hits, and 12 hours which added up to one unforgettable day.
Fan for a Day?
Having grown up in Iowa and spending a decade in Kansas City, I was born a Cubs fan and adopted the Royals. But last Sunday, I was a Red Sox fan and I can't think of anywhere else or anything else I would rather have been.
A Quick Note: I'd like to thank the Red Sox public relations department for providing the access, and I should mention that if you're interested in the various ways a game at Fenway can be viewed you might want to check out the book The Fenway Project.