The Baseball Desert

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Pilgrimage - Day 1

Wednesday May 3rd

Having spent the previous three days eagerly watching the weather forecast for the Boston area and seeing nothing but showers for Wednesday evening, the sunny blue skies and 70° weather Paris was basking in as I left almost seemed like a cruel joke being played on me by the baseball gods, but I left in good spirits, hoping that somehow things would change for the better.

Hopes remained high as I flew across the Atlantic, but then so they should have - I was travelling at 500mph, way above any kind of bad weather, and life always looks good from up there. However, I came down to earth - literally and figuratively - at Logan Airport, where all I could see from the window of the plane were huge puddles of water. I tried hard to do some positive visualisation, telling myself that the Fenway grass had much better drainage than the Logan concrete, but I wasn't all that convinced. I figured I'd flown 4,000 miles to get rained out in Game 1.

Since I was already a little on edge about the game, U.S. Customs and Immigration thought it would be a good idea to add to that anxiety by putting a sum total of five officers on the desks to deal with three simultaneous international arrivals. By the time it was my turn to be barcoded into the Homeland Security database, I was looking at my watch every two minutes. I'm actually surprised I didn't get stopped and questioned on that basis alone, but in the end I just got the standard "Business or vacation?" line, to which I proudly replied that I was on my way to Fenway. "Hmmm...not sure if they're gonna be able to play the game in this weather," was the encouraging reply from my friendly immigration official. Yeah, thanks for nothing, buddy.

Remembering Paul's sound advice, and after a brief but peaceful struggle with the automatic ticket machine, I jumped on the T and headed for the hotel, where I had just about enough time to put on the Papi T-shirt and the Dave Roberts jersey before heading on back out to Fenway.

One of the first things I had to deal with on the way to the ballpark was an overload of what I call my 'Red Sox radar'. I live in a country where 95% pf the baseball caps you see have that ugly interlocking 'N' and 'Y' on them, and 99% of those caps are more a fashion statement than a badge of allegiance - the people wearing them would be hard pressed to tell you the name of the team, let alone name the starting rotation. A Red Sox cap is therefore something of a rarity, but when I got on the 'T', they were suddenly everywhere. My brain kept going "Oooh - Sox cap", "Oooh - Sox jersey", until it finally sunk in that I was in a place where the red 'B' was the rule, not the exception.

Coming from a place where baseball is an unknown quantity meant that much of the initial pleasure was to be gained from the ordinary little things that most baseball fans take for granted: the caps, the jerseys, the snippets of baseball conversation on the 'T' and the general sense of belonging to something much bigger than the individual. I was still getting my bearings, so I played no active part in all of this - I was content to just soak up the atmosphere and sit there with an occasional silly grin on my face.

I was brought back to reality by the driver announcing "Kenmore - this stop for the ballpark", and then all of a sudden I was being carried along on a river of red, white and blue. I had no idea which way Fenway was, but I didn't really need to - all I had to do was follow the thousands of fans streaming out of the station.

Up until that point I had just been enjoying the ride, but as I was coming out of the 'T' station, I felt my first real jolt of excitement as I saw a simple little sign on the stairs that said "Fenway Park", alongside the Red Sox logo. I realised that all the rest was just filler, and that this was what it was all about, the culmination of an 20-year baseball journey and a slow-burning love affair with the Boston Red Sox.

From that point on it was pretty hard to keep the inane grin under control. I could see the Citgo sign and knew that the ballpark couldn't be far away. I followed the crowds onto Brookline Avenue and then suddenly, as we approached the Mass. Turnpike, there it was: Fenway Park.

It really is a ballpark from the good old days - it doesn't stand out in the middle of a gigantic parking lot like some stranded mother ship from an alien galaxy, but is rather an inherent part of the neighbourhood in which it was built, to such an extent that its very dimensions are governed by the streets surrounding it, rather than vice versa. What this means for the first-time visitor is that the ballpark almost sneaks up on you - one moment it's not there and the next, it is, like a faded green gift-wrapped birthday present just waiting to be discovered.

The grin was now accompanied by a quickened step. It was as if I needed to get there as quickly as possible now, just to make sure that I wasn't dreaming all this. It had taken me almost twenty years to get to this first ballpark, but suddenly those last few steps seemed almost too much, and I all but ran the remaining few yards to the corner of Lansdowne.

Despite the 4,000 mile flight and the concerted efforts of U.S. Immigration to make me late, I was right on time for my 6pm appointment with Beth, until now an inhabitant of the virtual universe they call the Interweb, but about to become Official US Contact Person In Charge for Iain's trip (OUSCPICFIT)™. Thankfully, Beth was running a little late, and I was able to dash up and down Lansdowne in a sort of "Pinch me!" frenzy and duck into the souvenir shop for a grey Red Sox hoodie. If there was an "I made it, Ma!" moment on this trip, it was right then.

After Beth had arrived and the formal introductions were out of the way, it was on to the serious business of getting inside. I was the stranger in a strange land here, so I just let her lead the way, as we weaved in and out of the heaving masses around Fenway.

I had spent a long time anticipating and imagining the moment when I would walk up the runway and finally see the field laid out before me. In my mind's eye the scene was always bathed in a warm, late-afternoon glow; in reality, it was bathed in nothing more romantic than a steady drizzle, but it still looked fantastic. My thoughts echoed those of Stephen King in Fenway:

Doesn't everybody remember their first time at Fenway? I was twelve years old. We went down from Maine with my cousin, who had his driver's license. It was a gray day. The Red Sox were playing the Tigers. It was either 1959 or '60. Ted Williams was still playing, and Al Kaline was playing for the Tigers. The game was an official game, but it was called after six innings because of rain. Detroit won, and I think Norm Cash hit a home run. What I remember was coming up the runway and out into the park and just being flattened by the beauty of it, by the green. And the day was gray, but the grass was the greenest green I'd ever seen - and I was a country boy.

The other thing that immediately struck me - and Beth had said this to me on several occasions - was how small Fenway looked. Somehow TV seems to enlarge the park's dimensions, maybe because you never get the sense that there's anything behind you, but once you get inside and there are walls all around, it does feel very intimate, or at least as intimate as a 35,000-seater stadium can be. Beth was as disappointed as I was - if not more so - that the weather wasn't as good as it might have been, but her rationalisation of the situation did raise one interesting point, which was that the bad weather allowed me to ease gently into the Fenway experience. Had the sun been shining and everything been picture-perfect, it probably would have been too much. This way, I got to appreciate the simple fact that I was there, without suffering immediate sensory overload.

To be honest, the ballpark looked just great to me, even in the rain. If I were to draw an analogy, it would be that of waking up next to someone you are truly and deeply in love with - at 6am, nobody looks their best, but what you see is coloured by your deepest feelings, and so you can say "You are beautiful" and really mean it. That is what I wanted to say to Fenway at that moment - despite the rain and the tarps, it looked beautiful:

The one downside to the tarps was that as long as they stayed on, there wasn't going to be any baseball played. In the light of that, Beth proposed that we just wander around the park and take in the sights, and I didn't need to be asked twice.

It was strange to be able to wander around a sports stadium at will. My experiences have been mainly limited to English soccer grounds, and they are very clearly divided up into sections - once you have entered your section, you can't go anywhere else. At Fenway we were pretty much free to wander where we wanted (a point made in a guest post last year by Baseball Desert contributor DBF), including down behind the dugouts. And it was down there that I got my second jolt of the evening. As we stood there wondering whether the tarps were ever going to come off or whether in fact I was headed for the world's worst-timed rainout, Beth nudged me with barely-suppressed excitement and said: "Tito!" And indeed, not ten yards away from us was Terry Francona:
I managed to not jump up and down with the excitement of it all, but it wasn't easy, because no sooner had Tito gone past than it was Theo's turn:

The reason for the two of them appearing in quick succession soon became clear, as against all expectations, the grounds crew started to remove the tarp from the field. At one point Beth wondered out loud whether they were just clearing the water off it in order to put it back on, but no - they were taking it off and rolling it up. We were going to see a ballgame! (I have to say that I think we benefitted from the rainout of the Yankees game the previous evening. I'm pretty sure that Sox management didn't want rained-out games on consecutive nights, so they did everything in their power to get the game played).

It has to be said that I wasn't the only one getting excited at that point, since it suddenly became clear to Beth that she was about to see a pitcher other than Matt Clement or David Wells. It would appear to be written somewhere in Beth's destiny that she shall not see any other pitcher at Fenway but those two. However, the rainout meant that the scheduled starting pitcher - Matt Clement, naturellement - would pitch on May 4th and that we would in fact now get to see Mr Josh Beckett in action:
By this time I was starting to freak out - in a very calm, British way, but freaking out nonetheless - in the way that you do when you suddenly come virtually face to face with people you've only ever seen on television. This rational, responsible 36-year-old father of two was suddenly transformed into an incoherent idiot: "Hey, that's...we're...I'm...yay!" This seemed like a good time to go find our seats (after a brief visit with Sam), before things went from bad to worse.

The seats we had for the game were in the CVS family section, up on the first base side, close to the Monster:

There was a pole obstructing our view of the field, but after all the waiting I'd done, I was determined not to let that bother me and to just put it down to part of the Fenway experience. Beth said that she was pretty sure the ballpark would not be full and that we should move around and find some better seats, and we were in the process of doing that, and standing for the national anthems, when the baseball gods decided to smile on us once more. Beth's cellphone rang - it was her Dad, calling to inform her that he had seats behind the visitors' dugout, about half-way back, and that there was an empty row just in front of him. So, having already wiped two sets of seats dry with our now slightly-damp rear ends, we headed off to carry out our 'auto-upgrade' and park ourselves in some very nice seats much closer to the action.

If there was a quick lesson to be learned from sitting in those seats, it was this one: a ball thrown at 96mph is travelling damn fast - the ball goes from the mound to the plate in what seems like the blink of an eye. (There was also a second lesson: always bring a cloth with you if you don't want to be sat in damp jeans all night). I'd seen big league pitchers on TV, and I've even played a little baseball myself, but nothing had prepared me for the crap-your-pants speed at which Beckett was throwing the ball. Intellectually I know that hitting a baseball is at the limit of what the human brain can do (especially if the brain is not too big to begin with), but it was only when watching Beckett side-on:

that I finally understood that. I sat in awe as he unleashed pitch after pitch that I could barely follow, let alone imagine trying to hit. There just didn't seem to be enough time between him letting go of the ball and it landing with an audible "Pop!" in Varitek's mitt for hitters to do anything other than shut their eyes and pray, and I suddenly understood - complete with a little lightbulb coming on over my head - why the best hitters in the game still fail 65% pf the time.

Once the game was under way, I was constantly torn between wanting to enjoy every minute of it and also wanting to have a visual, digital record of it to take back home. I think I found the right compromise - around 4/5 game and 1/5 taking pictures - but I was undoubtedly helped by the fact that I knew I would be coming back for more games later in the week.

Although the actual context - baseball at Fenway - was unfamiliar to me, it didn't take me long to start reliving sensations I hadn't felt in a very long time. One of the real pleasures of the evening was simply being at a game with 35,000 other fans, all rooting for the same team. I hadn't been to a live sporting event where I had so much invested in the outcome for years, and I got a real rush from the crowd around me. There have been times when I - and others - have likened our passion for baseball and the Red Sox to a religion ("Keep The Faith", anyone?). And like a religion, it is possible to be a believer on your own, sat in your apartment building in Paris, but it is a far more powerful experience to share that passion and those beliefs with a huge group of like-minded people. When the Sox take a lead on MLB.TV, I sort of gently (and quietly, as it's often the middle of the night) punch the air with my fist; at Fenway, I was on my feet for every hit, high-fiving Beth and her Dad after every run scored and yelling "Yoooooooooouk!" with the best of them. I don't know at what precise moment I lost my voice, but I'm guessing around the 7th inning.

Outside of the group effect, I also got a real kick from the conversations going on around me, the observations, the knowledge and the opinions being aired, even the heckling (my favourite being the completely random "Butterfield - you suck!"), all of it coated with a fine Boston accent.

And what about the game itself? For the record, the Sox rallied three times but still lost 7-6. Papelbon gave up his first earned run of the season and Foulke - much to Beth's dismay - gave up a 2-run home run, and with it the ballgame. But if you've read this far, you'll probably have understood that the game was of secondary importance. I'd spent months thinking about the trip and days worrying about the weather, but in the end, I got to see Beckett match up against Roy Hallyday, I sat in some fine grandstand seats eating hot dogs and drinking beer, I sang "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" and "Sweet Caroline" and had a pretty damn good time. As Vin Scully said of Game 1 of the 1988 World Series: "Not a bad opening act."

After a cup of coffee and a donut at Dunkin' Donuts in Kenmore Square, I headed back to the hotel damp of trouser, hoarse of voice but still grinning from ear to ear. Regardless of the loss, it had been a great evening - the gods had smiled on us for pretty much everything bar the final score, so I couldn't really complain. I was on cloud nine all the way back to my hotel in the Financial District, but the real impact of the trip hit me as I was getting ready to hit the sack (at 6:00am, Iain time). Here in Paris I'm lucky if I get to see two games a week on the Internet, and here I was, having seen my first game at Fenway and knowing that I would be back there the next night, and the next, and the next. There was only one worrying thought that crossed my mind: "I could get used to this in a hurry..."

Read "The Pilgrimage - Day 2"