The Baseball Desert

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Pilgrimage - Day 2

Read "The Pilgrimage - Day 1"

Thursday May 4th

Over the past six months I've done a lot of travelling for work, and from time to time I've been in that situation where you wake up in a hotel room somewhere and it takes you a second to remember which city you're actually in. For some strange reason, I didn't have that problem on this trip. I woke up in the hotel and my first thought was: "I'm in Boston, and tonight I'm going back to Fenway!" (Actually, that's not strictly true - my first though on waking up was "Please tell me it's not only 4:45am!", but the Fenway thought arrived about half a second later).

The day began with a timely reminder that we weren't in Kansas any more. As I was waiting for the elevator to go back up to my room with my cup of coffee and two chocolate frosted donuts (has anybody noticed the theme starting to develop here?) the guy next to me took one look at my Red Sox jersey and started to ask me about the game. For those of you who live in the U.S. this might not strike you as odd, but this is the first time this has happened to me. Ever. I've worn Red Sox jerseys, T-shirts and caps on hundreds of occasions, but never once have they elicited any kind of spontaneous comments or reactions from complete strangers. I realised right at that moment that in crossing the Atlantic I had turned my world upside-down. In France I stand out, even if nobody strikes up conversations in the subway with me; in Boston, I'm just another Red Sox fan, anonymous but nonetheless accepted by virtue of what I'm wearing and what it represents. The cap or the T-shirt with the 'B' on it means that you can be a stranger in a strange land and still be welcomed with open arms.

I'd been in this kind of situation before, but I'd forgotten that feeling of belonging, of wearing a jersey to show that you belong to a community, and it felt great to experience that again. We talked a little bit about the game - he was an Indians fan in town on vacation, but had been down to Fenway just to have a look at the ballpark - and about Dunkin' Donuts (he was disappointed to have had to buy his coffee elsewhere, so I used the wealth of in-depth knowledge that I'd gained in the 12 hours I'd been in Boston to point him in the direction of the nearest one (here, if you're ever in the neighbourhood)). It was a two-minute conversation, but it put me in a great mood for the rest of the day and helped me realise that wardrobe selection for the rest of the trip would be a piece of cake.

OUSCPICFIT™ Beth had inquired of me the previous day what I wanted to do whilst I was in town and, good Red Sox fan that I am, the only thing I really had in mind was the Fenway Park tour. Desperate not to come across as too sad or obsessed, I threw in the Prudential Center for good measure, and so in about three seconds flat our plan for the day was drawn up.

On a gorgeous spring day the top of the Pru was a great place to be, with the city laid out at our feet:

Since my tour guide is a resident of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, we decided not to use the audioguides provided and rely on her extensive knowledge of the city to guide us around the top of the building and make pertinent remarks on what we were looking at. This turned out to be a mistake. I'm sure Beth could drive around the city blindfolded (well, maybe not literally...), as she knew where all the main arteries were, but she was a little less hot on the major landmarks. Now before anybody - including Beth - starts giving me a hard time, I'd like to point out that she herself recognised this:
Then we went up to the SkyWalk at the top of the Pru for some sightseeing. We were handed some little "audio tour" transponders when we first walked into the observatory, but I scoffed at them, sure I could just tell Iain what everything was. Turns out I was really good at telling him what the roads and highways were and a few landmarks, but half the questions he asked I couldn't answer. "You are the worst tour guide ever," he finally said incredulously. I have to admit it's true.
And in her defense, I am exactly the same when I show people around Paris - once I get beyond the really major landmarks, I'm a little bit lost.

In keeping with the baseball theme of the whole trip the one thing I did recognise was Fenway Park, and the view from the Pru brought home the fact that it really is a neighbourhood ballpark:
No wonder fans can never find a parking space on game days!

Our timing of the Pru visit was perfect, not just because we segued seamlessly into the Fenway tour, but also because, as we were leaving, we ran into a party of about fifty schoolkids, who looked like they were ready to ruin the peaceful afternoon of pretty much anyone in their path. We couldn't get back to ground level quick enough:
Next stop - just for a change - was Fenway, for the official tour. Because it was a game day, we 'only' got to visit the grandstands and the seats on top of the Monster, but that alone was worth the price of admission. As we walked into the ballpark I finally got my "thrill of the grass" moment. The mid-afternoon light was perfect, and the red and white uniforms stood out as vividly as I imagined they would against the green of the field:

It was strange to be in an empty ballpark and to see players going about their drills and warmups in the most laid-back of atmospheres. Thinking back to the emotion and noise of Wednesday's night's game it seemed hard to believe that we were actually in the same place. I think Beth and I both pretty much tuned out the tour guide and just sat there taking in this special place at a unique time. The photos I took inside Fenway were all standard shots of the field, but Beth's eye was better attuned to the nuances of the place, and she was able to come up with gems like this, which shows almost nothing but is yet one of my favourite pictures from the whole trip.

That particular photo is a good indication of the different frames of mind that Beth and I were in during the trip. Since it was my first visit to Fenway - to any major league ballpark, in fact - I wanted to capture the essentials, the shots to show the folks back home and to use as desktop wallpaper on my PC. Not knowing when I'll be back at Fenway meant that I wasn't afforded the luxury of looking around for the unusual shots and the quirky angles. In that regard, it was wonderful to be accompanied by someone who was able to look for that kind of picture. If you haven't already done so, I recommend that you go and take a look at Beth's Flickr galleries. Some of the shots are almost identical to the ones I took, but there are other less 'obvious' ones which are outstanding.

At that moment, and despite what I'd seen from Josh Beckett the previous day, it seemed as if baseball was almost within reach of the ordinary fan in the stands, just a regular game played by regular guys, an upscale version of another day at the office. The players were as relaxed as you’ll ever see them. Manny was chatting away to friends by the dugout:

and you would have been hard pressed to see any kind of reflection of the previous night’s game or any precursor of the game to come. It wasn’t quite “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems”, but it wasn’t far off.

The second and final stop of the tour was up on top of the Monster. All we saw was a little bit of BP, but that was enough to convince me that it would be a great place to see a ballgame:

It’s not just the physical location of the seats – right on top of the action in left field, breathing down Manny’s neck – but also the symbolic location. If you asked any baseball fan to name the defining feature of Fenway Park, most of them would cite the Green Monster. It has stood there for years, unchanged, and to sit up there watchng a game and eating a hot dog or two:

is to get about as close to the memory of Ted and Yaz and Pudge and Nomar as you ever can.

Beth and I wanted to stay in the ballpark to watch the rest of BP, but the Fenway staff said that we had to leave and come back in with our tickets, so I had to have my arm twisted to go have a beer and a cheeseburger (which Beth qualified as sumptuous) over at Game On. As Beth says in that post, that was the moment when my senses really were working overtime. I had finally stopped movng myself and was just sat on the sidewalk watching Red Sox Nation go by, and it was a fantastic sight. There were Red Sox fans in all shapes and sizes - small, medium and large, black and white, Goth and grunge, metal and punk, suits and surfers - and it reminded me that the old cliché is true: sports do bring together people from all walks of life, and it felt good to be included in that. On my passport it says citizen of the United Kingdom, but it could just as well say "member of Red Sox Nation."

I could have sat there all evening, but it would have been a shame to waste the two bleacher tickets we had for the game. After total immersion in Red Sox Nation, there could not have been a better place to watch the game. What was interesting was that it was the same ballpark as the previous night, with the same two teams, but an entirely different experience.

Before we went up to our seats, Beth and I hung out behind the bullpen for a while, watchng the teams warm up on the field. As we did so, the sun started to go down behind the ballpark, and we were suddenly in Field Of Dreams territory, where you start to think "It doesn't get any better than this." There is not a single place on earth I would rather been at that particular moment:

"Is this heaven? No, it's Fenway Park."

Sitting in the bleachers gives you a totally different impression of the game. You are much further away from the action, and this creates a natural tendency to interact a little more with those sitting around you (especially if you realise on two separate occasions that you are sitting in the wrong seats...). It also gives fans a chance to interact with the players. If you've ever paid any attention to a baseball game - and Sox games in particular - you will have noticed that the only players interacting with fans are the outfielders. This is partly due to proximity, but the main reason is simple boredom - there's nothing much to do out there in the wide open spaces except wait for fly balls to come your way, so you have time and energy to devote to the fans.

In the center field bleachers at Fenway, fans' attention was focused on Wily Mo Pena, and it took me all of about three innings to start to love this guy. He would give the fans the Manny double-point sign when he came out, he'd throw balls into the bleachers after warming up between innings, only to then get a hard time from the Monster seats for leaving them out of the action. As Beth said, Wily Mo is too naive right now to know that he doesn't have to do this all the tme, but that was what was charming about it. With all due respect to the fans of the Cincinnati Reds, I thought of what Beth's Dad had said the night before about Wily Mo, who had 35,000 people yelling and rooting for him every single time he came to bat: "This kid thinks he's died and gone to heaven." Boston can be a tough town to play in, but if you play hard and respect the game and the fans, they wil love you like one of the family. Wily Mo is still the new kid on the block, and when Coco gets back he's going to be the backup outfielder, but recently he has been improving at the plate and performing decently in the field, and if he continues to do so he has the potential to be a huge star in Boston.

The game itself was pretty much over by the end of the 5-run first inning, after which the Sox never really looked back. The two things which stood out for me were my first Fenway home run, courtesy of Kevin Youkilis, and the electrifying entrance of Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth inning. The Sox had been coasting along with a six-run lead, but the tag team of Seanez and Tavarez managed to give up 3 runs in an inning-and-a-third. After the third run crossed the plate the crowd was on its feet, calling for Papelbon (and, as Beth pointed out to me later, not only calling for him, but giving the traditional manager's sign for a righty). In the face of such a reaction I had a hard time realising that this kid has only been in the big leagues for a matter of months. It wasn't quite Mariano Rivera coming out of the bullpen in Yankee Stadium, but I'm pretty sure it's as close to it as a 25-year-old rookie can get. 17 pitches and 14 strikes later, he had save no. 11 under his belt, sending 35,000 Sox fans home happy.

On a trip such as this one, it's sometimes hard to appreciate things as they happen, but I think I was able to do that as I left the ballpark. A picture can speak a thousand words, but this one only needs to say three:

Read "The Pilgrimage - Day 3"