The Baseball Desert

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Pilgrimage - Day 4

Read "The Pilgrimage - Day 3"

As enjoyable as the first three days in Boston had been - and they had been fantastic - Saturday had an extra little edge to it, because the OUSCPICFIT™ had managed to gather together a bunch of people for drinks at Crossroads prior to the game (well prior, in fact - the meeting was set for 2pm; the game was scheduled for 7:05pm). Before you nod off wondering just how interesting beers in an Irish bar in Boston could possibly be, I should explain. This was not any old group of people getting together - this was me finally getting to meet a bunch of folk who got me through the 2004 postseason in one piece: members of the Surviving Grady message board.

There's always a certain apprehension when you meet a bunch of people for the first time, and although I felt that going into the bar, I also knew that most of the people there would not be total strangers. Thanks to the wonders of the World Wide Web, I knew most of the folks who were going to be there - or, at least, knew them as much as it is possible to 'know' someone through reading their random thoughts on the Internet. What was reassuring for the big, shy English guy was that, should conversation falter, there would always be the common ground of the Red Sox to fall back on.

The man on the street would have a hard time believing that the Brit from France - a Red Sox fan for all of three seasons - would feel a part of this community, but Red Sox Nation, as represented on this particular Saturday afternoon in Crossroads, once again welcomed me with open arms. I'd said before coming to Boston that my somewhat sporadic contributions to the message board made me feel like an imposter on this occasion, but the answer I was given was: "Anyone who kept the faith with us in October '04 into the wee hours six time zones over, when the rest of your country was probably all "pourquoi?" gets a thread." That phrase stuck with me on the days leading up to the trip, during those moments when I wondered how I would be received. I hadn't put in the years of suffering that many Red Sox fans had, but in the short time that I'd been a fan I'd stuck it out through tough games and sleepless nights, and that - along with my Dave Roberts jersey - was enough to gain entry into RSN.

For most of those present that afternoon (and Beth (with a litte help from Sam) has the full list and rogues gallery) drinking beer and talking baseball on a Saturday afternoon was probably not an earth-shattering experience, but for me it was like entering a parallel universe. Over here the MLB experience goes something like this: switch on the computer, grab a Heineken from the fridge, watch the game on my own and make random remarks / yell random insults at the screen, go to bed. In Boston, there was actually baseball on TV all afternoon (Mets / Braves), the beer was Sam Adams - on tap - the random remarks found a real, live audience and the game was something I actually got to see in person. It was yet another example of one man's ordinary scene being another man's Field of Dreams.

Having said that, we were honoured with the presence of Red and Denton, the authors of the best Red Sox blog out there, who arrived just as I was about to write them off as figments of my imagination (or was that write me off as a figment of their imagination?). Beth's account of their presence that afternoon is very accurate - they are funny, charming guys whose relationship to each other is the best thing to watch. And as much as it makes me sound like Rain Man, I really did spend a lot of time that afternoon trying to imitate Red's wicked Boston accent on "Taggin' cahhs." I've not quite got it down yet, but I'll be ready for when I go back next time.

As much fun as it was to shoot the breeze over a few beers, Beth and I had to leave the group in the very capable hands of Red and Denton, as we were heading off, one final time, to Fenway. I know that Beth had a specific moment of realisation just prior to the game that the trip was coming to a close, but for me that realisation came earlier, as we made our way to the ballpark in the late-afternoon sunshine. I live a long way from Fenway, but it's not like I live in Australia, so seeing the Sox again is certainly a feasible proposition, but right then a potential return to Boston seemed a very long way off, and my brain automatically switched into that "last time I..." mode that creeps up on us at the end of any great vacation. I tried to push the feeling away, but it was there all night, from the moment we headed for Kenmore Square to the moment it was time to say our goodbyes on the platform at Park Street 'T' station.

Despite that nagging feeling, I knew there was still a lot of good stuff between now and leaving Boston, and that good stuff began with our 'seats' for the game, which were actually standing room tickets for the State Street Pavilion. I have to admit that when I bought the seats online I had no idea what to expect from these tickets. I think I had visions of being stuck somewhere in the back of the grandstand, with the tiniest of views of the field, but what we got instead was this:

If you're OK about standing for the best part of three hours, it's a great place to see a ballgame. Not only do you have this great view of what's going on inside the ballpark, but you also have plenty of opportunity to take a look at what's happening outside:

Because you're up in the gods, there are dedicated concession stands up there too. If you want some chowder or an Italian sausage, you're out of luck, but if it's standard ballpark fare you're after - hot dogs, pretzels, peanuts, beer - then I reckon the pavilions have the shortest concession lines in the whole place.

The only other reservation that I would have about going up there again would be that it would have to be on a warm and sunny day. The pictures above don't quite tell the whole meteorological story - although he evening started out balmy, a wind appeared out of nowhere somewhere in the middle innings and had people dashing for cover and heading for the souvenir stands to purchase sweatshirts. I hung in there bravely in my short-sleeved Red Sox jersey, trying not to let the gods of baseball send me away frozen and discouraged, but by the eighth inning I was reduced to trying to heat from the inside, with a steady diet of hot-dogs and pretzels.

The game itself was a good one. The Sox scored 5 runs in the second inning and never looked in danger of losing, and I got to see a Red Sox home run hit by someone other than Kevin Youkilis - a shot over the Green Monster by Manny, a thing of beauty that left the bat quickly and just kept on going - but before I knew it the scoreboard was flashing the three words I usually love to see but in this instance had been dreading all night:

and it was time to hit the road.

The only problem was that neither Beth nor I really wanted to go. It wasn't said out loud, but this was the end of this particular road and neither of us wanted to get off the bus. We hung around the ballpark as long as we could, taking pictures and, in my case, enjoying a sort of 'Fenway last orders', drinking in enough of the scenes to tide me over until next time:

But even those moments were't enough, and so in a last desperate attempt to cling to Fenway for a little while longer, we actually went to hang out by the players' entrance to watch assorted Red Sox leave in the kind of cars which make you realise that you're obviously in the wrong job:

Once the players had gone, the only thing left for us to do - short of actually knocking on the grounds crew's door and asking if they needed anyone to tidy up the basepaths - was to head for the 'T'. I left Fenway with a 3-1 lifetime record, which was pretty good going, but as I walked away, that was scant consolation for the fact that the trip was effectively over. I wasn't leaving until the following afternoon, but the trip had always been only about the Sox, and it was time to bid them farewell.

Worse still, it was time to bid Beth farewell as well, and there was no easy way to do that. She'd been a wonderful guide over the past four days, but, more than that, we'd connected in a way that I hadn't even dared to wish for prior to the trip. We stood on the platform at Park Street and hugged, and when Beth said "I don't want you to go - what if they start losing without you?" I was putting on my bravest face. The trip had always been about the Sox, but what I was taking away from Boston was in fact the memory of the Sox fans I'd been around, who were willing to look beyond my funny accent and my inability to pronounce "Faneuil" the right way and just say: "Iain - welcome to Red Sox Nation." I walked back to the hotel along a little bit of the Freedom Trail, with a tear in my eye and as I did so I thought back to the moment when I'd discovered my own (Yellow) Brick Road and found that it led to Fenway:
That was what defined my season - not just caring about the game (which is as fundamental to me as breathing), but watching a team from Spring Training through to the playoffs and really caring about that team. Historically, both for Red Sox Nation and the baseball world in general, the World Series victory means everything, but within the framework of my own private season, it's simply the icing on the cake - 2004 will always be "The Season I Found My Team". I know that the timing of my conversion might well put me squarely in the category of bandwagon jumpers, but in a previous life I used to follow my local soccer team all over the UK even though they didn't have a cat in hell's chance of ever making it out of the basement of the second division, so I can deal with that. However, should the Red Sox not win the World Series or make the playoffs next year, should they finish dead last (and here's a rash Baseball Desert prediction for you: they won't...) I'll still be there, wearing my cap with pride, but it will no longer be simply a fine fashion accessory - it will be something more, something that says I finally belong.
Since I will never be able to do this writing thing as well as Beth, I thought it only right that I leave the last word on the trip to her:
Iain and I both were trying to prolong the experience. Our steps were slow; every possible excuse to stay first inside and then near Fenway was embraced. But then we were on the T and then we were at Park Street and then we were hugging goodbye on the platform and then I was waiting for my train to Alewife and just like that, he was gone and it was over.

A dressed-up couple saw my Sox jersey, and then the woman noticed my dejected expression.

"Did they lose?" she asked me gently.

"Oh, no," I said back, snapping out of it, as the Alewife train roared in on a diesel wind. "They won. 9-3. They won going away."
Yes they did, and so did I. And I left with the certainty that I'll be going back to that place where, if you've got that red "B" on your cap, everybody knows your name.