Friday, January 15, 2010

The Mecca of American League Baseball

Originally written June 15, 2009

It bothered me for quite some time that the Cubs were out of town on my first major college visiting trip. When we first had decided to take a jaunt to the Midwest, seeing a game at Wrigley Field, the legendary home of old National League baseball with its ancient grandstands and ivy-covered outfield walls was my biggest priority.

Those priorities had to be reordered after glancing at the schedule, but fortunately, a year later I would not be in a similar spot when my mother and I made a college tour in Boston. Yes, the point of the trip was, ostensibly, to look at universities like Tufts or Harvard – the latter of which I never seriously considered applying to – but for me the entire purpose of the drive to Beantown was to get out to Yawkey Way and make my first visit ever to Fenway Park.

My mother and I checked the schedule after planning our trip and found the Sawx would be hosting the highly mediocre Tampa Bay Devil Rays that week. In a building so rife with history and so low on capacity the seats were appropriately overpriced, but there are only so many opportunities an out-of-towner has to see a hallowed part of baseball history that is mostly unaltered from the day it opened. My mother bought tickets for the two of us as well as her high school boyfriend Richard, who now lived in Massachusetts, and two of his children. For the two of them it was a reunion. For me it was a religious pilgrimage.

We arrived well in advance of our guests and, as I always do when given the opportunity, I stuck along the baseline in the outfield during batting practice in hopes of snagging a baseball. That we, as rational, thinking, complicated psychological creatures go so gaga and go to such desperate lengths to grab a piece of cow hide that is easily purchased at a sporting goods store is always something of a mystery to me, but as I have spent countless hours attempting fruitlessly to snag one, I am in no place to criticize.

On this particular day I came as close to finally bringing a ball home as I ever had before when former light-hitting Mets utility infielder Jason Tyner stepped into the cage for some BP. While I remember Tyner because I enjoyed his scrappy play and quick start when he came up with the Mets, I’m fairly certain that the only people who remember that Jason Tyner ever played Major League Baseball are me, Tyner and my friend Adam Litterman, who could never grasp why his beloved Twins batted Tyner at DH when he had no discernible power stroke whatsoever.

As I waited eagerly and at attention down the leftfield line, Tyner hit a hard ground ball into foul territory and right towards where I had plotted myself against the wall. Sensing my moment for defensive greatness had come I leaned over the wall and put my hat on the ground in hopes of scooping it up as it rolled in. Instead, the ball zipped into my hat, rimmed out and rolled to the unattended nether regions of left field.

While this wasn’t as psychologically damaging as when a middle aged woman pushed me to the ground so she could snag a foul ball I was chasing after at a New Jersey Cardinals game when I was ten years old, I was nonetheless disappointed.

One could possibly assume this was hubris after I had just defended my wearing a Mets hat at Fenway Park to a curmudgeonly usher who grumbled at me upon seeing my headwear.

“May I help you?” I asked, wondering what my offense was.

“A Mets hat?”

“It’s not a Yankees hat.”

“It’s not much better.”

“I was one in 1986. Don’t blame me. Blame Buckner.”

This was the point at which I walked away believing I had cleverly one-upped the Fenway employee. It wasn’t until repeated viewings of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series had shown me I was being a bit presumptuous. While Bill Buckner undeniably bore most of the brunt of Boston’s anguish and outrage after the Red Sox collapsed in Game 6, any astute and knowledgeable student of the game would know that clearly relievers Bob Stanley and Calvin Schiraldi are truly to blame for the Sox squandering their would-be first title since 1918.

While Boston would finally shake the Curse of the Bambino two years later, in absolutely stunning fashion, no less, I became aware that day, April 26, 2002, that my mother was unfamiliar with the Red Sox plight. One of the nice features of Fenway is all of its pennants are posted on the center of the main grandstand behind home plate. As I explained to my mother which ones indicated mere American League titles and which represented World Series Championships, she pieced the math together and realized that Boston hadn’t celebrated a World Champion in baseball in, at that point, 84 years.

I proceeded to explain to her in detail the Curse of the Great Bambino with special mentions to Babe Ruth, Harry Frazee, Bill Buckner, Mookie Wilson and No No, Nanette. This was a profound surprise to my mother who had no clue of any Beantown misery. Of course, by the next time I visited Fenway Park, in May of 2009, Boston’s fortune’s had changed dramatically. The Red Sox had won two championships in the previous five years and were consistently one of the best teams in baseball.

It’s a good thing I made that second trip as I remember a stunningly small amount about the game and the stadium from my first visit. I can probably chalk most of this up to spending most of the night attempting to flirt with my mother’s high school boyfriend’s daughter who had attended the game with us. This was, clearly, an unsuccessful and, given the ties between our parents, an extremely awkward venture, but as an awkward 16-year-old I knew naught for propriety or smooth talk with the ladies. In fact, in the near decade since that game I’m fairly certain that's still the case.

Any time I managed to actually win one over – and it happens once in a while – is a tremendous stroke of luck.

My second visit to Fenway Park very nearly failed to get off the ground, as I had been planning to attend the Mets’ first trip to Boston in three years with my good friend Luisa. Luisa was the first good friend I met in college, as we were grouped together on an outdoor wilderness trip before orientation Freshman year. Ups and downs persist as they do in all relationships, but she, a Bostonian and I, a New Yorker, have relied on our east coast elitism to forge a strong bond with one another.

When I first took note of the Mets’ 2009 schedule I sent Luisa an e-mail with the following words:

“Mets. Sox. May 22-24. Fenway Park. We are fucking going. Period.”

Perhaps my language was a bit brash, but Squeeze, as she was sometimes called, never shied away from profanity and so with months to go before the first pitch, the plan was on. After weeks of scouring auctions on eBay, I finally happened upon two standing room tickets for the series opener on Friday, May 22nd. Unfortunately I was unable to get more than the one day off from work, so my whirlwind trip to Beantown would last a total of 17 hours.

I could generally live with that, but I was unaware that the fun was just beginning. For starters, my bus driver arrived 45 minutes late and announced that he was originally expected to drive a bus to Washington, D.C., but our driver had somehow disappeared.

Into thin air.

I had made the bus reservation fairly early to budget for such a mishap, but one can never anticipate a truck carrying gasoline that explodes in the middle of I-95 and completely shuts down traffic in both directions as a result. That seems like a difficult contingency to prepare for. And so, my bus remained motionless for more than an hour in southern Connecticut as I fretted about my best laid plans running dramatically astray and considered that my hopes of arriving early for batting practice would be reduced to praying I would actually make it for the first pitch. Fortunately, I wasn't the only person on the bus in this position. The man across the aisle from me heard me tell someone I was concerned about making it to the park on time and he turned to me and informed me that no matter what, we were making that game.

I was intrigued to see what plan he had ready for that, but once we passed the completely burned out 18-wheeler traffic picked up. In the end a bus originally scheduled to arrive at 2:15 p.m. finally pulled into Gate 21 at Boston’s South Station around 5:45. I sprinted to the nearest T station, headed to Luisa’s apartment in Back Bay, dropped off my bags and off we were. Luisa was sporting a Sox jersey with her last name on it, which her mother had been presented with by the team at an event once. Luisa asked me if it was lame of her to wear her own name on her jersey, and I told her not to be too concerned by it as I turned my back to lead her out the door and reveal “KALAN” embroidered across my back.

She was elated to not be the only one.

Fenway is, as a co-worker of mine put it, Disneyland for adults. The stadium is so ancient and yet rich with quirks, character and history that placing it all into context in your mind is merely impossible. More than rich with history however, is how rich with fun the building is. Rather than take your tickets at the gate, tickets are required just to get on Yawkey Way behind the stadium, enclosing the street so it can become a large drunken cookout as Red Sox Nation starts a veritable celebration that something greater than any of them is about to happen – a Red Sox game at Fenway Park, the historic mecca of the American League.

Like so many newer stadiums, the outside walls are a rich, red brick face, but these bricks were not thrown in to recreate some architecturally fashionable retro kitsch. These are the bricks that held brand new Fenway Park when it opened its doors in 1912. These are the bricks that housed Carlton Fisk’s waved homer off the foul pole in 1975, Bucky Dent’s back-breaking homer in 1978 and the spark for the Sox’ great rally in the 2004 ALCS. This was home to Johnny Pesky, Dom DiMaggio, Carl Yazstremski, Luis Tiant and perhaps the greatest pure hitter of all time, the Splendid Splinter, Ted Williams.

There is immeasurable history in those walls, and unlike Yankee Stadium, which has seen more than its fair share of history and triumph, Fenway – save for a few alterations – appears the same today as it did then. When you stand within those walls, you feel it. Seeing in person the building you’ve seen on TV a number of times, but never quite grasped until you set foot there is a wild experience. The gigantic John Hancock sign, the far-back stretching bleachers, the short right field wall, the construction beams in the grand stand, Pesky’s Pole and, of course, the Green Monster all pop at you as you walk into the field level and make you feel like you’re somewhere special.

If you’re lucky, like Luisa, you get to experience this every time you go to a baseball game. Much as I adored Shea Stadium and enjoy Citi Field, it is laughable to believe they are comparable to coming here. And given that I rarely have the opportunity to find myself there, and that I had standing room tickets, I was determined to move my way down and get as close a look at the field as I could.

Luisa had clearly never been taught by her father the ancient art of “moving down”. She was not practiced at the old tradition of usurping more valuable seats that you would never in your right mind actually pay for. This was an education for her. Upon walking in, we had already missed batting practice, but the ushers were few and far between, and so we walked about freely needing only to find a pair of seats no one would show up for. Our first stab was in the tenth row behind the on-deck circle, but those seats, we soon found, were spoken for, as were the pair five rows in front that we tried next.

Luisa was anxious we might get in trouble, but I told her to give me one last shot, and so it was that we plopped down some 20 rows behind the first base on deck circle as the game was beginning. The seats had not yet filled in around us and late arriving fans were still coming in through the first three innings. Eventually, the entire section filled to capacity – with the exception of the two seats we had taken.

With the only drawback being a particularly obnoxious Mets fan who sat behind us and yelled brazenly throughout the first several innings – and perhaps Boston’s tradition of singing Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” every game – we had spectacular seats to enjoy, and, at least for me, a spectacular game. Mets ace Johan Santana was on the hill and delivered a dominant performance as the Mets pulled off a 5-3 win in hostile Fenway. It wasn’t as hostile as normal of course, hundreds of Mets fans made the trip, all of them giving me a vote of confidence when I passed them on the streets of Back Bay afterwards. While the park was divided, we all understood, clearly, that our divisions did not run as deep as our caps and jerseys might have implied.

After all, we all hated the Yankees.

After the game, Luisa and I walked around Fenway, caught some drinks and ate a dessert that was far too large for the two of us, and toured her neighborhood where she gleefully pointed out the palatial manse of the Patriots’ Tom Brady. I will never stop being surprised by how early Boston shuts down, but it didnt' matter as a long day had worn me out and I had an early bus to catch the next morning so I could make it to the office in time. The trip was rushed and hectic to be sure, but few are the opportunities to see a place like Fenway. For all things considered, sightlines, amenities, etc, it is not the best stadium in baseball. Of the places I have been to, I will still defer to Jacobs Field for that designation.

But watching a game at Fenway is an experience unlike any other. I spent less than 24 hours in Boston for the purpose of a baseball game, which, to some, surely, is insanity. But after two games in Fenway Park, I have come to the conclusion that while few places warrant that type of frenzied dedication, if I had to select just one, this would be it.

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