Boston : Learning to love baseball
By 'Bitchen' Ric
You know what's really scary? Everybody in Boston drives like me. Of course, as most people know, none of the streets are straight or have lane markings. Making matters worse is that the vast majority of the streets are one-way. So if you accidentally get on a street curving the way you don't want to go, you can't just pull a u-turn and go back the way you came; you have to find a roundabout that will take you to a street that goes back in the general direction from which you. For a guy who loses his sense of direction when a road has nary curve at all, I was totally lost in Boston. Good thing I wasn't actually driving. I was riding with a native Bostonian and it struck me that the thing that unifies Boston drivers is that they all decide at the last moment which way they want to turn. I have never seen so many people make left turns from right lanes and right turns from left lanes in my life. (It's illegal in Indiana.)
Adding insult to injury, you can never be sure how many lanes there are, let alone which one you're in:
'Hey! You just turned left out of the right lane!'
'Oh yeah? Prove it! Do you see any lanes marked here?'
Well I did get to see all the famous places: Boston Common (called that because 200 years ago, it was common cattle grazing area for Boston residents who owned cattle. Or rather, their cattle grazed there, not the residents), Harvard Square (which isn't), the boat houses, the harbor, Paul Revere's House and Fenway Park. Seeing the Sox at Fenway was the highlight of my trip.
"I'll tell what I thought we'd do, Ricky."
It was Tommy. He always calls me Ricky. His penchant for the diminutive form of everyone's name is remarkable. Mostly remarkable for me as I never know if it's a Tommy thing or a Boston thing. Tommy's a native. You can tell by how he drives.
"What's that Tommy?"
"I thought we'd go catch the Sox at Fenway."
"Wow. Really? I've never been to a pro baseball game before." Nor have I ever wanted to. I'm sure my tone betrayed me.
"Ah, Ricky-boy, yah'll love it. Fenway's a classic. You'll get to see the Green Monstah."
"What's the Monstah? Oh, God, Ricky, you've nevah heard of the Green Monstah? Well, you have to go then. We'll ah-knock over a coupla brews and head down thah. Call me tomorrow when you're done with your shit and we'll work it out."
"Okay, I will," promised I.
Wednesday, July 3rd was the second 100-degree day in a row. This was some kind of a record for Boston. Every public establishment in Beantown was like a meat locker. I could have sworn I saw cold mist roll out of a couple of doors as I walked into over-compensating air conditioning. I learned that Boston only has about three 90-degree days a summer and this was one of them. In Indiana we have four to six weeks of 90 degrees and most of it more humid than it was when I was out East. On the flip side, they have three times as many snow plows per capita as Indiana, so I guess it all equals out somehow.
I sat sweltering for a half an hour next to a middle-aged man in horn-rims at the McDonald's (apparently I was lucky enough to choose the only under-air-conditioned esablishment in the city at which to meet Tommy) near Boston University while Tommy finished his sales rounds. Horn-rimmed Guy would stand up about every five minutes, throw down his paper, straighten his too-small three-button golf shirt and start swearing at...at... himself? his invisible friend? management injustice? no clue, but then he'd sit and go back to his crossword in the paper that he studied without filling in any boxes. He didn't even have a pencil.
Tommy came and got me about three and a half hours before the game and gave me a frenetic, freakishly Bostonian driving tour of downtown. Through the financial district, through the Chinese district, past the rows upon rows of hole-in-the wall authentic Italian restaurants, and down Newbury Street--what he called the "Rodeo Drive of Boston" where merchants paid $175 per square foot for the honor of selling to snooty college students with Mom and Dad's credit cards. We drove past Radcliffe and a dozen other university campuses (there are something like forty universities in the greater Boston area if you count the Cambridge side of the Charles River) and finally onto a very narrow, very rough cobblestone street where he stopped by and oddly out-of-place 18th century wooden house squeezed between 19th century brownstones and storefronts.
"This is Paul Revere's house" Tommy commented proudly. And indeed a small brown sign hung from the front with "Paul Revere's House" Emblazoned in gold, scrolling letters on its painted face. "This is the last un-improved street in the city, they used to all be this cobblestone." I believed him, how could I not?
A few blocks farther he pointed out an art deco parking garage that seemed in remarkably good repair for an eighty-year-old building. "They just rebuilt it." he said, surprising me, "This is what it looked like before they raized it and put up this new one. But the old one looked like stong wind would bring it down. They built the new one to look exactly like the old one down to the big 'garage' sign there on the front."
At this point, I shouldn't have been surprised after noticing how much Boston liked to retain as much old architecture as possible. Truly an enchanting trip that must have taken us miles from downtown, but I was surprised when in moments we were driving past the McDonalds he had picked me up from 2 hours before.
Me: "How'd we get here?"
"I 've been driving yah in circles the whole time."
There's no way I could have told you that from the wicked curves and backtracks all through the city. So in confusion, I heard him say it was time to head down to Fenway for the game.
As we approached the park, the parking prices went up, from $10 to park 5 miles from the stadium to $40 to park next door. Tommy chose to park on the street within walking distance and we fed the meter to give us hour and forty-five minutes parking time.
"Won't you get a ticket?" I asked, knowing we wouldn't see his SUV for another four hours.
"Oh, most definitely, but it's cheapah than pahking in a garage. I get a ticket for thirty bucks but it cost me forty to park in the garage. It's a better deal out here."
We strolled down toward Uno's Bar. Along the way, we stopped at a hack shop to pick me up a Red Sox baseball cap somewhat as a memento, but mostly to insure that my receding hairline didn't get any more sunburnt in the 100-degree heat.
The bar was where he was set to meet his friend of a friend who was a scalper to get the tickets. Apparently there are no tickets available for Red Sox games. The scalping business is so large that organized crime fronts scalpers the money to buy up season tickets for a lot of the good seats. We got lucky though. After squeezing in at the bar (standing room only), Tommy headed out to the street to get our tickets. He came back in with a big smile.
"You are not going to believe what I got."
Having no point of reference, I prepared myself to be amazed by whatever he told me. "What's that?"
"I got roof box seats, they are incredible seats, and cause I know the guys best friend, I got 'em without the sauce!"
"I mean I didn't have to pay him any extra, I got 'em at face value! That means extra money for beer!" To the bartender: "Give us a coupla more here, buddy. Thanks."
Three Sam Adams Light's later we were off to Fenway and the Green Monster, whatever that is....
Let me just say that the following experience brought me one step closer toward being a baseball fan--that is to say it brought me the first step ever toward being a fan. I actually watched some of the all-star game the other night because I have, at least a newfound understanding of, if not a newfound respect for the game.
When Tommy and I entered the park, or should say drifted into the park along a rushing current of fans, he suggested we walk straight out into the stands to get a ground-level view of Fenway and The Monstah before finding our roof-top boxes. We hit an eddy of the fan-current on the lower-level at third base just as the Canadian national anthem was being sung. Over the strains of "Oh, Canada" Tommy leaned toward me.
"Do you see The Monstah?"
I did. It was obvious. Where left field should have stretched another thirty feet across Lansdowne Street, a 35-foot green wall stood instead. Later, Tommy explained that when John Taylor built the park there wasn't room to build the whole of left field so he built The Green Monster instead. A 36-foot 9-inch wall that prevented a low flying ball from too easily becoming a home-run hit. For a batter to hit one "out of the park" in left field, the ball would still need to be traveling almost 40 feet above the ground to clear the pale green wall (it wasn't actually green until 1947, but let's not quibble). Anything less would produce a unique "thunk" as it hit the wall and be reflected back into play.
We turned our attention toward the "Star Spangled Banner" (the flag and the song) and then headed back out to find our seats on the roof.
Our seats were high above first base with a remarkable view of the diamond without feeling like you were miles away. Instantly, Tommy (one of the Sox Religious himself since childhood) began explaining the displayed stats to me. I always knew that the appeal of professional baseball often comes from a familiarity--if not memorization--of statistics. I did not grow up with baseball fans in my house or hang out with any baseball fans when I was young (let's face it, I didn't hang out with anyone when I was young--I was woefully unpopular) so I've never had baseball stats explained to me. Oh, I've been to a couple of local double-A minor league games, but never saw an appeal over the mascot racing a 5-year-old around the bases between innings. But Tommy was a wealth of information. Over the course of the evening he explained what the designated hitter was, the pinch runner, the pinch hitter and just about everything else that was outside of my limited mental view of baseball.
He explained to me that at the professional level, baseball is like chess. It's not (like in little league) a matter of luck or dominating players or any of the things you tend to associate with professional basketball or soccer. He showed me how he, by strictly being a fan, could predict what would happen next on the field. He could tell me when a steal or a bunt or a walk was coming up.
"How do you know that?"
"It's all statistics. See he's got a man on two and three and the batter up has a decent batting average of .320 with eleven homers so far this season, so he can't afford the risk of throwing strikes and chance that the batter will connect. So he's gotta walk him."
It was becoming clear to me why statistics were so important to the teams and why it made the game interesting for the fans. I could see why keeping a stat of how a player hits against a given pitcher becomes of supreme importance when you're talking about the large money involved in pro sports. A losing season could drive next year's ticket sales down (though not in Boston or Chicago, but that's different).
The big news of the night was Tony Clark. Tommy told me this was his rookie season with the Sox after three consecutive 30-homer seasons with the Tigers. After starting the season strong, he quickly fell into a slump. When he was up to bat, we could feel a collective psychic groan from the crowd. The feeling that Clark could deliver--but probably won't--was more than stated to me by Tommy, the collective body language of the entire crowd was screaming it to me. In that sense, they were not disappointed. Clark struck out his first and third at-bats with and inconsequential hit on his second at-bat.
After Clark's second strike-out, Tommy commented that, by the scoreboard, it was still 91 degrees at 9:00 p.m. I though I'd see how the weather was back home so I called Time and Temperature in Fort Wayne and not only did it tell me it was 92 and 8:00 p.m., it also reminded me that it was July 3rd. Shit. It was my parents wedding anniversary. I gave them a call.
"Hi! Where are you?"
"I'll tell you in a minute, can you get Dad on the phone?"
"Sure, I'll give him the phone and get on the extension in the bedroom."
Dad. "Hey. It's loud there."
"Yes, it is. Is Mom on?"
"Cool. I just wanted to wish you a happy anniversary from Fenway Park where I'm watching the Red Sox play Toronto."
They were genuinely impressed and thanked me for the call. I told them where I was sitting in case they caught the highlights on the news and wanted to look for me. Back to the game...
It's the bottom of the eighth and the relatively boring game has yielded a 2-2 score. Suddenly excitement breaks out! pinch-runner Rickey Henderson steals second by plowing into a misguided ball thrown by a Toronto infielder (Darren Fletcher, for those of you keeping stats at home) and knocking the ball into the outfield giving him the opening to steal third. After another out and two more single base-hits, the bases are loaded with two outs and guess who's coming to dinner? Mr. Tony Clark steps up to the plate in a left-handed posture (he's a switch-hitter, which means he can bat left- or right-handed). Tommy lets a "jeez" escape under his breath. I didn't need an explanation this time--tie game at the bottom of the eighth and the could-be-except-for-the-slump star is at bat. Toronto's Cliff Politte quickly racks Clark up to a full count--three balls, two strikes. The next pitch is the thing.
"He's thinking he's gonna choke, isn't he?" I ask Tommy.
"The pitcher thinks he will too. He's going to throw a strike. He can't afford to walk in the run."
"Yep. He's going straight up the chute. No doubt there."
Politte winds up and sends a fastball down the middle and Clark swings. And hits! And the ball grounds past the second baseman and into center field. Tony is stunned for a second, as we all are, and bolts for first. The crowd cheers, Henderson bolts from his stolen third base, comes home and 31,777 fans leap to a simultaneous, deafening ovation. Tony Clark has come through! The hero the fans knew was inside of him has finally come out to play.
The ovation continues until Boston's Merloni steps up to the plate. He hits a carbon copy of Clark's center-field grounder to bring in run number 4 and keep the bases loaded. Now that Clark is on second, the coaching staff sends Rickey Henderson in to pinch run for him. As Clark walks off the field, his teammates high-five him and the crowd gives him another standing ovation. He has made good and everyone knows it.
The icing on the cake comes as Shea Hillenbrand is struck by Politte's second pitch and the automatic walks drive a 5th run in and the last nail in Toronto's coffin. A pop-fly out to left field ends the eighth inning.
No here we are at the top of the ninth with a score of 5-2. If this were LA or San Deigo, the fans would be pouring out of the stadium convinced that the game was won and convinced that leaving now will help them beat traffic out of the stadium. I've seen this on television (that's the only reason I know, and then only on the 11 O'Clock news highlights...by accident). But not in Boston. The religion that is the Sox at Fenway keeps the congregation in this classic cathedral until the last drop of opponents blood is spilled. Boston fans are there for kill.
Nothing happens to even things up in the top of the ninth, so the game is over. (They don't play the bottom of the ninth if the home team is ahead.) A few hits, a few runs, a hero redeemed, the sacrament of the dog and the beer and I am bitten, just a bit, by the baseball bug.
I'm bitten enough to be pissed that Bud Selig called the All-Star game after the 11th inning and to know why I'm pissed. I'm bitten enough to want to take my tom-boy middle daughter to a Cubs game. I'm even bitten enough to consider seeing the Reds play the Cubs in Cincinnati in September.