Monday, May 25, 2009

Two Games at Fenway Park -- Part 1

I've gone to two games at Fenway Park in the last few weeks, or more accurately I've gone to Fenway Park for two games. I've been to Fenway Park plenty of times, have seen at least 50 games there, including 25 in 1991 when I counted the games as research for a novel I was planning to set on the Red Sox. The novel went nowhere, but I got a ton of great Fenway memories, and just about every game was exciting. There's something about that "lyric little bandbox" that engenders excitement. No lead seems safe with The Monster lurking out in left field and inviting cheap doubles and high-fly home runs. Crooked-number rallies happen all the time, and even when they don't, you're on the edge of your seat with anticipation.

The two games from this year certainly fit that description, but I'm not going to talk about the games themselves here (that will be Part 2). I want to talk about how I experienced these games at Fenway. Because the visiting team in both cases was from New York, the games were my excuse to be at Fenway to sell my new book, This BAD Day in Yankees History. I was aided in my efforts by the best sausage vendors in the Fenway neighborhood, the stand run by Robert Coppola, family and friends. Located for 25 years at the corner of Van Ness and Ipswich, in the shadow of the right-field grandstand, Robert's roost is more inviting than ever. Compared to fighting through the packed mayhem on Yawkey Way, it is possible to enjoy your sausage (or chicken or steak tips) in relative peace and quiet in the spacious intersection out by Gate B. I met Robert and the gang back in 1991, when I used to be able to park my van on Ipswich and stay overnight while attending all three games of a series. You can't park on that short block any more (except to pay $30 for lot parking), but you can still get that same great sausage sandwich with sauteed peppers and onions.

Robert was kind enough to let me set up a table so I could sell books, and I was out there for about eight hours the first time around, with the Yankees in town. The hostility between visiting Yankees fans and the hometown Sawx faithful was continuous and unabashed, but strictly verbal. I had thought about going inside to watch the game, but wound up staying outside, and passed the game most agreeable with my friend Justin Booth, who writes a column for Little did we know that the game would last 4 hours and 21 minutes, one of the lengthiest nine-inning games in baseball history--though not that excessive for a Red Sox-Yankees game, which is usually a laborious marathon requiring the players to take a lot of time mapping strategy, discussing possibilities, checking in with all outposts and constituencies, and occasionally even throwing a pitch that only prolongs the process.

Justin had never stood outside Fenway during a game, and we shared this strange perspective on the action inside while conversing on baseball history, Red Sox history distant and recent, the psychology of Red Sox fans (getting more like Yankees fans all the time), and even our non-baseball lives. We caught a lot of the game action on a nearby radio, and there was plenty of action, with the Yankees blowing an early 6-0 lead and the Red Sox eventually prevailing 16-11. The roars from inside were frequent and fervid, especially from the fourth inning on when the Red Sox scored in every turn at bat. Our talk seemed more important than the game, even though Joe Castiglione was going nuts on the radio every couple of minutes and the sounds of the game drifted out to us from the nearby grandstand. It was strange, like relaxing on the beach while shark attacks are going on a hundred yards away, feeling detached from all that nearby frenzy. Every so often the police would emerge from Gate B with a spectator or two ejected from the park. One excitedly told Robert that he wanted to race back in and run across the field, but he was talked out of that foolishness.

As much as I enjoyed Justin's company and the passing parade outside the park, the wait for the game to end was too grueling, and I resolved to get a ticket to see the game I attended this weekend, with the Mets in town. I thought I could get a standing-room ticket, but no. The Red Sox have created a Good Thing out by Gate B, a "no-scalp" zone in which people who have extra tickets they don't need (usually season-ticket holders) can sell them for face value to people who have assembled to purchase tickets. I was told by the man running this program that I couldn't buy a standing-room ticket unless I had a military pass or some other special permit issued by the Red Sox. Just as I was joining the line of people waiting to buy no-scalp tickets, a young couple approached me and asked if I needed one ticket. They had driven up from New York for the game but one of their party of four couldn't make it. "We paid $100 for it," said the leader of the pack, "but you can have it for $50." I said no thanks, I'd try the line. A few minutes later, the offer went from $50 to $40, and I looked at all the people ahead of me in line, then looked over at the sausage stand where I had books waiting to be sold, and I said sure.

Besides, the couple offering me the ticket fit my criterion for another side-mission on this day: to give away some copies to people I felt "deserved" a present, namely couples where one person was wearing Red Sox apparel and the other was wearing something Mets-related. There was no shortage of such couples, and I gave away seven or eight books to them. Indeed, more than once the reaction was "great--we do both hate the Yankees!"

Thus I was able to see the Saturday night game from inside Fenway, my first game there since 2000, when I attended a three-game series with the Mets. That one was memorable for a couple of things. One day, there was a massive power outage in the Fenway neighborhood and the lights didn't go back on until almost game-time, leaving about 35,000 Red Sox and Mets fans stranded outside the park, milling about in search of electricity (for Robert and the other vendors, it was a record-breaking day since people didn't have much to do but eat and drink). The final game of the series was the one in which Carl Everett went nuts and head-butted umpire Ron Kulpa, earning a 10-game suspension.

On Saturday, I went in right before the start of the game and made my way to the rear of section 10, about two-thirds of the way down the right-field line, where my seat awaited. I wedged my way into the wrong row, but found myself next to a man in a Mets cap sitting with a woman in a Red Sox shirt. I had brought two copies of This BAD Day in Yankees History in with me, and they earned the first one. After the inning, I moved down to my actual seat, and handed the other book to the folks who had sold me the ticket, Scott and Staci. I sat next to their friend John, who's in the memorabilia business and talked baseball (and baseball trivia) with me through the whole game.

It was great to be in Fenway again. Only a few things have changed since 2000, most notably the seats atop The Monster, which had a bearing on the game as it turned out (see Part 2). I like seeing the seats up there, four rows stretching from the left-field grandstand out to the center-field bleachers. The other big change is the playing of "Sweet Caroline" after the top of the 8th inning. I wasn't prepared for the enormity of the sound as seemingly everyone in the ballpark belted out this song which would make me switch radio channels but in this setting made the park seem more festive. When the music paused for 37,000 people to scream out the lyrics on their own, it was one big party. Maybe this is the result of the team winning two titles this decade. Back in 1991, a game at Fenway provided temporary joy when the team was ahead, but it was tinged with the knowledge that some sort of doom was impending and the team just wouldn't win what mattered most. Now, with two titles under their collective belts, the fans can take time at every game to celebrate something together, even if it's just a Neil Diamond sing-song.

Oh yeah--one other change at Fenway since 2000: the two additional championship banners.

Despite the glamor of a winning franchise, and despite all the credit the team's management deserves for preserving Fenway rather than building a new mega-stadium, the ballpark itself is still the same old uncomfortable pig-sty. For the two people on my left, the action around home plate was just a rumor, thanks to one of those big Fenway posts. From my seat, I had to lean forward to see the pitch come to the batter, and I didn't know the home plate umpire was Joe West until the ninth inning. The seats are cramped and the rows narrow. New parks have drink holders in front of every seat, but that's not an option in the Fenway grandstands. They would make it impossible for people to squeeze past you to get out to the aisle or back to their seats. So you sit there with your beer in your lap and hope that the person next to you doesn't nudge it onto your lap. You peer around the pole to catch a sliver of action, and you wait for the next smash off, or over, The Monster. Twice we got to rubberneck apparent fights in the next section over but couldn't really tell whether the guy had help falling down.

This game, a 3-2 thriller all the way, lasted a little less than three hours, making it 90 minutes shorter than the earlier game where I stood outside. I wish that had been reversed. I would much rather have spent all that extra time watching the action inside Fenway, still my favorite place to watch a game.

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