Posted by: Ryan | September 30, 2010


It was mid-September, and although the Red Sox had not yet been mathematically eliminated, everyone who follows the team knew that they were out of it, and had been out of it since Youkilis injured his thumb in early August, or maybe even since Pedroia broke his foot in late June.

In other years – those pre-championships, pre-pink hat years – this failing would have caused me agita, would have sent me gloomily into winter, but this year it felt right, like a necessary correction, like the way my brother once said that San Francisco needed another earthquake to chase away the poseurs, back when he lived there in the late ’90s.

And as the Globe had noted on several occasions as hope waned on Yawkey Way, the crowds in Fenway on these cool nights seemed different now, more thoughtful, more into the game itself instead of the spectacle or the hype.

Right up my alley.

Our seats were the same ones we had sat in at the end of May, at the beginning of summer, back before my first trip to Reading, before the disappointment of Lancaster and the triumph of Portland and the near-anarchy of Binghamton. Back when the days were getting longer instead of shorter.

Because it was a Saturday, we had arrived in plenty of time, even though we took a wrong turn on Storrow Drive and had to detour around the Common before finding our parking garage. My recovery from the wrong turn wasn’t smooth enough to make me feel like a local, but I still felt a small frisson of pride at knowing that we needed to merge onto Newbury Street, drive past the shoppers carrying white, handled bags of pricey clothing, and then, there it is, Clarendon Street. A few more blocks, park, get the ticket validated ($9 on game nights), and walk for a mile along Boylston, turn right on Ipswich, pass the septic-scented canal, and then we’re at the bowling alley where a co-worker once saw Sox center fielder Coco Crisp bowling alone after a ballgame, and then we’re at La Verdad, and five minutes later I’m eating an East LA burrito, and a half-hour later we’re climbing the stairs to our seats.

Still, we arrived too late for BP, so we scouted and found the Guinness stand behind home plate, and then I meandered on my own back to our seats, understanding that one of the joys of attending a major league game, versus a minor league game, is that there is simply more to *see* in the big ballparks.

There’s Louie Tiant’s stand dispensing Dominican Presidente beers to the crowds on Yawkey Way. There’s a blues band studiously avoiding Dirty Water (that’s played only after the Sox win), and there’s announcer Jerry Remy’s restaurant, bigger than before, and hey, there’s Peter Gammons, the dean of Boston sportswriters, sitting on the tail of his suitcoat, Broadcast News style, as he idles on a stool in front of a bank of floodlights and a television camera, waiting to detail in perfect prose exactly how the Sox’ season fell apart, and when, and what will happen to Jacoby Ellsbury next year.

Photo of Carlton FiskI walked like a monk in mediation up the brick-lined ramps to the rarefied air of the State Street Pavilion (our seats were several sections beyond these enclosed luxury boxes, but on the same level). I lingered in the hallway outside of the restaurant and bar, looking at the displays of Sports Illustrated covers that had featured Sox players through the ages, from Ted Williams to Jackie Jensen to Carlton Fisk to Pedro and Manny and Curt and Pap. The first pitch was at least a half-hour away, so I studied the covers, captivated by a 1972 photo of Fisk, the pride of Charleston, New Hampshire, looking all of 18 years old, looking like the captain of an undefeated high school baseball team, looking like the essence of rural New England competence and self-reliance.

I recalled the time my mom had brought me along as she did some shopping at East Towne Mall in Lancaster, PA, where I grew up. Ten years old, I stood before a row of black-and-white TV’s in Gimbel’s, watching the Game of the Week, broadcast from Fenway Park. The Sox were playing the Yankees, and I remember Dwight Evans in right field, and Reggie swinging and falling to one knee, and a commercial for Skoal – just a pinch between your cheek and gum – that featured Fisk chopping, literally chopping, not splitting, firewood with an axe in a stand of timber, wearing one of those LL Bean black-and-red checked flannel shirts. He put another pinch between his cheek and gum, and swung his axe at the tree, and it hit with a thunk that seemed so manly and authentic and true that I bought the idea completely: Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk chops his own firewood on his property in New Hampshire to heat the house he built out of stone and logs with his two bare hands.

At the tail end of this summer, thirty-odd years later, I thought about the rightness of Fisk coming down from New Hampshire to play in Boston, and how he personified those 1970’s Sox teams, along with Tiant and Dewey and Spaceman (who I once hit a double off of in a men’s league game in Craftsbury Common, Vermont. I would brag more about this feat except that Bill Lee was at least 60, and decidedly hung-over, and the right fielder misjudged the ball, and the field sloped downhill toward the fence, so the outfielder had to throw uphill to try to nab me at second).

I thought about the hurt that Fisk had lived through in this ballpark, both physical (one of the covers featured a nasty home plate collision between him and his Yankee doppelganger, Thurman Munson) and spiritual, and how, to Fisk, and to the Red Sox fans of his era, this year’s heartbreak would seem minor: a third-place finish, almost 90 wins, and a team who kept things interesting despite all of the injuries.

I thought about my good fortune of having grown up in Pennsylvania during the best era for Phillies’ baseball (I was 12 when they won the Series in 1980), and how the Sox have been consistently good since I switched my allegiance to them in 1993, after we moved to Vermont. I’ve been fortunate, again: there were the years before Nomar, and then there was Nomar, and then Pedro, and Manny, and then it was all Dirty Water and “Can you believe it?” and pink hats and Sweet Caroline.

And although the game that was to follow was slow, and Beckett was his usual aggravating self, and the Sox lost, I carried that sense of peace and good fortune with me, back along Boylston Street, up I-93, up I-89, into my crushed-stone driveway three hours north of Boston.

Into winter I carry that peace, and that sense of gratitude. Thanks to Peter Gammons, to Arthur M. Guinness, to Pedro and Dewey and Youk and Nomar. To the woman at work who sold me those great seats at face value. To the winds of fate that brought me to Vermont, where I can stand among a stand of trees, Skoalless, and think of Pudge Fisk and his sharpened axe, and take an imaginary swing.


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