Sunday, October 24, 2004

Game 1, Boston vs. St. Louis

Once again, I was blessed enough to get tickets to a post season game and headed up to Boston for Game 1 of the World Series between the Red Sox and the Cardinals. Here's my recap.

Boston is not an unfamiliar city to me. I lived there for 3 years while going to school. I've managed to come back several times since, but not for the past few years. Here's the bottom line - I've never liked Boston all that much. The weather is horrible - a cold Seattle - and New Englanders can be just as boorish as Yankee fans, except that Yankees play in the City that Never Sleeps. Boston goes to sleep at 2 a.m., whether you want to or not.

But I arrived at a different Boston. It wasn't a new Boston. Think of it more as having its bricks re-pointed. It was cleaner and more modern that I had remembered it - the new construction had given it a fresher feel. Logan Airport had been redone to make it more airy and brighter - it was a dismal place when I flew in and out for Thanskgiving, interviews, etc. - and the Airport "T" stop was dramatically re-modeled and looked like a centerpiece station. I was impressed right away.

I was no fan of Fenway, either. I know people love Fenway with its historic charm and its quirks and its tiny nature. But when I went in the mid-90's, I thought the grandstands were a joke - most of them face the right field seats, not the field - populated by New England's delinquentest young males. Luckily, I was able to see some Sox victories, including this 17-11 drubbing highlighted by an Officer Karkovice grand slam.

But Fenway, like Boston, has been re-pointed. Although it maintains the faint smell of urine that seems to run in the 1910's-era ballparks (Wrigley has it, Comiskey had it, and I'm sure Tiger Stadium had it - maybe it something about the concrete), Fenway has been remodeled in a lot of ways that make it much more enjoyable to watch a game. First, there are actually concession stands where you can buy things like Italian Sausages and beer. Old Fenway seemed like a Soviet Supermarket; there was one line for beer, one line for chowder and the person serving you at the front didn't really care whether you got yours or not. Now there are plenty of concessions, often in highly accessible locations (I was able to get two beers and return to my seats in RF Box 89 in less than 2 minutes). In addition, I finally had good seats at Fenway - which makes a ton of difference. I had forgotten how close every seat is at that park. So, begrudgingly, I've added Fenway to the list of parks I do like. The leopard has changed its spots.

I will give you a word to describe how I felt about the game - weird. When I first went to our seats, it was during the singing of the National Anthem. And despite the fact that we were in Massachusetts with a bunch of so-called liberals, I've never heard a crowd sing a louder, truer, more emotional version of the Star Spangled Banner. By the end, I was singing it myself it was so moving. Stephen Tyler of Aerosmith couldn't be heard over the voices of the Boston faithful. It was as if singing the National Anthem was equivalent to cheering for the Red Sox. I thought that the National Anthem would set the tone for the whole game.

It didn't. Although the Red Sox fans went crazy for Ortiz's homer in the first they were remarkably quiet throughout the game. While the whole crowd stood and cheered from when it was 3-2 on Damon until the bottom the first ended, there was a lot of sitting the rest of the game. I have a couple of notes in my scorebook about it:

(1) "All the cheers come from behind us." We were sitting in about the 20th row in the right field seats, but people around us were joining in, rather than leading the cheers. I thought that was telling - the crowd was a little blue blood for my liking. They paid a lot for the tickets and they were treating it like a tennis match at the club.

(2) "Red Sox fans don't realize it's a game." After squandering a 7-2 lead, and as the Cards made it 7-5 and then 7-7, the Red Sox fans didn't seem agitated. They were a little indifferent to the Red Sox being shut down by Haren from the 3rd to the 6th. This was just a "happy to be there" crowd.

(3) "Oddly out of it as the Cards come back." There was not a lot of panic in the crowd as the Cards came back to tie the game at 9-9. I would have been anxious - maybe just a little. Chad said it might have just been Red Sox fans waiting for the other shoe to drop.

It was as if the Red Sox fans had spent all their energies in games 4, 5, 6 and 7 of the ALCS and could only get up for the 1st inning of Game 1 of the World Series. The whole feeling was odd.

The game itself was terrific. The aforementioned Ortiz home run was amazing - it looked strange coming off the bat and I thought there were going to be serious questions as to whether it would be fair or foul. But it absolutely screamed by us - the only thing I could compare it to was the flyover by the F-16s before the game. You turned your head quickly but it was gone. A tremendous shot.

Larry Walker was in a groove all evening. His double down the line in the first was a wicked, hooking line drive. From my perspective in the right field seats, shots down the line seem like they can end up anywhere - they come so fast and the wall is so oddly shaped that you can't tell if it will be a home run or a long single. His home run was a no-doubter.

Let me interrupt my story for a second to criticize the brain-dead practice of throwing back the visiting team's home runs. A foul ball in a major league game is a gift from the Baseball Gods. It is the rare colorful bird that perches on your windowsill for you admire just as you are looking out the window. When you catch a foul ball, you can say you caught a foul ball, and that's cool.

But a home run ball is something more special. It is your swatch of the fabric of the game. The ball you have has gone from the Dominican Republic (or wherever they make them), to Major League Baseball, to the umpire's room, where it is rubbed down with mud from the Delaware river, then placed aside for use in the game. At just the right time, when some other ball has done its duty and retired, it enters the game. The umpire grabs it from his ball bag, fires it to the pitcher, who catches, feels for his grip, takes the sign from the catcher and throws his pitch. In the second it takes to the plate, the batter decides whether he will swing - more unconsciously than consciously after seeing tens of thousands of pitches throughout his life - and takes his cut.

At the time he makes contact, the ball and bat meet at just the right spot - near the end, but not too near the end of the bat. The ball reverses direction and arcs away towards the seats. Maybe the outfielder gives chase, maybe he knows the chase will be futile and becomes a spectactor himself. The ball soars over the fence, and the batter slows his effort into a jog as the umpires twirl their fingers to indicate the home run. That ball is no longer just a ball. It's a home run. It's in the box score. It's recorded into history, logged as 1 at bat, 1 hit, 4 bases, 1 home run and some number of RBI. When the batter gets back to the dugout, he'll get high fives and tell his teammates how he struck that pitch.

You don't throw the history of the game onto the field. You might as well throw your own status as a fan onto the field. You are given a piece of the game by the Baseball Gods and you reject it. That cannot sit well with Them, and They have been known to punish those who anger Them. Good grief, folks, this tradition grew up in Wrigley Field, and look at how they've done! So, as far as I'm concerned, anyone throwing a home run back is not only should be ejected, but should be offered up in sacrifice in some way to the Baseball Gods to heal the insult laid upon Thier Great Benevolence. Maybe a phone book upside the head. The Baseball Gods like that.

But I digress. Woody Williams serves up pretty good batting practice, doesn't he? He was knocked around easily by the Red Sox. But then Haren happened. I don't know anything about Haren - not even his first name - but he silenced the guns from the Red Sox lineup and allowed the Cards to get back in the game. Luckily for the Red Sox, he couldn't pitch the rest of the game, and the Cards fed them a diet of Carero, King, and Tavarez in the 7th and 8th. (Former 2000 White Sox hero Cal Eldred struck out Varitek to end the Red Sox seventh and stem the bleeding).

Not content with the lead, the Red Sox gave the Cards a tie in the 8th. Of course, the Cards may have also just decided to use the effective strategy of hitting the ball to Manny Ramirez, who makes Carlos Lee look like Willie Mays in left field. My notes say "Ramirez absolutely brutal," and that pretty much summed it all up right there. Manny giveth at the plate and taketh in the field.

Then the bottom of the 8th. After Varitek reached on the first and only Cardinals error, Mark Bellhorn hit a lofty fly to right. Somehow, years of baseball and softball and judging flyballs made me come to a conclusion that Bellhorn's fly and the foul pole would intersect. Surprising myself, I said aloud "that's going to hit the foul pole" when it was just reaching the outfield. Doink. Then it actually got really loud. Chad was as excited as I've seen him, and the crowd was finally back in the game.

The rest of the game was a no brainer. Foulke, who had come in during the 8th and had been victimized by Manny Ramirez's hatchet job in right field, shut the door after a double to Marlon Anderson. Cedeno struck out to end it, and there was an enormous cheer from the Boston faithful - as if to say, if we can win Game 1, we are going to win the Series.

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