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Art is where you find it. Blasted into the brick floor of the Davis Square subway station in Somerville are a number of poems, among which is Peter Payack’s “No Free Will in Tomatoes,” which I quote here in full:
I place a tomato
on the windowsill
to ripen. Slowly it turns red.
As surely as that tomato must turn red, the Red Sox fan must make the pilgrimage to Fenway Park on Opening Day. This is by far the best way to welcome spring, and on a weekday afternoon, when responsible folk should be on the job, the symbolic gesture becomes even more appealing.
As with any worthwhile pilgrimage, this one has some drawbacks: the thronging crowds that make just getting into Fenway a chore, and buying a beer once inside all but impossible, the traditional early April chill that can numb your fingers before they’ve so much as scribbled the line-ups in the scorebook, and lately the relative ineptitude of the Sox themselves. Last year’s sixth place finish was no fluke.
In recent years I’ve also taken to attending the second home game. More than sheer indulgence, this serves as something of a restorative for my baseball equilibrium. Last year, for instance, after the hubbub and hoopla of Opening Day—to say nothing of the devastating 7-1 drubbing administered to the Red Sox by the (formerly) lowly Toronto Blue Jays—it was wonderful to scoot out to Fenway the next day, find so much room there (the announced attendance was under 10,000) that a $3.00 general admission ticket turned into a prime lower box seat near the home on-deck circle, and watch Ralph Houk’s troops win. All this, and no waiting in long beer lines.
I came away from that game sensing that I’d caught, in the two days, a microcosmic glimpse of what was in store for the Red Sox in 1983. They would spend the year playing catch-up, always chasing respectability without ever quite achieving it. Sadly enough I was right. The beginning of the Red Sox’s home schedule for this year seemed to offer an even better chance for this sort of augury. The home opener (after they began the season with eight games on the West Coast) was to be against the perennially promising Detroit Tigers on, of all days, Friday the thirteenth. After an off day Saturday, the Detroit series concluded with games Sunday afternoon and Monday. The latter being Patriot’s Day, the game had the early starting time of 11:00 a.m., in order to accommodate fans wanting to get out to Beacon Street and Kenmore Square in time to see the marathoners stagger by in the last mile of their ordeal.
This year, even before spring training began, I decided to start the season right and make it to the entire opening series. After all, perhaps 1984 would be different for the Sox. Perhaps manager Houk’s optimism would turn out, for a change, to be wellfounded. The seemingly ordinary young pitchers of 1983, with a year of seasoning, would become stoppers; the offense, with the addition of Mike Easier as a left-handed batting threat, would show a new consistency. Perhaps I would sit next to a kindly tycoon who, impressed with my general knowledgeability and demeanor, would offer me a highly paid administrative position in his media empire . . .
Or perhaps not.
In any case, this total immersion in baseball would provide an opportunity for me to jump-start my own creaky enthusiasm once again. It hasn’t been easy to get excited about the Red Sox, or baseball in general, lately, what with ownership squabbles, management-labor difficulties; and drug busts crowding the game itself off the sports pages. I wanted to keep alive within myself that spark of gleeful immaturity that brings the fan to his feet with a shout when a 3-2 fastball is ripped into the bleachers for a decisive home run. I wanted a good time at Fenway, and something more besides, and if three early shots at it didn’t yield up the appropriate omen or two I needed, I might as well face reality in April as in October.
• • •
You kin do maa-gic . . .
The radio warbled enthusiastically as I drove towards the ballpark. The sun shone. Great things were imminent.
You kin be anything you wa-ant . . .
How appropriate this song of optimism and potentialities, I thought. It was exactly the message the Red Sox organization was putting out about this year’s club—and why not, with the season barely begun? Each new season brings its fresh start. All things are possible. Anything can happen.
Pitching the home opener for the Sox would be young Bruce Hurst. Coming off two good outings, he was being built up as the ace of the staff, representing as much as anyone the future hopes of the team. The only thing that could be said for certain about his ability was that it fell somewhere between that of Walter Johnson and Bobby Sprowl. The jury was still out on catcher Rich Gedman, too. His bat had been hot all spring, and he was being billed as the second coming of the 1972 Carlton Fisk, but he was just as likely to be simply the 1983 Rich Gedman again. All up and down the Boston lineup there was undeniable potential, but each would-be All-Star was shadowed by qualifying questions.
Some 35,179 fans jammed into Fenway Park to express the hope that this year the potential would be realized, that once again baseball would afford excitement, justice, and vicarious fulfillment. That our guys, the good guys, would win. Our attendance was, in effect, a mighty ritual of faith.
The pre-game ceremonies drew us in, a willing congregation. Color guards marched. Players, managers, coaches, and trainers paraded to the first and third baselines to be introduced. Mayor Flynn trotted briskly to the mound to throw the first Fenway pitch of the year—no tame sideline toss for him! And here was Robert Goodman, the New Hampshire soldier whose freedom from Syrian captivity Jesse Jackson had negotiated, to throw in another one. Whoops, wild pitch. The band played, the anthem was sung with vigor, we happily choked down our sacramental hot dogs of hope, and the Red Sox took the field.
They had their work cut out for them. The Tigers had opened the season with seven straight wins, and finally seemed to be playing the way their rabid loyalists had insisted they could play for several years. Maybe it was my Fenway Frank settling, or the cloud cover that now left the stands chilly and gray, but I was finding my optimism hard to hold onto. Maybe the Globe’s terrific new baseball standings format on their Scoreboard page was depressing me. In addition to the records and relative standings of the teams, they now broke out figures for the last few games of each team as well, and noted winning or losing streaks. Against the Tigers’ W-7 in that last column stood Boston’s L-3.
The West Coast swing with which the Sox had begun the season hadn’t gone well. After winning two of three in Anaheim, they’d lost two out of three in Oakland, and dropped both their games in Seattle. A disturbing downward trend. Which way would things go from here? Was it possible that things could get worse? What could be worse, though, than being swept by the team which had last year compiled by far the worst record in the whole league? I began to conjure up visions of a major disaster, a fiery dirigible careening out of control into the packed bleachers, a cataclysmic earthquake rending the field asunder and swallowing up Wade Boggs and Jim Rice . . .
My darkest fears, however, fell short of what actually happened. Thirteen Tigers came to the plate in the top of the first, scoring eight runs on a medley of hits, walks, and Red Sox errors. Eight runs down before the Sox even got to bat!
Eight runs! If you need some perspective to take that in, consider that some pretty good offensive baseball teams (the Montreal Expos last year, for instance, or the Atlanta Braves) have gone through an entire season without once scoring that many runs in an inning. Consider that, until being blown away in his one-third of an inning, Bruce Hurst hadn’t given up a single earned run in over seventeen-plus innings in his first two starts. Consider that the Red Sox proceeded to knock out nemesis Milt Wilcox in their half of the first, and to score more runs (five) than they’d scored in one inning all year, only to find themselves still down by three.
Whether the Red Sox assault my devotion by grounding into six double plays in a game again or not, I’ll be back at the ballpark.
The Sox, in fact, behaved as they had so often last year. They came to life once the game was hopelessly lost, and rang up runs almost as fast as their own pitching staff yielded them. Newcomer Easier showed a fine Fenway stroke, with four hits including two Wall shots. Thus it appeared one could safely recycle last year’s cocktail party baseball chatter, centered around a few bright spots and a great many dull ones. One of last year’s brightest, reliever Bob Stanley, showed great flair in the bullpen with his destructo rake smashes of a couple of errant beachballs, but had uncharacteristic problems on the mound, giving up five hits and four more Detroit runs in the eighth. That made it thirteen to six, and most of the fans the chill hadn’t already driven away headed for the exits. Thus they missed another offensive burst by Boston in the bottom of the inning to pull them back to within four at thirteen to nine, but it was all really just more of the same. Another Fenway pitcher’s duel. The Saturday morning scoreboard streak line had the Tigers at W-8 and the Sox at L-4 and I could only hope Boston would make amends on Sunday.
• • •
An hour after the scheduled start of Sunday’s Game, my friend Hewat and I were hunched sullenly over the bar at Doyle’s in Jamaica Plain, half-watching the Arizona Somethings play the New Jersey Something Elses on TV. USFL football: this had to be the nadir. We’d braved a cold rain to get to Fenway, and had huddled in the stands until management sold enough beer and hot dogs to call the game. This second-home-game business wasn’t as simple as my last year’s experience had led me to believe.
• • •
I’d like to report how the Red Sox stormed back to sweep the next day’s doubleheader, but while marathons go on whatever the weather, baseball games (at least the un-domed ones) don’t. The regular game and the make-up game were both cancelled by nine o’clock Monday morning. So much for Detroit—we’d add no more wins to their streak!
And so much for my plans to turn the three game series into a crystal ball. Instead I was left with a one game lowlight film redolent of the worst Sox pratfalls of years past, and the Sox were 3-6 and in a four-game swoon.
But somewhere within the rain and gloom, baseball had returned to Boston for another year, and that mattered more than a few losses and cancellations. The double rain outs had made me realize that even a ludicrous travesty of a game is preferable to no game at all. Whether the Red Sox assault my devotion by grounding into six double plays in a game again or not, I’ll be back at the ballpark. My rain checks are safely tucked away, and I can report that I’m genuinely glad of the long season that stretches before us into October. Which is why I’ll leave you with two upbeat notes: 1. The World Champion Baltimore Orioles, at this writing, are off to an even worse start, 2-8 (L-2) after losing tonight in Toronto. Nobody’s writing them off. 2. The price of a beer in Fenway Park, for the first time in memory, didn’t go up this year.
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