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2006: Diary of a Season

Tuesday, April 11 - Fenway Park, Section 42

Red Sox 5, Blue Jays 3

Opening Day is always special. No matter what happened in the previous season or over the winter, it's a time to start fresh. It had certainly been a chaotic off-season. After the Red Sox got swept by the Chicago White Sox in the Division Series, the team had a lot of work to do. It seemed a mere formality to extend general manager Theo Epstein's contract by the October 31 deadline. But on Halloween night, he suddenly resigned from the position, sneaking out of Fenway Park in a gorilla costume to avoid the media. On Thanksgiving, the remaining members of the front office traded top prospects Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez, along with a couple of other minor leaguers, to the Florida Marlins for starter Josh Beckett, third baseman Mike Lowell, and reliever Guillermo Mota. They sent a "Gang of Four" assistant GMs to the winter meetings, and it seemed like each one wanted to make his mark by engineering his own trade. In early December, they traded Doug Mirabelli to the San Diego Padres for second baseman Mark Loretta. The next day they sent Edgar Renteria to the Atlanta Braves for their top prospect, third baseman Andy Marte. Later in the month, Jed Hoyer and Ben Cherington were named co-GMs of the Red Sox, and they held firm in their 4 year/$40 million offer to Johnny Damon, who bolted to the Yankees when they trumped that offer. By mid-January, Theo was back, and he traded Andy Marte, Guillermo Mota, and Kelly Shoppach to the Cleveland Indians for centerfielder Coco Crisp, reliever David Riske, and catcher Josh Bard. Shortstop Alex Gonzalez signed as a free agent, and J.T. Snow and Dustan Mohr rounded out the bench. Rudy Seanez and Julian Tavarez joined the bullpen. The Red Sox entered spring training with seven starting pitchers, but David Wells was requesting a trade and Jonathan Papelbon was likely to begin the season in the bullpen. Even though most of the other starters were injury-prone, the Sox traded Bronson Arroyo (who had just taken a hometown discount in a multi-year deal to remain in Boston) to the Cincinnati Reds for raw young outfielder Wily Mo Pena. But when the season started, the Red Sox went 5-1 on their opening road trip through Texas and Baltimore, and by the time the home opener arrived, it was all good again.

The new Pavilion level This year it was a beautiful sunny day. As usual, we arrived early and went in as soon as we could. The changes to the ballpark looked great! The major project this year had been removing the glass from the .406 Club and turning it into a two-level open-air club seating section. They also extended the sky box seats in the upper deck to include ten rows of seats instead of just five. It really looked nice, the way it should have looked all along. Normally the changes take a little getting used to. I like the Green Monster seats, but it still took a couple of years before I thought of them as "normal", with old pictures of the screen over the Wall finally seeming strange. But this year, no adjustment was needed. I went home that night and compared it to pictures from previous years, and immediately thought, "I can't believe we had to look at it the old way for so long!"

The opening ceremonies commemorated the 60th anniversary of the 1946 pennant-winning team. Six of the seven living members of the team - Bobby Doerr, Charlie Wagner, Eddie Pellagrini, Dun Gutteridge, Dave "Boo" Ferris, and Johnny Pesky - circled the field in vintage cars and threw out the first pitch. The granddaughters of Joe Cronin carried the 1946 American League Championship trophy onto the field. Five-year-old Jimmy Fund patient Jordan Leandre sang the National Anthem, and outfielder Adam Stern joined the Boston Children's Chorus in singing "O Canada". Pitching coach Dave Wallace, who had had a near-fatal hip infection over the winter, was in the dugout on crutches and received a warm ovation when he was announced. Bullpen coach Al Nipper would be serving as interim pitching coach, and Ralph Treuel filled in as bullpen coach.

The Opening Day 2006 lineup Josh Beckett was starting, and he threw 36 pitches in the first inning, giving up a run on a single and three walks. Beckett was only 25 years old, but he had already been the World Series MVP in 2003 when the Marlins beat the Yankees, and he was supposed to become Curt Schilling's co-ace in the Red Sox rotation. But in order to acquire him in a trade, the Red Sox also had to take on Mike Lowell, who was coming off the worst offensive year of his career, and had two years at $9 million apiece left on his contract. But today that trade looked like a genius move. After the first inning's high pitch count, I thought Beckett would be lucky to make it through five innings, but he settled down after that. He needed only five pitches for the sixth inning, and ended up going seven strong, with only three more baserunners after the first. Meanwhile, Lowell took care of getting the offense started. He doubled in the tying run in his first at-bat, and Adam Stern and Kevin Youkilis followed with doubles of their own, giving the Sox a 4-1 lead. Lowell went on to finish the day 4-for-4 with three doubles, proving right the people who said his swing was tailor-made for Fenway Park.

We got to see some good defense, too. The acquisition of Lowell meant that Youkilis would be moving to first base, and it was unkown how he'd fair there. But in the fourth, he made a nice sliding basket catch of a foul popup. With a batter already on first, the next play was a rare type of 4-6-3 double play. It actually hit off Mark Loretta at second, and Alex Gonzalez made a great play to field the carom, step on second for one, and throw on to first to end the inning. In the seventh, Big Papi hit his first Fenway homer of the year, extending the lead to 5-1.

Everything was fine until the eighth inning. Trot Nixon had strained a muscle earlier in the game chasing down a fly ball in right, and Wily Mo Pena had come in as his replacement. Pena was only 24 and projected as a powerful middle-of-the-order slugger, in a couple of years when he learned to cut down on his strikeouts. But I couldn't understand how they could give up a solid, young, healthy starter like Bronson Arroyo for someone who needed so much work. Oh, and did I mention that defense is not exactly a strong point of his? Now, to be fair, Fenway's right field is probably the hardest one to play. It's only 302 feet at Pesky's Pole, but it gets deep in a hurry, and there are plenty of strange angles to worry about. And it was Wily Mo's first game in right (as a member of the Red Sox. He had had a ball go off his glove and into the stands for a homer when he had played here with the Reds last summer.) But when Keith Foulke gave up a long fly ball to Frank Catalanotto, Wily Mo leaped against the bullpen wall, and it went off his glove and out of the park. It was hard to see, even though I was sitting right in that area, because everyone in front of me stood up. Replays later confirmed that he had knocked it in, the only blemish in an otherwise enjoyable game. It was ruled a hit, and Foulke's ERA was unfairly inflated.

As it was, Foulke was struggling at the beginning of the season. He had had knee surgery in the off-season and wasn't fully recovered yet. He had gotten knocked around in the opening game, so when the Sox had a 2-1 lead in the third game of the year, Terry Francona went to Jonathan Papelbon. He closed it out easily that day, and had racked up a few more saves in Baltimore over the weekend. With the score now 5-3, we were in need of Papelbon's services again today. He struck out Lyle Overbay on three pitches, then got Shea Hillenbrand and Bengie Molina to fly out, with the final out caught - much to our relief - by Wily Mo in right.

Thursday, April 13 - Fenway Park, Section 43

Blue Jays 8, Red Sox 6

Fenway Park I was back two days later for my first game of the year in my Tenth Man Plan seats. I had first gotten the ten-game package in 2004, but the seats were actually pretty bad. They were in the fifth row behind the bullpen, where the fence blocked the field. And until it was filled in halfway through the 2005 season, there was a huge permanent puddle underfoot, meaning I had to hold all my stuff on my lap. That's also a wide section, with only one aisle out, so there were 16 people beyond me in the row, and I'd have to gather all my things and stand in the puddle any time any of them wanted to get up. I tried asking the Red Sox to move my seat throughout the 2004-05 offseason to no avail. But one November day this past year, I came home to find a message on my answering machine (for which I use Joe Castiglione's call of the final out of the World Series as the greeting) that they were moving my seat this year. I don't know what crazy people decided not to renew their package, but I'm glad I was able to move. The new seats are in section 43, the last section over in right field behind the visitors' bullpen. That's a nice narrow section, so there are only a few people that I need to move for when they want to get up. We're also a few rows further back than we were before, so the fence no longer blocks the view. (And best of all, it's right in the territory where Papi hits them out!)

Big Papi wasted no time knocking in a run in the first after Mark Loretta doubled. But the second inning was a disaster for Matt Clement. Three straight hits scored a run and left runners at the corners with nobody out. The Sox caught a bit of a break when Greg Zaun tried to score from third on a grounder to third base. A 5-2-5 rundown erased him, but a single knocked in another run and a walk loaded the bases. Vernon Wells blasted one over the Monster, and just like that, the Sox were down 6-1. Making matters worse, they were going against Ted Lilly, famed Red Sox-killer. Every year he'd pitch fantastic games against the Red Sox, so I'd add him to my fantasy team, where he'd have terrible outings against every other team in the league. Tonight, he struck out ten in seven innings of work. Clement continued to struggle, allowing another run in the fifth. Julian Tavarez had begun the year with a ten-game suspension after he was involved in a brawl in spring training. Tonight was his first game of the year, and he gave up back-to-back doubles in the sixth to make it 8-1.

Once Ted Lilly finally came out of the game, the Sox started to get back in it. David Ortiz slammed a two-run homer in the eighth. With one out in the ninth, Dustan Mohr and Wily Mo Pena both walked. Alex Gonzalez flied out, but then Kevin Youkilis doubled home two runs, making it 8-5. Mark Loretta followed with an RBI single, making it 8-6 and bringing the tying run to the plate in none other than Big Papi. It wasn't a walkoff situation, which is of course his specialty, but we were certainly all thinking about tying it up. And why not? Papi already had a home run and three RBI that night. He hit one in the air, but it was unceremoniously caught in right field to end the game.

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