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Well Worth the Wait

Tuesday, April 7, 2009 – Fenway Park, Section 41

Red Sox 5, Rays 3

On Tuesday morning I got up early and went in to work for half a day. I left just after noon, and was happy to be able to find a parking space at the T station without any problem. That got me to Fenway around 1:15, and I walked down Lansdowne St., around the corner to  Ipswitch, down Van Ness, and on to Yawkey Way.

Obligatory shot of Yawkey Way on Opening Day

Obligatory shot of Yawkey Way on Opening Day.

It started to drizzle a little while I walked around, but nothing like the downpours from the day before. As we waited for the gates to open, everyone was grinning, despite the rain. The moment we had waited so long for – and for me, the final day felt every bit as long as the first six months – was almost here. The guy standing next to me in line saw a little girl behind him who was wearing a Red Sox hat and holding a glove, and asked if it was her first Opening Day. “Yes,” she answered, and her father said, “Mine too.” The guy next to me told them it was his 35th opener. For me, it was my ninth. It’s always hard to put into words what the excitement of Opening Day means to us diehards. I remembered with a smile Rob Neyer’s explanation in his book, Feeding the Green Monster:

Any other day, and it would be too bloody cold for baseball. But this isn’t any other day, this is the first day. The first Red Sox home game of the season. Opening Day. I’ve read a number of poetic essays over the years, tying Opening Day to such lofty themes as rebirth, and rejuvenation. It’s done quite artfully . . . and it misses the point completely. Opening Day doesn’t have much to do with a mystical rejuvenation, or even something so pedestrian as springtime. No. Opening Day is plenty significant for the simplest of all reasons . . . It’s the first day of the baseball season. Or in this case, the first day of Fenway’s season. That’s quite special enough for 99.9 percent of us.

That’s certainly reason enough for me! Finally the gates opened, I got my annual schedule magnet, and I was in.

I went right in Gate D and up the ramp to sections 17-20. That’s one of my favorite places to see the field for the first time each year. The Sox were already done with batting practice, and the Rays were in the field. I checked out the new seats the Red Sox put in over the winter. The red plastic box seats were replaced with padded seats with cupholders. (The padding is nice and all, but the cupholders are essential. Would it have killed them to put cup holders in the bleachers, when they redid those seats last year? Then people wouldn’t throw their empty beer cups under other people’s seats, especially people who have bags stowed under their seats.) The blue wooden seats in the grandstand were made so they pop back up if no one’s sitting in them. Personally, I hate that. If no one’s in the seats yet there’s plenty of room to get through, and if someone needs to go past me during a game I have to stand up anyway and juggle all my stuff. But it’s really annoying if I stand up to applaud a third strike, or crane to see if a fly ball was caught in the triangle, and then have to re-arrange everything before sitting back down. (If my bleacher seats were padded and had cupholders, I’d get over it.) Later I noticed that the new seats only go from dugout to dugout; the left field and right field grandstand and box seats are the same as they’ve always been.

The new box seats at Fenway. At least Ill have something nice to sneak down to when the casual fans bail.

The new box seats at Fenway. At least I'll have something nice to sneak down to when the casual fans bail!

I went back down the ramp and walked around the concourse under the seats. In a narrow part of the corridor between the first base and right field grandstand, I found a display case housing a trophy-like cup awarded to manager Jake Stahl when the Red Sox won the World Series in 1912, the year Fenway Park opened. (I didn’t think of it at the time, but I’m going to have to go back and have my picture taken next to it, since I enjoy collecting pictures of myself with the 2004 and 2007 trophies.)

Cup presented to manager Jake Stahl when the Red Sox won the 1912 World Series.

Replica of the cup presented to manager Jake Stahl when the Red Sox won the 1912 World Series.

When I got to the Big Concourse in the outfield, I signed up for a Red Sox Nation card. I always thought of the cards as a gimmick, as if the ability to shell out $15 is what makes someone a fan, rather than the passion and determination that causes someone to invest their heart and soul into following the team. But this year they added a new feature: with a Red Sox Nation card, I can enter the park 1/2 hour before the gates open to the public, to watch batting practice from the Green Monster. That sounds like fun, and I’m going to get a chance to try it out at my next game, this Thursday.

When I got to my seat in the bleachers (502 feet from home plate, in the same row as the red seat, which was in the next section over from me) I checked out the new roof seats in right field. The Red Sox renovated the area and added 200 seats this off-season. The new seats look nice… the obtrusive Cumberland Farms sign looming over them, not as nice.

The new right field roof seats at Fenway

The new right field roof seats at Fenway.

Finally, it was time for the pregame ceremony. It started with the announcement of the starting lineups. We booed Matt Garza, James Shields, and Joe Maddon, but in between gave returning fan favorite and 2004 Champion Gabe Kapler a warm ovation. The Red Sox players walked through the grandstand, high-fiving fans along their way to the field. Terry Francona, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Jon Lester, Tim Wakefield, Jonathan Papelbon, and of course Johnny Pesky got the biggest cheers. (Think about that for a second. I never thought I’d see the day when the current Red Sox manager received as enthusiastic a reception in Boston as the reigning MVP.) With the giant flag draped over the Green Monster, the Boston Pops played the National Anthem. A military flyover followed, before the first-pitch honorees were introduced. Senator Ted Kennedy, recovering from a brain tumor, and Jim Rice, the Red Sox great who will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame later this summer, were introduced. They entered in a cart driven by Rice, and drove from left field to the Red Sox dugout. We were reminded that it was Kennedy’s grandfather, John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch 97 years ago when Fenway Park opened. Today, the long-serving Senator did the honors, with the newest HOF inductee catching. Johnny Pesky came back out to officially say, “Play ball.”

Ted Kennedy and Jim Rice circle the field before throwing out the first pitch.

Ted Kennedy and Jim Rice circle the field before throwing out the first pitch.

And then, finally, the game started, and it was well worth the wait – not to mention the struggle to get the tickets, and the two trips in to Boston, and everything else. Josh Beckett, last seen courageously gutting his way through Game 6 of last year’s ALCS, looked healthy and back to his 2007 form. He blew away the Rays on 11 pitches in the first and needed only 5 pitches for the second. And it didn’t take long for his teammates to give him some support. When Dustin Pedroia came to the plate, some people tried to start an “M-V-P” chant, but it didn’t really catch on. But when he drilled the second pitch of the at-bat into the Monster seats for a 1-0 lead, Fenway rocked with “M-V-P, M-V-P!”

Everything worked for the Sox in the opener. Beckett cruised through seven strong innings, allowing only one run on two hits, and striking out ten. When he struck out Matt Joyce to end the fourth, he made him look silly jumping way out in front of a change-up. I looked at the board and saw “CHANGEUP 88″. The John Burketts and Paul Byrds of the world would be happy to get their fastballs up to 88, but here was Beckett throwing hard enough that an 88-mph change-up kept them completely off-balance. He really dominated.

The K-men post Beckett's strikeouts. If he had many more, they would have run out of room.

The K-men post Beckett's strikeouts. If he had had many more, they would have run out of room.

On the offensive side it was all good, too. Everyone besides Jacoby Ellsbury had a hit. Pedroia set the tone, but J.D. Drew, Jason Bay, and Mike Lowell each drove in a run, and Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz both reached base twice. But the capper was Jason Varitek’s long homer beyond Pesky’s Pole in the sixth inning. It came from the left side, which is where he really struggled last year and revamped his swing this spring.

Tek is congratulated by Ellsbury and Pedroia after his 6th inning homer. Hes on pace to hit 162 round-trippers this year.

Tek is congratulated by Ellsbury and Pedroia after his 6th inning homer. He's on pace to hit 162 round-trippers this year.

After Hideki Okajima and Justin Masterson gave up two runs in the eighth, it was Papelbon Time in the ninth. Everyone stood, cheered, sang along to “Shippin’ up to Boston,” and snapped photo after photo – and that was just while he took his warm-up pitches between innings. When the game resumed, the closer delivered as promised, blowing through a 1-2-3 inning and topping it off with a strikeout of Gabe Gross to seal the victory.

It was only one game, but it had everything I wanted – especially the strains of “Dirty Water” at the end!

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