Tuesday, May 02, 2006

A Classic In The Fens!

Yes, I know . . .it is only May, and the baseball season “is a marathon and not a sprint.” But last night’s Clash of the Titans in the wintry elements at Fenway Park was an instant classic and one for the ages. There was an otherworldly confluence of events and influences surrounding the actual nine-inning event. A hack Hollywood writer could not have concocted a more trite or more implausible set of circumstances, back-stories and confrontations.

Here is the way the pieces of the puzzle were arranged before the first pitch was thrown:

* Johnny Damon would be returning to Boston wearing pinstripes. Everyone was asking the question: “Will he be booed for deserting the Red Sox to sign with the Yankees, or would he be cheered for his four years of heroics as a Red Sox player”?

* Doug Mirabelli had been traded that morning back to the Red Sox, and was being flown by private jet from San Diego. Would he arrive in time to catch Wakefield?

* With his new/old catcher comfortably ensconced behind the plate, would Wakefield feel more comfortable throwing his signature knuckleball, and return to his winning ways of yore?

* Would the forecast heavy rain hold off long enough to allow the game to be played?

* How would the 25-30 MPH gale blowing in from the northeast impact the flight of the ball out of Wakefield’s hand, and the flight of the ball off the bats of the Red Sox and Yankees?

* Tied for 1st place in the American League East, which team would win the opening set of 19 scheduled head-to-head contests, and who would emerge from the gloaming in sole possession of first place?

* How would Jonathan Papelbon, the Red Sox rookie phenom closer, handle the pressure of a Red Sox – Yankees face-off?

As I made the walk from Kenmore Square to Gate A, it was clear that the crowd was electric with anticipation. The scalpers were more desperate than usual to buy extra tickets that they could then resell at margins approaching the rapacious gouging of our friends in the oil industry. There was a buzz in the air normally found only during play-offs or late in the season in a tight pennant race. There were more TV cameras and crew than normal bivouacked on the warning track in front of the Red Sox dugout as the Yankees wound up their batting and fielding session.

Peter Gammons, “The Commissioner” and venerable ESPN baseball analyst, was standing on the field among the other media cadre members. As I watched him, he answered his cell phone, and then sprinted off the field, up the stairs, and down the ramp leading towards the Red Sox clubhouse. He had a look of serious purpose on his face as he made the trek. I looked at my friend, Andrew, and said: “That was probably Mirabelli calling to say he has arrived!”

As the flag in centerfield blew straight in, it seemed obvious that there would be no homeruns hit out of the ballpark on this night. Around 6:45, the pre-game festivities began. ACM award-winning Country & Western group, Lonestar, treated us to a twangy and nasal rendition of the National Anthem. Basketball executive, Dave Gavit, bounced the ceremonial first pitch in the general direction of home plate. The Yankees line-up was now going to be announced. The crowd inhaled as one.

My friend and I had predicted that the ratio of boos to cheers for Johnny Damon would be 60-40. The public address announcer intoned: “For the New York Yankees, leading off and playing center field, J-o-h-n-n-y Damon.” The boos were lusty and cacophonous! The ratio of boos to cheers was close to 90-10. The crowd, having properly limbered up its collective vocal chords in welcoming Damon back to Boston, continued in fine form booing Derek Jeter, Jason Giambi, A-Rod, Godzilla Matsui and Jorge Posada with unflagging enthusiasm and glee. And then, the crowd seemed to run out of steam, and could muster precious little animus for the likes of the three C’s – Cano, Cairo and Crosby – who populated the lower third of the Yankees’ batting order.

Moments earlier, Wakefield had made his way out to the Red Sox bullpen for his pre-game warm-ups, accompanied by catcher . . . Jason Varitek. Where was Mirabelli? Had his plane landed? Would he enter the game in later innings?

And then the Red Sox line-up was announced. Each player’s name was met with enthusiastic applause and cheers up and down the line-up, with special approbation and affection signaled for Big Papi, who could run for mayor of this town, and as I have said in the past, speaks English far more cogently and eloquently than does the incumbent, Tom “Mumbles” Menino. Youklis, Loretta, Ortiz, Ramirez, Nixon, Lowell, Pena . . . As the eight spot in the batting order was scheduled to be announced, the public address announcer paused. The centerfield monitor remained blank. The pause became pregnant, and then poignant as the Red Sox shamelessly and magnificently milked the moment for all it was worth: “Batting eighth and catching, Doug Mirabelli!” Mirabelli's image flashed on the screen. The dam of emotion burst, and cheers, screams, whistles, and huzzahs erupted from deep within the heart of the Red Sox faithful. The roar built to a crescendoed fever pitch and threatened to equal the force of nature’s display - the icy jet stream steadily pouring over the Green Monster into the seats and chilling the bones of the assembled multitude.

Mirabelli had arrived at the park 13 minutes before game time. The duration of his commute from the airport had been shortened - thanks to an escort by the Massachusetts State Police. Mirabelli changed into his Red Sox uniform during the drive form the airport!

The game got underway, and the Sox jumped out to an early 1-0 lead, courtesy of a rare David Ortiz opposite field hit, driving in Kevin Youklis. Wakefield was dominant in the early going, and fly balls that might have been problematic on another night, died in the teeth of the angry and variable wind that continued to roar from the north and east. The Yankees squeezed out a few runs in the top of the 4th inning to take a 3-1 lead. The Red Sox rallied for a couple of runs of their own in the 5th, and the game remained tied as we moved to the late innings. In the meantime, Wakefield continued to pitch well, allowing only 4 hits. Mirabelli allowed no passed balls, and was masterful in blocking several tough knuckleballs. He threw a runner out at second, and acquitted himself well in his first game back in a Red Sox uniform. He hit a ball that on most nights would have left the yard and headed in the direction of the Mass. Turnpike, but the incessant wind knocked it down and it settled harmlessly into Matsui’s glove just inches from the left field wall.

Mike Timlin replaced Wakefield, and pitched a scoreless 8th. The Red Sox regained the lead with a Mark Loretta carom shot up the middle. The ball bounced off the glove of Yankees reliever, and Massachusetts native, Tanyon Sturtze (whose mother was sitting just in front of me in Section 21), bounced off of the pitching mound, and trickled past the glove of the second baseman, scoring what would end up as the winning run. With two runners on the base paths, Ortiz came to the plate. Left handed specialist, and former Red Sox reliever, Mike Meyers was summoned from the bullpen to face Big Papi. The count ran full – three balls and two strikes. On the 3-2 pitch, Ortiz took a mighty cut at the ball and it traveled high into the night toward centerfield and the deepest part of Fenway Park. We all knew the wind would knock it down, as it had every ball hit into the air all evening. The ball continued to rise, and rise and finally settled into a glove – the glove of Jonathan Papelbon who was standing in the Red Sox bullpen. Ortiz had done the impossible, defeating Mike Meyers and Mother Nature with one flick of his bat. The Red Sox led 7-3, and the game was effectively over. The crowd erupted for another round of jubilation and celebration.

In a non-save situation, Papelbon came in to pitch the ninth inning, and quickly dispatched A-Rod, Matsui and Posada to seal the victory, and to extend his string of consecutive scoreless innings to 21! His last pitch blew past Posada at 97 MPH. A nice exclamation point to a memorable night!

As the crowd poured out of the portals of Fenway Park, congratulating themselves for witnessing a memorable game, the raindrops began to fall - but not nearly in time to rain on the Red Sox improbable parade!

We get to do this 18 more times during the regular season, and who knows about the post-season!

Go Sox!

Al

1 comment:

Andrew Cvitanov said...

Thanks again for the opportunity to see one of the truly unique sporting experiences that exists. Not only was I witness to a spectacular baseball game, all of the sub-plots came together just right to create the perfect build-up. I can't thank you enough, nor can I think of a better way to start my first full Red Sox season in Boston. It was a treat. Thank you.