Getting It Done

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This year I was going to do it differently. Our three kids are four, four and six now, and so I planned to sit in front of the tube with them, teaching them the reasons for the Red Sox, coaxing them to go upstairs with Mom after an inning or two, then watching the rest of the debacle by myself. I said to myself, and perhaps aloud to Luci, that I was going to approach the post-season this way because I wanted to spend some baseball time with our kids. But, really, I was going to do it differently — in front of the tube, rather than in the arena — because I thought a small-screen experience might mitigate the pain.

And, of course, there would be pain.

You would have no reason to recall that, precisely a year ago, I was in the arena. A editor, Mark Coatney, was my enabler, as he has been on other occasions vis-a-vis this Bosox problem of mine. Mark has allowed me to wax neurotically, bathetically, psychotically and pathetically about affaires du Sox ranging from my daughter's first ballgame to my dad's feelings about Ted Williams to, last autumn, the Wagnerian ALCS between Boston and New York, which I chased via the Delta Shuttle during a week that left me considerably the worse for wear.

I wasn't going to do that again. When this year's Grady Little moment occurred, I would be in a place where I could sip the last of my beer, hit the clicker and trudge to bed. I would not be in the bleachers in the Bronx with my lovely wife, watching incredulously as my manager leaves the mound, and leaves Pedro where he is.

And then, about two weeks ago, tickets started falling from the sky.

My friend Eddie at Major League baseball had some that I could get for face value. My brother-in-law Scott up in Boston landed some. My friend Jake up in Andover had an extra.

What are you going to do?

"Honey, what do you say we take the kids up to Beantown for Columbus Day weekend? We can stay with Gail and Scott. The foliage will be nice. Maybe take Friday off and we can get a jump on it." (And oh, say, by the way, Hon, lookee here: There's a game against California that night! Whaddya know?!)

So Daisy was dropped off at the vet's, the kids were picked up early at school and we pointed the green Sienna north-northeast toward Boston.

The drive through Connecticut and, then, eastern Massachusetts on a gleaming Friday midday was glorious. My sister, the aforementioned Gail, and her husband, the aforementioned Scott, had made the offer that cannot be refused — “We’ll put the kids to bed.” So my date for this four-p.m. start would be my bride. We took the T into town, walked through the throng outside the park and entered Fenway, the old stand. I immediately felt the charge, and it was a most familiar frisson. The Sox are a hot, hot, hot commodity these days; they sold out evey seat of the 35,000-plus for each of their 81 regular-season home engagements. And there’s obviously more electricity generated by a packed ballpark, particularly in the post-season. But the shiver I got was the same one I got every night of the hundred or so that I climbed to the empty bleachers during my college years in the ’70s, the same one I got when my dad and mom took my brother and me to our first game back in the early 1960s, when we walked up just a few steps to our box seats — that section, too, pretty much empty, for that vintage of Red Sox team well and truly stunk. The Sullivans of Chelmsford, having negotiated Routes 3 and 2 and then taken a taxi ride (wow!), walked up those steps and beheld the green, green Fenway grass for the very first time. Ah.

I get a certain feeling on a beach in the off-season, another on a mountaintop in New Hampshire, another at Fenway — each and every time.

The field-box seats that Dad bought probably coast $1.25 and I know the bleacher seats that I bought in 1975 went for a buck and a quarter. Tonight, 2004, our “box seats” in deep right, which for most of Fenway’s nine decades were sold as “grandstand,” were $90 per. But no matter. We were here, we had Sam Adamses in hand and the Sox were taking the field. Life, at the moment, was very good indeed. Luci knew what it meant to me, and gave my knee a squeeze.

“I like six-oh leads,” I casually remarked when the lead got to six-oh. “I can take one of these.” My neighbor to the right, a baseball-head of deep wisdom and evident experience, said “It’s not over.” Well, of course, it wasn’t. Nevertheless, I said to Luci, “I guess Gail won’t get her game in tomorrow.” I had the same seats for Saturday, and it had already been arranged that, should the Sox require four games to dismiss the Angels, Gail would accompany me to the next set-to. I sensed that my neighbor shot me a glance when I voiced this notion that baseball matters versus the Californians were pretty much wrapped up.

The Angels got a run, then another, as three different Sox pitchers yielded some chippy hits and walked three enemy batsmen in the seventh. When you’re way ahead you don’t want to be giving free passes, but the Sox were obliging. Now, the presumptive American League Most Valuable Player, Vlad Guerrero, was stepping in, and Mike Timlin’s lanky presence on the mound inspired little confidence in this particular camper. “You know,” I said to Luci, “If Francona’s already decided he’s going to use Foulke tonight, he might bring him in here and stop this nonsense. Never let the Angels get off the snide.” She smiled at me; I might as well have been talking Martian. Timlin stayed in, the ball went out, the 6-6 score went up on the Green Monster scoreboard and all available oxygen fled the Fens.

It was two full innings before the crowd learned to cheer again. During this time of enforced quiet, I discussed with my neighbors whether the Sox had ever blown a lead in a crucial game, then come back to win. Our analysis dated back only to 1946, but we figured they hadn’t. They’d blown plenty of big leads in crucial games, but had always come to a sad end.

“You jinxed them, you know,” the fellow two seats down said. “It’s your fault. That stuff about ‘No game tomorrow.’ For a baseball guy, that wasn’t too bright.” I was, of course, contrite. The last thing the Boston franchise needed was extra hexing, large or small. The Curse of the Bambino was quite sufficiently overwhelming, in and of itself.

Francona did use Foulke, and then Derek Lowe, who had been sentenced to the bullpen after a poor season (and he sure wishes Boston’s earlier $27 million proffer was still on the table). Derek, of whom I’m a fan, survived a shaky, scary inning. “Hey, I said at this point, “look who’s warming up with Percival for California.” It was good old Jared Washburn, the losing starter from Game One. “Wonder what that’s about?”

We found out in the 11th, when the dynamic K-Rod finally tired and Angels skip Mike Scioscia, apparently devoted beyond common sense to the idea of lefty-lefty, brought Washburn in to face Big Papi, David Ortiz. “A starter walking into this situation, 35,000 nutcases going nuts, and their season could be over with Percival unused in the bullpen?” I said aloud. “I don’t know about this one.”

One pitch later, we all knew, as a mighty swat propelled the ball high, then higher. When it finally came down it did so in the seats atop the Monster. The celebration at Fenway would last more than an hour. For my part, I was off the hook. I said to my neighbor as I hugged my wife, “Hey, piece-a-cake!”

The next day, with no game on, we took the kids for a stroll on the dunes of Crane’s Beach in Ipswich, then for fried clams at Farnum’s. It was good to be up here in Massachusetts. Every third person, and everyone in our party, was wearing Bosox caps and/or T-Shirts. Back in New York, I only feel comfortable at the twice-a-year luncheons with the BLOHARDS (Benevolent Loyal Order of Honorable and Ancient Red Sox Diehard Sufferers of New York). ESPN and FOX found out about the BLOHARDS this year, so our behind-enemy-lines fraternity is semi-famous and burgeoning. I like the BLOHARDS; I am at peace among BLOHARDS. But if I’m not communing with BLOHARDS down there in October, I am not among friends. Up here in the Bay State, by contrast — putting down a plateful of good Ipswich clams, chasing them with fine Ipswich Ale — I am at home, and content.

I guess I rooted for the Yankees that weekend. I knew they were going to take the Twins anyway, so why not put on the bravest face and declare: It’s better if we go through the Yanks.

I wondered as I drove the family south southwest on a beautiful Columbus Day morn if that had been the right way to think.

Tickets kept falling like the foliage-season leaves, and Tuesday night found myself and my former colleague and longtime friend Craig Neff (of Sports Illustrated, for you byline readers) high above first base in two more $90 seats. We discussed our winning week in the SI football pool (we’re in our silver anniversary season as a team; time does fly). We talked about our families, the war, the election. And then we settled in for the game. As the Yanks surged to a huge lead (6-0, 7-0, with Mussina working on a perfect game), we fell back into discussion of the election, the war, our families, our winning week in the SI football pool. “It’s going to take a Mussina Inning to get us back into this one,” I said.

And then, lo, there was the Mussina Inning. It is truly astonishing how quickly things unravel for that guy. One minute, he’s perfection. Within seconds, he has given up four hits to five batters and is being saved from himself by Mr. Torre. It turns out Tom Gordon really does have a tired arm, and with 100-year-old Paul Quantrill cooked by overuse in midsummer, the Yankee bullpen, short of Mariano, is an unimposing thing. The Sox kept chipping away and when Papi sent a Ruthian shot to deep, deep left, Yankee Stadium felt much as Fenway had when Vlad went yard. (It felt that way except to me, of course. At that moment, I was feeling rather peppy.) Ortiz’s shot did not get out; it glanced off Matsui’s glove. So instead of being tied at 8, the Yanks were clinging to a one-run lead, with our big guy parked at third — where he would idle till inning’s end.

Rivera would get the save tonight, and that was okay with me. His nephew, said to be like a son to him, had, only days prior, been electrocuted in Mariano’s native Panama. Two had died, in fact: The boy’s father had tried to save the boy after a mishap at a swimming pool, and had become a second victim. Mariano returned this night from the twin funerals to “do my job.” On such a night, you do not begrudge such a man his success against you. I’ve written in the past that it’s hard to hate a Torre-edition Yankee team, what with men like Jeter, Williams and Posada. If Torre and Cashman have made it easier for us lately with the additions of crumbums Lofton and Sheffield, they still have those classy veterans. Rivera is one of them. Let's, then, allow a day or two of sympathy to prevail. Maybe by the weekend we’ll be ready to curse him anew.

In a Proper Bostonian way, of course.

Boston, a town with storied racial strife and an elitist DNA, should make no claim on moral superiority when regarding any other city, least of all the successful melting pot that is New York. But when you have a rooting interest one way or the other, you’re allowed to be entertained by your opposition's boorishness. ("Entertained," I should point out, not by any unsavory japes themselves, but by the sheer boobishness of those who made them). Earlier in the evening, Craig and I were amused and appalled to overhear two lugs three rows in front debate whether the truly vile and racist metaphor that one of them had applied to Ortiz was beyond the pale, or just within the bounds of ballpark etiquette. Now, as Matsui, who already had five RBIs this night in a game that the Yanks would win by three (Timlin would stink again, yielding two in the eighth), came to bat again, a belcher in back of me, recalling only that Hideki hadn’t made the tough catch, suggested he “fall on his sword.” Charming.

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