March 29th, 2018.
A ballpark virgin, that is. And that is not to say I’m someone in the general vicinity of virginity (if I am, then why the hell have I been paying child support for all these years!?), no, I mean it’s my first visit to a baseball game in an American ballpark. I’m at Tropicana Field in St Petersburg for Red Sox v Rays on Opening Day. It is here I will break my duck. And Florida is probably appropriate, as many on Spring Break will likely lose their virginity in this state, too. I can’t speak with statistical integrity about that, but it seems likely.
As you walk through the gates of the ballpark it becomes more like a shopping centre and food court than a ballpark till you get to the actual seating areas. And that initial foyer area is where you can really burn some dollars. “Merchandising!” Mel Brooks exclaimed in Spaceballs, “where the real money from the movie is made!” And then there’s the food, the cost and the queues make it seem so unpalatable, yet you still find yourself lining up—the element being an integral factor to the whole shebang. America, I have quickly learned, is the land of queues. It seems that there is an entire section of the population who are patently happy to queue for ridiculous lengths of time for things that appear to the outsider as wholly unworthy of doing so. I witnessed this in LA at Supreme (I’m not going into detail… Google that shit). My host, Jason, relayed the stories to me of those queues going for blocks and blocks and often having people sleep out the night before and so on… And the food queues at baseball food courts remind me of this. Some seem ridiculously long. What I was to learn and apply, later on, no matter whether at the ballpark or wherever, was that if you sit down for long enough in America someone will come and serve you food. It pays to remember this.
Tropicana Field is a giant, air-conditioned dome—a constant 72deg F—and entering the playing arena area kind of feels like starting to play a video game. The difference between it and an open-air stadium is stark. Somewhat unnatural, and also somewhat congenial due to the lounge chair existence we have become accustomed to as sports fiends.
Anyhow, hot dog acquired and devoured, I settled into my seat. Game time is close. The Star Spangled Banner is sung amazingly by a female artist (whose name, unfortunately, escapes me), and that sense of unbridled American patriotism is able to be witnessed firsthand by an outsider—by someone who knows only of it via television and other media. The old man next to me robustly salutes the whole way through the anthem. It’s a solemn, stirring moment, worthy of respect. It’s obvious he’s a veteran or a military man. And although we chat regularly during the game, I don’t ask.
After all the Opening Day fanfare, the game begins in a sort of anti-climatic sense. Baseball, like cricket back home, is a slow burn. Proper cricket, that is, not 20-20 shit. A few innings in and the game’s going splendidly for the Red Sox. Nunez’s inside the park home run is an incredible highlight! A lobbed blooper into left field that dropped perfectly in between the left and centre fielders causing them to cross each other up and let the ball run unattended into the deep outfield, while Nunez blazed up the bases and scorched into home… We’re 3-0 up and cruising! And I’m ready for another hot dog. Yep. The hot dog is the quintessential icon of the ballpark experience. $5. The cheapest thing on the menu. Then there’s the condiment station, where you can load the dog up with mustard, ketchup, onions, sauerkraut, jalapenos… It’s by far the best value of the options available, in my opinion. Dirty, soul-nourishing food. As far as the rest goes, I’d say eat at home or out somewhere, before the game. Right now, though, I grab another hot dog. The beers are expensive. And that’s where the commentary on beer ends. I buy two.
The game rolls merrily forward. On the back of a typically dominant pitching display from Chris Sale the Sox are still cruising, we’ve tacked on another run in the top of the 7th to make it 4-0.
Then we hit the 8th inning and it all goes wrong big time!
Hard throwing Joe Kelly can’t seem to locate the strike zone to save his life (though a few umpiring calls seem dodgy, to say the least) and he loses control, giving up hits, walking a couple... To cut an excruciatingly painful story short, between him and Carson Smith they allow 6 runs in the inning! We’ve somehow blown it, and the Rays hold on to claim a stirring (for them) and unlikely victory.
I console myself by saying, well, you can’t have everything. Take stock. You’re in America, watching your beloved Red Sox, you’re eating hot dogs and drinking beer (albeit overpriced beer), having a laugh and a great day… take it on the chin and move on, you ungrateful wanker.
All in all the day was fantastically memorable. I enjoyed myself immensely, and, but for the result, it was simply perfect! (I can write that with a wonderful sense of hindsight and smugness, now, as since that game the Sox have won 7 in a row!)
April 5th, 2018.
Cut to Boston, Fenway Park, Red Sox home opener.
I feel it’s safe to say, there is nothing like Fenway Park. I’ve only been to three ballparks in the States, but I can’t imagine anything topping Fenway. In fact, it’s literally impossible to top by virtue of the fact I’m a Red Sox fan. Before I visited the States I had, of course, watched many games on TV and seen many movies that featured Fenway and Boston. I longed to sit in that fabled ballpark and ride the waves of the game with the crowd—holding that collective breath and letting out an awful sigh when the play didn’t go our way, or rising as one in fevered jubilation as the pop off the bat signalled this would be a no doubter! It’s every bit what I imagined and more! Fenway is a grand old lady. The most quirky, wonderfully flaky layout, old and seemingly aching with fatigue here and there, but structurally spry, robust with enthusiasm for the next game, and the next, and the next… and with the most charming, inviting, accommodating, and ineluctable personalities of any sports stadium in the world. Without a doubt, for me, Fenway sits alone at the top of stadia experiences. Except for the fact I froze my arse off at the first game! (Note to Fenway Management: some sort of heating is probably in order.)
But back-tracking for a moment… What of baseball and the ballpark? What of America itself? What drew me here?
‘It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball.’ – Brad Pitt as Billy Beane in Moneyball.
Too true that quote. And it neatly sums things up. But in more detail what appeals to me about baseball and the ballpark is the instant camaraderie you can find. Turn up as a solo fanatic and align yourself with the closest adherent to your cause and you’re off to the races—instant mateship! Down with the enemy! That’s a very Celtic trait—to be ready to rush into battle to defend your mate at the drop of a hat, no matter the reason, right or wrong. It perhaps explains a lot about the mentality of the Boston supporter, whatever the sport. An intrinsically shared bond; like you’ve known one another since childhood. Boston is a title town. And the passion and fanaticism are punch-in-the-face obvious—perhaps literally sometimes. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Boston fans are any more passionate than other fans (well, maybe I am), and I’m not commenting on places which I have not seen with my own two eyes, I’m simply remarking on what appears to be a unique blend of fanatics who have perhaps moulded themselves unwittingly upon the pervasive, rowdy culture of old. It’s dramatically appealing to the Irish that lurks in my blood somewhere.
As a TV bound fan back home in Australia nothing can prepare you for the ballpark experience: that pop off the bat on a home run; that fastball blown by the batter on a full count; that visual, rising, welling-up feeling as a base hit lands in a zone that will likely bring the runner on 2nd base home in a bang-bang play at the plate… everything is blown up to the senses, amplified. It’s overwhelming, intoxicating, and it’s wonderful to be a part of. Then, there is the chatter all about you as you sit in the stands: chatter about the game or not… Gossip… Off topic shit. The guy in Miami who would not stop for a breath, talking about baseball and the Red Sox interminably. He was the unstoppable fact machine. Unprompted and stuck on transmit, spewing forth a torrent, a descant on every goddamn thing know to man it seemed. I listened with interest early on, then, after a while, I just wanted to tell him to put a sock in it. The single mother sitting in front of me who seemed to be more consumed with app dating and messaging than the game itself (fair enough, too, I suppose.). The jolly drunkards rambling on with confrontational junk at the top of their voices, trying to incite something to someone who can supposedly hear them somewhere out on the park or off in another section. The natural party MC’s who get the crowd doing their bidding en masse—the wave, the team songs and chants, etc…. The ballpark, like America, is the melting pot. And it’s appeal is wonderfully enhanced by every element.
To the game itself: after looking like the Rays would spoil the day, behind 0-2, we rally in the bottom of the 9th to tie the game and then to go on to win in extra innings. A stellar outing by David Price on the mound, and Bogaerts, still in scintillating form, with the clutch-hit to give us a new game in the 9th!
8th March, 2018.
Sunday afternoon baseball.
The Red Sox are 7-1 as I finish this piece and head-off to today’s game against the Rays. Eduardo Rodriguez is back off the DL and on the mound. He has apparently dominated in his lower league rehab starts. Much interest surrounds his return, and much pressure, too, as the rotation thus far has been very good, stingy as all get out—mean as cat shit!
I have to head off… running late.
As Sweet Caroline rings out late in the scene today, and the Red Sox camaraderie hits its high point, what will the tale of the scoreboard, the highs and lows of baseball, tell?
We shall see...
(Posting this after getting back from the game I can add this... nothing special today, just a 6-run 8th inning comeback to win 8-7! Incredible! Completely turning the tables on the Rays from the Opening Day game!)