fenway park

The best seat at Fenway

2003_Walshes@fenwayAs published in The Providence Sunday Journal, June 16, 2019.

Most of the books my father gave me sit on shelves, their stories as layered as my memories of him. If I’m lucky, I open to a flyleaf inscribed with Dad’s familiar hand and hear his voice again.

“Neat books need swell readers. So saith Dad. Love.” That note appears on the opening page of a John O’Hara novel given for Christmas in 1988. The unsteady strokes of a simpler message written five years later inside a spy thriller – “Happy birthday, John” – reveal my father’s failing health at the time.

One book he gave me was “Fathers Playing Catch with Sons” by Donald Hall. There’s no inscription from Dad in that one; I surmise he was fine with letting Hall’s words speak for themselves. And for good reason. In a series of elegant essays, the former poet laureate of the United States examines how sports and games connect people and bridge generations.

Many of Hall’s lines resonate with me, including this one: “Baseball is continuous, like nothing else among American things, an endless game of repeated summers, joining the long generations of all the fathers and all the sons.” A recurring childhood memory of mine is listening to the Red Sox on the radio with Dad as we drove home from the beach to Providence.

Another moment in the book that I return to is “Baseball is fathers and sons. Football is brothers beating each other up in the backyard.”

I can attest to that statement. First, the beating up part.

Our backyard was half dirt, half cement patio; my brothers and I played tackle football on all of it. These contests often degenerated into something we called “muckle the guy with the ball,” which was more rugby scrum than football. When darkness came, we took our game inside, hammering each other in the basement until the commissioner – Mom – intervened from the top of the stairs:

“Enough!”

In springtime, our backyard gridiron morphed into a baseball diamond. Thanks to Wiffle ball, we were able to “swing for the fences” without breaking nearby windows; the darting plastic orbs rapped off panes but didn’t break them. While my father was more academic than athletic, on Saturdays he would usually come outside to toss some pitches and take a few swings. Fast forward 25 years and I found myself instinctively doing the same with my young sons in the backyard at our house.

If playing baseball with Dad was fun, going to a Red Sox game with him was even better. We made the pilgrimage for the first time on the final day of the 1968 season. Unlike the monochromatic ballpark I saw on our black-and-white TV, Fenway that afternoon was a rush of color – green grass, red Citgo logo, endless blue sky, brilliant yellow foul poles.

The memory of that day was still vivid in my mind when I brought my sons to Fenway in 2003 for a Sox-Mariners game. Without looking at a seating chart, I had purchased tickets that I thought would give us a good view of Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle’s superstar right fielder. The boys, then 12 and 10, were big Ichiro fans.

We got to the park early and headed to our seats. Up and up we climbed into Fenway’s cavernous right field grandstand. I checked our tickets: Section 1, Row 18, Seats 1, 2, and 3. Up and up we continued, into the cool shade under the roof, until we finally reached our destination – the last row and very last three seats in the grandstand!

Past a green support column, we could see home plate – barely. Our view of Ichiro’s back wouldn’t be much better. I felt like Bob Uecker, the former major-leaguer-turned-beer-pitchman who, in his classic commercials for Miller Lite, always landed in the nosebleed section.

Still, with my two boys beside me, wide-eyed and laughing, I knew I had the best seat in the house.

Fenway game was a grand slam

Big_PapiAs published in The Providence Journal, August 19, 2018. Photo: John Walsh

With Mookie Betts, Chris Sale, and J.D. Martinez playing for the Red Sox these days, highlight-reel moments abound, all of which got me thinking about my top Fenway Park memories.

My first pilgrimage to the baseball shrine, for a Yankees game with my father on the last day of the 1968 season, was memorable for what didn’t happen. The Pinstripes’ Mickey Mantle, my boyhood hero, never stepped up to the plate. Unbeknownst to anyone, Mantle had played the final game of his career the day before. In five months, he would retire.

My next Fenway trek, with Dad and my brother Rob on September 2, 1971, was more satisfying. I had jilted the Mick-less Yankees in favor of Boston’s nine by then and cheered when Red Sox pitcher Sonny Siebert blasted two home runs in a contest against the Orioles. Not only did the right-hander drive in all the Sox runs; he also tossed a three-hit shutout.

Thirty years later to the day, on September 2, 2001, I was at Fenway again, this time with my college roommate, his two sons, and 33,730 other disbelieving spectators. Yankees ace Mike Mussina was one strike away from a perfect game – 27 batters up, 27 batters down. It would be only the 17th time in nearly a century that a major leaguer had attained pitching nirvana.

In the bleachers, the thought of being an eyewitness to such a rare sports feat had temporarily quelled the usual non-stop, beer-fueled jousting between Sox and Yankee fans. It seemed everyone, Fenway Faithful included, wanted to see Mussina throw one more strike.

Enter Carl Everett. With flashbulbs popping on a one-and-two count, Mussina fired a fastball high and outside – and the Sox pinch hitter stroked a clean single to left field. Leave it to the irascible Everett to deny Mussina, and the rest of us, a moment of baseball transcendence. The Yankee hurler retired the next batter, Trot Nixon, for a bittersweet win.

My most memorable trip to Fenway is one that I can’t entirely recall. My wife and I took our sons to see the Sox play the Blue Jays on July 3, 2005. In the grandstand above the first base line, in section 13, I sat next to a twentysomething woman decked out head to toe in David Ortiz gear. I heard someone call her Whitney; she clearly was a rabid fan.

In the bottom of the first, as Big Papi strode to the plate with two runners on, Whitney sprang to her feet, pleading for a hit. Ortiz obliged with a run-scoring single, and Fenway exploded. I rose to join the pandemonium just as the already-standing Whitney jerked her arm back with a triumphant fist pump. Her elbow clocked me square in the left temple, jolting me back into my seat.

Things get fuzzy after that. I remember that Whitney – which I have since realized rhymes with “hit me” – seemed unaware of her role as Muhammad Ali to my Sonny Liston. And then I forgot about the blow to my noggin – until I went to wash my hair in the shower the next morning. Ouch!

My doctor sent me for a CAT scan, which revealed a brain bruise. I was told the bruise would “resolve,” but that a second scan was needed to ensure the contusion was shrinking.

The following day, a radiologist greeted me with an impish smile.

“You were the talk of our staff meeting,” he said, leading me to the x-ray room.

“Really?” I said, my voice betraying concern.

“You’re the guy who got leveled by a girl, right?” he said. His cackle told me he wasn’t too worried about my condition; and my brain bruise did, indeed, resolve.

The box score from that Sox-Jays game highlights David Ortiz’s first-inning single, but it’s Whitney’s grand slam up in section 13 that I remember most.

 

Play Ball! Wiffle Ball, That Is

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, June 1, 2014.

Baseballs and city neighborhoods don’t mix. Windows loom; shattered glass and lost allowances are just a line drive away. When I was a kid, we didn’t even think of playing hardball in my backyard on River Avenue in Providence. But we didn’t have to. We had Wiffle ball.

In 1953, in Fairfield, Conn., David Mullany came home to find his 12-year-old son trying to throw curves with a small plastic golf ball, to no avail. Mullany, a former semi-pro pitcher, knew that throwing breaking balls wasn’t good for adolescent arms. So he set out to design a ball that would let his son do so without harm.

Mullany found inspiration in an unlikely place: the hard plastic orbs that served as packaging for Coty perfume bottles. After cutting holes of various sizes and shapes in the re-purposed spheres, he arrived at an eight-slot design that made them curve and rise and sink when thrown.

While Mullany was the inventor, his son was the marketer. The 12-year-old came up with the name for the ball, a play on “whiff,” which is slang for “strike out.” (Whiffing batters was the whole point of throwing curves!) In an act of typographic economy — and branding brilliance — the Mullanys dropped the “h” in their spelling. Thus, the Wiffle ball was born.

In the early 1970s, Mullany’s plastic masterwork transformed our tiny Providence backyard into baseball heaven. We threw curves like Steve Carlton, with no fear of shredding elbow ligaments. We swung for the fences like Harmon Killebrew, with no worry of destruction.

Our playing field was quirkier than Fenway Park. The trunk of a maple tree and a clothesline post became our foul poles. An eight-foot concrete retaining wall, adorned top to bottom with a painted garden mural, provided a welcome backstop. We oriented home plate in front of one of the wall’s giant sunflowers. The span of its petals formed our strike zone.

And there were strikeouts — the curving, rising, sinking Wiffle ball lived up to its name. But there was plenty of contact, too. We rapped liners off den windows for doubles, dinged the dormer of my bedroom for triples, sent long balls over the roof for home runs. When a gutter swallowed the ball (ground-rule double), my little brother would climb out a second-floor window, creep down the crunching shingles, and pluck the ball from its aluminum holding pen. Don’t tell Mom!

The copy on the Wiffle ball package explained why the ball was a godsend to those of us playing in city backyards: “BAT IT! BOUNCE IT! SAFE ANYWHERE!”

Anywhere but our dog’s mouth, it turned out. A bouncing Wiffle ball turned Georgie into a canine Bert Campaneris. When she chased down a ball, we were one chomp away from disaster. We’d carefully pry the ball from her clench and then banish her to the house.

When a Wiffle ball did crack from all our mashing and Georgie’s gnawing, duct tape prolonged its life. And when a ball was beyond repair, we pooled our change and ran up to Wolcott’s five-and-dime on Chalkstone Avenue to get a new one. There is nothing better than pitching with a brand new Wiffle ball.

My brothers, friends and I all played Little League baseball, of course. I remember one Opening Day at Nelson Street playground: a blaze of sunshine and promise. Crisp uniforms bore the names of local sponsors: the Lawyers and the Medics, Quinn’s Funeral Home and Lions Cleansers, Fifth Ward Democrats, the Elms.

But as much as we liked organized baseball, it was Wiffle ball that we lived for. You could always get a game together — Wiffle ball accommodated various numbers of players. And best of all, like basketball, you could play one-on-one.

My best friend, Chris, and I squared off against each other for what must have been 60 Wiffle ball games in the summer of 1972. I know that the Yankees, my team, won the regular season and that the Orioles, Chris’s team, took the World Series. After the seventh game, we ran into the locker room (also known as the garage) to celebrate. I poured champagne (soda) over Chris’s head, and he took it as the honor it was intended to be.

A grainy Super 8mm film from 1967 plays in my mind: I see my father in Bermuda shorts, cigarette in one hand, Wiffle ball in the other. He pitches to me, and I hit a hard liner off his calf. “Ow!” he mouths, grabbing his leg. Then he grins at me in approval.

Cross-fade to a video from 1997: now it’s me as dad, throwing a pitch in the backyard to my 4-year-old son. I watch as the Wiffle ball, like the arc of my life, bends to his eager swing.

 

First Trip To Fenway

I bought the tickets at redsox.com, but didn’t look at the seating chart. It was an afternoon game against Seattle, a chance to see Ichiro. We got to the park early and headed to our seats. Up and up we climbed, into the cavernous right field grandstand. Section 1… Row 18… Seats 1, 2, and 3… The last row and very last three seats in the grandstand. Past a support column, we could see home plate. Barely. But that day, with my two wide-eyed young sons on their first trip to Fenway, we had the best seats in the house.

As appeared in the Providence Journal’s Fenway Park Centennial Special Section on April 11th.

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