red sox

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.

 

Honoring a sacred tradition at McCoy

 

MCCOY_PREVIEW

As published in the Providence Journal, August 16, 2015.

The ritual takes place every August in a hulking cathedral known as McCoy Stadium: My daughter, Juliana, and I go to a Pawtucket Red Sox game to celebrate her birthday.

I don’t recall all the details from the first pilgrimage, in 1999 when Julie was turning 4; phones didn’t have cameras then. Still, there are plenty of vivid memories.

First and foremost, there is the one of Julie smiling and eating popcorn in her grandstand seat along the third base line, the tops of her ears tucked beneath an adult-size Red Sox cap. The near-sellout crowd starts doing the wave and, when the human tide swells over us for the second time, Julie throws her hands in the air and laughs. The popcorn rain that follows is well worth it.

Later, out on the concourse, she presents a pristine white baseball to Paws, the team’s 6-foot-6-inch polar bear mascot. In a display of hand-eye coordination that Nomar Garciaparra would appreciate, Paws produces a stylish autograph with a black Sharpie marker, before handing the ball back to one excited 4-year-old.

At the start of the sixth inning, Julie succumbs to an epic yawn — it’s well past her bedtime. Twenty minutes later, driving away from McCoy, I look in the rear view mirror: light from a passing car glides over my daughter’s cherubic, and sleeping, face.

Originally, I took Julie to McCoy because I love going to games and thought she might, too. Eventually, I did it because sitting with her in Section 13 or on the left-field berm brought out an ease in me that I rarely felt elsewhere. The games suspended thoughts of work and bills and everything on the to-do list. The games gave us each other.

Carving out such time for the youngest of our three children was my wife’s idea. “It doesn’t matter what you do,” Deb said, “as long as it’s just the two of you.” So every August, it’s just Julie and me — and seven or eight thousand other fans — soaking in the singularly Rhode Island experience that is a PawSox game.

At McCoy, Julie has endured my long-winded explanations of baseball arcana: the reasoning behind the infield fly rule, the timing on a suicide squeeze. When she was 6 or 7, after one of my dissertations had wafted away in the summer air, she redirected the conversation: “Can I get Dippin’ Dots?” I heard a chuckle from an old-timer sitting behind us, clad in a faded Yaz t-shirt. And then Julie and I were off to the concession stand — a cup of tiny frozen ice cream beads for her, a cold beer for me.

Sometimes, action on the field provided the highlights. The crowd buzzed as a rehabbing Dustin Pedroia stepped into the on-deck circle. Or a long, arcing throw from a PawSox outfielder miraculously found the catcher’s poised mitt — SMACK! — just as the charging runner slid into home — YER OUT! Did you see that, Julie? Woo-hoo!

As my daughter approached her teen years, I wondered if she would outgrow the charms of McCoy. One birthday, we went to Fenway to see the big-league Sox. When I proposed a return to Boston the following summer, Julie said she preferred Pawtucket. And when I asked if she wanted to bring a friend to help her celebrate, she echoed my wife’s words from years ago: “I like going just the two of us.”

That was my all-time PawSox highlight, and we weren’t even at the ballpark.

With the sale of the team, and the potential move to a new stadium in Providence (or elsewhere), it looks like Julie and I may make our final trip to McCoy next summer, when she turns 21. We have already laughed about how she will forgo Dippin’ Dots in favor of a cold beer.

We’ll raise our plastic cups — to her, to McCoy, and to our beloved tradition. And if we are lucky, the sky out west beyond the entrance tower will glow pink and lavender one last time.

Game On: The Sport Of Naming Teams

photo

In honor of last night’s World Series finale and the kick-off of the NBA season this week, a re-post from two years ago about team names – the good, the bad, the curious, the hilarious:

The question at answers.com was logical enough: a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers wondered where all the lakes were in the City of Angels. In Minnesota, it turns out. Before the Lakers came to Tinseltown, they were the Minneapolis Lakers. Makes sense. Minnesota is the Land of 10,000 Lakes. When the franchise headed west, it left the lakes behind, but not the name. And for more than 50 years, in the most densely populated urban area in the United States, basketball fans have flocked to see a team with an idyllic, outdoorsy moniker.

Here in New England, our team names present no such hiccup. The Patriots and Revolution connect to our colonial past. The Celtics reflect Boston’s large Irish-American population. Red Sox became an official nickname in 1908, after the club adopted red as its color and featured a red stocking on the front of its players’ jerseys. The original owner of Boston’s professional hockey team wanted a nickname that suggested speed, agility, and cunning. Bruins delivered the hat trick. It also lent itself to brown and yellow uniforms, which just happened to be the colors of the owner’s grocery chain.

The Lakers are not alone in maintaining a nickname despite its disconnect to a new locale:

> The Baltimore Colts were named in honor of the region’s rich history in horse racing. Indianapolis, where the Colts moved, is famous for racing, too, but the focus is on a different type of horsepower.

> British Columbia is home to a large grizzly bear population. Naming an NBA team the Vancouver Grizzlies made sense; keeping the name when the franchise moved to Memphis did not. Favorite son Elvis has left the arena, and there is no risk of a grizzly attack outside.

> The New Orleans Jazz pioneered the use of singular nouns in team names (the Miami Heat, Colorado Avalanche, Orlando Magic, etc., would follow). It’s one of my all-time favorites. But when the franchise moved to Utah, the name became oxymoronic. Utah Jazz? Imagine Thelonious Monk sitting in with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

At the college level, leave it to two New England athletic powerhouses – Berklee College of Music and Rhode Island School of Design – to give us inspired team names. Berklee’s hockey squad – the IceCats – reflects the school’s contemporary music pedigree. (According to berkleegroove.com, “contrary to popular belief, some musicians actually are capable of playing sports.”)

And then there’s RISD’s hockey team. The Nads may strike you as a curious name, until you cheer on the team at the top of your lungs:

GO NADS! GO NADS!

In the universe of team names, the Nads are in a league of their own.

From McCoy Stadium to the Carrier Dome: A Father-Daughter Journey

 

DSCN5277_MyCoy04v2

As published in the Syracuse Post Standard / http://www.syracuse.com, March 31, 2014.

We’re at McCoy Stadium, in 1999, with the Pawtucket Red Sox playing the Toledo Mud Hens. It’s the first time my daughter, Juliana, and I are at a game together. We’re celebrating her fourth birthday.

Julie eats popcorn and ice cream. She has her picture taken with Paws, the mascot for the minor-league Red Sox team. When the crowd starts doing the wave, she laughs and throws her hands in the air. By the sixth inning, she is yawning. And before we make it out of the parking lot, she’s fast asleep.

What was born in Julie that day, and reaffirmed in me, was a love of games. Every August, for fourteen years now, we have returned to McCoy Stadium to celebrate her birthday. We have gone to many other athletic contests, as well – from CYO basketball and high school football to college hoops and Major League Baseball.

At first, I took Julie to games because that’s what my father did with me. Eventually, I did it because being with Julie in the stands brought out an ease in me that I rarely felt elsewhere. The games suspended thoughts of work and money and house projects and everything else on the to-do list. The games gave us each other.

When Julie was looking at colleges, good teams and great school spirit were among her must-haves. I was thrilled when she was accepted at Syracuse University. Yes, it was exciting that she got into the Newhouse School of Public Communications. But my mind went right to the Carrier Dome – now we could go see Syracuse basketball!

I bought two tickets to the North Carolina State game, slated for February 15th. As I drove up the Massachusetts Turnpike on the morning of the game, Julie called to let me know that the start time had been moved from 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. – North Carolina State had travel issues because of a snowstorm.

At the Syracuse Sheraton check-in counter, I mentioned the game time change to the receptionist and she pounced. “I hope it messes those kids up,” she said, referring to members of the North Carolina State team. “They didn’t get here until a few minutes ago. I’ll take any advantage we can get.” Her face softened as she handed me my room key: “Enjoy your stay!”

The receptionist’s gamesmanship didn’t surprise me. This was Syracuse, after all. While Julie and I were having lunch, I saw a guy in a shirt that read REAL MEN WEAR ORANGE. It could have also included REAL WOMEN, REAL BOYS, REAL GIRLS, and REAL PETS, for that matter. EVERYONE was rocking Syracuse orange that day, of course – everyone except me. I was wearing a Berklee College of Music pullover. Technical foul.

I mentioned my faux pas to Julie and we concluded that it was a minor transgression. Berklee was not threatening to crack the AP Top 25 Poll anytime soon.

At 6:15, Julie and I made our way to the Carrier Dome. The seats I had bought weren’t great. As we climbed up and up and up to Section 318, Row V, Seats 3 and 4, I thought of Felix Baumgartner’s dive from space. Once seated, we were looking down on what would qualify as nosebleed seats in a smaller venue. And as I watched others make the ascent, some stopping to catch their breath, I wondered if there was a Crouse Hospital medical station nearby.

But when the game began, I was struck by how intimate the Dome felt. Perhaps that’s what happens when 35,000+ disciples react as one – to bad calls (against the Orange), to good calls (for the Orange), to the guy who sank a shot from a recliner during a TV time-out.

It was an ugly game – and close from start to finish. As the clock wound down in the second half, it looked like Syracuse might, after 24 straight wins, lose its first game all season. That cursed Berklee sweatshirt – I was the jinx!

The basketball gods – and two key turnovers by North Carolina State – saved me from such ignominy. Syracuse won 56-55 on a C.J. Fair layup with six seconds left. (Alas, the streak would end four days later with a loss to Boston College.)

After the game, over dinner, Julie told me how much she loved Syracuse – the new friends she had made, the courses she was taking, the sorority she hoped to get into. “I feel like I’m becoming the person I want to be,” she said. That was clear to me – and I marveled at her nascent transformation.

Our first PawSox game seemed far away.

As we left the restaurant, I told Julie I’d walk her back to her dorm. “You don’t have to,” she said, but I insisted – always the dad.

The air was dry and cold outside. My ears stung – I had left my hat in the hotel room. When we reached the corner below the majestic Crouse College building, Julie said she could go the rest of the way on her own. We hugged and I watched, motionless, as she walked into the cold night. When she looked back and saw me standing there, she called out, “Dad, do you know where you are?”

“All set!” I yelled back, lost in thought.

The street signs said I was at the corner of University Place and South Crouse Avenue. But I knew better.

On that night, in that moment, I knew I was somewhere between Holding On and Letting Go.

Photo by Rob Walsh • http://www.robwalshphotoshop.com

As appeared in the Syracuse Post Standard / http://www.syracuse.com on March 31, 2014.

When Less Is Fewer

less

In anticipation of the Red Sox-Rays playoff series, the following sentence appeared in articles on multiple online sports pages: “The Rays are an amazing 82-18 when they allow four runs or less.”

It should be “four runs or fewer.”

Less is used with mass nouns – things we can’t count individually – while fewer is correct when the items can be counted:

Less offense, fewer runs;

Less rain, fewer umbrellas;

Less ink, fewer words.

You know the “10 Items or Less” line at Stop & Shop? It should be “10 Items or Fewer” because you can count the fifteen items in my basket. Back in 2008, a British grocery chain, in a display of extraordinary linguistic sensitivity, sidestepped the issue by changing its signs to read “Up to 10 Items.” Some questioned if that meant “ten items and no more” or “nine items or fewer.” It’s enough to make you shoplift.

This is English, so there are exceptions. Time, money, and distance words turn the rule on its head: “We’ll arrive in less than five hours,” “I have less than $10 in my pocket,” and “I was driving less than 120 miles an hour, officer – what’s the problem?”

The Rays are an amazing 82-18 when they allow four runs or fewer. Let’s hope the Sox score five or more today – up to 10, even.

Take Me In To The Ball Game

photo

You know what’s wrong with sports video games? They weren’t around when I was growing up. No Madden NFL, no NBA Jam, no MLB The Show. Damn.

I would have loved those games. Because I loved sports. I loved to play sports, I loved to watch sports, and I loved games that simulated sports.

It all started with electric football. There was something so promising about the shiny metal field – it looked perfect as my brother and I lined up our plastic players for the kick-off. And then with a flick of the switch, everything went to hell. Players slid unpredictably to electric football’s relentless hum, or locked arms in a gridiron square dance. Every pass was a Hail Mary, and forget about attempting a field goal. No wonder we ended up cranking the vibration screw as high as it would go. That’s what electric football was good for: simulating earthquakes.

Bobby Orr Hockey was in a different league. The table-top game put control of all six players at your fingertips. The overhead scoreboard dropped pucks for center ice face-offs that rewarded good eye-hand coordination. Sure, the action could slow to the pace of a Fischer-Spassky match when one of us tried to line up a pass from flat-metal Johnny Bucyk to flat-metal Phil Esposito – very unlike real hockey, to be sure. But the game was fun to play. Lots of fun.

The only problem was, you needed two people. What about those mornings when my older brother was off working at the Y and my younger brother was still sleeping? I needed a game that I could play solitaire.

My cousin Steven took care of that. When he got a new Strat-O-Matic Baseball Game in the late 1960s, I was the recipient of his old one. Lucky me.

Strat-O-Matic calls itself “The ORIGINAL Fantasy Sports Games!” According to The New York Times, “For youngsters whose thoughts are turned more to spring and baseball than summer and camp, there’s an array of cerebral board games that keep the mind limber with batting averages, earned-run averages, and fielding percentages. The most ingenious is a card-and-dice game put out by Strat-O-Matic.”

I spent the summer rolling dice, consulting charts, keeping box scores, adjusting standings. My house league consisted of the Cardinals and the Yankees, the Red Sox and the Tigers. Even now, the line-ups are fresh in my mind: Brock, Flood, Maris, Cepeda…

Strat-O-Matic Baseball was my “video” game, with the action playing out in my head. But it didn’t keep me from going out to play. Nothing could do that – well, nothing but Mrs. Gordon. She was our next door neighbor on River Avenue in Providence. Mrs. Gordon’s husband had a heart condition. He needed to rest in the morning, she said. So Mrs. Gordon asked that we refrain from whacking Wiffle balls off the side of her house until 9:30. Mrs. Gordon was nice, but in a no-nonsense way. I wasn’t going to cross her – or my mother, who assured Mrs. Gordon that we would comply with her request.

*     *     *

In the early morning light, the Wiffle bat stands untouched in the back hallway. Inside, I sit on the den floor amid charts and dice and Pop-Tart crumbs. Through the magic of Strat-O-Matic Baseball, I keep company with Bob Gibson and Denny McClain and Mickey Mantle and Yaz… Periodically, I run into the kitchen to check the time on the stove clock. 8:30… 9:00… 9:25… YES!

Out I bound into the backyard.

“Good morning, Mrs. Gordon!”

My best friend Chris walks up the driveway, as I scribe the backyard dirt with the knob of the Wiffle bat: a perfect batter’s box and home plate.

Play ball!

With thanks to my cousin, Steven Paulson, for the hand-me-down Strat-O-Matic Baseball years ago and for recent research support.

Game On: The Sport Of Naming Teams

The question at answers.com was logical enough: a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers wondered where all the lakes were in the City of Angels. In Minnesota, as it turns out. Before the Lakers came to Tinseltown, they were the Minneapolis Lakers. Makes sense. Minnesota is the Land of 10,000 Lakes. When the franchise headed west, it left the lakes behind, but not the name. And for more than fifty years, in the most densely populated urban area in the United States, basketball fans have flocked to see a team with an idyllic, outdoorsy moniker. Hollywood, land of make-believe.

Here in New England, our team names present no such hiccup. The Patriots and Revolution connect to our colonial past. The Celtics reflect Boston’s large Irish-American population. Red Sox became an official nickname in 1908, after the club adopted red as its color and featured a red stocking on the front of its players’ jerseys. The original owner of Boston’s professional hockey team wanted a nickname that suggested speed, agility, and cunning. Bruins delivered the hat trick. It also lent itself to brown and yellow uniforms, which just happened to be the colors of the owner’s grocery chain.

The Lakers are not alone in maintaining a nickname despite its disconnect to a new locale:

> The Baltimore Colts were named in honor of the region’s rich history in horse racing. Indianapolis, where the Colts moved, is famous for racing, too, but the focus is on horsepower, not thoroughbreds.

> British Columbia is home to a large grizzly bear population. Naming an NBA team the Vancouver Grizzlies made sense; keeping the name when the franchise moved to Memphis did not. Favorite son Elvis has left the arena, and there is no risk of a grizzly attack outside.

> The New Orleans Jazz pioneered the use of singular nouns in team names (the Miami Heat, Colorado Avalanche, Orlando Magic, etc., would follow). It’s one of my all-time favorites. But when the franchise moved to Utah, the name became oxymoronic. Utah Jazz? Imagine Thelonious Monk sitting in with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

At the college level, leave it to two New England athletic powerhouses – Berklee College of Music and Rhode Island School of Design – to give us inspired team names. Berklee’s hockey squad – the IceCats – reflects the school’s contemporary music pedigree. (According to berkleegroove.com, “contrary to popular belief, some musicians actually are capable of playing sports.”)

And then there’s RISD’s hockey team. The Nads may strike you as a curious name, until you cheer on the team at the top of your lungs:

GO NADS! GO NADS!

In the universe of team names, the Nads are in a league of their own.

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.

%d bloggers like this: