Watching times change at Fenway Park

BOSTON – The digital clock high above center field read 7:07 p.m., and across the diamond here at Fenway Park, Dustin Pedroia stood still. He propped his right foot on the top step of the Red Sox’s dugout – at the opening near first base – and his left arm rested on the rail. Hat in his right hand, he didn’t move. I don’t know if this is his routine or not, but something felt different about this.

Pedroia looked stuck, stuck in his thoughts and stuck in time.

Music played through the Fenway speakers, the umpires checked their cards at home plate, and nobody approached Pedroia on that step. From behind the third base dugout, you could see his nearly bald head shine in the lights, his dirty beard covering his cheeks, the ever-present tobacco plugged in his mouth. He appeared to be staring straight out at the Green Monster in left field.

He didn’t look left, he didn’t look right. He just stared at the Monster, his body in Fenway, his mind seemingly in another place and time far from this Friday evening at this ballpark. Something was different about this night, of course, something very different.

At 7:09 p.m., a few other Red Sox sauntered through the dugout, finding their hats and their mitts, still processing what they had learned in the last hour. For most of them, it didn’t look that unusual. As much as we get lost in the swirling emotion of sport, there are the inevitable times in which the business of sport interrupts. And so for those other players, tonight was one of those times, a time when the store was open and cold business had to be done.

For Pedroia, it didn’t feel that way. He looked at a loss, for words and context, standing there. He didn’t speak, didn’t move, didn’t stretch a muscle. He stood there in a state somewhere between surprised and shocked. What’s going on here? Where has everyone gone? What went wrong with us? Is this all over?

At 7:10 p.m., it was like Pedroia’s professional body clock took over. He flipped his Boston cap on, quickly glanced to make sure Jon Lester, the evening’s starting pitcher, was ready, and hopped out of the dugout.

Pedroia was the first Red Sox on the field, bouncing with his usual energy toward his position at second base, the remaining face of a franchise whose other faces have, piece by piece in the last year, left for new towns and new starts.

***

For years, my dad and I have talked about the day we would get to Fenway Park. It was high up on the list of ballparks we wanted to see. We got to Wrigley Field. We saw the old Yankee Stadium a couple times before it was torn down. Dodger Stadium is 45 minutes from home. Fenway was the last jewel of the old historic parks we had to get to.

Along with my mom, we hopped out of a cab in front of Fenway three hours and 30 minutes before first pitch. We walked outside the first-base side of the ballpark, stopping at the ‘Teammates’ statue to look at the flowers left for the late Johnny Pesky.

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We went down Yawkey, where grills flickered to life and tables were being set up for the crowds. We passed Gate A and turned right on Lansdowne, headed for the Bleacher Bar in center field. There, we ordered beers and snagged bar stools in front of the screen that allows a direct view into the ballpark.

We looked straight ahead and read the big red letters high above home plate that read ‘Fenway Park.’ It was real.

In right field, Daisuke Matsuzaka threw his flat-ground work and Franklin Morales ran and Pedroia took ground balls at second base, waiting for batting practice to begin. Young kids clung to the fence, their small fingers poking through the holes and their noses pressed up against the dirty metal, examining the big leaguers. I remembered the times when I was them, looking and studying and dreaming. I’m still them, in a way, helplessly noticing inconsequential details.

One kid wore his baseball uniform, and my dad and I talked about how great it would be to grow up in a place like this, where people burned for their sports, where kids didn’t have a choice but to show up four hours early and love it, where all this stuff truly mattered.

I looked around the bar, noticing how crowded it was for a game against the Royals in which the Red Sox were nowhere near contention. It didn’t seem like it mattered. It didn’t seem like the standings dictate the people.

It was a summer night, which means it was a baseball night, a Red Sox night. The lights were on at Fenway Park, and so this is what they do.

***

About an hour before first pitch, anybody who had access to the Internet, Twitter or a friend at home in front of a computer screen began to notice what was happening.

The Red Sox were in discussions with the Dodgers about a move that would remake the Boston roster. Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Nick Punto would all be heading to Los Angeles, while the Dodgers sent five players back to Boston. I sat behind the third-base dugout, constantly scrolling through my phone, informing my dad of what was happening.

The Royals had just finished up batting practice, and the field was being prepped. On my phone, the Red Sox and Dodgers were finalizing the details. They needed to get approval from Beckett and Crawford – both had certain no-trade rights – and exchange medicals to be examined. I looked up at the press box and saw only the tops of the heads of beat reporters, their faces buried in their laptop screens, their fingers surely prancing across the keys in a fever.

The ballpark was slow to fill up, and it lacked buzz, but not for us, not for those who knew that somewhere in this place, phones were ringing and executives on opposite coasts were talking and players were being picked. Earlier, fans peppered a media member with questions. “Are we trading Beckett?” they asked. “Are we trading Gonzalez? What’s happening? Give us the scoop!”

“Maybe,” the reporter said with a smile.

As news flashed on my phone, I leaned over to my dad and said, “It looks like the pieces are agreed upon. This will happen, pending medicals being approved.”

A father sitting in front of me, who was at the park with his wife and two sons, quickly turned around. He had gotten a text message from a friend, informing him something was up. “Wait, what’s the deal?” he asked. “Is it done?”

“Beckett, Gonzalez, Crawford and Punto going to L.A. for Loney, De La Rosa, Sands, De Jesus and Webster,” I said. “Not official, but about done.”

First pitch was about 10 minutes away, and players had filtered out into the outfield to stretch and run. The starting lineups flashed on the video board in center. Batting fifth for the Red Sox: First baseman Adrian Gonzalez. I wondered how many in the ballpark at that point knew that Gonzalez would not be in the lineup, that they had seen the last of him in Boston.

“OK! All right!” the man sitting in front of me said.

I figured his reaction was a general representation of Boston. Red Sox fans had enough of this team, enough of these players, and they wanted to remake this thing.

Turns out, he was just a New Yorker incognito.

***

When the gates opened, we walked down Yawkey, taking in the experience. We munched on Monster Dogs and drank cold beers. The second the gates swung open at 5:10 p.m., a band started playing.

It was a three-man band. One guy on the sax, one on the trombone, the third on the snare. They called themselves “Hot Tamale.” They wore black pants and white shirts and played like this game meant something and they were just doing their part in it all.

We soon headed inside to our seats, walking up one of the ramps to the field boxes, and exiting near the plate as Fenway Park, in its entirety for the first time, opened up. I paused to look at the Green Monster in left and the high bleachers in right-center. Everything was as cool as I imagined it would be. The triangle in the outfield, the Monster seats, Pesky’s Pole, the funny way the infield dirt bulges out at the corners, the “John Hancock” sign written in cursive in center.

I immediately loved how the open-air ballpark felt enclosed. Unlike Dodger Stadium or the newer ballparks, which are spacious and open up to the air and the elements behind the outfield, Fenway felt boxed in. With the Monster in left and the high signs in center and right and the snug seats and cozy features, there was an intimacy to a ballpark that, to me, has always looked grandiose and overwhelming on television.

I loved how there weren’t decks upon decks of seats stacked on top of each other and how, between the bases, you could look past the seats and through a space outside of the ballpark.

We went up to the Monster to look down on the field and then cuddled up to the left-field foul pole. I reached out and patted the big green wall, looking at the dents that doubles and singles and lasers of all kinds have left in it.

I suspect this is natural for most people visiting Fenway for the first time, but I began imagining some of the historic moments taking place, as if I were living them in real time. I looked up the big light towers above the Monster and pictured how Bucky Dent’s homer must have looked in flight. I looked at the plate and tried to see Ted Williams in the box (between the hip-hop blaring and the 10-year-old on an iPhone in front of me, that was a little difficult).

More than anything, though, I kept looking at my dad and saying, “Man, I wonder what this place looks and feels like in the playoffs.”

***

The Royals all lined up in front of the third-base dugout for the national anthem. A security guard stood in front of the first-base dugout, but no Boston players did. The dugout was empty.

By now, word of the trade had begun to filter through the stands a bit. Gonzalez would not be playing first base tonight at Fenway, or any other night in the future. A few minutes before Pedroia found himself alone on the top step of the dugout, the Red Sox all emerged from the clubhouse together, where they presumably had been told about the deal.

Bobby Valentine settled in at his spot near the batting rack, and players moved casually through the dugout like any other August night. The bullpen crew began the walk out to right-center, where they sit until Valentine opens the little box in the dugout and dials 9-1-1. I looked at third base, about 30 feet in front of me, and imagined Kevin Youkilis standing there. He had long been shuttled off to Chicago.

Of course, there was no sign of Beckett or Gonzalez in the dugout. And then, suddenly, Pedroia jumped off the top step and the Red Sox took the field. There was no official announcement when Mauro Gomez jogged a few steps and settled at first base, Gonzalez’s replacement in the lineup. But for those who still hadn’t heard, this was their sign. They all knew now. Their franchise, their beloved Sox, had been significantly altered for 2012 and for the future.

But – and this is the funny thing about baseball – there was hardly even a murmur. A lineup is sent to home plate almost every night for six or seven months, and things change frequently.

I don’t know if it was disbelief or apathy or something else, but when Gomez assumed his position at first – the essential announcement from the organization that actions were being taken for the underachievement around here – surprisingly little energy moved through the crowd.

Lorenzo Cain walked to the plate and Jon Lester threw Strike 1 and the people quietly watched.

***

My dad and I moved around the ballpark during batting practice to get different views, and for a few minutes we settled near first base, about 12 rows up. This was my favorite view, because we had the Monster in front of us and the vast outfield space to the right and it was the moment I finally felt here.

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Like I had been doing all evening, I pictured things. I looked at the empty dirt a few steps off of first base.

“Dad, can you just imagine what it was like here in 2004, Game 4 of the ALCS against the Yankees?” I asked. “Can you just imagine what it was like?”

I think we both tried to picture Dave Roberts leading off of first base and Mariano Rivera on the mound. It was a warm night, but I think we both tried to feel what an October air must feel like at Fenway. I looked around the stands and tried to travel back eight years and fill those seats with desperate voices, voices that didn’t know the confidence two World Series titles can bring. I wanted to feel the fragments of hope that were present then.

As we stood there, young fans hung over the dugout yelling at a player named Pedro Ciriaco for autographs. As he signed for the kids, I saw David Ortiz fight off a cutter against Rivera. I saw Roberts score and heard Fenway explode.

I thought I did, anyway. But you’re quickly pulled back to the real, to the now. Eight years felt like a long time ago, longer then it should feel, and maybe that was because I was too plugged into the evening’s news. I knew what was happening, and I didn’t allow myself to escape it.

This Red Sox run that was built around big-money deals, big-market bravado, was coming to an end. It’d be over before Gonzalez could get to the plate for his first at-bat. I had no real emotional attachment to it, not as a Red Sox fan or a Boston native or through a youthful admiration of the players involved.

But it still was a little jarring. I had come here to touch the relics of a certain history that, in any tangible way, just didn’t exist anymore.

***

They cheered David Ortiz like crazy. They still love him here, probably as much as any athlete in this city. Big Papi has been in Boston for everything. Unlike Pedroia, Ortiz was here for the ’04 title. He’s the last one from that club still in Boston. When he goes, that club, those ‘Idiots’, will officially be gone.

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So as he returned from the disabled list against Kansas City, Fenway gave him a standing ovation. Ortiz did his part, roping the first pitch from Bruce Chen into right field. And that felt just right. Ortiz would come up in his second at-bat and lace another hit, and that one felt right, too. When you visit Fenway Park for the first time, you expect David Ortiz to simply hit and you expect Red Sox fans to love him unconditionally for it.

Pedroia would do his thing, getting a hit and a walk and stealing a base and dirtying up his uniform. He made his plays at second base and encouraged Lester when his defense made his work a little more difficult and patted Gomez, the New Guy, on the butt when he booted a ground ball but stuck with it to get the out at first.

The beautiful thing about Dustin Pedroia is that he does all these things every night. He is all the good that comes from the 2007 championship team and none of the bad. Sure, the Red Sox wanted to shed salary perhaps more than anything in their deal with the Dodgers, but they wanted to shed entitlement and complacency, too. They wanted financial freedom in the coming years, yes, but they also wanted to rebuild a club that used to carry a burden for a city.

Sometimes that’s the cost of winning, of breaking curses and fulfilling hopeless hearts. Mold grows on a team that hasn’t bothered to dry off from its championship showers, even as those years are so far removed from now.

I don’t know if that’s the reason it has all come to this for the Red Sox. And I don’t know if Dustin Pedroia believes that, either.

But I do know that as he stood there on the top step, alone and quiet, I was seeing Fenway Park for the first time and he was seeing something for the last.

Email: tmitrosilis@gmail.com Twitter: @TMitrosilis

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2 Responses to Watching times change at Fenway Park

  1. This was a beautiful bit of writing. Thanks.

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