Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Red Sox 7, Tigers 4

If Yankee Stadium is a testament to grandeur and excess and bluster -- to New York, really -- then Fenway Park, like Boston, revels in its quirkiness and its intimacy.

Last Tuesday, three days after my baseball venture to the Bronx, I joined the Red Sox Nation in waiting out a 90-minute rain delay. Honestly, it wasn't that bad. Once one is used to the concrete sterility of Veterans Stadium, almost any other venue seems unquestionably superior. When it's Fenway Park, well, watching the ground crew fold up tarp qualifies as high entertainment. Drinking beer helped, as it does with many activities.

The grandstand seats are made of wood, not molded plastic. There is lush, verdant grass on the field, and as we sat in our seats, just past first base down the right field line, we could look straight across the field and be confronted by the Green Monster, defying any hitter to even try powering a ball over its top. And, my God, the coziness of the place. After viewing the diamond at Yankee Stadium from just under the ozone layer, Fenway Park's closeness was startling and welcome. As at Yankee, the areas underneath the stands are uncomfortably cramped -- the designers of the new retro parks have wisely corrected this deficiency -- but once you get out into the seats, the stadiums' primary difference manifests itself.

The Boston nine (10 with a designated hitter, I suppose) seemed close enough to touch. Trot Nixon's socks, I could see clearly, were pulled way up high; I could practically read the logo on the batting gloves Nomar Garciaparra so obsessively fussed with. A glance around the ballpark turned up individual faces in faraway sections, and voices rang out in sharp relief, unlike the white noise of the Yankee Stadium crowd. Though it twice needed correcting a half-inning later, the hand-worked scoreboard along the base of the Monster was as charming as ever. It was Major League Baseball with a minor league feel -- and I mean that as a compliment.

Sox fans, like Yankee rooters, are completely head-over-heels in love with their team. Nomar, Manny, Pedro -- this is a first name-only kind of relationship. Red jerseys and ball caps adorned the heads of countless spectators. But while New York fans, despite George Steinbrenner's defensive "The Red Sox haven't won anything yet," puff out their chest and dare you to knock the chip off their shoulder, Boston's affair with the Sox is a more cautious engagement. Yes, of course, there's wild cheering, and the Globe and the Herald cover the hell out of the team, but Bostonians hold a little something back. Perfectly understandable, of course; how many times do you have to get your heart broken before encasing it in Kevlar?

Still, so many of them are like little puppy dogs, begging for your affection and pleased as punch when they get it. As I sipped my beverage and chomped a foot-long and waited for the game to get underway, a 17-year-old kid from Plymouth, who was sitting next to me, struck up a conversation. He asked if I'd ever been to other major league parks. If I weren't 34, straight, and married, I'd have considered it the perfect pickup line. We chatted for a half-hour straight, comparing notes on the Sox and Phillies and swapping stories on Fenway. For his money, the seats are stifling and uncomfortable; fair enough, I said, but compared to the Vet, he was watching the angels play ball in heaven on earth. He saw my point.

It was a delightful talk, the kind you have only at a baseball game, and my young friend Jamie was the perfect antidote to strange, sick Phil, the glaring maniac from Yankee Stadium's upper deck.

Game stuff: The Tigers are a dreadful team, populated by third-rate players who just don't have the stuff to win in the bigs. Derek Lowe had his way with them in the early going, throwing strikes at a 75 percent-plus clip and cruising on back-to-back homers by Kevin Millar and Jason Varitek.

(An aside here: Millar is on my fantasy league team, and there is nothing -- nothing -- like seeing your guy park one while you're in the yard. Especially when you're in seventh place and need every little bit of happiness you can wring out of the season.)

But when he ran into trouble in the fifth and sixth, giving up three runs on a pair of dingers, Lowe actually got booed. Philadelphia fans do a lot to deserve their crappy reputation, but I couldn't believe my ears. I mean, Lowe was pitching a hell of a game. This wasn't uneasy stirring. This was booing. Don't let anyone tell you the City of Brotherly Love has cornered the market on lousy fan behavior.

The Red Sox went on to score a few more, and Lowe's final line -- eight innings, six hits, three runs, four whiffs, no walks -- was good. By the time it was over, we were in the car, headed southwest from Boston and cheered that the Sox had gained a half game on the hated Yankees, who had been rained out earlier in the evening.


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