“Hey Nick, I have two tickets for Wednesday night’s game that I can’t use if you’re interested.”
“Yeah, with Minnesota. Scott Baker against Clay Buchholz, section 41.”
“Give me a minute, but I think I’m about 80 percent sure I’m saying yes.”
And it might as well have been 100 percent. Red Sox tickets do not typically fall into my lap, so when they do, I usually make every concession I can in order to make it. It probably goes without saying that the chances of my ever having season tickets to a major league team, never mind a certain childhood obsession who happen to play in my favorite ballpark ever. Going to baseball games is hard; I make the most of my opportunities.
After a quick couple of text messages, grant writer and sharer of Mike Lowell’s birthday Katie Newport was on board with the idea, and this casual Monday morning conversation became a reality. On Wednesday night, I’d be sitting in section 41, row 37, seat 1.
♦ ♦ ♦
For the past few weeks, I’ve been obsessing over Josh Wilker’s blog, Cardboard Gods, and it’s accompanying book. Wilker is an incredibly thoughtful writer, detailing the trials of his childhood (and later life) through the prism of his baseball card collection. (For some excellent examples to get you started, check out his entries on Carlton Fisk, Tom Seaver and Jason Varitek.)
I bought his book about two weeks ago, and I’m about halfway through it (and using a 1993 Dave Magadan card as a bookmark for good measure). It’s funny, it’s warm, it’s heartfelt and it’s brutally honest, and it’s all presented through a deep and obvious love of baseball. Needless to say, this resonates with me, and it did so immediately.
So, lucky enough for me, he happened to be in Boston for the day signing copies of his book at the Souvenir Store on Yawkey Way, along with Sox legend and notorious spaceman Bill Lee. Now, I’ve never been too hung up on autographs (I’m much more a fan of the handshake and hello, a la Bill Russell), but Bill Lee is one of the few I have; I met him when I was 14 years old at a Dartmouth, Mass., police fundraiser, and he signed the underbrim of my Red Sox cap thusly:
To Nick — Bill Lee, Earth ’96
In summary, he’s a cool dude.
At the moment I walk into the store, he has a crowd of eight or nine people around him, asking to pose for pictures, while Mr. Wilker is sitting solitary in his excellent Grateful Red shirt. And after hemming and hawing for a minute or two, I work up the courage to walk over to him and tell him that, yes, I think his book is fantastic and amazing and that I’ve burned through just about every entry on his site, and that one of my first favorite players was Dwight Evans, whom he also loved. He caught Dewey at the beginning of his career, I got him at the end. He shakes my hand, says thank you, and I can tell he means it. He seemed kind of nervous, but from reading him, I already knew he was the nervous type. I can certainly relate.
♦ ♦ ♦
Settling into the game now, there’s a light mist that will rotate between rain, drizzle and nothing for about eight of the nine innings. We’re in our seats, I have a hot chocolate and a hot dog, and I’m happy. Buchholz looks like he’s on his game, whipping through the first eight batters with ease, walking Twins third baseman Nick Punto and then, just as I’m talking about how he is owner of the best pick-off move I’ve ever seen on a right-hander, picks Punto off of first. Baker has also held the Sox scoreless, but not with anywhere near the control Buchholz has had.
In the fourth inning, the resurgence of David Ortiz continues, as he hits a blast over the camera well in center field. There’s question as to whether or not it’s a home run from the umpires, but after review, yes, it was. Two weeks ago, give or take, Ortiz had one home run for the season. He now has eight. All apologies to Lowell, but that is fantastic for the Sox’ chances in 2010. And seeing Ortiz hit a bomb like that doesn’t happen every day anymore, either. Watching him smile as he crossed the plate was a treat as well. It’s special, and it felt special.
♦ ♦ ♦
In the fifth inning, my pants are now soaked to the point that I can feel the skin on my thighs starting to wrinkle. It never truly rained that hard, but it was constant enough to make me uncomfortable. So, we duck for cover for a little while. I stop by the souvenir stand to by a pack of baseball cards. And why not? I hadn’t bought one yet this year, I saw the fancy Topps Heritage packs, and if I was ever going to buy a pack of cards, it seemed fitting that I do so on the night I got to pay my respects to the keeper of the Cardboard Gods.
Standing near the pizza stand in the center field concourse, watching Clay burn through the Twins in the fifth (strikeout, strikeout, groundout 5-3), I open up the pack, start chewing on the gum (oh, that hard, sugary gum), and flip through the cards. I received, in order:
- Johnny Cueto — P, Cincinnati
- Jim Riggleman — Mgr, Washington
- Jim Thome — 1B, Los Angeles (though obviously playing for Minnesota tonight)
- Raul Ibanez — OF, Philadelphia
- Michael Cuddyer — OF/1B, Minnesota
- Carlos Pena — 1B, Tampa Bay
- Clay Buchholz — P, Boston
- Shin-Soo Choo — OF, Cleveland
Needless to say, this is starting to get weird.
♦ ♦ ♦
With the Sox holding a 2-1 lead and the rain coming down harder than ever, we go for a walk around the concourse, stopping to take in some of the sights, including the pennants hanging behind the right field grandstand and the 1912 door, which is now home to their World Series trophy of the same year. After taking in some of the sights (despite this being my fifth trip in two years, with all the recent renovations, there was still a lot I hadn’t seen), we settle in behind section 26, where I saw my first game ever at Fenway, the same year Mr. Lee signed my cap. We’re there long enough to see Adrian Beltre score the third run of the game, when an usher approaches us:
“Hi, I have a couple of seats open in the second row next to the Twins dugout. Are you interested—”
“—in moving down there? I know it’s in the rain, but—”
“Yes. Yes. Absolutely, yes.”
[Nodding furiously] “Absolutely, yes, oh man, we’re in.”
“OK, let me find two more people.”
When this guy comes back and leads us down to our seats … I mean, there were no words. We’re literally next to the Twins dugout. Ron Gardenhire can’t be more than three feet from me (and does give me an approving nod at one point). Thome is cheering on Cuddyer and Joe Mauer from the dugout. From here, it’s even more obvious that Dustin Pedroia is a tiny guy, and that Ortiz is just massive. And, most impressive Buchholz is throwing hard. He’s hitting his spots and buckling knees. When Daniel Bard comes in for him after one batter in the ninth, he’s throwing even harder.
Being that close to the game was something else. Hearing the idle chatter, seeing Victor Martinez in his catcher’s position talking to former teammate Thome in the on-deck circle, being able to smell the grass, watching the TV crews get ready for their next report, getting extreme closeups of the details of the Twins’ uniforms (did you know they have Red Sox-style number decals on the backs of their helmets?), it was all more than I could have imagined. For three innings, I was in heaven. And the cherry on top was Bard preserving the win for Buchholz, arguably the best start the Red Sox have seen all year.
When the game ended, we stayed standing in our spots for about 20 minutes, watching the Twins pack up their gear and the fans filing out through the aisles. I didn’t want to leave.
♦ ♦ ♦
Heading out of the park, we walked back into the store to poke around, not really in any rush to leave; it was barely past 10, so there was no hurry to get back to the T. Back in the store, I spotted Wilker talking to an employee and walking off, and I was staring at the t-shirts, when I decided to buy a blue Buchholz shirt, no. 11, large.
“I think I’m going to do it.”
“Well, if you were ever going to, tonight would be the night.”
It was also at this point that we both realized our faces hurt from smiling. I’d been smiling for the better part of two hours, and so had she. It was a lot to take in.
Had just one of these things happened at a game — meeting Wilker, seeing Lee in his element, the Ortiz homer, pulling the Buchholz card, Buchholz’s start, getting into the second row — it would’ve been enough to send me home elated. All of them? It’s almost impossible for me to process it.
So, I bought a t-shirt. Along with the baseball card, a simple reminder of an incredible set of circumstances at Fenway Park that led to a baseball night like I had never experienced.