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A Very Important Baseball Game

(Photo Credit: AP/The Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise)

The fateful weekend finally arrived.

I had known for a couple of months that my parents were coming down for a visit, and I also knew that my last weekend as assistant coach for my son's T-ball team was also happening as well.  And I knew that my dad had managed to secure seats to see the team that he (and I, for that matter) grew up following: the Boston Red Sox.

It was fated to be a weekend of wall-to-wall baseball.  And a very important one, too: my six year old son's first-ever professional baseball game.  His first day out at the ballpark with the boys.  His first hotdog.  Peanuts and crackerjacks.  Seventh inning stretch.

It's a moment you anticipate, but it's also a moment of nervousness as well. Will the weather cooperate? Will your son's big moment with his father and grandfather be a rain-delayed mess? Will it be a sixteen-pitcher snoozefest? Will he - heaven Forbid - start rallying behind the Phillies? Will he even remember the game? Or care?

But most importantly, will he even be paying attention after the first inning? (more)



In a parent's mind the weeks before the first pro baseball game, the idealized vision is one of catching multiple foul balls, securing 3B Mike Lowell's autograph, your section winning free hotdogs while your team hustles and gives 110% every play - and winning 9-8 after CF Jacoby Ellsbury, playing Robert Redford playing Roy Hobbs, steals home in the ninth inning to get the win.

As I learned that my son's initiation to the "family team" was going to be a pitching matchup between P Roy "The Greatest Pitcher On Earth" Halliday for the Phillies versus P Tim "62 mile an hour fastball" Wakefield for the Red Sox, I was simply hoping to avoid embarrassment. If it were a fastball contest, I wouldn't even show up.

On top of this, two recent fan Philly fan debacles in the same stadium where we were going to be "enjoying" our first game loomed large over the proceedings.  The first, well, let's just call this the "chunk" incident:

A New Jersey man is facing charges after police say he intentionally vomited on an 11-year-old girl and her father in the stands during a Philadelphia Phillies game.

Just a few short weeks later: "Don't Tase Me, Security":

In the eighth inning of a Phillies-Cardinals game, a 17-year-old male hopped a fence at Citizens Bank Park. He fled security for a few seconds until a Philadelphia police officer fired a Taser gun at the boy from about 15-feet away, dropping him on the spot in left-center field. 
After these two incidents, it had to make you wonder what the trifecta might be in the game we were destined to attend.  Perhaps a massive fistfight in our section between 2B Chase Utley and 1B Kevin Youkilis fans, leaving fans injured and bloodied before our eyes?  Maybe a decision by a series of inebriated fans to collectively moon 3B Adrian Beltre, leading to a new, different sort of "chunking incident" that will scar three generations of my family and turn my son off baseball for life?

Complicating matters was that the original forecast of 80 degree sunny days as far as the eye could see became, in the matter of several hours, 65 and overcast with a 30% chance of rain for the game on Sunday afternoon.

It made me wonder - was this game that we were to attend meant to fit into the scheme of the cosmos?  My idealized vision went to the other extreme: three wet Red Sox fans, huddling for warmth under plastic ponchos after a two-hour rain delay, waiting to see Halliday no-hit the Red Sox.  Maybe, as added drama, Mike Lowell tells me to f- off while I ask for his autograph.

It's not like I've been baseball's best friend over the past few years.  I've been loud about steroids, and I still feel like they're ruining the game.  I'd be naive to think A-Roid is the only active player that has and/or is taking steroids, and I look at Beltre note that he has the same "look" that LF Manny Ramirez did when we know he was taking steroids.  I come from a cynical generation where everything - government, corporations, Facebook, everything - fails us, so it's a knee-jerk reaction to be just as cynical about baseball.

Leading up to the game, I kept thinking: Will tomorrow be my cosmic reward for my cynicism?

*****

Saturday came and saw my son play an extended session of catch and skills with his grandfather, suit up in his uniform one more time, and play his last T-ball game of the season.  After the game, he and some of the other kids practiced a little coach and pitch with me, and with that my time as an assistant T-ball coach was over.

The kids thanked me, and it was incredibly touching.  I remember not long ago wondering if I would genuinely have the time and energy to teach kids what was probably my best sport growing up, baseball.  Not only did I have the both the time and energy, I really got into it, solving problems, and emphasizing the basics of hitting and being ready for line drives careening off the tee.  Going in, I wasn't at all sure how much I could or would contribute - all I knew is that I had the heart and determination to try.  In the end, that's all that mattered.

With my father, mother and wife in the stands, it made me think about my baseball playing "career".  T-ball didn't exist when I was my son's age, and moving overseas during the tender age of eight did not help my baseball skills very much.  But when we returned a few years later I was eager to try baseball, and my dad would be involved when he could be, assisting my coaches, playing catch with me and working on skills.  I had to play catch-up with the rest of my peers, but without my dad working on those things I wouldn't have likely been playing anywhere.

My son's T-ball game was sandwiched between Friday and Saturday interleague games between the Sox and Phillies.  Friday's game started out promisingly with a home run by C Victor Martinez, but after 1B Ryan Howard and RF Jayson Werth's bats went bananas against P John Lackey - along with P Cole Hamels' four-hit domination - the Phillies would bull their way to a 5-1 win.

Saturday would be a major surprise.  It has always been my dream to be present at a no-hitter or perfect game, so P Dice-K seven no-hit innings were incredibly bittersweet.  To think - my dream is to be present at a no-hitter, and a no-hitter is pitched the day before the game we're destined to attend?  To boot, the Red Sox were making all-star plays to preserve the no-hitter, like Dice-K's reaction shot to catch Werth's certain single up the middle, or Beltre's leaping grab to rob C Carlos Ruiz of a hit and then double up 1B Raul Ibanez at first.

And then SS Juan Castro - Juan Castro!  Playing in place of injured SS Jimmy Rollins! - poked his bat out and issued an old-fashioned Texas blooper into left field which ended the no-hit bid.  Yes, that Juan Castro, he of the .231 lifetime average and .331 lifetime slugging percentage, broke up Dice-K's no-hitter.  The Sox would win comfortably 5-0, thanks to Beltre's and 1B David Ortiz' clutch doubles, meaning the rubber game would be tomorrow.

A lot of fun, non-baseball stuff happened this weekend.  My mother brought plants down for us, helped us get them into the ground, and got some really thoughtful gifts for my son as she suffered through all this baseball talk.  My wife hosted everybody, came up with the meals, and set up a great time in Philadelphia for the non-baseball-attending folk this weekend as she suffered through all this baseball talk.  But the game was the celestial object around which the weekend orbited.

My dad and I watched the games together on Friday and Saturday, and it, unsurprisingly, was great times.  We've been through a lot together as Red Sox fans.  We went to many games at Fenway when I was a kid with my sister and grandfather.  When I was the same age my son is now, C Carlton Fisk was waving the ball around the foul pole in Game 6 in the Impossible Dream World Series.  In the pre-Internet days of the 1980s, we lived out of the country but my dad got the short-wave radio set up to listen to Red Sox games that mattered.  I stayed up well past midnight to hear LF Dave Henderson send the Red Sox to the World Series in 1986.  A lot of folks who wear Red Sox gear didn't go through all that.

I thought about being cynical at times, but I stopped.  For my son (and wife's) sake, I wouldn't talk about steroids this weekend.  This wasn't about steroids.   This was about baseball.

*****

We made it to the park an hour before gametime.  We went in, and discovered that my dad spared no expense in getting some great seats down the third-base line.  The usher actually pointed us to the wrong seats, but then some pleasant fans (that didn't seem like tasing candidates) mentioned that our real seats were one section over, in the sun and with an even better view than we thought.

We went down Ashburn alley and looked for some food.  It was wall-to-wall, and our original thought of grabbing cheesesteaks were dashed when we saw the line dictated that we'd enjoy our cheesesteaks somewhere in the middle of the third inning, by our estimates. We instead went for the traditional: a Hatfield frank for my son, and Italian sausage with peppers and onions for me and my dad.  Pricey (unsurprisingly), but tasty.

We finished lunch in time to see C Jason Varitek and Martinez warming up in the outfield.  With my son in Red Sox hat, shirt and all - and seeing an opportunity that will not last forever - I put him up on my shoulders so that he could see the two Red Sox catchers practice throws to second base.  It's amazing how a moment like that, which can seem like a throwaway, takes on a new dimension when your son is going to his first game.  There's only one first game, and you don't know which moment will take on the importance of a lifetime, so you just try to make it all special and hope somebody remembers.

Martinez threw the ball into the left field stands - not to us - but that was OK.  Also OK was the fact that I had waded through Ashburn Alley with only one heckling incident of note: some guy showing off his Bruins Towel from the Flyers' win over the Bruins in Game Seven.  (I hadn't the heart to tell him that I'm rooting for the Flyers.)


We got back in time for the national anthem, sung by the Penn University female Glee Club.  The clouds actually broke.  We took a look around, and talked to some of the fans around us.  Two other dads next to us had their sons with them to watch the game.  Some longtime lady fans of the Phillies sat next to us.  In other words, no obvious "chunker" candidates.  This was good.  (To my son reading this ten years from now: Yes, son, part of my historic day with you was eyeballing the stands to make sure nobody throws up on you.  Let it be said that I tried to do my part the best I could as a father.)

What was better that the game moved briskly, with Wakefield and Halliday screaming through three innings.  Youkilis would hit a long triple, and RF J.D. Drew - through a chorus of boos - would give the Red Sox a 1-0 lead after a deep enough groundout to score Youk.  (Philly fans are still bitter about Drew dogging it on his stint on the Phillies, while he would resurrect his career on the Red Sox.  Philly fans motto: never forgive, never forget.)

My son was taking the whole thing in.  I'm not sure if he absorbed anything about balls and strikes about the infield fly rule (despite my best efforts), but he did enjoy looking through the binoculars at the players and also was fascinated when a bird perched on one of the TV wires visible from our section.  Though I scored the game in my official program - am I the only person that still does that? - I made sure to make time for my son to take everything in.  He didn't have to be as engrossed with the score of the game as I was.

Unsurprisingly, he got hungry in the fourth inning, so we made a dash for that old baseball staple (peanuts and Crackerjacks) along with a Philly favorite (the soft pretzel) and so doing, avoided the only rain of the afternoon, according to my father.  I was imparting on him the age-old wisdom that fathers need to impart on their kids at an early age if they hope to survive in this world.  Have one hot dog only.  Stay away from the cotton candy, which is not real cotton.  Avoid fried foods which anger the blood.

The fourth inning would contain the key play of the game for the Red Sox.  With one out, Martinez would get a single followed by a Youklis walk.  A Drew single - amid more boos - would load the bases for Beltre.  The beefy third baseman would dribble a perfect double-play ball to Phillie 3B Greg Dobbs - that promptly sailed through his legs to allow two runs to score.  Instead of getting out of a bases-loaded jam with zero or one run scored, the score was instead 3-0 with one out, with runners on first and second.  Despite the fact the Red Sox would score no more runs this inning, Halliday's invulnerability just felt like it was popped.  He could be had on this day.

Hoping that the pretzel, peanuts and Crackerjacks would hold us all over, we waited and watched Wakefield continue to force the Phillies to chase after knuckling pitches.  At the end of the fifth inning, statistically I sprang into action. I casually remarked to everyone around me: the Phillies would fly or line out 12 times out of a possible 15 outs.  In stark contrast, the Red Sox were creating ground ball outs at about the same rate as the Phillies were popping out; in a possible 15 outs, first baseman Ryan Howard was involved in 13 of them.  Great for a stats nerd like myself; less so for my father and son - though at least my father pretended that he was paying attention.  (Just kidding, family.)

In the sixth inning, the Sox busted the game wide open.  After Youkilis banged a big home run to left (son and father chanting "Youk!"), the wheels came off the best pitcher in the game.  Amid even more boos, Drew doubled off of Halliday, LF Jeremy Hermeida singled to center, and SS Marco Scutaro delivered another single to add another run.  After Wakefield laid down an effective sacrifice, Ellsbury delivered another rarity: a 2-RBI single that didn't leave the infield.  It was my dream to witness a no-hitter, not a two-RBI infield single, but I'll take it.  You don't see that every day.  Better yet, though, the Red Sox went up 8-0 in a game where I was actually worried that my son might be embarrassed to wear Red Sox gear.

My son enjoyed the game a lot, but for him it was the surrounding things - being with Dad and Grandpa, seeing the people, getting the prize out of the Crackerjacks, staring through the binoculars - that really counted for him.  In the end, it really didn't matter where or what it was, as long as he was with us.  That we were outrageously happy that the Red Sox had a touchdown and two-point conversion lead on the Phillies helped immensely.  Hearing his old man grouse about the great old days of LF Carl Yastremski and RF Dwight Evans while his team's pitching was getting torn up on the field probably would have ruined it for him, too.

*****

The day was a bigger success than I could have imagined.  My son was able to more or less watch the entire game from his seat, no mean feat for a six year old.  No "chunking".  No rain.  No tasers.  No loud, obnoxious drunks yelling how Youkilis f--ing sucks.  The Red Sox, far from making my son's first baseball game into a embarrassment, made it rewarding for the folks wearing the Mike Lowell shirts - even if he didn't get a chance to play, and I didn't get his autograph like in my idealized view of the day.

The only question was whether my son would take anything from the day.  Would any baseball sink in?  Would he remember it at all?  Was the time, the planning, the Boston Red Sox hat, the incredible good fortune of the game, all for nought?

We got home, and my son found the pack of complimentary baseball cards given out at the game.  He opened them up, and he wanted to collect them all.  I don't even know if he knows what balls and strikes are, but he knows baseball and he likes it.

My dad and I smiled.  We have a new baseball fan in the house.  It was worth it.

Thanks, pops.

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