Back to normal? A day at Fenway seemed to bring us closer.
We’ll remember Opening Day 2021 not for anything the Red Sox did on the field — they didn’t do much — but, well, because it was Opening Day. And in some ways it was as normal as ever. (Photos by Art Martone)
By ART MARTONE
If you want to know why you should resist, always, the temptation to read deeper meanings into anything that happens on Opening Day, check out my friend Chad Finn. Or my friend Rob Bradford. Or . . . hell, just about any of my friends, all of whom offered clear-eyed observations of a frigid, disappointing and, to be frank, kind of discouraging day at freshly reopened Fenway.
Disappointing and discouraging, that is, if all you paid attention to was what happened on the field. Otherwise, it was glorious. Frigid, but glorious.
We were back for the first time in a year, yes. But you know something? It was like we never left.
Ever think you’d see Jersey Street look like this 45 minutes before game time?
Of course, we really aren’t back. Not yet; only 4,452 of us were allowed in. Look at the picture above. Normally we’re elbow-to-elbow out there before a game, but there were few other elbows on this day. There were no beer stands. Or food vendors. (The few that were around were the ones outside Fenway’s property lines.) Or bands. Or guys on stilts. Or any of the other “attractions”, for lack of a better term, that make up the game-day experience in Boston. The souvenir store was open, but with the same social-distance restrictions you’ll find in any business these days.
We may not have had any of those things, but we did have this:
Another sign that times are different, at least for now.
How did I happen to be one of the lucky 4,452? Well, in 1987 a bunch of us at the Journal — from all different departments, including some from outside the newsroom — decided to splurge on a full, 81-game season-ticket package. There were nine of us and we each got to go to nine games. (9 X 9 = 81) The makeup of the group has changed over the course of the years, with non-Journal people taking some of the slots, though if I’m not mistaken we’ve only lost one member: Our good friend Bill Malinowski. The rest of us have left the paper or retired . . . or both. But here we are, now in our 35th season, still going to games.
Possibly because of our longevity, the Red Sox reached out to us to see if we were interested in using our tickets for Opening Day. To my surprise — astonishment, actually — the only one of the bunch who wanted to go was me.
I’ve been to many an Opening Day over the years. I didn’t miss a one from 1975 through 2017, sometimes working and sometimes for fun, and I once wrote something about how I’m not one to buy into baseball’s mystical mumbo-jumbo — I’m one of the few hard-core fans who has no use for Field of Dreams (give me Bull Durham any day) — except for Opening Day. There’s just something about the notion of regathering and rebirth, of coming together once more under the thin April sun, that strikes me.
So naturally I thought 2021 would be the most symbolic opener of them all.
And yet at first, it didn’t feel that way.
My wife was with me, her first-ever opener. She loves going to games but hates going when there are huge crowds (McCoy Stadium was her preferred venue for that very reason), so this was absolutely perfect for her. She loved it . . . but she loved it more because there was nobody around us, not so much because people were back at Fenway after the toughest year of our lifetimes.
I was texting with about six different individuals and groups during the course of the game, and I discovered that, with the exception of our son, none of them asked what it was like at the ballpark or if we felt anything special about being there. (Our son wanted to know if we could roam around and sit anywhere we wanted. I said no, the seats that weren’t designated for ticket-holders were kept closed with zip-ties.) They commented on where our tickets were (loved it), on Joe West’s strike zone (not crazy about it), on the Sox’ problems with John Means (frustrated by it), on the game’s laggard pace (hated it) . . . all stuff you’d talk about any May, or July, or September. The game, not the symbolism, aws the thing.
So I had a Peggy Lee moment. Is this all there is? After what we’ve been through the last 13 months, it’s just another ballgame?
And then I found myself texting this to one of my friends:
There . . . that was what I took away from yesterday.
Hope. I have to say Opening Day is the one game, maybe the only one, where something like that would ever cross my mind . . . because Opening Day is all about hope. Any other game they’re losing 7-2 in the ninth (or 3-0, as they were this Good Friday), I’m not combing the memory banks for what one of our old managing editors used to call “glorious comebacks”. I know there’s always a possibility a team can rally, and I’ve certainly been on hand for plenty of come-from-behind walkoffs, but most times I’m not thinking it can happen. Most times when I’m not working, in fact, I’m making my way to the exits long before the final out. Baseball runs long enough these days without having to wait for the last excruciating death rattle of every game.
Except on Opening Day. The day when everyone starts off even, when anything is possible, when the mystical mumbo-jumbo actually means something. When there’s hope.
So when some of the 4,452 started to leave after Alex Verdugo grounded to first for the second out in the last of the ninth, my wife was amused by my disgust (since we’ve led that charge many a time in the games we’ve attended together). “What are they trying to do, beat the crowd?” I asked rhetorically. “What crowd?” And I thought they’d regret it when J.D. Martinez doubled moments later. (Honest. You’d think, less than two months away from age 66, I’d know better.) Alas . . .
It certainly was a quicker exit than we’re used to — amazing what 31,000 fewer people in a concentrated urban area can mean for traffic — and now, with the opener in the books, the six-month, 162-game slog is underway. There are still reminders we’re in a pandemic: Hopefully Covid-19 won’t rear its ugly head and games won’t be postponed or rescheduled or cancelled; hopefully at some point it will be safe to allow more than 4,452 into Fenway.
But we’re hopeful for other things, too. Like hopefully the Red Sox will play a lot better than they did on Friday. (And Saturday.) Hopefully they’ll start hitting. Hopefully they’ll start to catch the ball in key moments. The same sorts of feelings we have, at one time or another, every year. Somehow, because we weren’t able to get into the park (and with much bigger worries than baseball), they were missing in 2020.
It’s nice to have them back.
Art Martone wrote a Red Sox-based Internet baseball column for projo.com, for which he was named Best Sports Columnist by Boston Magazine in 1998. He also wrote about baseball for the Providence Journal and has had Red Sox material published in several baseball-only publications. He worked at the Journal from 1974 to 2009 and was Sports Editor from 2000 until leaving in 2009 to become Managing Editor of NBC Sports Boston’s Web site. He remained there until his retirement in 2019.