Julia had organized a ladies' night at the ballpark--the Spinners' ballpark, LaLacheur Field, within walking distance from her house out here in Lowell. There were six of us, and we sat in the bleachers just outside first base, surrounded mostly by families with young children. Aside from the rugrats, most of the people at LaLacheur appeared to be regulars. This was the last game of the Spinners' season, against the Staten Island Yankees.
Among us was Anne, who is a Yankees fan. Judging by her requests that the Red Sox fans among us treat her kindly, I think Julia was afraid we'd fight with knives. But I actually spent most of the game talking to Anne about Yankees, Red Sox, Yankees and Red Sox, Steinbrenner, A-Rod, Manny and Papi, the Papel-kids, and baseball in general, and she and I both kept score, holding down the scoring fort for the other when one of us got up for something.
There was, as you can imagine, a totally different vibe from Fenway, where I'd been just the night before. I hadn't expected the players themselves to seem smaller, but they did, although that was adorable. Especially the Major-League-shortstop-sized kid who was stamping around in catchers' gear.
The starting pitcher for the home team was Jeff Farrell, a kid who's struggled even in Class A, with a 1-7 record and an ERA of 7.05. He let up three runs in the first inning to the old-timey-looking SI Yankees, and the Spinners eventually lost, 10-5, thanks not only to Farrell but to a whole bunch of mind-boggling errors, mostly by infielders.
But it was a minor-league game--VERY minor league at Class A--and so there were more interesting things to watch than the track meet on the basepaths. There was the typical between-innings entertainment like Frisbee dogs and my mom's favorite, the Dizzy Bat race, and the movie clips they showed on a screen mounted on the outfield wall. And the general charm of the tiny ballplayers, who did many things differently from the big leaguers I'm used to, like star in commercials for the souvenir shop on the outfield screen between innings or do their pre-game warmups in a big group under the supervision of a coach. Some of the big-leaguers we know and love also made unexpected appearances, in the form of more clips on the screen, most of them directly encouraging the Class A kids to be good. It was like baseball kindergarten. I loved it.
The only glimpse I caught of Joshua Papelbon, the big draw at this park, was during pre-game goofing around and in the souvenir store commercial. The commercial was mostly a souvenir-shop guy hollering like a used-car salesman about the end-of-year clearance sale, with some cuts to one of the other Spinners (I think Many Arambaras) and Joshua, whose only action in the commercial was to throw a balled-up T-shirt across the room at the camera. He did this in a laid-back, slightly bemused way that definitely reminded me of his brother.
The story of those boys amazes me. In one family, and one generation, you have Jonathan, rookie phenom closer for the Red Sox, Joshua, closer draftee in the Red Sox farm system, and his twin Jeremy, drafted by the Cubs as...a closer. Also? Jonathan's a power righty, Joshua's a submariner, and Jeremy's a lefty.
So clearly some very special gene for baseball closer runs in their family. Julia and I have agreed, talking about this, that some sort of study should be commissioned immediately. Blood should be drawn from both these boys' parents as well as their offspring in order to isolate the gene. Julia and I also agreed that we would not be opposed to a Papel-farm, in which specially cloned Papel-babies would be raised by Buddhist monks and taught baseball, kung fu, and Zen meditation.
Then Jonathan showed up on the screen doing the Chicken Dance.
Yes. At the Spinners games, they play the Chicken Dance song and show different people from the Red Sox organization, from Tom Caron to clubhouse guys, demonstrating the dance on that outfield screen. And so, long story short, Jonathan Papelbon did the Chicken Dance right in front of me. My squeak could only be heard by the Frisbee dogs.
And then, no sooner had I finished fantasizing about Papel-eugenics, delighting in the fact that 2/3 of the current Papelbon generation was in our system, and squeaking over Jonathan doing the Chicken Dance, than my phone started to vibrate in my pocket.
The tone of my "What." after the first thing my Dad said from the other end of the line was enough to get the attention of everyone with me immediately. They said later that my voice and facial expression at first made them think there was an emergency in my family. I feel pretty bad about that, since it's a pretty tragic loss of perspective to be capable of that much horror about news of a ballplayer, but, well, that's what happened.
After I hung up the phone, the whole group of girls looked at me expectantly.
Immediately, Julia's head was in her hands. Ky was instantly text messaging her boyfriend, a big Red Sox fan.
From then on, while the Spinners completed their loss and then while we walked to Julia's house past CultureFest events, and then at Julia's shooting the shit with her and Ky, I kept forgetting about it, and then thinking about it again. And again. And again.
My sense of Jonathan's rarity and its attendant fragility has never been far from my mind throughout this entire tenure with the Red Sox. I still remember when he tweaked a leg muscle back in May, how gingerly and carefully the trainers and Francona and his fellow players approached him out on the mound, how totally silent the park was, including Iain and me. The more I've fallen in love with Jonathan, the more anxious I've become that the shadow passing over the Red Sox this year will touch him, too. As the roster has been decimated one by one, I've silently bargained with whatever baseball deities happen to be listening to leave him alone, and then worried that somehow even imagining the possibility would jinx the situation. You know, the typical insanity of a baseball fan.
And then, right at the peak of happiness on a Friday evening down on the farm, there it was. The absolute worst-case scenario. It happened in front of a horrified Fenway crowd: check. It was an upper-body injury: check. It was an arm injury: check. It was a pitching arm injury: check. It was a pitching arm injury that came on suddenly but was related to his pitching motion: check. Jonathan was in substantial and visible pain and left the game immediately: check.
Let's just say it didn't make me inclined to change some of my more negative attitudes about life.
Nor did the specter of Jon Lester, a vibrant, talented young man in the prime of his life and his physical gifts, now officially diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. I read about that when I got home from Julia's. That, and about Schilling's injury, which is minor, but still adds to the cosmic piling on.
I made sure to try to find out all the information I could about Lester's case. The good news, everybody said, is that it's a treatable form of cancer. Then I read this:
Treatment often involves some form of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, biologic therapy, or a combination of these. Bone marrow or stem cell transplantation may sometimes be used.
I, like most people in Western civilization, have witnessed what those "treatments" mean firsthand, and had the demonstration done on the body of a loved one. Granted, treatments for cancer have come a very long way even in recent years, and the prognosis on Lester seems good--but he's still going to go through a unique kind of hell on earth. Chemotherapy ain't nothin' to fuck with. A bone marrow transplant isn't exactly an outpatient procedure, either.
I thought about Lester as I know him, a gangly kid with good stuff who still needs to find himself mentally out there on the mound, and then thought about what was going to happen to him. I thought about the ugliness that's invaded the dream world I've been content to inhabit with baseball over the last several years. It isn't that I'm particularly attached to Lester or that I can claim to know what he's going through. But what I can feel is the cruelty of it, the pointless marring of something beautiful--whether it's Lester or Jonathan or our hopes for that mythical next year, which it now seems is being drawn as well into the ravenous black hole this season has become.
A couple nights' sleep and some time to think have mellowed my perspective somewhat. I still watched the game yesterday, and I will still watch today, and tomorrow. I'm doubly determined to do that after hearing the boos at Fenway Park while the Sox were losing yesterday. I want to find and personally chastise every single boo-bird myself. I'll admit I've booed in the past, but this is different. This situation is beyond that. Even Shaughnessy has been forced to acknowledge that we're back to basics, here--wins and losses are officially the least of our concerns. Anyone who still doesn't get that, and also chooses not to encourage but to deride the guys on the field as if that will be productive, is not someone I want on this bandwagon, or in the ballpark, and if I were Queen of the Universe, they wouldn't be.
It also helps that there's been a little bit of good news since then, too. Like a few of the vast list of players on the DL getting rehab starts in Pawtucket and scheduling return dates with the big club. Like the Red Sox' extremely rookie outfielder David Murphy getting his first major-league hit in his first major-league at-bat, one of only three hits against AJ Burnett yesterday. And it especially helps to read that Papi's come back to the clubhouse, though I'm sure I don't even know the half of that feeling when it comes to his teammates:
At 11:27 yesterday morning, the side door to the Red Sox clubhouse burst open, and in strolled a welcome, and much-needed, sight for the players.
After a few steps inside, David Ortiz pulled to a stop, as if on cue, to punctuate his dramatic entrance.
Then he shouted: “So guys, what’s happening?”
A broad smile beamed across his face as he resumed his walk.
Big Papi barely made it across the room to his locker before being swarmed by teammates.
He wasn’t greeted by your ordinary welcome-back handshakes. In fact, there weren’t many handshakes or high-fives at all. Instead, there were plenty of warm, heartfelt hugs. Not quite like the scene of one of his trademark walkoff homers, where he gets pounded on as he’s being hugged at home plate. But it was close.
Julian Tavarez came over first for his bearhug, followed by Manny Delcarmen, Doug Mirabelli and trainer Jim Rowe. Eric Hinske also popped over to say hello. Eventually, GM Theo Epstein stopped over at Ortiz’ locker. He started with a handshake, but he too, wound up embracing Big Papi.
It was a dark night late on Friday and in the wee hours of Saturday. But things do have their way, sometimes, of coming around.