"You know," my dad's friend Woody said as the ninth inning began, "the Yankees could conceivably come in here for a three game series three and a half games out."
"How do you figure?" my dad replied.
"Well, tonight, we're down to four..."
"We haven't lost yet."
"Well, yeah, but--"
"We haven't lost. yet."
Meanwhile, in the next seat over, I was vociferously questioning the presence of Papelbon in a game in which the Sox were trailing. In the end, I decided to just go with it, because an opportunity to see Cinco Ocho in action isn't something I'm inclined to pass up regardless of the game situation. But still. Given that I'm of the belief that Papelbon should be kept in a glass case in a shockproof underground bumper surrounded by armed guards when he's not pitching, I was torn.
Papelbon got three outs on fourteen pitches, most of them thrown to Delmon Young, who put in an impressive at-bat full of foul balls. In the end, however, Young hit a bounding grounder to Dustin Pedroia, who smothered it with his entire body in the grass just behind second, snapped back to his feet and fired to Hinske for the out. Fenway erupted.
It was odd, just then, as Papelbon came off the field with the whole place on its feet. It was as if he'd just nailed down the save, not preserved a one-run deficit.
Up until then it had been a supremely frustrating game. On top of that, it's been a strange time for me personally of late, and I had so much on my mind today that it was probably the first time Fenway has failed to completely absorb me right away. I greeted the LOB and miserable appearance by Lester as merely par for the course, by the middle innings giving over almost completely to fatigue and apathy. The way Tavarez was performing was something you only fully grasp in retrospect--now you can point to his three innings of hitless relief as the linchpin of the Sox win, but at the time, it just meant the lead stayed tantalizingly close, and yet so frustratingly far from the limp bats of Boston.
Some girls just behind us made a point to emit high-pitched, bloodcurdling, wordless screams toward the field at every imaginable opportunity. They were tap-dancing on my last nerve, to the point where I did something I never do, which is leave the stands during the game. I actually went and stood in line for the ladies' room, which was, in fact, preferable to another second of those girls at that moment.
Even through Papelbon's appearance, I assumed I was there to witness a loss. It wasn't the same as being pessimistic or a sourpuss (and I know I have a propensity for both)--this time, it just felt like a fact. The Sox had had numerous opportunities to tie the game and / or regain the lead and had failed every time. Papi hadn't hit a walkoff yet this season, and somehow, Francona had failed to pinch hit Mike Lowell for Hinske in the eighth (it has since come to my attention that Lowell is sick, but I didn't know that at the time). I'd also seen the Sox lose a one-run ballgame to the Devil Rays already this week; obviously it's possible. "It's just gonna be one of those nights," my dad said often in the early innings, as screaming liners from Papi found infielders' gloves with men on base and Jon Lester threw ball after ball. That's how it felt. Just one of those nights. Just one of those days.
It wasn't until AJ Reyes reached a 3-1 count on Papi with Lugo on first base in the bottom of the ninth that I started to believe we had a chance. If he'd reached two strikes with the same pitch, this entire story goes out the window. But with a 3-1 count, I thought to myself, he would probably feel he had to groove one to avoid a walk and two men on with nobody out.
Fenway had been on its feet since Papi walked from the on-deck circle to the batters' box. Now it seemed the whole place had the same thought-- Here it comes. He's going to have to groove one. We all knew it. We knew this was Papi's pitch.
And yet when the ball came off the bat, my first reaction was to deflate a bit again. The ball was struck hard, but also shot up into the air a mile high, so high that in the first seconds of its flight I thought it was going to be a pop-out. As it continued on a seemingly physically impossible forward trajectory toward the outfield, I amended my assessment to flyout.
The ball actually flew directly over my head, in the right field box right next to Canvas Alley. I watched it the whole way, turning my face toward the sky to follow it as it neared and slowly swiveling my head from left to right, from its rocketing ascension to its long, arcing flight into the right-field corner.
From where I was sitting I couldn't see where the ball landed. Few people in the park actually could, and it turns out the ball just barely cleared the wall. With the strangeness of the ball's trajectory, the crowd wasn't already cheering the way it would have with a no-doubter. Instead, what I remember about those long moments of the ball's progress from the bat of Ortiz to the game-winning walkoff is silence. It was like a movie, where the action goes into slow motion and all sound is replaced by a seashell roar. If I close my eyes, I can still see that ball, so clear against a flat black night sky that I swear I could see the red blur of its stitches as it passed.
The reaction overtook us like a breaking wave, spreading out from the epicenter of the fans with the best view in the corner to the sections around them, and so on, until the chaos crashed over our heads, too, subsuming us in dancing, shouting, laughing, hugging.
I've been at Fenway to witness walkoffs, but never one courtesy of David Ortiz. And it was a different feeling. There was something about it so profound, so intense--even more so than the other walkoffs I've seen. Everyone let themselves go--once the initial uncertainty was broken, absolutely everyone in the park was screaming from their guts. I've never experienced anything like it.
After his teammates mobbed him at home plate and in the dugout, Papi was buttonholed by Tina Cervasio on the warning track. Not a soul had left the stands, and before Tina could ask a question into the microphone, she and Papi just stood there quietly, while the crowd poured out minute upon minute of thunderous ovation.
In a second, the noise would be hushed and Papi would speak. "Tessie" would follow. A long, jubilant walk out to Lansdowne Street punctuated by frequent high-fives with complete strangers was also on the docket. And, of course, an off-day tomorrow and another potentially cataclysmic weekend series with the Yankees.
But first, there were just those moments--that slow-motion miracle of the ball sailing through the air, and all that time that Papi just stood there, listening to Fenway pour out its heart.