There are times you think you've seen every face and frock Fenway Park has to put on, times you think you've seen the place under every shade of cloud. These are usually the times, it later seems, that it suddenly finds a way to overwhelm you all over again.
Last night's nightcap, which was supposed to have been the third-to-last game of the year, wound up being the final game of the regular season, with first pitch at 7:35 pm Sunday night. From the beginning, this being a rainy school night, it was an uncharacteristically empty ballpark. I had seats in a place I'm familiar with, but hadn't been to in a while: the upper bleachers.
So there it was: a different face.
At the same time, it was a face I recognized. "Empty Fenway," I said to K. "Fenway like when I was a kid." The seats were even in a place I remember sitting as a kid, in the upper bleachers.
We were almost directly under the Jumbo-Tron for this game, which gave our seats a sweeping view of the ballpark from the right-field corner all the way over to the Monster. The Jumbo-Tron cast a red glow over us; the lights were gauzy in the damp night. Behind us sat a family chatting happily in Canadian French; around us people settled quietly into their seats. All had a tranquil, dreamlike feeling.
Normally the bleachers are their own, raucous world; like the bullpen, they are marooned a seeming ocean of grass away from the action and give rise to their own island subculture. In some places, this night was no different, but I went in expecting to comprehend maybe 30% of a lazy outing, distracted by sloshing beer and inflatable objects as I had been during other bleacher visits -- and as it turned out, wound up taking in a genuine barn-burner.
The first few innings, however, passed with little fanfare. The teams squeezed across one groundout RBI apiece through 8 and two-thirds. The difference between this and most Sox-Yanks contests over the last few years is that it wasn't a grinding, zillion-pitch affair. Instead everyone gamely swung from the heels, no doubt all of them anxious to go home.
As those one-two-three middle innings piled up, the bleacher-world took over. First the bullpen band struck up, beating a tribal rhythm on the roof of the dugout. Regulars to the bleachers picked up a clapping counterbeat that we all followed, until a full third of the ballpark was a coordinated percussion section. It sounded like some of the players were beating on the roof of the dugout with a blunt instrument to make a low-pitched baseline, which others accompanied by calling and answering the audience's claps with elaborate solos on higher-pitched, smaller sticks.
Someone inflated a huge beach ball that looked like a baseball with the Red Sox logo on it, and even took the time to write YANKEES SUCK on the side in red marker before sending it off to be batted around the stands.
Two factions began battling for the beach ball - groups of Yankees fans at the top and bottom of the section vs. everyone else. The Yankees fans were trying to get the beach ball into the bullpen or over the wall behind the Dunkin' Dugout. The contest went on for an impressively long time, and there were several close calls that made hundreds of people ooh and ahh out of sync with whatever was going on between the lines.
That's when it hit me again, a bittersweetness so sharp it was almost painful. There will be more baseball here this season, but I'm not sure if there will be for me, playoff tickets being both hard to come by and subject to the whims of postseason fate. There will be Josh Beckett's injury (!!) to worry about and bullpen arguments to have, and much fearing of Vladi Guerrerro to do.
Like Amy said, I am a calm fan this season. I understand where the flaws lie; I know full well what the odds are. When a postgame interviewer asks Big Papi if he feels the team's balanced and he goes on a cranky tirade about the injuries in the lineup and even throws in a jab about trading Manny, it's hard to feel all that cocky about how things look.
Because of that, for those middle innings, I just wanted to hang on to what was happening for as long as possible--the end of another season coming, with or without a trophy, but coming for certain either way.
Then Sean Casey got our attention again with a two-run single with four Boston outs left in regulation, and with the Sox ahead in the top of the ninth, I made the mistake of looking up at the clock and thinking to myself, we actually might be out of here by 9:30.
That, of course, is when all hell broke loose, brought on by David Aardsma, who gave up the tying runs to bring up the Sox in the bottom of the inning.
And so even in a game with no standings at stake between the teams' B squads in late September, the Sox and Yankees seemed to be falling into a familiar pattern of deadlocked struggle, the kind that always makes me picture a cartoon I once saw of a frog strangling a pelican who's trying to swallow him. Of course it pales in comparison to the howling Shakespearean drama that the two teams have been known to deliver, especially in the postseason, but the fundamental character was still there.
Among the fans, whether with beach balls or trash talk, irksomeness also flared up regularly. Outside the park after the game, I saw a beer-bellied Boston fan toe-to-toe on Lansdowne Street with his Yanks-fan counterpart. As we walked by, I heard the Boston fan say, "Yah, have fun playin' golf this Octobah."
Even this comparatively sleepy affair did not pass without some rancor between Sox fans and Yankees players, this in the form of Melky Cabrera, who I have to say brought things on himself with his behavior after catching a flyout in right one inning. It was the bottom of either the fourth or fifth (both saw right-field flyouts for out no. 2 and this was during Beach Ball Battle Royale).
The reason that's important is that I realize Melky couldn't pull a Trot Nixon and toss the ball into the stands. But that's not necessarily a reason to wave it in the faces of some kids in the right field corner who were clamoring for it (their knowledge of outs and such not well-honed), before throwing it back in.
Everybody from the right-field grandstand over to where I was at the top of the bleachers booed. Some even pointed. And in the eighth inning, once Sean Casey's single had bounded past him in right center and he'd picked himself up from his futile dive after it, everybody from the right-field grandstand over to where I was at the top of the bleachers chanted, "Meeellllll-kyyyyyyyyy...Meeellllll-kyyyyyyyyy..." for quite a long time.
And then, unbelievably, the game went into extra innings. You could almost feel the players themselves saying it: Come on.
But the season would have an encore, an extra inning slipped in for good measure before the curtain went down. Another bases-loaded situation with two outs in the bottom of the tenth, Fenway on its feet, all 7000 of us that remained making as much noise as we could.
Another walkoff hitter stepping up into the spotlight, another ball bouncing just beyond the reach of second base. Another echo of that old, savage sound: YAHHHHH!
Another charge of the mob from the dugout, another jumble of red jackets and countless white legs, jumping up and down on the grass.
One more time. Just in case.