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Sunday, April 22, 2012

Fenway's Walk of Life

In the end, I couldn't help but wonder what Johnny Pesky and Bobby Doerr must have been thinking.

As the long line of former Red Sox players strolled across Fenway Park's beautiful green lawn during Friday's 100th birthday celebration, these two ancient legends watched from a pair of chairs set up in front of the Boston dugout.
The decades were passing before them, from the gray-haired guys they had coached and managed in the 1960s and '70s to the athletes of lesser vintage who with their dress slacks, punchy bellies, and throwback uniform jerseys looked more like middle-aged fans out for a day at the ballpark -- right down to the smart phones and cameras they held at arm's length to record the festivities.

For Pesky and Doerr, who suited up for their last games as players in 1954 and '51, respectfully, it had to be a bittersweet moment. They seemed happy to be on hand  as revered members of the small fraternity of living Red Sox with retired numbers (a club of five, all on hand Friday), but as they smiled and offered their thumbs-up to photographers, they might also have felt a wave of sadness. The former double-play duo are both well into their 90s, and it's unclear how many more such ceremonies they'll be able to attend -- especially Doerr, who lives year-round in Oregon.
Their presence was a high point in the ceremony, which clocked in at about 45 minutes. Management had suggested that everybody be seated by 2 p.m. so the festivities could begin, but it was closer to 2:20 before public address announcer Carl Beane greeted me, my brother Adam, and the rest of the overflowing masses with a introduction meant to give the day a "Field of Dreams" feel -- right down to portions of dialogue from that wonderful baseball film.
Beane capped his intro with the classic James Earl Jones line, "Oh yes, they will come. They will most definitely come," but such a flourish wasn't necessary. The imagery of seeing 213 players emerge from the cornfields of Fenway's outfield storage rooms and dugout and striding before us was so powerful it didn't need a script.

We could see the group of former Red Sox milling around in the garage-like space in deepest center during Beane's opening words, so it surprised us when Hall of Famer Jim Rice stepped out of a door in the deepest corner of left field. Rice waved to the crowd as his image and years of service splashed across one of the center field video screens, and then he settled into his old defensive spot in front of the Green Monster. If we stared at his circa-1980s uniform and squinted our eyes just a little, we could imagine that we were all young again.

By now the "Field of Dreams" soundtrack was playing, but it was quickly drowned out by shouts of "DEWWWWWWWY!" when Dwight Evans emerged from the door besides Rice and strode across to the right-field spot where he dazzled for close to 20 years. The third player called out had a much shorter walk, but there was still time for Bill Buckner to get a huge yell as he popped out of the Boston dugout and out to first base.

Huge ovations have been the Fenway norm for Buckner in recent years, helped by an entire generation of young fans who were not traumatized by the events of 1986. Having Billy Buck appear so early on the list was a deserving honor for a great ballplayer who endured far more torment than he deserved. This day held no grudges.
Most of the remaining players emerged in a long line from the big garage door in center, and then crossed the outfield to their proper positions. They were coming too fast for Beane to announce their names, so we had to match the head shots of the strong young athletes appearing on the video screen with the aging gentlemen waving to us below them. It was a little like the scene at the 1999 All-Star Game when that year's stars shared space around the diamond with the MLB's All-Century Team, but this time everybody on the field was dressed in home whites.

Although some of the players seemed grouped together -- several members of the great '67 and '04 teams, for instance, were called in a row -- most emerged in no particular order. From Don Aase to Bob Zupcic, they filed forth like 200-odd trivia questions:

Q: Who was the rookie starter that manager Don Zimmer claimed had "ice water in his veins" before he was shelled by the Yankees in the first inning of the final game of the "Boston Massacre" sweep in 1978? (A: Bobby Sprowl)

Q: Who hit the game-tying, pinch-homer in Game 6 of the '75 World Series, paving the way for Carlton Fisk's famous game-winner? (A: Bernie Carbo).
Q: Which pitcher's near no-hitter at Yankee Stadium in his first MLstart April 1967 launched the Impossible Dream? (A: Billy Rohr).

Q: Who lost Game 1 of the '67 World Series 2-1 to Bob Gibson, despite homering to help his own cause? (A: Jose Santiago).

A few of the more famous gentlemen drew huge applause. There was Pumpsie Green, the first African-American player in Red Sox history; Pedro Martinez, the ace-in-residence from 1998-2004 who danced across the field with a quickness that had us wondering if he might be able to throw a few innings that afternoon; Fisk, the great, gritty catcher who supplied Fenway's most memorable pre-2004 hit; and Nomar Garciaparra, the super shortstop who seemed destined for Cooperstown before injuries and impasses with management prompted his trade midway through the curse-busting summer of '04.

One curiosity: Little World Series trophies were displayed on the screen alongside the years of service for every member of the 2004 and '07 champions, except Nomar. Was this a little dig from management, or just an oversight? It's unclear, and Garciaparra didn't seem to mind as he flashed a brilliant smile.

Luis Tiant, the wonderful big-game pitcher who Carl Yastrzemski called "the heart and soul" of the near-miss 1970s teams, drew a great round of "Loooooie!" that pushed the crowd to its limit of hoarseness, as did Yaz himself -- the stoic, steady Hall of Famer who played more games in a Boston uniform than anybody else. But the biggest hand of all was saved for the man who almost didn't come: deposed manager-turned-martyr Terry Francona. As fans chanted "Tito! Tito!" the leader of Boston's last two World Series-winning teams beat his chest as a sign of reciprocal affection.

In contrast to Francona, only one guy seemed to get a smattering of boos from the crowd: Jose Casceco. When the admitted steroid user/whistler blower raised up his shirt and flexed his bicep, however, most of the catcalls turned to laughs and cheers. This was not a day for negativity -- at least until the game started.

For a few moments everybody on the field and in the stands just milled around, with the old-timers moving to the pitching mound just as at the '99 All-Star Game. Then the last five of the 213 were called by name, and the place went crazy again: Doerr and Pesky, pushed in wheelchairs by Tim Wakefield, David Ortiz, and Jason Varitek. Only later, watching a replay of the ceremony on NESN, could I see some of the wonderful little touches that followed -- such as Tiant kissing Pesky on the forehead, Johnny crying unashamedly, and '75 heroes Carbo and Fisk exchanged hugs and back slaps.

Only the end of the festivities seemed awkward. Pedro and '04 hero Kevin Millar handled the "toast" to Fenway like a pair of drunk, immature best men, although it was fun to see them pouring champagne for a few fans seated behind their perch atop the Red Sox dugout. The first pitches to Fisk, Rice and Yaz by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and two descendants of 1912 first-game-tosser Mayor John "Honey Fitzgerald -- grandson Thomas Fitzgerald and great-granddaughter Caroline Kennedy -- should have been done on the field rather than in the stands where few people could see it.
There were also quite a few noticeable no-shows -- Wade Boggs (who would have likely been cheered), Roger Clemens (not sure about him), Fred Lynn, Curt Schilling, Manny Ramirez, and Bob Stanley, just to name a few. But overall it was a damn good show -- and a lot more fun to watch than the 2012 team has been so far. By the third inning, in fact, many of us were hoping we would see Martinez come in and pitch. And by the ninth, the cheers of "We want Tito! We want Tito!" were raining down on new skipper Bobby Valentine.

For Bobby V, Big Papi, and Co., this summer has the potential to feel like it's 100 years long.

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