Fenway

I wish I had a stronger sense of history, as those who will not learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat its mistakes.  My brother is the family historian but I can muster little interest in my forebears.  I love the evolutionary time scale, but as an anti-traditionalist, I am so oriented to the present and future.  Yesterday, though, I was given an affectionate tour of a working present lovingly mired in a lot of storied past.

I had been invited by the sharp and dedicated Mike Reinold to give a short in-service to the athletic coaches / rehab guys for the Red Sox.  If I have a team, I suppose it’s the Sox (though I love my friend George’s reply to rabid fans – and they abound in New England – when they bring up the Sox: “I’m sorry, I don’t follow football” – that shuts ‘em up).  I had never been to the park for a game, have only occasionally watched them on TV for a few innings, listen to the odd game on the radio while driving or sailing, maintain a vague sense of when they are doing well or poorly, and come out of the woodwork to cheer and drink and swear only when they make the playoffs.

But you cannot live here for half a century without absorbing some of the Sox lore, from Babe Ruth on down.

As part of the ‘payment’, my daughter Misty and I got free passes to Tuesday’s game with the Tampa Bay Rays.  My plane was late getting in from London, so we weren’t there until the third inning, but there were still streams of people coming in with us, as we circled the arena completely searching for the office that held our tickets.  It’s all old drab green paint or brick, and so are the security men at each gate, and hangers-on are scattered about touting tickets with their strong South Boston accents.  Stands selling bad food or T-shirts were tucked into every corner of this ancient warren – 1912 it was built.

Our seats are right behind home plate, and there is a net between us and the action to catch foul balls.  The pretty girl sitting beside us shows us a photo on her camera of her purple eye when she was hit on the noggin by a ball.  Now her boyfriend can only get her to a game by buying these protected seats, and she still goes stiff beside me with every crack of the bat.

My ‘job’ in coming to the game is to watch the movement patterns of the players, but I shortly give up on trying to remember individual quirks – the players come and go so fast in the batter’s box, and the action on the field, when there is any, is far away and over quickly.  I content myself with noting the patterns of baseball in general – always running to the left, batters’ stances, and of course pitching and throwing styles, as these guys are the key players.  But honestly, Misty and I just abandon ourselves to the game and each others’ company, laughing like drains at our ignorance, at our inability to call strikes and balls accurately, and at the serious ‘conferences’ at the mound – as we wriggle around on our uncomfortable wrought iron seats.

Boston, plagued with injuries this year, never has a chance – after leading off with 2 runs in the first, the Rays pile up 8 runs in the next few innings.  There’s an enthusiastic Rays fan a couple of rows in front of us, and every time the Rays make a good move, he jumps and shouts in a way that would get him rumbled or seriously hurt in European football, where the competing fans are separated for good reason.  But baseball is more genteel, and nobody seems to mind. A few people try to get chants and cheers going, but many fans are already draining down the aisles toward the exits in the latter part of the game, and the final score, 14 – 5, accurately reflects a lackluster performance from the Sox. It must be hard to play those last innings to a sea of empty seats when it started out so full and expectant. This game is the nail in the coffin for their hopes this year – 8 games behind the hated rival Yankees in early September.

After a sweaty night on Misty’s soft new couch, I brave the T with her as everyone goes to work (“You do this every day” I mumble dubiously to the business-dressed Mist as we are jolted and swayed, sardined among the returning BU students and iPodded coffee drinkers).  I duly arrive at the training room to meet Mike and his staff.  I am amazed – there are only five guys to serve a team of 25 – 37.  With a couple of the trainers from the rival Rays in attendance, I give a little spiel on the role of fascia, and we launch into some shoulder techniques coupled with a discussion of the role body-wide patterns play in local injuries.

The Sox player payroll is about 160 million dollars, and I would have though they would invest more in keeping that investment healthy and playing, but Mike, as a PT, is the exception in the league, not the rule, and the training room, though not ill-equipped, is small and clearly not financed the way you would expect.  I enter through the clubhouse (which again is just a locker room with nice folding chairs, not the state-of-the-art green room one would expect).

We hurried through the morning as they would start being busy with the players shortly after noon.  No players were present, and for those waiting for gossip the closest I got to glory was to use the same urinal to drain my morning coffee and vitamins as Jason Varitek and David Ortiz.  They play 180 games a year, day after day, sometimes switching cities overnight to rise and shine and play again. Almost every one of the players is somewhat injured at any given time – but they must play on.  Dr Rest doesn’t live here.

The staff was sharp, open, knowledgable, a pleasure to work with – and clearly frustrated by having to convince the overpaid, strongly unionized players of the need for their work, as well as the pressure of an observant press and public who don’t hesitate to comment on the injury list, stuck behind a management that toughed it through in the 50’s and sees no need to pamper the players with too much massage or preventive training.  They are essentially on call 24-7, but mostly do their work in the afternoon before the game.  There’s an impression in the wall where a frustrated pitcher threw an adhesive tape cutter at 90 miles an hour.  Mike had him sign it.

Two of the staff are Japanese, as of course are some of the players.  I ask why Japan has taken so to baseball, and they answer immediately: ‘Lack of contact’ – the individual stance and gentlemanly distance fits with the Japanese character.  Although the Japanese team played with real heart in the soccer World Cup, they were out in the second round.

After we’re done, Mike takes me on a tour of Fenway, out of his office into the stands, onto the dirt track that leads us past the Pesky Pole that marks the foul line (and the shortest possible home run distance (302’) in major league baseball, though it’s so far over in right field it gets only rare employment). There’s the single red seat among the green where Ted Williams hit the longest home run in Sox history, the Triangle near the bullpen where a ricocheting ball can turn a double into a triple, and the famous Green Monster, the huge wall with military-looking viewing slits for the folks who run the old-style mechanical scoreboard, and dented with dimples from balls that don’t quite make home runs.  (Those that do run the risk of breaking a windshield on Landsdowne Street.)

It feels very far away from left field to the infield, but one thing that really surprised me was how close it felt from the pitcher’s mound to home plate.  On TV it looks longer, but up close it is no distance at all, giving the batter no time to react.  I am told that Ted Williams, when asked how he hit so well, said something like:  Study the pitcher, study him minutely, and then when he makes his pitch, take your best guess.

We pass by the suites for well-heeled fans, one of many attempts to ‘monetize’ this small old park with big outgoings.  We come back through the dugout and its long tunnel under the seats to the clubhouse.  In a small cement room on the way are the computers, analyzing every pitch, with very detailed stats on all the pitchers, and a video capability of finding out whether the umpire’s call was as bad as the struck-out batter inevitably says it was.  The players are starting to come in – I don’t know faces, so don’t ask me who – and Mike must get to work, so I am on my way.

In these days of huge, bowl-like sports arenae, Fenway is a wonderful quirky throwback to an earlier day, cramped between the Turnpike and Van Ness, unable as well as unwilling to expand into something other than what it is – an old-time ball park, where the action is up close, the fans personally involved, but now with a lot of money at stake. I wish the guys well in their uphill battle to keep the players playing – game after game, year after year. ‘As if it really mattered’ I mutter to myself as I hit Route 1 North toward Maine and home, but then what does any human endeavor really matter?  It’s skilled, entertaining, and inspiring to kids (is it still? I guess) – and if the fans are over-involved, so what?

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