Opening Day

Opening Day

By Ed DeJesus

My wife and I retired in Fort Myers, FL, home of the Red Sox spring training games played at Jet Blue Park, AKA Fenway South. With dimensions identical to Fenway Park, including the height of the Green Monster, the distance from home plate to all the outfield fences, the backstop and foul lines; it’s a distinct training advantage over other MLB teams. Pitchers learn to deal with the left field wall, rookies learn to play the outfield with its crazy corners and short wall heights in front of the bullpen, and batters learn to hit into all fields and foul off pitches to stay alive in the tight area around home plate and the baselines.

We typically sit behind first base and saw how huge Triston Casas is. By comparison, Moe Vaughn was 6ꞌ 1″ 225lb; Ortiz was 6ꞌ 3″ 230lb; Casas is 6ꞌ 5″ 244lb. Their offense is balanced with speed and power from both sides of the plate. When your DH is a ninety-million dollar Japanese star and he bats 6th, you’re going to wear starting pitchers down, and be a top five AL runs scored team. I took a photo of Casas and there is one of me after the Sox beat the Rays 7-4. The PA system played Sweet Caroline and the fans shouted, “So good… So Good.”

Our Fort Myers friends, a couple formerly from Malden, MA, and Providence, RI, joined us. My buddy from Providence mentioned he’d attended many of the Sox AAA league games in Pawtucket, where players were shuttled up to the majors or sent back down to the minors. I told him a fun story about Opening Day in 1998, when I was given some unique Fenway tickets.

In ’98, I was the senior engineering services manager for Digital Equipment Corporation’s Networks Division in Littleton, MA, which included tech support, electrical CAD designers, mechanical and packaging engineers, and software simulation engineers. Consequently, software vendors and temp agencies had to contact me to sell products or place their technical contractors. I routinely turned down their invitations for lunch because I was too busy working, but they found other ways to get my attention.

Mark O’Hara, Sales Director of Advantage Resources in Acton, would reward me with his company’s Sox tickets in the 600 Club, above home plate, later renamed the 406 Club after Ted Williams died. That year, Mark surprised me with two tickets (his father’s) who worked for the New England Sports Network NESN. The left field grandstand section 32 seats just to the right of the Green Monster was a considerable drop-off from the 600 Club. But hey, it was Opening Day! The Sox started out on the West Coast (Oakland, Seattle, Anaheim) with a 3-5 record before the Fenway opener on April 10, 1998.

As always, I took my then fifteen-year-old son, whom I’d coached his teams since he played t-ball, to the senior little league. We drove from Chelmsford into Lowell, caught the commuter train to the North Station, then the ‘T’ green line to Kenmore Square, and walked to Fenway. The game started at 3:00 p.m. Mark told me to meet him at 11:00 a.m. at Gate E for a NESN catered pre-party in a private first-floor dining room under the stands. Along with Fenway Franks, burgers, wings, beef skewers, draft beer, soft drinks, coffee, and desserts to die for, we met NESN and WEEI personalities, including former Patriots players. We finagled nose tackle Fred Smerlas and linebacker Steve Nelson’s autographs.

After stuffing ourselves, we stepped through a bricked passageway and climbed stairs leading to section 32, mostly reserved for NESN. We saw batting practice: Nomar Garciaparra, John Valentin, Moe Vaughn, Jim Leyritz, Damon Buford, Lou Merloni, Jason Varitek, Reggie Jefferson, Troy O’Leary, and Trot Nixon.

The Sox had Pedro Martinez, Bret Saberhagen, and Derek Lowe in the rotation, but Brian Rose started this game, and Seattle had 6ꞌ 7″, Randy Johnson, The Big Unit, on the mound. Johnson held the Sox hitless through three, then he hit DH Leyritz with a pitch, and Damon Buford took him deep. The Sox were up 2-zip until the potent Seattle lineup, Alex Rodriquez, Ken Griffey Jr, and Edgar Martinez, pulled ahead 3-2 after seven innings. Steve Avery and then Dennis Eckersley gave up two more runs in the eighth, and behind my son, Mark, and I was a huge, very loud, very drunk fan shouting, “Paw tuck it. Paw tuck it.”  The crowd laughed, knowing it meant sending (The Eck a future Hall-of-Famer) back down to the minors.

Randy Johnson pitched a scoreless 8th inning and left with a line of 2 hits, 2 runs, 3 walks, 15 strikeouts, and a 5-2 lead. Back then, the PA system only played “Sweet Caroline,” in the 8th if the Sox were ahead and the fans were in a festive mood. None of the guys in section 32 were reaching out, touching hands. For the 9th, the Sox manager, Jimmy Williams, brought in his closer, Tom Gordon, who quickly gave up two more runs. The large, loud fan and everyone else in section 32, including my son, shouted, “Paw tuck it… Paw tuck it!”  And we all laughed.

Leading 7-2 in the bottom of the ninth, Lou Pinella brought in his closer, Heathcliff Slocumb, whom Sox GM Dan Duquette had traded to Seatle two years earlier for the steal of the century (Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe). That battery pitched a no-hitter and helped the Sox ‘Reverse-the-Curse’ to win the 2003 World Series. Slocumb gives up a single, walk, and double by Daren Bragg; the Sox are now trailing 7-3 and no outs. Tony Fossas comes in and walks the first batter, bases full. Pinella brings in Mike Timlin (who also helped Boston win the ’03 World Series).

Timlin gives up a single to Nomar, and it’s 7-4; then he hits Jon Valentine with the bases loaded, and it’s 7-5. Pinella brings in a lefty to pitch to Moe Vaughn, who blasts one to right field for a walk-off grand slam and a final score of 9-7. Needless to say, it was a great Opening Day.

The Sox finished that home stand at 9-1 and won 14 out of the next 15 games.

Later that season, I was given three more tickets for a July 3rd game, courtesy of Ed Gardner, who owned the Mount Washington Cruise lines in Lake Winnipesaukee, NH, along with hotels, and ten homes in Andover, MA where he resides.  We owned a waterfront condo at Weirs Beach, and Gardner owned the other three condos (which he had his retired Florida relatives stay in during the summer). I managed and maintained the property, the dock with our four boat slips, and our private beach. So, Mr. Gardner was good to me and my family; we often rode in the SS Mount Washington boat for free.

Along with my son, I brought my father to the game. Dad brought me to my first game at Fenway when I was eight, and I took him to his final one as he’d turned eighty-eight. I picked up my dad, who lived in Lowell, and we took the train into Boston and caught the ‘T.’ I remember saying, “I hope the Sox have a good lead by the seventh inning because we don’t want to miss the last train back to Lowell.” My dad’s legs didn’t move too fast, and we’d want to beat the mob getting back on the ‘T’ in Kenmore Square. I wasn’t hopeful as the night before, the Red Sox behind Pedro had destroyed the White Sox 15-0 on July 2nd.

Ed Gardner and his wife, who had one son, owned three season tickets: second row, right field, directly behind the Pesky Pole. I sat between my son and my dad, and we watched Tim Wakefield baffle the White Sox while Nomar and Daren Lewis hit homers and led 8-1 after five innings. The Sox added six more in the sixth and were up 14-1. I checked my watch and knew we’d have to leave soon to make the last train to Lowell. I needed to finish my draft beer and hit the restroom first. The White Sox were batting with a runner on first and no one out. The crowd cheered when Nomar went deep into the hole to knock down a ball but couldn’t get it to second base in time for the force out. The crowd groaned. My son, who was a shortstop for his Chelmsford little league team, shouted, “Paw tuck it… Paw tuck it.”

I spit my beer out, and my dad and other fans laughed because they knew what ‘Paw tuck it’ meant. When we caught the train back to Lowell, the Sox won 15-2 and finished the year with a 92-70 record, good for 2nd place, behind the Yankees who won 114 games and the World Series.

This season, the Sox play nine on the West Coast: Mariners, A’s, Angels, before a Fenway opener on April 9th; the first of four games with Baltimore, who won 101 games last year and projected to win the division again.

These are my not-so-bold predictions.

  • Baltimore will not win 100 games this season as every AL east team has improved, and three will probably make the playoffs.
  • The Sox offense will keep them in a lot of exciting games, and with improved pitching and staying healthy they’ll beat the Vegas odds of winning a lot more than they lose.
  • Tristan Casas, the Sox stud first base slugger, will not hit a (Moe Vaughan-like) walk-off grand slam on opening day. I hope they don’t have to bat in the ninth.
  • The Sox young starting pitching staff (Belo, Crawford, Whitlock, Houck) plus Pivetta will struggle at times but be much better than expected.
  • No fans will be yelling out, “Paw tuck it.” The AAA team was moved to Worcester, MA.

If you live out of state, you’ll probably pronounce Worcester with three syllables, “Wor ces ter. Wor ces ter.”   But Sawx fans know it will nevah have the same ring as, “Paw tuck it” because it only has two Bostonian syllables. Woos stah… Woos stah.”

Go Sox!

3 Responses to Opening Day

  1. David Daniel says:

    Lovely piece, Ed. Nice to read on a “winter” morning in April, day after yesterday’s all-day snow. You’ve got a nice mix here of inside baseball, bleacher report, family narrative, and more. It makes a good pairing with yesterday’s moving essay by Mike McCormick.

    As chance would have it, I too was at the ’98 home opener (sitting in the chilly shade of 3rd base overhang, in company with a curious clutch of writers Leslie Epstein, Tracy Kidder, Christopher Lydon, Saul Wisnia). You describe it beautifully–the Big Unit’s effective handcuffing of Sox batters all afternoon, the mood of heavy gloom that settled on the Fenway Faithful . . . and just when we’d all but given up–from the Hit Dog’s wand, the MAGIC.

    Thanks for the stroll down mem’ry lane.

    Now, off to the Owl for breakfast with Steve O’Connor.

  2. Ed DeJesus says:

    Dave and Steve,

    Thank you so much! It’s great to get the seal of approval from two of Lowell’s finest. I wonder if Chaz, the official scorer, kept a copy of that magical opener.

    Dave, I wish you hadn’t mentioned the Owl. I’ll be craving a Four Sister’s Market Street Omelet all night.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *