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Image Source: Tom Hubbard, EPA Documerica Project

Summer Sundays were never long enough. Never enough hours of sunlight for all our games. Gee, do kids even know how to play outside today?

After lunch we’d be out on the street, playing stickball until dark. Every week, all summer, all Sunday. And it was the greatest time ever.

We always played on my block. The Mirabelli’s stoop was first, the manhole cover was second, the Lazzeri’s stoop was third and home was the pothole that got patched over. The mound was in between the stoops. There were fire escapes on buildings on both sides of the street, and they could cause some crazy bounces. You had to be ready for anything if you were playing the outfield.

Our parents would get together on a stoop, or maybe set up a little table on the sidewalk. They’d play cards, maybe a little bocce, and enjoy the day with us, but on their own. They didn’t need to hover over us, ‘cause we were right there playing on the street.

We would all be our favorite players. Whenever I pitched, I was always Tom Seaver. I loved Seaver’s delivery, that bow-and-arrow release of the ball, the back knee almost on the mound while pushing off the front leg. Batting I was always Charlie Hustle, Pete Rose. Compact and coiled, a perfectly level whip of a swing, power to all fields. Rose was a joy to watch and fun to be. A neighborhood treasure.

We had some TV; three channels and we always watched the Saturday Game of the Week so we could play all day Sunday. Oh, I loved those endless days. Except for those late summer Sundays during the school year. I always hated that feeling of the weekend ending, and I always wanted the games to go on forever. But they always ended and Monday always came around…

I guess it’s all computers and twitting and texts today, and kids don’t give a damn about baseball anymore. Too many teams and they all play at night. And I’m not saying it’s all bad today. Just different.

But give me a stick and a glove and a full Sunday of pop flies bouncing off the fire escape any day. They don’t know what they’re missing, these kids.

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One of the greatest names – and THE greatest delivery – the game has ever known belonged to Van Lingle Mungo

It returns on a brisk day, the kind that requires a few extra layers. It’s the kind of day we normally rue and call miserable, but today it’s the most beautiful day ever. Today is rebirth and rejuvenation, summer and Christmas in April. Greatest day of the year.

The grass outside is dead and brown, but inside all will be June-worthy emerald green. The sun glares through an icy sky, the winds whip and summer seems years away. But today summer begins. Today we step off the street, through a turnstile and into a dreamland of warm nights, weekends that seem endless and escapism from the hard facts of life.

Today is Opening Day.

Today is the day that has whispered all throughout the winter. It’s all about bunting and Americana and having the exuberance of a kid again. Great seats! Dog and a beer, and time to break in that new cap. Grab a score card and get inside the game.

The winter of our speculative discontent is over. All the could have and should have trades are done, and the roster is set. Hey, let’s play ball!

Our kid pitcher looked good in spring training, but the first visiting batter looks good too. The mental cat-and-mouse game between pitcher and hitter is on, and we play inside ball in our seats, second guessing, anticipating and discussing with seat mates. This turns to reminiscing and swapping stories, and buying rounds.

We sit in the chill of a brisk April day for a few hours, watching the game of youth and feeling the warm nights so soon to come. We marvel in the beauty of a perfectly executed double-play and a bang-bang out at the plate. We jeer as the opposing pitcher throws to first one too many times, and we talk about the greatest games we ever saw, in these same seats and in other parks. And for a few hours we leave our mundane worlds behind and enter the dreamland.

Today is summer and Christmas, and we are reborn and rejuvenated, despite the sharp April winds and sepia landscape. It’s Opening Day. Greatest day of the year.

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Daydreaming

It begins as a notion in the afternoon.

I’m deskbound at a call center, listening to irate and distraught insurance policy holders and informing them of their limited rights under the settlement of a class action lawsuit for $11 an hour. I have a 70 page script of legalese before me, and not one page bridges the gap between the answers that exist and the answers they want. I feel like a monster and want to visit every last caller and kick puppies in their presence, for all the good I’m doing them. 200 calls in queue throughout my floor. No let-up.

The Globe sits on my desk. I scan the box scores from last night, the news and notes, the predicted starters for tonight.

Hmm…maybe…

I step out of the air-conditioned nightmare into blissful east coast summer humidity. Gonna be a beautiful night, the kind you want to be outside for.

Maybe….

On the train, I grab a seat on the left so I can get a view of Dorchester Bay and the rainbow mural on the Boston Gas Tank. It’s the largest copyrighted piece of art in the world, and it’s a reproduction from the demolished original tank. Supposedly the artist painted a profile of Ho Chi Minh in one of the rainbow bands, but I can’t see it. Maybe that’s intentional. If I can I’ll grab a seat on the right as we approach Charles St. so I can take in the view of Boston when the train crosses the Longfellow Bridge.

If I’m still on the train, that is…

Yeah, why not? Ballgame tonight.

At Park St. I abandon my commute and switch to the Green Line. The buzz in my stomach grows as I get closer. Five stops away.

Boylston, Arlington, Copley, Hynes Convention Center, Kenmore Square.

The Greatest Walk

The train is packed. Game night crowd. I get off at Kenmore, hit the top of the stairs and step into an electric summer carnival.

The Vet who plays Hendrix tunes (right-handed) is set up, case open for donations. Unlicensed vendors sell woefully cheap t-shirts, caps and pennants, and the Boston Baseball hawkers do a brisk trade. I love their scorecards, so I hand over a buck for a copy. A kid plays drums on an array of plastic buckets and salvaged industrial parts. Rocker kids heading to see the latest and greatest bands at The Rat sneer, and I pass them by and rejoin the game crowd.

The Citgo sign does its synchronized neon dance across Commonwealth Ave. The sign – removed from its regular spot on top of the left field wall on a television screen – takes on an entirely new persona: night watchman for the square, guardian of the gate to the suburbs, all-seeing electric eye of Back Bay. It sits atop the BU Bookstore with no context, a relic from a distant era, now risen from darkness during the 80s energy shortage. It is cheap and vulgar, and beautiful and perfect. It is Fenway, it is Boston.

The game day crowd veers left onto Brookline Ave and approaches the bridge over the commuter rail tracks and the Mass Pike. And suddenly there is Fenway. The lights on the towers slowly turn on and John Fogerty plays on the PA. I look left and see the pike, the Prudential and John Hancock towers and all the lights of downtown dancing in the early twilight. I look ahead and see pre-game revelers streaming out of The Cask and Flagon.

Another bucket drummer is set up on the corner of Brookline and Lansdowne, and the air is heavy with the blissful smell of sausages, peppers and onions. A batting practice ball clears the wall and bounces on Lansdowne, and a group of kids with gloves chases down their treasure. The buzz of excitement in my stomach is out of control.

Home

I get in line at the ticket office on Yawkee Way and scan the huge seating map. Outfield Grandstand seats available. Score! I buy one, head back outside and enter through the turnstile at Gate A.

Into the dark, down the ramps under the grandstands behind the plate. It is cooler and dark in here, with peanut shells crunching under every step. T-shirt stands, beer stands, chowder stands, Fenway Franks and ice cream helmets. I buy two dogs, smear on Gulden’s mustard and head up the ramp.

And there is the field and the wall and everything I’ve dreamed of all winter. The sun catches the edge of the roof above the right field grandstands, casting a glow across Fenway. The organ plays, the whites of the hometown team uniforms pop, the kids go crazy. I take my seat under the roof, scarf my dogs and fill out the lineups on my scorecard.

This is the oldest part of the park, with wooden slat seats that may date to the first game in 1912. The seats face center field, thus I have to crane left to see the mound and plate. They are narrow and hard, and there are poles in my line of vision. Because of the roof I can see nothing above the wall in left. And yet they are among my favorite seats in the house, just because of this coziness and feeling of originality.

A game at Fenway is a collage of a thousand moments that I treasure:

The pause just before the pitch. The pitcher holds the ball, just before the windup. The batter finishes cocking the bat and settles in his stance, ready, waiting. Infielders stop fidgeting and crouch in position like soldiers at attention. It feels like the air has been sucked out of the park. Then the tension is broken with the pitch…

The moment when the BALLS and STRIKES lights on the scoreboard snap off. End of inning, end of rally. Finality. Turn the frame, go get ‘em next time.

The slant of the sun across the field, and the approaching night.

The cry of the vendors and the linguistic joy ride that results from a heavy Massachusetts accent. HEY, HUT DUGHS heeeAAAHHH! FRESH POPPED PUP KAHN HEAH!

The feeling that somebody sat in this very spot and watched Babe Ruth hit. Somebody sat in this very spot and watched Ted Williams and DiMaggio. The connection to that history and the history of Boston just outside the walls.

The final out and the exit from the park to a changed world.

Night has come and I wish I had a coat. And I still have to get home. But I have spent the night at Fenway Park, and for a few hours I have left the day, the call center, the irate and the distraught and the trappings of the real world behind. It begins with a notion in the afternoon and ends with the warm glow that comes from a surprise gift. I go home with the feeling that there is nowhere else in the world I would rather have been, and no greater adventure than the one I had getting there.

Image Sources:

Cook & Son’s Bats Blog

Sitting in the Bleachers

Martha Ackmann

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Image Source: SI

It took forever, or so it felt. It always seemed like hours on the 7 from Grand Central, even though it was only eighteen stops. You were on an endless journey to a place called Flushing, and by the time you stepped off the train at Willet’s Point, you were already thinking of humping your way back.

Willet’s Point, Flushing, Queens. The Valley of the Ashes immortalized by Fitzgerald in Gatsby. Used to be the city dump, and when they built Shea Stadium, the rubbish of the city was still smoldering underground.

And the stadium was a crumbling, decaying dump on top of the dump. Flaking paint, nasty bathrooms, exposed pipes and exposed ramps that dropped off hundreds of feet to death by concrete. If you were sitting in the upper deck, you were going to be holding on to your sun-scorched arm rest for dear life, as the pitch down to the field was enough to make you feel like you were about to tumble and roll off the face of the earth.

But it was OUR dump and OUR Amazin’ Mets.

It was a kids game played by grown men seemingly cast from an episode of Fraggle Rock: Davey and Mex and The Straw, Nails and The Kid and, fachrissakes, Mookie. And there was joy in their game, and the unspoken swagger that says you will NOT beat us today.

You showed up early for batting practice. You sat in the blazing sun and gladly felt like passing out from the heat trapped in the not-fully-enclosed Shea stadium. Your seat was only a few hundred feet below the flight path of LaGuardia, close enough to be able to read the numbers on the wing. Pilots approaching the runway used to gun their engines so they could hear themselves on the radio play-by-play. And you loved the noise and the atmosphere because it was New York and it was Shea and the Mets and it was where you wanted to be.

It was 1986, and it was THE year. 108-54, smoked Philly by 21 1/2, beat Houston in 16 unforgetable playoff innings, Game 6, Buckner. The greatest team having the greatest season playing in the greatest dump in the greatest city in the world.

It was worth the longest subway ride ever, and so much more.

RIP, Kid

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Originally Published 08/24/2011

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It was a typical Saturday afternoon at Kelly’s: Cards/Cubs on the tube, Old Style on tap and in pounders, armchair analysis going around the bar. Tim and John, both Cubs fans but, more broadly, both baseball fans, were arguing the game on the TV and the games already played.

“Okay, you’re tellin’ me the Cards are more universally beloved than the Cubs?” John asked Tim, mocking his jaw falling to the bar.

“I’m not saying more beloved!” Tim replied. “I’m saying more historically significant!”

“What in THE hell you talking about?” John spat back. “Hack Wilson, Ron Cey, Ernie Banks! Hey, let’s play two! Harry friggin’ Caray and Wrigley Field!”

“Yeah, well Harry Caray was the voice of the Cardinals first, ya know!” Tim replied, proud at scoring a point. “And think of this: the St. Louis Cardinals changed the game twice.”

“Twice?” John asked?

“Twice.” Tim affirmed. “First, Branch Rickey – the man who later signed Jackie Robinson, no less – was the Cards General Manager, and he developed the farm system and spring training. Used to be a ballplayer would go home after the season and spend the winter drinkin’ and gorgin’. Rickey put ‘em to work in the hot sun before the season to get ‘em in shape. An’ he developed the farm system and hid his best prospects low in the system. Used to say that every small town in America in the ‘30s had an A&P and a Cardinals farm team.”

John was suitably impressed. He knew about the influence of Rickey, of course, but hearing it from Tim was revolutionary. But there was more to hear. “Okay, that’s once. How did the Cards revolutionize the game twice, smartass?”

Tim knew he was about to deliver a roundhouse to the chin. “Okay, think about this. In the course of twenty years – less than a generation – the Cardinals went from being one of the most fiercely segregated teams in the game to one of the most fiercely integrated teams in the game.”

John just stared at his friend.

“1947. Robinson breaks the color line with Brooklyn. At the time St. Louis was the farthest stop west and south in both leagues, and the closest thing to a home team for the deep south. Those were the Cards of Harry Walker, Whitey Kurowski, Enos Slaughter and Joe Garagiola. Some of those Cards agreed to boycott games against Robinson and the Dodgers. Slaughter and Garagiola, in spite of his later sunny persona on the Today Show, were notorious for spiking Jackie, race baiting, all that crap.”

John continued to stare, disgusted and fascinated in equal measures.

“1967. A mere two decades later. Tim McCarver, Orlando Cepeda. Roger Maris, Bob Gibson. Steve Carlton, Curt Flood. Total integration and a team that was completely there for each other.

“Think about that. Twenty years! It happened in Chicago, but not as dramatically. Sure, Ernie Banks was first for the Cubs in 1953, and the Cards integrated in 1954. But the integration of the Cards was absolutely unprecedented, and frankly one hell of a great American story.”

John was absolutely dumbstruck and silent. Kelly’s grew quiet, the most prominent sound being the play-by-play on the tube.

“You win!” he said, turning back to his beer and a slick 6-4-3 double play live from Wrigley.

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