11th and Washington

11th and Washington: May 2009

Saturday, May 23, 2009

An overdue trip to Fenway

May 22, 2009

Fenway Park always makes me think of Iowa.

W.P. Kinsella set "Field of Dreams" in Iowa, yet one of the pivotal scenes takes place in Boston, when Ray Kinsella takes Terrence Mann to a baseball game at Fenway Park. Why Fenway? Why have the protagonist drive nearly 1,200 miles to track down a recluse writer, when Wrigley Field -- a ballpark just as old, with just as much history -- sits just a few hours east of that Iowa cornfield? Because in the book, Terrence Mann is actually J.D. Salinger, who lives in New Hampshire.

Yet it's those scenes at Fenway, particularly when Ray and Terrence are walking in the cramped, crowded concourse -- this in the late 80s, during the Red Sox's Roger Clemens era of competitive baseball, but before this decade's two championships and Fenway upgrades -- and buying hot dogs and beer (Ray: "So what do you want?" Terrence: "I want them to stop looking to me for answers, begging me to speak again, write again, be a leader. I want them to start thinking for themselves. I want my privacy." Ray: "No, I mean, what do you WANT?" Terrence: "Oh. Dog and a beer."), that make me think of the movie.

The ballpark is cramped, cozy and quirky. Our seats were in right field, near the Pesky Pole, and if we sat back and let the shape and angle of the seats tell us where to look, we sat staring at the Green Monster in left field. But all that added to the charm. We had a good view of Johan Santana warming up in the outfield before he went to the bullpen during his pregame routine. I thought about making my way over there for some amazing photos, but decided it just wasn't worth navigating the narrow, crowded aisles. Instead, I watched the other people watch Johan warm up.

This was my fourth game at the Fens, but my fifth visit. The first experience came on a stopover trip during our annual summer trip to Maine. We stayed with my mom's cousin and family and visited the ballpark one warm morning even though the Red Sox were out of town. It was 1987 or 1988 and I wore a Mets cap as we walked Yawkey Way and Landsdowne St. When we passed an open gate and gazed upon the green sun-splashed seats and walls of the ballpark, a grounds crew member or some other employee noticed our touristy interest and invited us in to see the field. We walked out of a tunnel on the first-base side and stood behind the dugout, halfway up the grandstand. I can still see in my mind the photo the employee took of our family that day, but there's little chance I'll ever find it. It may have been taken with my first camera, a cheap Kodak disk thing that was pretty much manufactured to be the first camera of young children.

That trip also ignited in me my love of baseball jerseys. We walked into a souvenir shop on Landsdowne where uniforms of many MLB teams -- but mostly the one in Boston -- hung from the ceiling. I wanted them all, to be able to put one on and button it up. I think I tried to find that store again on a subsequent visit, but it either changed its layout and/or display, or it wasn't the same as I recalled, because it just didn't have the same effect on me.

The first game was with my dad a few years later; we had tickets in the second row behind the visitors' bullpen in right field. We stayed with that same cousin in the suburb of Arlington, where they dropped us off at the T station and were there to pick us up when we got back.

The second game came at the end of August 1993, when my best friend Matt and I went up with our fathers on a college visit to Boston College. We paid to park in a Howard Johnson's lot or some similar nearby business and walked through the back of the parking lot to get to the ballpark. We stopped for an early dinner at the Cask'n Flagon -- a visit that may have instilled in me my love of a cozy sports bar. I had my brand new SLR camera with me and loved the zoom lens that brought the players so much closer during batting practice. I focused on Nolan Ryan, Juan Gonzalez and Rafael Palmeiro because we were there during the Rangers' batting practice. That's what stands out, because I can't remember where we sat.

The third game was nine months later, just a night after we graduated from high school. I'm not sure how the trip came up, but three of us -- my friends Walker and Brian joined me -- bought three individual seats behind the plate. Because the Yankees were in town, we couldn't get three together, but we still found three close enough that when we sat down, we managed to switch with other fans to have the three of us sitting near one another -- two beside one another, the other in front. The fact that three fresh high school graduates could afford tickets behind the plate at Fenway for a game against the Yankees, identify ourselves as being from New Jersey and have a pleasant conversation with the fans around us tells you how the game has changed in the last 15 years.

I don't know how it came to be the trio of Brian, Walker and me. Walker never was (and still isn't) much of a baseball fan, and Brian was always a football guy to me, though he does root for the Yankees. My dad drove us up, we checked into a hotel in Kenmore Square within walking distance of the ballpark over the Mass Pike, and dad headed down to Cape Cod to visit a family friend. He returned the next day to pick us up and take us back to New Jersey.

And so my fourth trip was with my wife, my dad not playing a part in my presence at Fenway for the first time. (The next day, we'd drive down to the Cape to meet up with the family, but that's not quite the same connection.) The Mets won this one for us, 5-3, and we walked back to Tremont St. on a cooling Boston night. It had been a warm, humid afternoon, but after perusing the cool concourse beneath the bleachers and downing a couple of beers, we adjusted.

There aren't too many ways to better spend a night to kick off the summer than in Boston, at Fenway.

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Thursday, May 07, 2009

What Manny means

Manny Ramirez came to the plate with the bases loaded last night in the Dodgers' game against the Nationals, and Arturo and I agreed that the career grand slams record is one we'd like to see him break. Arturo is a huge Yankees fan and I've long admired Lou Gehrig, an appreciation I have maintained even as my disgust for the Yankee brand has grown. Gehrig is the throwback of all throwbacks, a hero in black-and-white, an American icon and a tragic story.

The Iron Horse hit 23 grand slams in his career. That number has stuck in my mind from the first moment I read it. I couldn't tell you when that was, or who, after Manny's 20, follows on the list. (Eddie Murray? Yes, with 19, but that was a guess.) But there's something about that record, about performing in that situation, one that might be considered a "clutch" situation no matter when it happens, whether it's the first inning or the ninth. We're not going to see someone hit in 56 straight games, we're not going to see someone throw three no-hitters in a row (or even two), we're not going to see someone win 30 games in a season or win 400 games.

The grand slams record was set around the time when Babe Ruth's career home runs record was established, and that mark was passed 35 years ago. Ruth hit his last home run in 1935, holding the record for 39 years. Gehrig retired in 1939, but he hit his final grand slam on Aug. 20, 1938, meaning that this record has stood for 70 years -- almost twice as long as Ruth's 714 stood before Hank Aaron surpassed it. It was a pursuit we were eager to follow.

But now that pursuit is on hold, if not derailed, by Manny's 50-game suspension. I got a text alert from MLB.com at 12:10 p.m. and my jaw dropped. I read some of the online coverage, I turned on MLB Network and flipped over to ESPNews at times. When I saw Manny's statement in which he blamed a medication prescribed by a doctor, part of me felt relieved that there was a chance he didn't try to cheat and that he wasn't denying his guilt or trying to fight the suspension. But then I turned skeptical, thinking that's an easy excuse. Blame the medication, blame the supplements, like J.C. Romero did. But ultimately, the player has to take responsibility for what he puts into his body. That's why Barry Bonds' proclimations of innocence ring hollow, because few could believe that someone as in shape as he is and as dedicated to the game as he was would ingest something that carried the risk of harming him or indicting him.

As far as the Dodgers are concerned, Manny's suspension couldn't come at a worse time. Last night, they established a new modern record for consecutive wins at home at the start of a season with their 13th. Their press release even broke down their home record since Manny Ramirez joined the team (they're 31-7 in the regular season). With one more game against the Nationals tonight, it looked like the record had a good chance of being extended to 14 games before the Giants come to town this weekend. But now we'll get to see how the players react to losing their left fielder and cleanup hitter, if they're inspired or deflated, if the record adds a game or stops here.

Though maybe this comes at a good time for the Dodgers, if it had to happen. They're 21-8 and have a 6 1/2-game lead over the Giants. They'll get Manny back early in July, a month earlier than when they got him last year, when they were two games out of first with a .500 record and he gave them the jolt they needed to surge into the playoffs. If they're still in first when he returns, or within a series' distance of whoever sits in front of them, they'll still be in the driver's seat. But if the Giants or D-backs or someone else is going to make a move, they've got 50 games, starting now.

The suspension begins tonight and will bench Manny until July 3, barring rainouts. He'll miss 28 home games. Fans in Philadelphia, Florida, Colorado, Texas, Anaheim and both the north and south sides of Chicago won't get to see him when the Dodgers come to town. Fans in Chavez Ravine will head to Mannywood without being able to see its namesake.

If no games are postponed, Manny's return on July 3 will come in San Diego, when the Dodgers begin a three-city road trip heading into the All-Star break. He'll play at PETCO Park, Citi Field and Miller Park before he gets back to Dodger Stadium after the All-Star break. He probably would've had a ticket to St. Louis for the All-Star Game with the start he's had, but not now.

Manny's last grand slam came on July 5, 2005, against the Rangers and Chris Young -- who now pitches for the Padres. He'll return within days of that date, with the potential to face Young. With the way Manny's been hitting since moving to L.A., it seemed certain that there'd be one or two slams to come this year alone. It seemed like we were seeing the happy Manny, the one who jumps around like a kid on the field and high-fives fans in the middle of a play. The possibility that the official Grand Slam Watch for No. 23 would commence with Opening Day 2010 seemed high.

But now more than ever, we don't know what to believe.


Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The shocking story of one player's tragic loss

I hadn't heard the sad story of Greg Norton's mother's murder before, but it is told very well by MLB.com's Braves beat reporter, Mark Bowman.