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Sports

From the archives | April 4

Lee Smith’s Red Sox debut spoiled in loss

Five-thirty in the afternoon. Lee Smith was preparing to leave his new place of employment. He was looking for a pair of sunglasses.

“Have to put together a disguise,” Lee Smith said, this big man walking through the home clubhouse at Fenway Park. “Need some sunglasses.”

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“Put a bag over your head,” fellow relief pitcher Bob Stanley suggested from the long row of lockers along the wall. “That’s what I always use.”

“A bag . . .” Lee Smith said.

Five-thirty in the afternoon. First day of the baseball year. The rose petals had been swept off the ground in a hurry -- the grand march to the American League pennant already stalled with this 5-3 Opening Day loss to the Detroit Tigers yesterday in the gray Fenway mist -- and the knuckle-down realities of daily living had arrived in a hurry.

How do you leave a ballpark if you are the pitcher who has surrendered that two-run homer in the 10th that decided the game? How do you leave with the same smile you had when you entered the park, 0-0, serenaded with a standing ovation simply for exercising in the outfield, regarded as the man who would bring peace and order and surely a sense of decorum to an entire city’s baseball fortunes? A pendulum had been swung here along with the Louisville Slugger of that Detroit Tiger, that Alan Trammell character. Invincible to eminently vincible. One swing. How do you handle all of that?

Jokes? Tears? Shrugs? Sunglasses?

A bag over your head?

“I came off the field and came in here and realized I was wearing Bob Stanley’s sweatshirt,” Lee Smith said with a little smile. “I took it off and I threw it at him. I said, ‘Take that. I don’t want to see it again.’ “

What else was there to say? Talk about Fate. Talk about “getting ‘em tomorrow.” What else?

Of all the possible finishes to the first 1988 day of baseball -- think of them all, top to bottom, excluding illnesses and catastrophic events -- this was the worst that could have been imagined. Lee Smith gives up a two-run homer to Trammell to lose a nine-inning effort pitched by Roger Clemens? A thousand happy Florida stories seemed to disappear as if one finger had touched one computer key by mistake. Whoops.

“It wasn’t,” Lee Smith said, “what I had in mind for Opening Day.”

The mood changed as only it can change here, where baseballs seem to be tied to local emotions with much stronger square knots than anywhere else. There already had been the error by Spike Owen at shortstop to start the grumbling, Gary Pettis safe at first to open the inning. There had been the misread of Lou Whitaker’s sacrifice bunt, Smith holding the ball too long and not trying to make the play at second. More grumbling. There had been a warning-track out by Darrell Evans.

The homer? All the air that inflated all of the hopes seemed to disappear in a hurry. There was a communal sag, followed by a communal series of complaints. There was rebellion. Just like that. Love to rebellion in a single inning.

“Could you feel the change in the crowd?” second baseman Marty Barrett was asked.

Barrett nodded.

“Especially with that homer,” he said. “It was like, ‘What else is new . . .’ “

There were people in the stands who were cussing out the trade, the acquisition of Smith from the Chicago Cubs in the offseason for pitchers Al Nipper and Calvin Schiraldi. There were people who were cussing out Owen, the incumbent shortstop, screaming that rookie Jody Reed really won the job in spring training. There were people who were cussing out manager John McNamara. Why was Smith even pitching to Trammell, second in MVP balloting a year ago, first base open? What was McNamara thinking? There were people suddenly picking apart the team and the game as if it were a piece of Colonel Sanders’ chicken.

One inning. One home run.

“Can you hear the grumbling out there?” Owen, the balding shortstop, was asked. “Is it something you notice? That sort of gnashing of teeth?”

“You mean the booing, don’t you?” he said. “Don’t sugar-coat it. Booing. Sure you hear it. I hear it. It took me quite a while to learn how to deal with it, but I can handle it now. You learn that that’s how it is here. They’re going to be with you as long as you’re going well, but they’re going to be gone when you’re not. You understand that. There are good parts to the enthusiasm -- these are knowledgeable fans and you’re going to get a cheer if you do something like advance a runner -- but there are the bad parts, too.”

One day and the state of grace was gone. Just like that. One day and the noise had begun. The questions. One day. The pennant? Hah. Would the team ever win a game? One day.

The locker room was a collection of small knots of mini-cams and tape recorders surrounding the sad characters who had found trouble. A knot around Owen, talking about the error. A knot around McNamara, talking about the result. A knot around Smith, talking about the homer. Knots and more knots.

“You can’t strike out everybody every day,” Owen said, looking at the knot around Smith. “You can’t get four hits every day. You can’t win every day. That’s baseball. I’ll take my chances, though, with Lee Smith. The same situation all over again.”

“This isn’t the worst,” Bob Stanley said. “I had an Opening Day (1981) when I gave up a three-run homer to Carlton Fisk, coming back here. Carlton Fisk. Of all people. Try walking out after that one.”

Smith was trying to walk out now. Five-thirty in the afternoon. He had found the sunglasses and was wearing them. Not a great disguise.

“I’ll wait,” Bob Stanley said. “I’ll walk out after you.”

The big man laughed and went out the door. Five-thirty in the afternoon. Same day, but now different.

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