Initially, you could sense the fans’ indifference toward the players and the game. After all, there had been 259 days between games at Fenway Park, and during that time, some fans decided their emotions were not going to be invested in supporting money-hungry players and owners.
Yet others anticipated the return of baseball on a daily, if not hourly, basis.
Finally, they all got a chance to react yesterday.
Except for the applause when Jose Canseco launched a titanic homer in batting practice, fans were cautious with their cheers and boos. It was ironic that on Opening Day at Fenway, the largest ovation during the introductions was for Jim Rice, a positive Red Sox memory when the game wasn’t as spoiled.
But while the buildup was slow, by the time the Red Sox had scored seven runs in the sixth inning of a 9-0 victory over the Minnesota Twins, it was evident that the home team had done all it could to win its fans back after the 7 1/2-month strike.
“I think we pulled the fans into the game,” said Canseco. “We’re an exciting team with a very diverse lineup. It’s very difficult to pitch to our lineup. I’m just a small piece of it, and I try to do my part, but the fans love this kind of a lineup, and that support means a lot to our team.”
Except for stranding John Valentin following a two-out triple in the third inning, an error by Tim Naehring and a passed ball by Mike Macfarlane, the Red Sox played a flawless game.
Though there were no home runs, the much-publicized bashers pounded 14 hits. Canseco went 2 for 4 with two RBIs and excited the crowd when he came up in the bottom of the sixth with the bases loaded. He didn’t produce the desired result -- a grand slam -- but a two-run single that made it 5-0 sufficed. Mo Vaughn, freshly signed to a one-year, $2.675 million deal, showed gap proficiency, knocking in three runs with a single in the fifth and double in the sixth. This was important to Vaughn, who even late in spring training was disturbed with his swing.
And Mike Greenwell -- yes, he was booed when introduced -- impressed with hustle and determination and stroked four singles, good for two RBIs. By the time he took the field for the ninth, fans in the left-field stands were standing and applauding.
There were other gratifying signs from this revamped club. Second baseman Luis Alicea ran the bases hard and was active in the field, showing good range.
Lee Tinsley, whose job is to get on base and steal, stroked a sixth-inning RBI single, then stole second, extending his streak to 14 straight successful steals.
Tinsley’s single essentially kept the seven-run rally alive. There were two outs with Macfarlane on base following a walk. After three more walks, three pitching changes, a two-run single by Canseco and a two-run double by Vaughn on which Canseco raced home from first, the deed was done.
The pitching? Aaron Sele probably made Roger Clemens proud. He hurled a one-hitter over five innings. Kevin Maas broke up the no-hitter with a fifth- inning single. Frankie Rodriguez followed with his major league debut: one perfect inning. Alejandro Pena, Jeff Pierce and Ken Ryan combined to preserve the two-hit shutout.
Ah, if Kevin Kennedy could bottle this.
‘’We owe it all to the excellent game plan we had,” said the new manager, sounding more like Bill Parcells. “Preparation is everything. We had great preparation going over situations and hitters and all those things. We were focused on playing the game. We blocked everything out, and you’re going to see a lot of this type of thing. Our lineup is so strong that we’re going to have games like this a lot this year. I’m convinced of it.”
What was this master game plan?
“It was working the count to your favor, positioning yourself in the right place on defense, not giving in. That kind of stuff,” said Vaughn. “We had the kind of a day that when one guy didn’t do it, the next guy picked him up, and then we had momentum built up and it became contagious.”
Though the offense was highlighted, the main reason for success was the pitching. The Red Sox, like many other teams in spring training, saw their staff bombarded on occasion. They left Fort Myers with their ace, Clemens, recovering from a muscle strain, likely out until late May or early June; their top lefty, Zane Smith, not yet ready; and their setup man, Stan Belinda, nursing a sore shoulder.
And Sele looked as if he could have used six weeks to get himself in proper shape. He had spent the winter studying at Washington State University, and until about a week before spring training, he had only played catch.
But when it counted, Sele was incredibly efficient, throwing nine ground outs and allowing only one walk.
He was on a 75-pitch count and fell 11 short. He said he would have come out after 75 even if he had been pitching a no-hitter.
“I could have struck out 15 batters in five innings, and I would have been out of there if I reached my pitch limit,” he said. “I could have pitched a little longer, but this is great. I’m sure Roger was watching somewhere in Florida. I’m sure he would have loved nine runs behind him.
“And the fans . . . they were in it. I heard some great things when I was warming up in the bullpen. They can rally behind you here. They’re knowledgeable fans here.”