There had never been a night quite like this one. Who ever heard of a batting practice block party?
Only the privileged could get tickets to last night’s Home Run Derby, won by Ken Griffey, but that didn’t stop thousands of resourceful New Englanders from taking it to the street -- Lansdowne Street, that is.
Call them the young and the ticketless. In the quest for home run balls hit over the Green Monster during All-Star batting practice and the Home Run Derby, citizens of Red Sox Nation trekked to the back wall of Fenway toting fielding gloves, catcher’s mitts, fishing nets, cardboard boxes, and all other forms of hardball entrapment.
As free summer shows go, this topped the Fourth of July Pops on the Esplanade. It was Wallbanger Woodstock -- a festival of flyballs raining down from the heavens -- played right here on Yaz-gur’s farm.
Closed to vehicular traffic, Lansdowne was packed with baseball fans, police, and media representatives. The show was sensational, the price unbeatable, and dozens of souvenirs found their way into the hands of deserving fans.
At 6 p.m., while high-rollers were clinking glasses at pre-derby cocktail parties around town, the real ball fans were on Lansdowne, booing Yankees Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams as the Fenway PA blared hometown tune ``Dirty Water.’’
A favorite moment came early in the evening when cameras caught Masco (garage) employee Angelo Grech and MBTA cop Bob Don colliding under a shot, then rolling on the roof of the garage, wrestling for the ball like a couple of Napoleons. It was Boston baseball’s most dramatic flyball clash since Mike Greenwell demolished Ellis Burks in the Oakland outfield almost a decade ago. Scrappy Grech came away with the ball but gave it to the policeman, explaining, ``I felt bad knocking him on his butt.’’
Few folks were granted access to the coveted space atop the Lansdowne Garage (managed by Masco Standard Parking). It was leased to Pepsi for All-Star Week and remained largely empty save for a sprinkling of policemen, Pepsi folk, and garage officials. Despite the inherent exclusivity, the garage featured a fairly democratic group, including salesmen and truck drivers from the soft drink company. As the night wore on, Pepsi people invited some lucky fans to share the homer landing pad.
Johnathan Kerr of Plymouth and M.J. LeBlanc of Attleboro, a couple of slick-fielding 11-year-olds, scored a pair of the early souvenirs off the bats of John Jaha and Nomar Garciaparra.
An hour and a half into the batting-practice sessions, the net over Fenway’s Wall was peppered with baseballs. Intermittently, loose balls fell to the sidewalk below, causing mad scrambles. Mounted Boston police attempted to keep order, and eventually erected a temporary fence to keep fans off the sidewalk on the Wall side of the street. This was not a particularly popular move.
The mood improved when fans heard the announcement that McGwire was taking his batting-practice hacks. Mac missed in his first round, but then Jeff Bagwell crashed a ball off the Cask ‘N Flagon brickwall, and Sammy Sosa almost cleared the garage. Sosa’s blast was the only pre-contest swat that made it all the way to the Framingham commuter tracks -- on one hop, of course.
After batting practice, a member of the Fenway ground crew climbed the ladder inside the park and made his way up and down the plank at the bottom of the screen. Thirty-seven feet over left field, he picked the net clean while fans on the street below begged for a merciful drop of Rawlings.
In the mad moments before the contest, young men hoisted their girlfriends on their shoulders, bags of peanuts flew through the air, and fans chanted, ``Yankees suck.’’ A woman held a sign that read, ``chicks dig the long ball.’’ French Quarter comes to Fenway.
The contest itself seemed as if it would be anticlimactic before McGwire’s first-round barrage of 13 homers. Sean McDonough’s play-by-play could be heard as the packed street waited for the missiles of July. ESPN deadening commercial breaks were roundly booed.
Local hero Nomar was the first righty batter and the street shook when Garciaparra’s first homer nestled into the screen. Then Nomie really drove ‘em wild by hitting one over the net, over Lansdowne, and onto the garage roof. Former Sox property Bagwell hammered five homers in his first round, reminding folks of what might have been.
McGwire’s first official homer went way over Lansdowne Street and measured 436 feet. His third one crashed into the light tower (470 feet) and came back on the field, denying the masses outside. The next one went over the Coke bottles. Then another. And another. It was a little like watching Larry Bird in a 3-point contest. Unfortunately for the folks on Lansdowne, Mighty Mac fizzled in Round 2 and the finals featured two lefty sluggers, Griffey and Jeromy Burnitz.
But on this night, the outer wall at Fenway was the place to be.
The fortunate 35,000 no doubt enjoyed the show from the cramped confines of Fenway’s boxes, grandstands, and bleachers, but on this night, Lansdowne Street was the place to be. It certainly wasn’t like this when Rocky Colavito and Hank Aaron took batting parctice during Fenway’s last All-Star Game in 1961.
American League batting practice starts this afternoon at 5:05.