The weather charts will forever suggest that Opening Day 2001 at Fenway Park was a chilly, dreary afternoon best suited for mourning. But history may show that yesterday’s Red Sox homecoming signaled the dawn of a joyful new era.
With a single swing of his bat, the $160 million prodigal, Manny Ramirez, soothed a baseball-crazy city’s restive soul. With the Sox just back from a disastrous opening series in Baltimore and already trailing Tampa Bay, 3-0, in the first, Ramirez struck the first pitch thrown to him as a member of the Sox at Fenway and scorched it over the Green Monster for a three-run homer.
The demons were routed. The Sox were back, and as a cold rain thinned the welcoming crowd of 33,525, the Sons of Yawkey Way blasted their way to a reassuring 11-4 victory.
The home run by Ramirez off Ryan Rupe was his first for the Sox - and the first of many thrills he is certain to provide fans, who have eight years to admire his work.
“He put a charge in that ball and put a charge in the fans,’’ Trot Nixon said. “Manny has an electric bat.’’
Which sparked the Sox to the eighth victory in their last nine home openers and their fourth in a row. Ramirez also knocked a run-scoring single off the Wall in the eighth inning.
“This was my first time, so it was exciting,” said a reserved Ramirez amid the rapidly rising expectations. “But this was only today. We’ll have to see what happens tomorrow.”
The win snapped a dismal drought in which the Sox scored five runs in their opening three-game series in Baltimore. They lost two of the three games by one run.
“It took a big hit to get us going,” said catcher Jason Varitek. “Hopefully, this will get us off on the right foot.”
Ramirez’s dramatic blast also gave life to Sox starter Tomo Ohka, who got burned in the first inning. Struggling with his control, Ohka yielded three runs on four hits in the 36-pitch odyssey. “First-game nerves maybe,” pitching coach Joe Kerrigan surmised.
Ohka said his nerves were firmly intact. The problem, he said, was his location.
“I got too many pitches up high in the zone,” he said through interpreter Chang Lee.
Whatever caused Ohka’s meltdown, he recovered from it after Ramirez’s blast tied the score. Ohka held the Rays scoreless before giving way to Tim Wakefield to start the fifth. By that time the Sox had built an 8-3.
The Sox scored three runs in the third. With Nixon (double) and Jose Offerman (single) at the corners, Everett brought home the fourth run by beating a throw to first to avoid a double play. After Ramirez struck out and Troy O’Leary walked, Varitek cleared the bases with a Wall double.
The Sox scored twice more in the fourth on solo homers by Mike Lansing and Everett. It was the second straight home opener in which Everett has homered for the Sox; he hit two in the opener last year.
The outburst was welcome throughout the clubhouse, but particularly by new hitting coach Rick Down. Ramirez’s homer was the first time this season the Sox drove in a runner in scoring position. They had gone 0 for 18 before then.
“You just know it’s going to happen,” Down said of snapping the slump. “It’s just a matter of when.”
The Sox put it out of reach with three runs in the eighth inning. Doug Creek walked Nixon with the bases loaded, Brian Daubach scored on Offerman’s sacrifice fly, and Ramirez drove in Lansing with his single off the Monster.
It was enough to calm the nerves of most Sox diehards, though some clung to their doomsday scenarios. And that was enough to disappoint Pedro Martinez, despite the homecoming’s bliss.
“There is a lot of negative stuff in Boston because we haven’t been able to win a World Series,” he said. “But, hopefully, magic will happen sometime soon and we’ll be able to make people think positively again.”
Count Offerman (3 for 5) among those struggling for positive thoughts. After losing his starting job at second, he has excelled in two straight games (5 for 8) since Chris Stynes strained his hamstring. But he was cleary still irked and said he was not trying to make a statement with his sudden turnaround.
“I don’t have to prove anything to anybody,” said Offerman, who hit .182 in spring training. “I’m just doing my job. I believe that’s why they pay me all the money [$6.5 million] that they pay me.”
Nixon, who makes a fraction of Offerman’s pay ($390,000), made the defensive play of the day when he raced to the corner in right in the fifth to catch a drive by Steve Cox that appeared headed for the stands.
“When I was running back, I saw a fan with his mouth wide open, and he was jumping like he was going to catch the ball,” Nixon said. “So I just tried to get there. I think the wind knocked it down a little bit, but it probably would have just cleared the fence.”
Manager Jimy Williams pulled Ohka after four innings, preventing him from posting the win. Williams said the temperature (49 degrees) and Ohka’s pitch count (86) warranted the move. “We’re playing this game to win,” he said, “but we don’t want to hurt people.”
Wakefield earned the win with three solid innings of relief, despite the wet conditions that made gripping his knuckleball more difficult. He yielded only one run, in the seventh inning, when Felix Martinez singled and Cox doubled.
Pete Schourek and Rolando Arrojo each pitched an inning of hitless relief to finish off the Rays. And there was joy again in Sox country.
“This was nice, after coming out of Baltimore, where we didn’t score too many runs,” Wakefield said. “I hope it’s contagious.”