They paid hundreds in some cases, thousands of dollars to be there. Some fans at Fenway Park paid as much as $100 to park and all sat in 46-degree temperatures, enduring winds that chilled to the marrow.
None of that mattered. The citizens of Red Sox Nation had waited too long to worry about cost, climate, or any inconvenience. This was the day the Sox raised the World Series flag and dropped the curtain on Boston Baseball’s Bacchanalia a six-month festival triggered by the greatest comeback in sports history and the Hub’s first hardball championship since 1918.
The Sox beat the Yankees, 8-1, in the 94th Fenway Park opener yesterday. Tim Wakefield, Boston’s clubhouse leader in continuous service, pitched seven strong innings and batterymate Doug Mirabelli cranked a two-run homer in a thrashing of the Pinstripes that thrilled the blue-man (and blue-woman) group in the ancient stands. As if to enhance the fans’ experience, Yankees villain Alex Rodriguez committed an error that led to three unearned runs.
But it was the pregame festivities that connected generations of New Englanders, moved grown men to tears (I saw one in the press box), and created a memory guaranteed to be shared whenever two or more Sox fans gather to reminisce about the glory days of 2004.
In a 45-minute ceremony lengthy, but not nearly long enough to offset the 86 years and one million-96 tears that advanced the hard-earned world series win, the sox paid tribute to Fenway favorites past and present, handed out the rings, and raised the championship banner in center field for the first time since 1919. Derek Lowe and Dave Roberts, heroes from 2004 who have moved to new teams, received two of the loudest ovations. Pedro Martinez, another who has moved on, did not come back for the game, as the Mets had their home opener.
Carl Yastrzemski, the greatest living Sox player, and Johnny Pesky, a veteran of 64 years with the franchise, had the privilege of pulling the cords to run the flag up the pole. They were joined in the outfield by last year’s champions and another 25 men who toiled in Red Sox flannels but never won the ultimate game.
No matter what age you are, there was a former Boston player to remind you of an earlier time when the Sox entertained, but couldn’t win a championship. Dom DiMaggio, Bobby Doerr (the 87-year-old Hall of Famer flew overnight to make the ceremony), Frank Malzone, Jim Lonborg, Jim Rice, and Oil Can Boyd touched different generations of fans in different ways. Collectively, they encapsuled 70 years of living Red Sox history.
“They’ve been here a long time and been through a lot of heartache and this brought joy to their lives,” said Sox captain Jason Varitek. “We’re such a small part. When you see the emotion on Johnny Pesky’s face, that says it all - what the players before us and the people who’ve been here have been through.”
Red Sox owner John W. Henry said, “You can’t imagine a more gratifying feeling than standing there handing out rings to these people. And everywhere I go, people want to tell me how much it meant to them.”
In a gesture of ultimate dignity and class, the core of the Yankees team stayed in the dugout and watched the proceedings.
“I’ve been on the other end of a few of ‘em,” said Yankees captain Derek Jeter. “I’d never watched one. I was a little jealous, but they deserve it. You respect what they accomplished. You know how hard it is to do. They’ve waited a long time, so I’m sure a lot of thought and effort went into it.”
Mariano Rivera, the Yankees’ future Hall of Fame closer, was cheered madly by the Boston fans, a backhanded compliment in the wake of his recent struggles against the Red Sox. Rivera smiled broadly and waved to the hooting masses. It was another classic vignette on this cold, perfect day.
Just when it seemed it couldn’t get any thicker with subplots, Bill Russell, Bobby Orr, Tedy Bruschi, and Richard Seymour emerged from the cornfield (er, Green Monster) to throw ceremonial first pitches. Bruschi, Boston’s Super Bowl hero who suffered a stroke in February, made his first-ball toss to Terry Francona, the Sox manager who missed the last five days because of chest pains. Russell tossed to Curt Schilling.
“That was neat,” said Schilling. “There was a lot of history and a lot of fame in those four guys. It was awesome.”
Sox maestro Dr. Charles Steinberg, executive vice president/public affairs, had his best fastball on this day. Before the rings, flag-raising, and first-ball tosses, he produced James Taylor (”America the Beautuful”) and a parade of American war heroes. Sergeant Scott Cunningham, accompanied by a couple of dozen fellow vets, carried the World Series trophy in from left field before the ring ceremony.
“It was a great honor,” said Cunningham, a 31-year-old native of Connecticut. “Jason Varitek and Trot Nixon came over and thanked all of us. It was a great day.”
There were moments of silence for Pope John Paul II and Sox reliever Dick Radatz. Fenway fans were sufficiently reverent for the Pope, but one leather-lung couldn’t resist the opportunity and cracked wise during the quiet for Radatz. It was a well-worn shot at A-Rod. The Monster probably would have approved.
“I could have left after the pregame,” said baseball commissioner Bud Selig. “It was everything I wanted it to be. It was one of the rare moments in my job when you are proud to be commissioner.”
Selig goes down as the first commish to witness a Sox flag-raising. Like residential air conditioning and the polio vaccine, the office of baseball commissioner did not exist when the Red Sox raised their last banner in the spring of 1919.
After the pomp and bling, the rivals played a baseball game, and the Sox buffeted the Bronx Bombers, taking a 7-1 lead in the fourth and coasting through the final frozen frames. There were smiles all around when the 33,702 filed out of the yard just after 6 p.m.
“As awesome as today was, now we get down to baseball,” said Francona.
Baseball. The best game. The New England game . . . the thing that brought so many people together in yesterday’s celebration for the ages.