Fenway Park is still quiet. Batting practice is over, and fans are starting to arrive for a game against the Colorado Rockies. Dustin Pedroia, in full uniform, stands alone in the dugout, holding the barrel of his black Marucci pro model bat to his ear.
He smacks it hard with the palm of his hand and listens intently. He can gauge the soundness of the wood by what he hears, he says. “People don’t believe me, but I can tell if something is wrong with the bat. You have to listen close.”
Satisfied, Pedroia places the dirty, pine tar-encrusted bat carefully on a metal shelf at the end of the dugout with his batting gloves. There are 15 slots for bats, and his is the only one filled this early. The bat rack is like the park, old, a little rusty, and painted over several times. But it serves its purpose.
Pedroia walks to the thinly padded bench and sits down, eyes looking straight ahead. This is his favorite part of the day. While his teammates relax in the air–conditioned comfort of the clubhouse, he heads to the field.
Most days, he’s at the park five or six hours early, before the vendors are there, long before the crowds. Tuesday will be his fourth All-Star Game. A year after the Sox finished in last place, he has led them back into contention. He loves the competition and the pennant chase, but he loves this quiet communion, too, with the ballpark that he has, with his improbable talent and irrepressible swagger, made entirely his own.
In the languid hours before game time, they hang out together, the man and the park.
It has always been his way. He was the one who got to Little League games hours ahead of time with his father, Guy, back in California. He never could understand those teammates who just showed up and played. Still can’t.
“It’s basically a comfortable spot for me,” Pedroia says. “It’s a place where I’ve been all my life.”
As former Red Sox manager Terry Francona puts it, the dugout for Pedroia is “like a second home.”
After arriving at Fenway on this late-June day, he took batting practice with his teammates and fielded some ground balls before retreating to the trainers’ room. He got in a hot tub, had a cold plunge, showered, and got in his uniform. Then, after a quick round of swings in the batting cage underneath the first base box seats, he left his teammates for the dugout.
He sits square in the middle and watches as Fenway comes to life. The grounds crew rakes and waters the field, the infield dirt darkening as the spray hits. The air has a faint popcorn aroma. The ushers guide early arrivers to their seats. Pedroia’s feet tap to the rhythm of the music being played over the loudspeakers.
“I think it’s a thing that kind of calms me down before a game,” Pedroia says. You wouldn’t know it; he doesn’t look very relaxed. He paces the length of the dugout like a caged predator. It’s a night game, but he wears eyeblack and his spikes are laced up and tied tight.
“Look at him,” says third base coach Brian Butterfield. “You just don’t see that very often. He can’t wait to play.”
It’s not like it’s a compulsion, the way pregame routines are for some players. Earlier this season, Pedroia arrived at the park just 90 minutes before a game when his wife, Kelli, had emergency appendix surgery. He took a few swings off a tee and ran out on the field.
“I don’t need to do all the stuff I do. It’s just that I like it,” he says.
He often brings his oldest son, 3-year-old Dylan, with him. They walk around the field, play catch, and hit balls off the Green Monster.
“He’s a high-energy guy, too. So when he comes to the field — and this is hard to explain to Kelli because he’s always going nuts at home — but he’s actually calmer at the field,” Pedroia says. “It’s weird. I don’t know if he has just grown up around it or what. But I’m kind of the same way. When I get to the field, I’m more calm than anything else. Our DNA matches for sure.”
Pedroia feels a certain kinship with anybody who shares that feeling, family or not. Fans who make their way close to the dugout before the game often are successful when they implore Pedroia for an autograph.
Today he walks to the right side of the dugout and signs for two kids wearing blue T-shirts with his number on the back.
Pedroia thinks that if he were on the other side of that wall, he’d want a big leaguer to sign for him.
“Have a good game, Dustin,” says one of the kids.
“You know it,” he shoots back.
In time, the dugout gets crowded as teammates filter down from the clubhouse. The fans get louder as first pitch draws closer. In a few seconds, Pedroia will hit the top step of the dugout and run out to second base.
Ballparks can be majestic, but there is nothing glamorous about the inside of a dugout, especially at ancient Fenway. It’s hot in the summer, cold in the spring, and the floor is stained with tobacco juice and littered with discarded wads of gum. There are puddles of water and dust everywhere. It’s the kind of place that makes you want to wash your hands.
Or, if your name is Dustin Pedroia, to pause, to get ready, to take it in.
“That’s what I’ll remember when I retire,” he says, “that feeling.”Peter Abraham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.