The bases are loaded, and David Ortiz spits into his hands, claps twice, and digs in against the hated Yankees.
New York left fielder Brett Gardner inches back to the warning track. Not 10 feet behind him, Christian Elias, the Green Monster scoreboard operator, peers over Gardner’s shoulder.
Elias is actually in the spot where the left fielder would be standing in most every ballpark but Fenway Park
For a quarter of a century, he has had the best seat in the house. He has operated the scoreboard for more than 1,800 games. That’s more games than the great Carl Yastrzemski played at Fenway. Enough games that he doesn’t even have to look to know what occurs on the field.
“You just know the sounds of the game,” he says. “You can tell by the fans.”
To prove it, Elias closes his eyes and mutes the TV.
Big Papi swings and hits a towering fly ball to left that is easily caught by Gardner in front of the warning track. Jackie Bradley Jr. tags up and scores.
Elias hears the initial booming roar, then a lull, followed by a polite cheer.
“Sacrifice fly,” he says. “Run scores.”
Moments later, a yellow numeral 1 is dropped into the manual scoreboard with a loud thud.
That’s a sound Elias might miss. He recently met Red Sox president Sam Kennedy and announced that he is retiring at the end of the season.
“It was a little emotional,” says Elias, 44. “It’s been so much a part of my life. I really don’t remember my life not doing it.”
In 1992, as a 19-year-old kid, he dreamed of getting a summer job on the grounds crew.
“What kid who grows up around here doesn’t want to be on that hallowed turf?” says Elias.
But there were no jobs, except in the scoreboard. Elias made a face when he was offered the job.
“I said, OK, I’ll do it,’ but in the back of my mind, I said I’ll do it for one summer,” he recalls. “It turned into a quarter of a century of incredible fun. It’s been a dream job.”
Now he tells the other scorekeepers how cushy their job is; they have cellphones, cable TV, and laptops.
“I sound like one of those old guys,” he says with a laugh. “Back then we were cut off from the outside world. Once that door closed at 7:30, we did not come out again until after the game. We couldn’t talk to our families.
“So many times, Mike Greenwell for three or four hours was our only human contact. That’s a scary thought.”
But Elias bonded with Red Sox left fielders over the years.
“Greenwell would only talk baseball,” he says. “Manny Ramirez would never talk baseball. Troy O’Leary would never come back there much.”
O’Leary had a good reason.
“Once I was working back there by myself and I had some company in the form of some furry friends running around,’’ said Elias. “And being by myself, it’s not the most well-lit area, and I was starting to get a little freaked out.
“There were a lot of them, so I took a broomstick and started banging the metal wall to scare them off. Finally after five or six innings, Troy O’Leary came and peered through one of the slots and he said, ‘Hey man, everything OK?’ And I said, ‘Rodents. I’ve got some furry friends back here.’
“He never checked on me again. He didn’t want anything to do with it.”
Now the space inside the scoreboard is cleared up, and the rodents have been evicted — replaced by tours given to high rollers during the game. There’s still no bathroom and just four 60-watt light bulbs, along with hundreds of numbers and signatures.
The question Elias hears most is about what Ramirez was doing in the Wall during a 2005 game when the Sox nearly got caught with only eight men on the field.
“Legend has it that Manny came in and went to the bathroom,” he says. “He did come in, but he wasn’t going to the bathroom. There isn’t a bathroom back there; there hasn’t been one since I started.”
Ramirez came in many times, says Elias.
“We’d talk everything except baseball,” he says. “Even if he hit a home run the inning before. He’d ask about my kids, we’d talk family, he loved cars, and he was very nice to us. We had a lot of laughs. Sometimes we’d give him fruit. He’d have a little snack.’’
So why did he almost miss a pitch?
“Manny came in the Wall when [Terry] Francona came out,” says Elias. “Now, 99.9 percent of the time, when the manager came out, it meant a pitching change.”
Ramirez briefly went online and checked a website that was “definitely Manny being Manny,” according to Elias. Asked to elaborate, he flashes a wry smile and says, “What happens in the Wall stays in the Wall.
“Then he was just sitting chatting with us and we hear the crowd get excited.”
Elias thought a fan ran on the field, but actually the game was about to restart.
“Francona did not make a pitching change,’’ he says. “He left the pitcher in. We all looked out and at the same time went, ‘Oh [expletive].’ Manny jumped up and ran out as the pitcher was just about in his motion. The crowd cheered and it became a big thing.”
Part of a tradition
In his younger days, Elias would multitask and do his college homework inside the Wall. He would also burn the candle on both ends.
“I was hung over for a lot of those long Sunday afternoon games,” he says. “We collected enough cans in there that we could have paid for Mo Vaughn’s contract extension. I never did this job for money, it was always for the love of baseball.’’
In the beginning, he was an iron man along with co-scorekeeper Rich Maloney. They went 12 seasons together without missing a game.
“We were the Cal Ripken of scorekeepers,” says Elias.
Maloney is now an executive at Federal Express and has six children. He and Elias remain best friends.
“He’s insane,” says Maloney. “He absolutely loves baseball. He’s young at heart, which is a nice way of saying he’s immature. He was never star-struck, he took everyone at face value. He has a great heart and self-deprecating humor.”
Elias thinks the tradition of ballplayers coming into the scoreboard to visit is passed down from generation to generation.
Yankees closer Mariano Rivera was a regular; he always asked about Elias’s kids. New stars such as Washington’s Bryce Harper make it a point to introduce themselves.
“What’s cool about that is that it’s organic,’’ says Elias. “It has nothing to do with sponsors or what the ballplayers are forced to do. They understand the tradition of the Wall and they want to learn about it.”
Elias points out all the signatures of players and celebrities inside the Wall.
“We’ve got everyone from Usain Bolt to Rene Russo to Neil Diamond,’’ he says. “We’ve got the top two save leaders of all-time, Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman. Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra, Jimmy Piersall, Felix Hernandez, Barry Larkin, Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs, Carlton Fisk, Johnny Damon, Roy Halladay. Manny Ramirez.
“Rheal Cormier wrote something in French.”
Andy Pettitte achieved immortality. “He cut his name right into the concrete,” says Elias. “It ain’t going anywhere.”
But the new generation of Sox left fielders hasn’t visited yet, and Elias isn’t sure why.
“I’ve got to get myself established first, I guess,” said Sox rookie Andrew Benintendi.
Errors and pranks
As on the playing field, errors happen inside the Wall, sometimes on out-of-town scores.
“We had a game in Minnesota, and we had it listed as a rain delay,’’ says Elias. “They played in the Metrodome then, so 30,000 people here thought that the Metrodome had sprung a leak. That was scorekeeper’s error.”
But sometimes it’s not their fault
The Mariners switched the city plates so that the scores were correct but the teams were wrong. The phone rang, and the control room started screaming at them.
“So instead of Detroit playing K.C., it was Detroit vs. Minnesota,” says Elias. “Everything was screwed up.”
After the third inning, Elias ran out there. He saw future Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. laughing at him.
“That’s when I knew we had been had,” he says.
Elias, who also works as a director of sales at Live Nation, has scaled down his Fenway schedule to 30 games a season.
Oh, and there’s one more thing.
He’s a diehard Yankee fan.
“I’ve been a Yankee fan since I was a kid,” he says. “There are pictures of me as a 1-year-old wearing a Yankee hat.”
His father is a Yankees fan, and the two of them would go to a bar in Davis Square in Somerville that had WPIX (Channel 11 in New York) on cable.
“I’m 7 years old, and the two of us would nurse six Coca-Colas and watch the Yankees,” says Elias.
So when Dave Roberts stole second base in the 2004 AL Championship Series, was he rooting for Derek Jeter to slap the tag on him?
“Yes,” says Elias. “A lot of the players knew. Mostly they got a kick out of it. Everybody took it as fun. It’s baseball; it’s all in good fun. Don’t take it too seriously.”
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.