Sports Nut

A Night at the World Series

The scene at Fenway Park as the Red Sox beat the Rockies.

Relief pitcher Jonathan Papelbon

BOSTON—Here are a few ways in which a World Series game is different than a regular-season game. In the regular season, you typically place your ticket in your wallet after entering the ballpark. At a World Series game, it is socially acceptable to place the stub in a polyurethane sleeve and wear it around your neck on a lanyard emblazoned with the Taco Bell logo. This is slightly irritating. Then again, a ticket stub usually loses all of its nonsentimental value once you’ve secured admission to the ballpark; at the World Series, there are guys standing outside the park after the game offering you $20 for it. At a World Series game, you might find yourself standing right behind John “Manny Ortez” Kerry, close enough to admire his man-of-the-people barn coat and suspiciously pristine Red Sox hat. And at a World Series game, the national anthem is sung by James Taylor. Actually, I’m pretty sure that, of the 50 some odd Red Sox games I’ve been to in my life, James Taylor has performed the national anthem at 47 of them.

There are other differences, of course, particularly when the World Series game you’re attending is played at Fenway Park. Since taking over the Red Sox in 2002, John Henry’s ownership group has put a seat on every remaining flat surface in the ballpark. They’d put seats on the Citgo sign, provided Hugo Chavez was cool with it. But Fenway is still pretty much the same lyric little bandbox that John Updike visited in 1960. It felt even littler last night—Updike reports that only 10,453 showed up to see Ted Williams take his final cuts; 36,730 squeezed into the Fens on Thursday. When those fans cheer in unison, the building shakes. At Fenway, this is not a sports metaphor—it’s a structural reality, and it’s at once exhilarating and unnerving.

Fenway is also the natural habitat of that rara avis, the Red Sox fan, though the species of Sox fan you see in October is slightly different than what you’d find in mid-August. The Boston Globe’s photo galleries from the series show a who’s who of local pooh-bahs: Doug Flutie, Ray Bourque, David Gergen, the Jordan’s Furniture guys, and Manny Jr. and Manny Jr. As the Globe reported, even some local VIPs had a hard time getting a seat—Gov. Deval Patrick was apparently reduced to tagging along with his chief of staff, whose dad has season tickets. But the average fan isn’t entirely frozen out of the festivities. For example, I had Statler and Waldorf sitting behind me last night. They spent the evening complaining about Theo Epstein, who, in their humble opinions, was unduly enamored of Julio Lugo and J.D. Drew, parted too quickly with young talent to get Eric Gagne, and couldn’t even really be credited with landing Josh Beckett. When Drew, whose grand slam in the ALCS was arguably the beginning of the end of the Indians, came up for the first time last night, these guys greeted him with a hearty, “We want Nancy!”

Still, and I hate to say it, last night was a little disappointing. Not the game itself, which was a gem, particularly after the long National League nightmare that was Game 1. (Not even Red Sox Nation, a rather merciless body politic, could really rejoice in three consecutive bases-loaded walks—that’s just ugly.) Curt Schilling, pitching for perhaps the last time in a Red Sox uniform, never looked dominant, but neither was he ever really fazed, and the Sox bullpen made a lean 2-1 lead stand up without giving Sox fans agita. Perhaps the only thing that came close was Matt Holliday’s base hit off the ever-more imposing Jonathan Papelbon in the eighth. But the threat was over before it started, as Papelbon had decided to save his first career pickoff for this special occasion. (This may have been the most exciting moment in the game, and in classic Fenway fashion, I totally missed it. I had a pretty good seat, 40 or so rows off home on the first-base side, the only drawback being that first base itself was obscured by a load-bearing beam.)

What was disappointing was that I’d been at Fenway the last time Schilling pitched for the Sox in a World Series Game 2, in 2004. The electric hum I experienced that October just wasn’t quite there last night. In ‘04, at least as I remember it, I stood for pretty much the entire game, something I’d never done before at a sporting event, and haven’t done since. Last night, the fans in my section stood up for a lot of the full counts or when runners were in scoring position, but I heard a fair number of “down in fronts” from people who were content to root from their seats. There were also long stretches of near silence. In the fourth inning, with a man on second and two outs, the guy sitting in front of me fielded a call from, and had a leisurely chat with, a buddy watching the BC football game at home. The percussion section in the Red Sox bullpen was easily audible throughout the game, even from my far-off seats. And my kid sister and I had a serious discussion about which event elicited a louder roar from the crowd: Mike Lowell’s fifth-inning double, which scored the game’s winning run, or Jacoby Ellsbury’s uncontested stolen base in the fourth, which won America a free taco from Taco Bell.

There are of course some obvious explanations for this relative deficiency in raucousness. One is that it’s hard to chant either “Ubaldo” or “Jimenez” in a taunting fashion. (“Francis,” by contrast, is perhaps the best name ever to chant tauntingly.) Another is that the big bats of Manny and Ortiz were silent last night. The cheers that erupted when Ortiz almost wrapped a ball around the Pesky Pole portended what such a moment might sound like, but in the end neither the suddenly anemic offense of the Rockies nor the hung-over offense of the Red Sox could muster so much as a rally. But the most important reason, I’d venture, is that Red Sox fans, like the Red Sox themselves, are acting like they’ve been there. There is a swagger about the team and its fans these days. Even the guys behind me who thought Theo could do no right didn’t seem to think there was much of a chance the Sox were going to lose.

The player who best embodies the team’s new swagger is Papelbon, in a way I didn’t fully appreciate until last night (a night that began, I should note, with a tasty “Frappelbon” at U Burger in Kenmore Square). The bandbox didn’t really rumble until Terry Francona called for his closer with two out in the eighth. Papelbon enters to “Wild Thing,” but he warms up to “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” by the Dropkick Murphys, the same song he’s now danced to, begoggled, after winning the divisional and league championship series. The center-field JumboTron, meanwhile, displays a montage of Papelbon’s signature glower, which would be somewhat cartoonish if he didn’t back it up with pitches like the 99 mph fastball he used to strike out Brad Hawpe to end last night’s game. The Fenway faithful went wild after that final out. Even if, at that moment, the crowd never quite reached the frenzy of excitement of ‘04, there was no way I was parting with my ticket stub, even for a 20 spot.