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Sox open at Fenway in grand style

Permission slips will be submitted today. Something along the lines of ''Charlie missed school yesterday because he was running a fever."

Truth is, Charlie and 35,490 other hooky players, rich guys, and folks who took personal days were gathered at ancient Fenway Park for the 106th Red Sox home opener. Instead of running a fever, Charlie and friends were running up the ramps when the gates opened at noon, and the first-place Red Sox celebrated this New England holiday with a winter-blueprint 5-3 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays.

Not only that, but the Sox made their Massachusetts Lottery debut, becoming the first big league baseball team to be honored with its very own scratch ticket. Imagine: A team representing a Nation plays in a cathedral and boosts the local tax revenue. So much for separation of church and state on Yawkey Way.

Olde Fenway earned rave reviews after undergoing its most extensive renovations since Thomas Yawkey bought the team in 1934. High-rolling fans enjoyed new outdoor pavilions upstairs behind home plate and folks in the lower arena, some of whom paid $90 or more to park, were greeted with new food stands, staircases, wider concourses, and an improved sound system.

The product on the field wasn't bad, either. New Sox stopper Josh Beckett struggled for an inning, then blinded the Jays, allowing only two hits and no runs over his final six frames to improve to 2-0. New third baseman Mike Lowell, who came to Boston with Beckett in a deal made during Theo Epstein's self-enforced sabbatical, cracked four hits, including three doubles, to lead the offense.

Meanwhile, rookie Jonathan Papelbon picked up his fourth save in the last five games, and Franchise Face David Ortiz celebrated his contract extension with a cherry-on-top solo homer in the seventh. Not a bad 95th birthday bash for the old ballpark.

The Red Sox are 6-1, have won five straight, and lead the Yankees by three games.

Sox captain Jason Varitek gave his stamp of approval to the Fenway improvements. The catcher said the open-air seats behind home made Fenway louder, adding, ''It can't do anything but create excitement, and this is a very exciting place to play."

Six months after the Red Sox were swept out of the playoffs by the eventual world champion White Sox, Boston fans were ready for baseball. Standing atop the Green Monster at 6:30 a.m. yesterday, one could see six young men playing Wiffle ball on top of the crumbling garage across Lansdowne Street from the Wall. While the sun rose over the right-field pavilion, and fans in tents began to thaw from an overnight stay waiting for standing-room tickets, the Wifflers set up a makeshift diamond and took turns trying to put some good plastic on the ball.

Repeat: This was at 6:30 in the morning.

Seven hours later, Red Sox announcers Joe Castiglione and Don Orsillo served as co-masters of ceremonies for pregame festivities. Curt Schilling, Gabe Kapler, and Papelbon received hearty hellos when the Sox lined up along the first-base stripe. Terry Francona wore his oil-changin' red sweatshirt, and birthday boy Trot Nixon (32) sported a cap that looked like it had been rescued from a flour bin. Ailing pitching coach Dave Wallace, standing in the dugout with the aid of crutches, was introduced to the crowd.

With Canadian-born Adam Stern standing behind them (Sox choreographer Dr. Charles Steinberg thinks of everything), the Boston Children's Chorus performed the Canadian anthem (''I can tell you Stern wasn't singing," said Kevin Youkilis). Then 5-year-old Jimmy Fund patient Jordan Leandre was wheeled onto the field by Ortiz, and melted the crowd (and both rows of ballplayers) with a stirring rendition of ''The Star-Spangled Banner" -- punctuated by the customary flyover of A-10 jets from Bradley Air National Guard Base in Connecticut.

After the flyover, a couple of 1946 Ford convertibles came out of the magic door in center and carted six members of the Red Sox '46 World Series team around the warning track to the area in front of the Sox' dugout. Then Bobby Doerr, Charlie Wagner, Eddie Pellagrini, Don Gutteridge, Dave ''Boo" Ferriss, and Johnny Pesky threw out ceremonial first pitches. The loudest ovation was reserved for Pesky, Mr. Red Sox.

Beckett's first pitch, a 94-mile-per-hour heater, was thrown at 2:08. Game-time temperature was 61 degrees with 7-mile-per-hour winds. Russ Adams grounded to short and fans nodded in agreement that this looks like the year.

Beckett struggled after the first out. He gave up a walk, a single, another walk, then walked home the first run of the home season. He escaped when Shea Hillenbrand grounded into a double play on his 36th pitch of the inning. The big righty growled when he came off the mound.

''He almost tore my hand off," said Francona. ''I don't want to go anywhere near him."

Varitek added, ''Some people don't let it out. Some people let it out. He's one that lets it out."

It was pretty clear that Beckett wasn't going nine, but just as he did in Texas, he settled down after the rough start, retiring 18 of the next 21 batters he faced. All agreed that the Hillenbrand double play was the biggest play of the day.

''A huge turn of events," said Youkilis. ''A base hit or a double there might have taken him out of the game."

A combination of 2004 champs and new guys put a four-spot on the board for the Red Sox in the second. After Nixon walked and Varitek (another birthday boy, the catcher turned 34) singled, Lowell and Stern hit back-to-back doubles to make it 3-1. Then Youkilis doubled home Stern and it was 4-1.

An inning later, Nixon left the game with a mild groin strain. He was replaced by Wily Mo Peña. Wily Mo was a factor in Toronto's final piece of offense. After Ortiz homered to right to make it 5-1 at the end of seven, Keith Foulke came on to pitch the eighth and he might have escaped unscathed, but Frank Catalanotto lofted a high fly to the warning track in right and a backpedaling Peña made the crowd gasp as the ball clanged off his glove and into the visitors' bullpen. The tip-in two-run homer made it 5-3, but Papelbon rode to the rescue again in the ninth.

Veteran lefty David Wells gets the ball tonight, and another victory will give the Sox their best start since 1920.

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