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Dan Shaughnessy

An April classic at Fenway

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / April 9, 2008

The 108th Red Sox home opener had a little something for everyone. The local nine unveiled new tiers of seats upstairs along the baselines, banners were unfurled, championship rings were awarded, Boston Hall of Famers from every sport were feted, Bill Buckner was absolved, and fans were treated to a video of Neil Diamond on the big board singing "Sweet Caroline" while owner Tom Werner and some Pips swayed in the background.

Oh, and then there was that little thing we call a baseball game. The real diamond.

Daisuke Matsuzaka and the Red Sox methodically thrashed the reeling Detroit Tigers, 5-0, in the 97th Fenway opener. Kevin Youkilis enjoyed a three-hit day, Manny Ramírez treated the 36,567 to a tour de bases (triple, scoring on a bad relay throw), and Matsuzaka improved to 2-0 with 6 2/3 innings of seven-strikeout chucking.

"I thought he did a good job addressing the task at hand, 'cause there was a lot of stuff going on," said Sox manager Terry Francona.

Yes, a lot of stuff going on. Red Sox games have morphed into kaleidoscopic carnivals. No moment is wasted or unsponsored. NASCAR without the crashes. Tangerine trees and marmalade skies. Lugo in the sky with Neil Diamonds.

Yesterday's hourlong pregame festivities had a familiar feel. It was as if Dr. Charles Steinberg were still orchestrating via satellite from his new home at Dodger Stadium. Just after 1 p.m., flags from 62 nations, representing homelands of citizens of Red Sox Nation, lined the outfield while championship banners were unfurled on the Green Monster. This was done to the accompaniment of the Boston Pops playing the theme from "Jurassic Park" - which just happens to represent the era (1903-18) in which the first five Sox flags were won.

Then came the parade of champions - a conga line of hardware-toting Hub superstars including Bill Russell, Bobby Orr, Tedy Bruschi, and the immortal Curtis Leskanic. Chief John Bucyk carried the Stanley Cup, Danny Ainge carted the Larry O'Brien Trophy, Bruschi held one of the Lombardi Trophies, and "the Mechanic" shared the World Series trophy with Dave McCarty.

According to Red Sox research, it was the first time the four trophies were in one location simultaneously. The only thing missing was the Olympic torch, but Sox management wisely eschewed the notion in the interest of fan safety.

After the basketball/hockey/football legends took their seats on the third base side, the 2007 Sox were presented their World Series rings, each player getting handshakes from John Henry, Werner, Larry Lucchino, and Theo Epstein. Johnny Pesky and David Ortiz raised the championship banner on the center-field flagpole.

The flyover was next, and one of the four F-16 "Fighting Falcons" scrambled dramatically under the others as the jets approached the airspace over Fenway. Must have been Maverick, Ice . . . or maybe Schill.

Finally, there was the ceremonial first pitch from Buckner, long harpooned as the goat of the crushing 1986 World Series defeat. Billy Buck's appearance was a carefully guarded secret on Yawkey Way and fans were somewhat stunned to see the still-fit, mustachioed first baseman emerge from the outfield wall.

Right up until he made the toss to Dwight Evans, we wondered whether John McNamara might send Dave Stapleton out to make the throw, but Buckner's aim was true and the crowd roared its approval. It was cathartic, just as it was when Buckner came back to the team in the spring of 1990. The man who never felt the need to be forgiven was finally blessed by a blissful Nation that today knows little of ancient curses and defeats.

"The Billy Buckner thing, that was cool," said Ortiz.

After being introduced for the eighth and final time since March 25, the Sox took the field and played baseball. It was 46 degrees at 2:12 p.m. (New York City area code) when Matsuzaka threw his first Fenway gyroball of 2008.

Sitting in Box L-1, Rose Lucchino, 92-year-old mother of the Sox CEO, got out her scorecard and recorded Edgar Renteria's ground out to Matsuzaka: 1-3. The title defense was under way.

The Sox put a run on the board on a couple of hits and a sac fly off Kenny Rogers in the second. In the third, Ramírez led with a long fly to the triangle in center. Manny took an extra half-second to admire his blast and it almost cost him when he went for a triple, but Placido Polanco's relay throw clanged off Miguel Cabrera's glove and into the dugout, giving Manny a Little League home run - a triple and an error.

Dice-K got another run to work with (help from another Tiger error) in the fourth and faced his defining moment when he pitched to Carlos Guillen with the bases loaded and two out in the sixth. He worked the count to 3 and 2, then got Guillen on a soft liner to shallow center. With two out in the seventh, Matsuzaka was pulled after walking Brandon Inge.

Matsuzaka received a nice ovation as he speed-walked (it looked like one of those Babe Ruth films from the 1930s) to the dugout. He took off his cap and returned the love.

The game dragged through the late innings. Steven Tyler submitted a nice a cappella version of "God Bless America" before the home half of the seventh. The Diamond video, sponsored by a local furniture outlet, was played before the Sox batted in the eighth. Hideki Okajima came on to pitch a perfect ninth.

Imagine for a moment what life is like for the Tigers. After an offseason trading/spending spree, they own the second-highest payroll in baseball ($138 million) and they are 0-7, the worst start since 2003, when they started 0-9 and lost an American League-record 119 games.

Boston fans needn't worry about things like that anymore. This is a time when all things Red Sox are popular and the team will sell out every game with the presumption of another championship run.

"It's great to be back home," said captain/catcher Jason Varitek. "We had a little better beat to our step."

They'll go back tonight in hardball's happiest place on earth. Can't wait to see what's next. Maybe John Henry dancing with Tina Turner or Theo Epstein smashing his guitar after a killer rendition of Buffalo Tom's "Tree House."

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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