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Dan Shaughnessy

Day late, a perfect way to start

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By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / April 8, 2009
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Early on, it felt like Opening Day Lite, diluted significantly by the biblical rains that washed away the true opener Monday afternoon.

A lot of the buzz was missing around ancient Fenway Park in the hours leading up to the 109th Red Sox season opener. Many high rollers had dumped tickets in the wake of Monday's rainout, and the pregame three-ring circus was whittled to a single ring during the 26-hour delay.

We had bunting on the ballpark facades and congressional lion Ted Kennedy throwing out a first pitch to Hall of Famer Jim Rice. We had Keith Lockhart leading the Boston Pops in a stirring rendition of the national anthem and the 2009 Sox walking onto the field through the stands for their pregame introductions. (There were years when Bob Stanley would have been in danger, and it would be hard not to imagine Carl Everett head-butting customers as he walked down the aisle of Section 25.)

But it just didn't feel like the annual Boston holiday that fans mark on their calendars when the schedule is released seven months in advance.

Then the game started and all was right with the Boston baseball universe. The Sox and Tampa Bay Rays staged a textbook lid-lifter with Boston coming out on top, 5-3, in a tidy, chilly 2:39. The win put the Red Sox in first place and a game ahead of the Rays and Yankees - at least until the Blue Jays won last night.

This was a victory right off the Theo Epstein winter blueprint, with Josh Beckett hurling seven innings of two-hit ball, then passing the torch to Hideki Okajima, Justin Masterson, and Jonathan Papelbon. Dustin Pedroia kicked off his MVP defense with a first-inning homer, and captain Jason Varitek ended his winter of discontent with a Pesky Pole-bending homer - batting from the left side.

Fans were reacquainted with "Sweet Caroline" and "I'm Shipping Up to Boston," and filed out of the 97-year-old yard singing "Dirty Water" after Papelbon froze Gabe Gross with a 96-mile-per-hour heater at 6:45 p.m.

"It was a good day and we'll come right back tomorrow and see if we can make it another one," said manager Terry Francona, who might wind up being Boston's answer to Casey Stengel before his magic run is over.

Early in the afternoon, a combative Kevin Youkilis groused about the Boston media as he sat in front of his locker. Youk was insulted that several Hub scribes did not pick the Sox to win the World Series. Seeing local writers pick his team to win the American League pennant was not enough for the first baseman.

"Man, how can anybody pick us to lose to the Cubs in the World Series?" said Youk.

Gotta love that. You know your team is confident when players can get riled up about being picked to advance to the World Series.

The white board on the clubhouse door reminded players to wear their running shoes, not cleats, for introductions. Having the heroes walk through the stands is part of the ball club's mission to embrace the fans, and it wouldn't play well if Brad Penny accidentally spiked a customer on his way to work.

"That was different," said J.D. Drew when asked about the unusual route to the field. "We got a little jammed up back there, surrounded by fans, and I felt a little like a gorilla at the zoo. But it was kind of neat. Everybody was excited to start the season."

"It was all right," shrugged Pedroia. "I was afraid I was going to slip and fall because I was wearing my cleats."

Typical Pedroia. The possessed rebel defied the sneaker edict.

With the players in place, Rice and Senator Kennedy rolled onto the warning track from the left-field corner door. They were in a golf cart and Rice, who has had some practice with golf carts, did the driving. Rice wheeled the senator toward the first base dugout, then Francona escorted Kennedy to the mound.

"That was an honor," said Francona. "I've been pretty fortunate here to get to do some pretty neat things and that was one of them."

When Fenway Park opened in April of 1912, Ted Kennedy's grandfather, John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, threw out the first pitch while a teenage Rose Fitzgerald watched from the front row.

A legendary lefty at the workplace, Senator Kennedy bounced a short toss to Rice, then requested a second toss and hit Rice's mitt on the fly.

Beckett didn't need any do-overs. He made mincemeat of the vaunted Rays lineup. He had only one bad inning (two walks, a single, and a run in the third), but did his best pitching with runners on second and third and no outs in the sixth. He shredded Tampa's 3-4-5 hitters, allowing nothing. He looked like the Beckett of 2007 who went 20-7.

In the bottom of the first, Pedroia turned on a low and inside fastball (not the high and inside pitch that the video game says he can't hit) and drove it into the Monster Seats. It set the tone for the game.

Every member of the Sox lineup except leadoff man Jacoby Ellsbury managed at least one hit. The sweetest shot was Varitek's homer in the sixth.

The Red Sox were back and so was the captain.

When the locker room door swung open after the victory, stars David Ortiz, Papelbon, and Pedroia took turns answering questions from the sacred spot in the middle of the room in front of the big plasma screen. Former Sox sub Lou Merloni, now a TV guy with Comcast, led off the Pedroia interview with, "I have never played Opening Day, what's it like?"

"It was exciting," said Pedroia.

And it was.

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