Allow me to echo what plenty of others are also telling you this Friday morning: Thursday at Fenway Park will go down as the highlight of a busted season. Which is, clearly, a reminder of just how busted this chase to repeat has been, but also that even in this sporting golden age, there can be significant moments of joy and successes in years without playoffs, never mind championships.
“That was probably the most fun I think probably all of us have had playing baseball,” said Brock Holt, who finished a 12-minute 10th inning with a game-winning double and, as he evaded his celebrating teammates, an impromptu slide across home plate.
“To me, it was the best crowd we had the whole year,” said third-base coach Carlos Febles. “A day like this, they show up, it’s awesome for the players. The players were excited to have so many kids in the stands.”
A better team than these Red Sox would have put down the putrid Kansas City Royals in nine innings on Aug. 7, but their inability to do so (combined with a significant rain storm) created something wonderful for thousands of New Englanders. For $10, a couple subway tickets, and a $1 bag of popcorn — I gave up on the $1 Fenway Franks when there were still 150 people ahead of me after 20 minutes in line — my wife and I took our son to his first game at Fenway.
Now, look. Our son is 3. He can identify a baseball game versus a hockey game. He recognizes the Green Monster and Fenway Park, but thinks every player on every team is either Mookie Betts or J.D. Martinez, and spent the moments after Holt’s heroics repeatedly screaming “YOU CAN DO IT, WALLY!” at the flag-waving mascot for reasons I’m not entirely clear on. He had as much fun riding the T all day as he did anything else.
There were thousands of him, his age and older, in the park on Thursday, though — 6,015 by the team’s count, joined by 9,125 adults who paid the $5 to the Red Sox Foundation and 1,301 with their tickets from Aug. 7 for a more than healthy 16,441. They got a chance to walk the warning track before the 12 minutes of play, sit wherever they wanted during the 12 minutes, and run the bases after them.
I don’t know if it made any of them fans for life. I feel like winning four World Series in 15 years is probably a more effective strategy in that regard. I just know that it was a wonderful day at an increasingly inaccessible ballpark, and that it reminded me of a similar circumstance 25 years ago this summer, when Boston was gifted an extra Red Sox series less than a month before the 1994 strike.
Four fiberglass ceiling tiles fell inside Seattle’s Kingdome in the hours before the Mariners’ July 19 game, forcing the stadium to be closed, ultimately, until November. (Two workers were killed in an August crane accident, the tragedy further slowing repairs.) The Mariners initially suggested their home games be moved to a nearby minor-league stadium or a neutral site on the West Coast, but that was quickly vetoed for a multitude of reasons — scheduling conflicts, the lack of precedent for major-league games in minor-league parks, the desire for the games to have a real home team, etc.
So the sub-.500 Mariners hit the road for what would’ve been a road trip in excess of two months, but ended up just 13 extra games when the season was scrapped on Aug. 12.
The similarly sub-.500 Red Sox were the next scheduled opponent in Seattle following the collapse, slated to cap a road trip with four games there July 21–24. Thus, Boston had 24 hours to accommodate their surprise visitors and came up with a quick solution: $10 general-admission tickets for three days of games — a 5:55 p.m. start on Friday the 22nd, a rare single-admission doubleheader at 1:05 p.m. on Saturday the 23rd, and a 1:05 Sunday matinee — on sale starting at 9 a.m. on Thursday the 21st.
The Globe reported 5,000 seats for each day were sold in the first 24 hours at a time when mail-in ticket orders and physically going to the Fenway box office were a thing. Attendances were respectable given the circumstances: 11,776 for Friday’s game, 17,168 for the doubleheader, and 22,411 for Sunday. The Friday crowd was Fenway’s smallest since April 1986, but the last one topped seven scheduled Red Sox weekday home dates that year, a time when 30,000-plus per night was no guarantee.
Randy Johnson mowed through 11 Red Sox in winning the Friday opener, in which Alex Rodriguez — who made his MLB debut at Fenway that July 8 — scored twice and made the first two of four errors he’d make in the series. The teams split on Saturday, with Ken Griffey Jr. slugging the go-ahead home run in the 11th inning of the nightcap. (A literal usage, but more on that in a minute.) Roger Clemens dominated on the Sunday, winning 8-2 before a crowd he glowingly declared “one of the noisiest” he’d ever played in front of.
In that Saturday crowd? Your author at age 14, despite having been laid up for most of the week prior with chicken pox. I certainly wasn’t going to miss an opportunity like this on account of a few scabs, so I hitched up with my best friend’s family for the 100-mile drive east from the Springfield suburbs, posting up in the box seats on the left-field line and so enamored with getting to go wherever I wanted (in the lower bowl), I probably burned through a whole roll of film before the first game even started.
As befitting most teenagers, I didn’t entirely appreciate how special it all was in the moment. For one thing, it wasn’t until years later, looking at the box scores, I realized I’d seen one of the last outings of Goose Gossage’s Hall of Fame career — he threw the last inning of the opener, and made only six more appearances before the strike and his retirement the following April. I was there, like most, to see Griffey and the ballpark.
I only saw his game-winning homer (slugged amid the taunts of some kids in the crowd for being hitless to that point) on TV, though. The Saturday doubleheader included three rain delays and didn’t finish until just after 10 p.m., nine hours after it began. I can’t recall whether our carload bailed out during the one-hour rain delay that pushed the start of the second game to 6 p.m. or during the second one-hour delay in its third inning.
Either way, I was back in idyllic Agawam after a two-hour drive in time to watch Griffey shut up his detractors on my 13-inch television.
Those Red Sox only played 18 more games after the Seattle series, the likelihood of the season’s premature end already looming that weekend. These Red Sox will begin their last 33 on Friday night in San Diego, at least outwardly still talking about their season having at least one date beyond that.
Inside Fenway Park on Thursday, the disappointment of 2019 didn’t feel like it mattered for an afternoon. It was hard to sit there and not immediately want the Red Sox to make it annual thing, with kids in free and parents in cheap, even understanding that it could never work as well as it did in this specific circumstance. Reading the quotes from the team certainly didn’t help quell the idea.
“All the kids around, and the music and everything that went on today, that was awesome. Now kids are running the bases,” manager Alex Cora said. “That’s what it’s all about. It’s a game and we’ve got to do everything possible to get the young fans involved in this beautiful game. That was fun.”
I’ll just take Thursday for what it was: A welcome respite from a downer of a year. Thousands of others seemed just as happy to do the same.