Invasion of the fans

Sometimes it seems their devotion knows no bounds

David Ortiz poses with Dan Prager of Brookline. 'I don't even think a religious experience comes close,' Prager said. David Ortiz poses with Dan Prager of Brookline. "I don't even think a religious experience comes close," Prager said. (STAN GROSSFELD/GLOBE STAFF)
By Stan Grossfeld
Globe Staff / September 25, 2007

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Acting on a whim during batting practice at Fenway Park, Dan Prager of Brookline yells over to Big Papi that he would love to have his picture taken with him. To his shock, the Red Sox slugger, bat in hand, ambles right over to the ropes, drapes his big left arm on Prager, smiles, and in a flash turns and heads back to work. A second for Papi, a lifetime thrill for a college kid.

"I don't even think a religious experience comes close," says Prager.

Those are nice moments at Friendly Fenway. But others are not. During the last home stand, a spectator ran onto the field and snatched the hat of Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano. Earlier in the season, another tossed a plastic water bottle at Sox pitcher Eric Gagné. Daisuke Matsuzaka has been followed home from Fenway, as has Kevin Youkilis. On the road, legions of Red Sox Nation invade not only stadiums but also the hotels where the Sox stay. Tim Wakefield says it's like Beatlemania.

"There is no space," says Mike Lowell matter-of-factly.

So just how hard is it to be at the center of Red Sox Nation?

Coco Crisp says some fans know where he lives and what his unlisted phone number is.

"That's the way of life now," says Crisp. "Go on the Internet and figure stuff out. You can go on it and track down phone numbers, addresses to put your family members in danger. You can pretty much track down anything on the Internet you want to.

"I get a lot of prank calls from people I don't know. Some people don't say anything. Some are nice, some are mean. It's a good thing and a bad thing."

Mike Timlin loves the support at home and doesn't think fans are out of control. But on the road, he says, some fans don't understand that game day is very structured.

"It's not like we're trying to be rude to people, but we have our routines during the day," says Timlin. "We go out to eat in small groups. We go to the field in small groups. We're not trying to be rude. We're in the opposing city and we're trying to get our mind right so you can go into an opposing arena and play right.

"I know some people will take that as rude and blowing them off but you take that as sharpening your mind as much as you can in an opposing city.

"Probably the worst is when you're eating. You're sitting there with your family or your teammates and somebody says, 'I don't want to bug you but . . .'

"You're taking a bite and they ask you to sign something."

Youkilis says he tries to be polite.

"You have food on the fork and somebody asks for an autograph and that's always - no pun intended - that's tough to bite. That's the hardest thing. You just try to tell them, 'Hey, I'll try to get you when I'm done eating.' "

Unchecked at hotels

Today, following your local team around the country is the rage. "Sports travel" has become a $44.47 billion industry, according to the Los Angeles Sports and Entertainment Commission.

"It's a hard thing for us, because we love to have the fans at the games rooting and cheering us on, but the hardest thing is coming back to your hotel," said Youkilis. "Guys are at the hotel trying to escape the ballgame and people are outside your door trying to get an autograph. It's tough.

"The hotel is your home away from home, and some guys have had a hard time with that. That's the only time when we really feel it's crazy. People cheer you when you come down into the lobby. It's pretty wild."

Baltimore, in particular, has become a road city where Sox fans flock - and where they sometimes can get uncomfortably close. Manager Terry Francona encountered a critical fan in an elevator there this summer.

"There's going to be fans wherever you go, it's part of the game," said Youkilis. "In Baltimore, that [midsummer] series, it was really wild. It was really strange. Baltimore's become the territory where people know they can come and stay at the same place as the players."

Lowell says the worst stop used to be Philadelphia, which he visited during his National League days with the Florida Marlins.

"At the Vet in Philly where we were dropped off, there was no security," says Lowell. "So if you didn't sign, they would block you from getting in. It's unfortunate because some of those people who were there were pretty good fans but they were so outnumbered by the fans that were pushy."

Youkilis also has noticed more autograph dealers in the crowds.

"Not all those people are fans," says Youkilis. "The sellers are taking a lot of time away in the hotels from the kids that you want to sign for. It's sad."

The first baseman claims he can spot an impostor faster than Josh Beckett can throw a fastball.

"You can tell by the look," he says. "They're sellers and they can't look you in the eye. You know. I've seen a couple of times where kids have done some stuff for sellers. It's kind of sad. You just feel bad for the kids.

For Lowell, autograph dealers are the enemy.

"It's so annoying," he says. "Signatures are big business. If no one was buying them, there'd be no fans outside. And if there would be, you'd want to sign for them because they are fans of baseball. If I see a bunch of kids and an adult, you have a better feeling."

He says autograph dealers are the reason some players don't sign.

"All they want to do is turn it around and put it on a website and sell it," he says. "You don't want to be the business for those kind of people. They are not very cordial. I would say it's much more an issue than it was in the past because it's big business."

Feeling the love

What about seeing your name on the back of someone's shirt? The sports apparel business, after all, is a billion-dollar industry.

"The first couple of times you see it, it's real weird," said Youkilis. "The 'Red Sox 2004' was big, but now it's bigger than life. It's grown, I think people are just jumping on and just going with it.

"For us, fans are so passionate about everything. It's part of being a Boston Red Sox, the fans are everywhere. You definitely feel the love. Grown men tell you they love you."

Sometimes, though, that's a bit much.

"Us ballplayers - the Red Sox - are their escape from work, their escape from the tough things they want to get away from," he says.

Youkilis thinks modern technology is part of it.

"I think technology allows people to watch more baseball," he says. "It's more accessible with the Internet and cable. Fifteen years ago you couldn't get a major league package. Now you can see everything."

But not all of it is negative. For some players, the fans help take them to new heights. That includes rookie pitcher Clay Buchholz, who threw a no-hitter at Fenway Sept. 1.

"Mentally I was a little bit tired, not physically," says Buchholz. "I think I'm in good enough shape to pitch nine innings, but that was a big mental exercise that I had to go through. In the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings, the fans just brought me up. And that's what it's all about.

"I love the way the fans just take it to heart about the Red Sox."

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