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An appropriate birthday bash for Fenway

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  April 20, 2012 09:44 PM

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They were less than an hour away from hearing the roar of the Fenway Park crowd one more time for all the old times. But as generations of former Red Sox players milled about on the Ipswich Street sidewalk, a bystander unfamiliar with the itinerary of the day could be forgiven for believing all of these fellows dressed in Red Sox jerseys were headed on a fantasy-camp road trip rather than across the street to the ballpark where many of their baseball dreams once came true.

Soon, a tour bus pulled up in front of the Fenway Park High School, and the men boarded one by one, some with children and grandchildren in tow. There was Bruce Hurst, the wonderful '80s lefthander, and Jose Santiago, a pitcher for the beloved '67 team who homered off the great Bob Gibson in the World Series. Following them was Bob Montgomery, the dependable '70s backup catcher and predecessor to Jerry Remy in the broadcast booth. Despite their attire and the names on their backs, they barely drew much notice.

As made their way on board -- the bus would take them across the street and inside the ballpark -- one strayed from the group. Walking across the street and heading toward a souvenir stand, he was quickly recognized by two fans, who received a hearty handshake in reply. It was not hard to imagine the very same scene on the very same street playing out similarly in, say, October 1975. Bernie Carbo always did go his own way.

However he got there, we can report that Carbo eventually found his way to where he was supposed to be, for he was among the 213 former Red Sox on the field for Friday's pregame celebration of Fenway Park's 100th anniversary. It proved an event not to be missed. The festivities were sentimental and nostalgic, of course they were, the best party at this yard since the 1999 All-Star Game. But they were executed with uncommon subtlety given the usual standards of celebrations of lesser magnitude.

A cleanup hitter by trade and legacy, Jim Rice was the leadoff man, the first player introduced, taking that old familiar position in left field and wearing the red-trimmed jersey designed to remind you of his greatest summer, 1978. Soon, Rice was smiling and hugging Carl Yastrzemski, who was the bookend to his fellow Hall of Famer, the final player introduced. (It should be noted that Chico Walker, the youngster who was sent in rather than Rice to replace Yaz in left field during his final game in September 1983, was nowhere to be found. Ralph Houk never did have a sense of symbolism.)

As the entire production revealed itself, with each former Red Sox player walking to his old position -- there's Reggie Smith, and look, there's Hendu, and El Tiante and Oil Can, and does anyone know whether Clemens is gonna make it? -- the moment was allowed to breathe.

To see all of the former Red Sox again was to be reminded of different landmarks and milestones in your life. Maybe Pudge Fisk was your childhood idol, and Dewey Evans everything you wanted to be in your teen years, and Nomar the constant every night at 7:05 when you first went out on your own and the Red Sox made you feel just a little less homesick. And heck, you'll always miss Pedro Martinez, as charismatic as he was dominant.

Or maybe you were just wondering what Sam Horn has been up to, or how Dick Drago was doing these days, or whether Jose Canseco really does look like every cast member of "Jersey Shore'' morphed into one. That was part of the beauty of it -- players you'll never forget mingled players you're not quite sure you knew were ever here. It was a day for the Pat Dodsons and LaSchelle Tarvers and their proud families too. Two-hundred-and-thirteen players. One team.

As attendance was taken, though, it became increasingly easy to note who was absent. Trot Nixon didn't want to miss his son's first Little League game of the season, and what dad could ever find flaw in that? Fred Lynn was in Europe, celebrating his 25th wedding anniversary. Wade Boggs was probably joyriding a police horse somewhere. It was no surprise that Manny Ramirez did not return, though it's OK to admit he'd have won you back immediately with a grin and a double-finger point in Pedro's direction. Ellis Burks and Mike Greenwell, George Scott and Butch Hobson, Bill Mueller and Dave Roberts . . . it would have been nice to say hello again to them, too, and so many more.

soxplayers420.jpgBut this should be about who was there, and those who did make it savored it. Ballplayers often give off the air of not being impressed by much, save for free stuff and maybe the blonde in the fourth row, and that probably applies to old ballplayers, too. But the collective sense from those on the field Friday was not one of default-mode ambivalence, but genuine awe.

"You see your whole lifetime in front of you,'' said Dennis Eckersley. "I was chirping with people I hadn't seen so long [before going out on the field], so I wasn't quite sure what the situation would be. But it was the best standing ovation I've ever seen. I didn't know what to expect, and then, wow."

Wouldn't you have loved to hear Larry Lucchino's internal monologue as deposed two-time World Champions manager Terry Francona was greeted with cascading roars as he walked on to the field? Tito, who nearly did not come to the ceremony, the scars still fresh, received the loudest ovation of many.

A warm welcome always accompanies Bill Buckner's introduction nowadays, and icons such as Dewey, Jim Ed and Yaz are never left to feel unappreciated. But following the fans' thunderous statement about and to Tito, it was two recent contemporaries who received the loudest roars. When you say Pedro and Nomar, the last names are never necessary. Or perhaps it's that we never hear them because they are drowned out by cheers.

“It made me realize not only how blessed I was to help bring that championship to Boston, but how fast time flies,'' said Martinez, as eloquent and thoughtful and damn-straight missed around here as ever.

The most poignant moment, the one that best wove the tapestry of the seasons together, came when Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek, two recently retired and beloved Red Sox with a combined 33 seasons of service, aided Johnny Pesky and Bobby Doerr's arrival on the field by pushing their wheelchairs. The teammates of recent vintage helping "The Teammates" of literary elegance. The perfect emotional touch.

“That got me,” said Kevin Millar, the former first baseman. “Waiting back in the tunnel out in center field, guys were laughing, talking, slapping each other on the back. But when Johnny and Bobby came out, it was tear-jerking.”

When levity was required, well, that's where Millar, who arrived in Boston in 2003 chattering and hasn't paused for breath since, did his thing. Along with Pedro, he led the crowd in a birthday toast for the ballpark. Red Sox lore tells us that Millar has offered more famous toasts featuring harder contents than Friday's beverage of choice, sparkling grape juice. But he was at his goofy best nonetheless, including when he hooted his old catchphrase "Cowboy Up,'' which didn't seem tired at all under Friday's circumstances.

"Drink," Millar eventually implored, and 37,000 or so gladly obliged.

Pedro, meanwhile, showed he hasn't lost his knack for needling the Yankees in the opposing dugout, shouting his timeless "Who is Karim Garcia?'' line, first uttered defiantly after he drilled the swollen then-Yankee in the back during the contentious 2003 American League Championship Series.

"They gave us a script, but we decided to ad-lib,'' Millar said afterward.

Unfortunately for those who hoped the party would continue into the ballgame, the Yankees themselves did not stick to the script, either. The past ceded to the present, and the present hasn't been much fun. Clay Buchholz gave up five homers (related note: John Wasdin was not in attendance) as the visitors cruised to a suspense-free 6-2 win.

The easy joke in the aftermath was to suggest some of the old timers should stick around to help out the current squad, now 4-9 and exasperating. Pedro, who has not pitched in the major leagues since he went 5-1 with a 3.63 ERA for the 2009 Phillies, was asked whether he could still get it done now, at age 40.

"Give me 20 days," he said, suggesting that's how long it would take him to get his arm in shape.

After Friday, it's tempting thought, and for more than a single reason.


About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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