March 2008

Red Sox Nation is Flat, and other final thoughts from Japan

manny-hits-double-in-japan.jpg

Final reflections from Japan as I wait for the bus to the airport:

An Important Call From Home

Calls from the U.S. to Tokyo are expensive, so when I received a call from my wife on Tuesday morning (Monday night in the U.S., several hours after the Sox’ opening day victory), I knew it had to be about something important. “Your son wants to talk with you,” she said. Then my almost-nine year-old got on the phone. “Daddy, guess what, Manny Ramirez got me 8 points for my fantasy baseball team last night, and I’m in first place!”

OK, who wants to bet with me about who’s going to have more fun playing Fantasy Baseball this year?? (That was a priceless phone call.)

wally-yonamine.jpg

Wally Yonamine: The First Japanese Player to Hurry

This morning, I read that the first American born man to play in Japan (Wally Yonamine, Central League MVP in 1957, born in Hawaii) was the first professional player to sprint from home to first on ground balls (before him, Japanese pros jogged or walked – could Manny Ramirez possess the soul of an ancient Japanese baseball player?) and the first to break up double plays by sliding hard into second base. That helps explain why no one is ever in a hurry here in Japan.

I mean, I felt no need to wear my seatbelt in the taxis I rode in. You just have to trust me when I tell you that Tokyo drivers are the safest on the planet. No one’s driving is even remotely aggressive. This was a problem when I was in a rush to get to the Tokyo Dome to film some interviews with Japanese fans for NESN. In Boston, my half-hour trip would have been cut down to 10 minutes (at the expense of the safety of other drivers on the road). Drivers here are actually cooperative, as if the people in the cars around them are members of their family or close friends. (Let me be clear: I think this is awesome.)

interviews-with-japanese-fans.jpg

Interviews with Japanese Baseball Fans

Before the second game of the Sox-A’s series, I had a chance to interview Japanese fans through an interpreter. Their answers to my questions were truly illuminating. First of all, three different people said, “Please take good care of Matsuzaka and Okajima” in response to my question, “Is there anything you want to tell the baseball fans back in the U.S.A?” Secondly, in response to my question, “What do you think of the U.S. fans who are here at Tokyo Dome?” all six of the fans I interviewed said, “We are grateful to the U.S. fans for coming here and showing their teams so much support.” Grateful is the key word. Several of the fans with whom I spoke said that their favorite Red Sox players were people other than Matsuzaka and Okajima (with Ramirez and Ortiz leading in popularity).

red-sox-nation-is-flat.jpg

Red Sox Nation is Flat

Ladies and gentlemen, not only is the world flat, as Thomas Freedman’s book title declares, Red Sox Nation is flat. Although I don’t have a specific quotation to prove it, it’s obvious to all U.S. fans here that the Red Sox fans at Tokyo dome are true fans of the Red Sox, not just fans of their country’s stars playing in the Major Leagues. They talked about the history of the Red Sox, they talked about Fenway Park, and they talked about current players as knowledgably as a Boston fan would. “Manny’s my favorite player because he’s so goofy and relaxed, and a great hitter,” said one young fan wearing a Ramirez t-shirt. “I became a fan of the Red Sox because of Nomar Garciaparra” said another fan. “I love his style of play.”

One fan who believes my powers as VP of RSN are supreme bent my ear for five minutes, expressing her frustration that “the Yankees and Mariners games are all televised in Japan because Matsui and Ichiro are everyday players, but Red Sox games are only televised when Matsuzaka pitches. Can you change that?” She also let me know that MLB-TV doesn’t work in Japan. “All of Japan is a blackout area,” she said indignantly.

remy-orsillo-drew-and-others-in-japan.jpg

Q&A With Ramirez, Remy, and Friends

The Red Sox hosted a luncheon for Red Sox fans in Tokyo on Wednesday, and after lunch we were surprised with special guests J.D. Drew, Alex Cora, Manny Delcarmen, Manny Ramirez, President Jerry Remy, and Don Orsillo. Obviously, Ramirez’s presence was electrifying. After they all signed autographs, there was time for a Q&A. Here are the highlights:

One fan asked all of them, “What’s surprised you most about being in Japan?” and Alex Cora immediately responded, “That Manny [Ramirez] made it here.” (laughter) “And by the way, his grandmother’s doing fine.”

Ramirez was asked who he considers to be the toughest pitcher to face in baseball, or which pitcher he fears the most. Manny thought for about five seconds, then responded jovially, “I’m ready. Nobody’s tough for me. I’m ready.”

One fan asked Don Orsillo to name the announcers who have been his biggest inspirations. He responded immediately, “Ken Coleman and Vin Scully.”

A fan asked Jerry Remy if, when he was a player, he ever thought he’d be a baseball TV announcer. “No, because I couldn’t put a sentence together then, and I still can’t.” (laughter) “I really have no idea how this happened!” Then Ramirez added, “When we all saw him playing, we knew he’d be an announcer.”

One fan asked Ramirez if he could please let us know which exact date he expects to hit is 500th home run. “Hey, my goal is to reach 500 this month.” (He currently has 492 career home runs.)

J.D. Drew was asked why the Red Sox don’t run more. “Well, we don’t have a lot of speed. (laughter) And I think we all saw how fast Manny is yesterday.” (laughter – Manny stood at home plate to admire his game-winning double before beginning to run, and was almost out sliding into second.)

When Ramirez was asked to make a prediction for this season, he said, “Man, I’m gonna lead the league in RBIs. AGAIN. (laughter) And we’re gonna repeat, we’re gonna do it again. We’re a DYNASTY.”

kid-red-sox-fans-in-japan.jpg

Japan’s Social Culture is Highly Advanced

A Red Sox fan asked me this morning, “What’s been the most memorable moment of the trip for you?” My answer was, “Brandon Moss’s game-tying homerun (9th inning of Opening Day victory) and shaking Manny Ramirez’s hand.”

But I know that the more enduring memories of my trip to Tokyo will be about the people here and the stunningly advanced social culture of cooperation and respect for others. As one Japanese fan said to me in an interview, “We have learned a lot from American baseball players, but we think American players can learn a lot from how the Japanese play the game, as well.” This is absolutely true (the Japanese are obsessed with fundamentals and practicing), but in terms of what all Americans can learn from Japanese culture, the fan’s comment doesn’t go nearly far enough.

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Opening Day Wa

Japan_trip_kid_fans2("Wa" is a Japanese term meaning "unity and team spirit.")

What a way to start the season! I officially lost my voice when
Brandon Moss hit that game-tying home run in the top of the ninth
inning off of Oakland’s ace reliever, Huston Street. How about that —
a rookie gets an unexpected start on Opening Day and makes it his best Major League game of his (short) career. Awesome.

(To see more photos from Opening Day, visit my other blog, Crawdaddy Cove).

Some observations about the fan experience:

1. I was very surprised at the relatively modest applause that
Japan_trip_kid_fans_3
Matsuzaka received at the beginning of the game. (When I say
"relative," I mean relative to the kind of cheer that even someone like Dave Roberts
or Doug Mirabelli would receive upon returning to Fenway Park.) I
expected the noise and excitement level to be so high, Tokyo Dome’s
roof would blow off. Not even close. The fans’ applauseJapan_trip_lugo_fan was certainly
enthusiastic, but definitely not memorable.

2. Once again, I was sort of unnerved by the total silence between pitches in the
first through third innings. Each pitch felt like (and sounded like) a
serve at Wimbledon. All of us in the Red Sox Nation section half-expected
an usher to kick us out when we cheered loudly for Youk, or Lowell, or
whomever. But the place eruptedJapan_trip_nomar_fan when Okajima took the mound in the
ninth, and the Dome stayed loud after that (by "loud," I mean "Fenway loud").

3. The Japanese fans at Tokyo Dome were eager to celebrate with the
fans from the U.S. during and after the game. They came over in waves
to give us high-fives. Japan_trip_father_and_daughter
While spontaneous, it was a very welcoming gesture and an exhilarating cross-cultural experience for all involved.

4. You gotta love that after Manny was presented with the MVP Award
(post-game ceremony), Hideki Okajima was presented with the "Fighting
Spirit Award." I read in Robert Whiting’s superb book on Japanese
baseball, You Gotta Have Wa, that "the emphasis on making the effort is so strong in Japan that how hard a man tries is considered by many to be the ultimate measure of his worth. Results are almosJapan_trip_sox_fans_celebratet secondary." 

5. After seeing the variety of Red Sox players’ names and
numbers on
the backs of Japanese fans’ t-shirts, I do not buy into the idea that
Japanese fans are only fans of the Red Sox because of Matsuzaka and
Okajima or because we won two World Series. Yes, Daisuke’s and Okie’s shirts are popular, but Japan_trip_mother_and_son
equally popular are Ortiz and Ramirez shirts. And I saw several
Garciaparra shirts and Clemens (Red Sox) shirts. Being a huge Nomar fan
myself, I went up to all those Japanese fans wearing #5 and weJapan_trip_drew_and_ortiz_fans had little five-second Nomar parties. ("Nomaaaaaaar!")

6. And finally, if I were Hank Steinbrenner, I’d be very worried about falling way behind in the global
competition for fans. He can call Red Sox Nation whatever he wants to
call it, but it doesn’t change the facts. The Red Sox have become an
irresistible international sports
franchise whose popularity transcends the particular names on the
roster, and little children around the globe are growing up chanting "Let’s Go Red Sox!" before the word Yankees
is even on their radar screen. Certainly Japan, as these photos show,
is squarely in the center of Red Sox Nation (although I did see one
bold Yankees fan, who politely allowed me to photograph him for this
blog… and there were some A’s fans too….. so in the spirit of
journalistic integrity, I’ve included those photos over at Crawdaddy Cove).

Rules of Tokyo Dome

Japan_trip_stuck_outside_tokyo_domeI
was told that the Japanese are rigid about rules, so I shouldn’t have
been surprised when I and about ten other Red Sox Nation members were
barred from entering the Tokyo Dome with the rest of our group. Why
were we not allowed to join our party to see the Red Sox’ afternoon
workout? Because, you see, we were not wearing our Red Sox Nation
badges around our necks. (We had left them at the hotel.) No badge, no
entry, period.

Our tour guides explained in Japanese that we were legitimate
members of the Red Sox group, but the security guards seemed genuinely
puzzled — as though no one had ever, in the history of the Tokyo Dome,
attempted to talk his way into the park. And yet, while refusing us
admission, the security guards could not have been more polite and
considerate. Still, rules are rules in Tokyo. No badge, no entry.
Period.

Japan_trip_getting_badges_1
Now
eventually, they did let us in, and the solution to the problem tells
you more about Japanese culture than anything else I’ll write while I’m
here. Several Japanese people working outside the dome with badges found out what was going on and handed us their security badges to borrow for two hours. As soon as I had Tomoko Hiragi’s badge around my neck, I was whisked into the Dome as if I were the President of Red Sox Nation. Amazing, no?

Inside
the dome, 150 of us crowded into the front two rows along the first
base line and into deep right field to watch a Japan_trip_tavarez_and_manny
baseball practice. Other
than the fact that J.D. Drew entertained us with multiple bombs into
the right field seats, there really isn’t much to report about the
practice itself. They played catch. They fielded ground balls. They
jogged a lot. They took B.P. Hey, it was their last practice before a
grueling 162-game schedule, and they were just trying to stay loose.

But
you know what I’ll remember about today’s practice? Billy Torres, a
seventh grader from Swampscott. Billy’s dad, Bill, won an all-expenses
paid trip for two to this opening series in a random drawing on WEEI
and decided to bring his son with him. Today, Billy had a fan
experience that will be difficult to top during his lifetime.

Japan_trip_okie_tosses_ball_to_fan
Standing in the first row in right field’s foul territory with a glove on his hand, Billy was intent on getting a ball. Somehow.
But the players were pretty much ignoring us, the security guards on
the field (following a Tokyo Dome rule, no doubt) would not even pick
up foul balls at their feet, and we were too far foul for any batting
practice shots to reach us. So Billy took matters into his own hands
and set out for the right field bleachers.

Good thing he didn’t
know that fans aren’t allowed up there, or else he wouldn’t have
grabbed a Manny Ramirez home run ball, then asked Daisuke Matsuzaka and
Hideki Okajima in Japanese to sign his ball (a local TV
reporter taught him the words). Both stars, who were standing on the
warning track chatting during B.P., Japan_trip_billy_and_ball
happily
obliged for the only kid near enough to them to get their attention.
Billy threw them his ball and a pen, they signed, then they tossed them
back. Seconds later, a polite security guard asked Billy to leave the
bleachers and return to the group. 

There really aren’t many
things better than seeing a kid’s expression when he or she is
breathlessly, speechlessly thrilled about getting a ball, an autograph,
or both at a ball game. "Rob, this makes my whole trip!" he said to me.  "I guess some rules are meant to be broken!"

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Fenway Natives Invade Tokyo Dome

Japan_trip_reporter_on_busNo
time for sleep! Even though our bodies were craving some shut-eye, the
Red Sox Nation crazies from the U.S. who are here in Japan boarded a
bus at 5:30pm Sunday night (that’s 4:30am on Easter Sunday back home)
to go see a ballgame.

On the bus, I sat next to Deanne from Melrose, an E.R. nurse at a
hospital just outside of Boston and a single mom, who said she made a
"spur of the moment decision to take a vacation and come to Opening Day
in Japan."

Before we could have a real conversation, though, the bus
was invaded by a TV crew from Tokyo’s TBS network and a bubbly young
Japanese reporter wearing Red Sox gear and a lot of make-up. She asked
us questions about our fanhood in broken English and before long we
were chanting "Let’s Go Red Sox!" and yelling "Red Sox are number one!"
in Japanese (she taught us these words). She even got us to sing a
verse of "Sweet Caroline," a song that she said is also very popular in
Japan.

(At midnight last night, I caught the ten-minute piece TBS did on
the Red Sox’ visit to Tokyo, and the first image was of yours truly
jubilantly walking off the bus at the Tokyo Dome. It’s wild to see
yourself on Japanese TV.)

Walking from the bus to the game, someone in our group reflected,
"You know how we always see big groups of Japanese tourists roaming the
streets of Boston? Well, that’s us."

Japan_trip_kid_fans
Once
we got through the tight security at the Dome (close examination of
everything in our bags and individual encounters with a metal-detecting
wand), we found our seats just beyond third base, about halfway up, and
settled in. I was fortunate to sit next to Red Sox Nation members who
had come to Tokyo on their own, from very, very far away. To my right
was Chris, who flew to Tokyo from his home in Thailand. Chris spent
four years at Boston University and reflected that this was his first
Red Sox game since 2001. "Only Wakefield and Varitek are left from the
last team I cheered for at Fenway."

To my left was Dalton Maine, whose plane from Chicago had gotten him
to Tokyo just in time for this game. Before settling in Chicago, he
grew up in Framingham and played minor league baseball in the Orioles’
organization. (With some probing, I learned he struck out Vladimir
Guerrero, Miguel Tejada, and Frank Thomas at different times in his pro
career.) Dalton was there with his mom, Billie Maine, who recalled
taking Dalton to his first game at Fenway when he was a little boy. "A
player threw him a ball, and then he expected to get a ball at every
game after that." The player, Dalton informed me, was Royals pitcher
Dennis Leonard.

When Dalton saw that I was taking notes about aspects of Japanese
baseball that are different from Major League Baseball, he was very
helpful in adding to my list. Here are some of our observations:

Japan_trip_watch_out
1.
The Japanese are obsessive about safety. 20-foot high nets line the
first and third base lines (making it impossible for a fan to get hit
by a low line drive); there are 2-3 rows of seats in front of these
nets, and all children in these rows are required to wear a baseball
helmet; the bat boys and ball boys wear helmets too and behave much
more like Wimbledon ball boys, sprinting on and off the field like
lightning bugs. Every
time foul ball lands in the crowd, the loudspeakers make a "ding-dong"
sound, and the message, "Please watch out for batted balls" flashes on
the scoreboard. (It’s funny when there are 3 or 4 foul balls in a row,
and this Japan_trip_careful_sign_1

message is flashed over and over.)

2. I heard that Japanese fans are rabid and crazy, but here’s what I
saw: there are about 200 fans (many wearing orange, others wearing
yellow scarves, all banging drums) in the right field seats who sing
and chant constantly, reminding me very much of the college football
fans of Clemson University, and the rest of the stadium is virtually
silent during most of the game. I am not exaggerating when I tell you
that it’s as quiet as the first tee at the Masters prior to every pitch (unless the cheerleaders in right field haven’t finished their song yet). It’s not that fans are not allowed
to make noise, but whereas there’s positive pressure at Fenway to yell,
"Come on, Papi!", at the Tokyo Dome, you’d be the only one doing so.
(And when I did, I’m sure Papi could hear me loud and clear from 150
feet away.) And the fans never Japan_trip_fans_in_right
stand up, except when there’s a home run
(thank you, J.D. Drew and Jed Lowrie).

3. The stadium is ultra-clean. When I told Dalton I imagined we
could eat our dinner off the floor, he said, "Are you kidding? I’d
rather have surgery on this floor than in a Chicago E.R." I went to the
bathroom for the first time in the 7th inning, and it had obviously
just been cleaned minutes before. Either that, or no one else had used
it before the 7th inning, either.

4. The hot dogs they sell in the stands are all individually wrapped
in elegant cellophane envelopes. Quite a contrast to the (delicious)
Fenway Franks that are removed from the mysterious, oily water and
placed in buns before our very eyes back home.

Japan_trip_beer_vendor
5. Beer is sold in the stands by girls wearing short skirts who appear to be between the ages of 15 and 21, and they carry very heavy
canvas kegs on their backs, fill a cup, and hand it to you. A Japanese
native explained to me that, to become a beer vendor, you have to pass
a vigorous physical test. (Oh, and they also sell little bottles of
hard alcohol.) All vendors are just about the most polite people you
have ever met. And there’s a rule that vendors are only allowed to sell
to the section on their right — so even if you’re sitting next to a
vendor on the end of an aisle to her left, she can’t serve you unless she runs up her aisle and down another aisle to put you on her right.
I’m sure there’s a good reason for this, but man, if this policy were
implemented at Fenway, there’d be a revolution in the bleachers before
the end of the top of the 1st inning.

It’s interesting to note that, although alcohol (of all kinds) is so
readily available and freely imbibed at the Tokyo Dome, there is not a
shred of drunken behavior in the stadium. Can you imagine attending a
game at Fenway Park and not seeing anyone who has had too much to
drink? Being at Tokyo Dome last night made me realize just how
accustomed we have become to the "bar atmosphere" at Fenway (and they
don’t even sell beer in the aisles there).

Japan_trip_calisthenics
6.
When the Yomiuri Giants are in the field (and the Red Sox are at bat),
all of the Giants’ bench players run out to foul territory in deep
right field. They do calisthenics, active stretching, practice their
swings (without a bat), and just stay physically active the entire
half-inning. When their teammates get the third out, they all sprint
back to the dugout and sit down on the bench. These Japanese guys are
READY to take the field at any moment, and they are FOCUSED on playing
baseball every minute of the game. (As opposed to the typical bench
player in the U.S. who, according to Dalton, "Sits there for a couple
of hours chewing sunflower seeds, shooting the breeze with his buddy.")

Japan_trip_smoking_room
7.
Under the stadium seats on the concourse, there are three small, glass
"smoking rooms" that are jammed with fans staring up at the large flat
screen TV through a thick, white fog. When the door opens and a fan
enters or leaves, huge clouds billow through the doorway.

8. In the later innings, the Giants sent a pinch-hitter to the
plate, and clearly it was his big day, because the fans broke out
singing "Happy Birthday" to the player as he stood in the batter’s box.
It’s clearly a tradition here to help players celebrate their birthday.
"Friendly Fenway" isn’t quite there yet.

9. Generally, the Tokyo Dome uses the same cheering
tunes we do in the U.S. (If I could hum them to you in this blog, you’d
know them all.) But the voice that said "Charge!" at the end of that
familiar trumpet blast could not have been mellower. And these fans get
into "Y.M.C.A." with the best of U.S. fans. When the popular song was
blared in between innings, Japanese fans were standing, contorting
their bodies into the letters as the song went along. The Japanese
version of the song (which is not sung by the Village People)
has them yelling, "Gimme a Y, gimme an M, gimme a C, gimme an A!" Is it
not truly incredible that this song has infiltrated the culture of the
world so thoroughly??

Japan_trip_sweet_caroline
10.
Speaking of music, we were treated to "Sweet Caroline" in the 8th
inning, and "Dirty Water" coursed through the stadium after the Sox had
won (do you think The Standells received some royalties in yen last
night?). I have to say, while I was impressed to see so many Sox fans
singing Sweet Caroline at the top of their lungs, the song was definitely not as much fun for me to sing away from Fenway
and without my kids being there with me. In fact, I think we might want
to create a rule in Red Sox Nation against singing the song in large
groups outside Fenway Park. It’s really not even close to being the
same experience away from home (and away from my children, too).

Japan_trip_boy_with_matsuzaka_shirt
11. Like at Fenway, there were a lot of kids in the Tokyo Dome, and
also like at Fenway, many of them were wearing Red Sox t-shirts. Of
course, 75% of them were Matsuzaka and Okajima shirts, but I saw
several Japanese kids around 10-12 years old wearing Ramirez and Ortiz
shirts. Curiously, I don’t think I saw a single little girl at the
game, except for the beer vendors.

12. Finally, the place truly came ALIVE when Hideki Okajima took the
mound in relief. These Japanese fans ADORE the Major League players from
their homeland. Now, this just was an exhibition game in March, but
there were mJapan_trip_kid_fanore flashbulbs going off for every pitch he made, and every
pickoff throw to first base, than if it were the first pitch of the 7th
game of the
World Series. It was as if Babe Ruth himself had risen from
the grave and was pitching for the first time in a century. The fan
behind me quipped, "It’s like flashbulb spam."

I missed the bus that brought us back to the hotel because I stayed
at the Tokyo Dome a bit longer than others did to take a few more
photos. So I took a cab (which, like all other cabs in Japan, was
immaculate on the outside and inside) and arrived back here
around 11:30pm Tokyo time. Walking to the elevators in an oddly quiet
and deserted lobby, I suddenly noticed three men sitting at a small
table, talking casually. There was David Ortiz wearing a black leather
jacket and dark sunglasses. We made eye contact. I instinctively
offered a "hello" gesture. He waved back.

He’s seen me in the lobby twice now. We’re pals.

Spring Training in Alaska

This is the first blog post in a series of posts I’ll be writing during my trip to Japan in my role as Vice President of Red Sox Nation.

Our
JAL 747, loaded with excited Red Sox fans from across the U.S., took
off from Logan Airport at 7:30am on Saturday morning and headed
northwest. Japan_trip_view_over_alaska_1

Destination: Tokyo, Japan.

But the trip to MLB?s Opening Day had a scheduled pit stop at the
very edge of North America in the shadow of the continent?s highest
peak, Mount
McKinley (which can be seen on the horizon in this photo). After
soaring over some of the planet?s most spectacular scenery during our
approach into Anchorage International Airport, we touched down at
10:15am local time and de-planed while the plane was refueled.

Then, it was time to play some baseball.

At first, no one took my offer of playing catch seriously. I mean,
who packs two Rawlings baseball gloves and a ball in their carry-on
luggage for a 16-hour flight to the Far East? (Those of you out there
who are either related to me, or know me from high school or college,
know ?Rob does.?)Japan_trip_catch_in_alaska
Before
long, we had a crowd of people taking turns playing catch on the
airport?s observation deck (which was, curiously, shaped exactly like a
bullpen). And I gotta tell you, it was truly a rush to throw around a
baseball in the 27-degree Alaska air at the foot of one of the most
breathtaking mountain ranges any of us has ever seen.

?This is the first time the Red Sox have had Spring Training in
Alaska!? quipped Red Sox COO Mike Dee, who threw some pretty nasty
curveballs in his first baseball workout
of the spring. Other front office folks took turns, including Chuck
Steedman, Joe Januszewski, Japan_trip_catch_in_japan_2
and Sam Kennedy, as did several members of Red Sox Nation,
such as Dave Ross and Kevin Kempskie, both of whom work for EMC. I’m
happy to report that all participants made accurate throws and skillful
catches ? despite the imposing distraction of Mount McKinley looming
off to the north.

?When will I ever play another game of catch in Alaska?? reflected
Steedman. Answer: never again. Is this the beginning of a string of
once-in-a-lifetime experiences for the gang of Red Sox fans making the
long trip to Opening Day in Japan? Answer: stay tuned.

I saw Papelbon and Big Papi in the lobby as we arrived. They
appeared  relaxed and comfortable in their new environment. "Hey,
Regular Rob, what’s going on?" said Pap. "Yo Reg, how was your flight,
man?" said Papi. (Actually, they looked right through me as we walked
past each other.)

Tonight, we head to the Tokyo Dome for an exhibition game versus the
Yomiuri Giants. I’m excited to see Japanese baseball first-hand, for
the first time, and to meet members of Red Sox Nation from The Land of
the Rising Sun…

Farewell Doug Mirabelli

mirabelli.jpgDougMirabelli had the best timing of any backup catcher in the history of
major league baseball. He joined the Sox in the middle of the 2001
season, as the team hurtled towards its 83rd straight year of
unfulfilled hopes, then celebrated a joyfully apocalyptic championship
in 2004 and another for good measure in 2007. Upon his release
yesterday, he left the Red Sox as one of only eight players who played on both championship clubs.

I’m a sentimental baseball fan, so I was truly saddened to hear the
Sox had let Mirabelli go. But I trust Theo and Terry and I’m sure it
was the right thing for the team.

What never ceases to surprise me, however, is how easily fans and
media let someone like Doug Mirabelli just slide out of sight. He’ll
get a short article in the Herald and Globe that will be
primarily about how important Varitek is to the team, and the callers
to our sports talk show radio stations today will say, "Doug was overweight and slow, and he couldn’t hit a lick, good riddance!" We
obsess over these players and cheer for them like crazy, then when
their usefulness is spent, we discard them like old cell phones.

I realize that every professional baseball player’s career must come
to an end, and that they always come to an end while the player is
relatively young (Doug is 37, and in the whole scheme of
things, that is young). I realize that turnover in baseball is
inevitable – and, ultimately, desirable. I realize that Mirabelli’s
batting average dipped to .202 last season and would probably have
dipped below the Mendoza Line this season. I’m not saying that
releasing him was not a smart move.

But let’s give the guy his due. He was the only player capable of
catching Wakefield’s wicked knuckleballs. He hit some dramatic, key
home runs as a member of the Red Sox. He accepted his backup role with
grace and appeared to be a good teammate, too. And most importantly, he
was our backup catcher during the greatest era in Boston Red Sox
history since the early 20th Century.

The former baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti once wrote, "The
game breaks my heart because it was meant to, because it was meant to
foster in me again the illusion that there was something abiding, some
pattern and some impulse that could come together to make a reality
that would resist the corrosion…"

"Of course, there are those who were born with the wisdom to know
that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who
can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am
not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more
primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever."

mirabelli-and-kapler-on-duck-boat-2004.jpgI’m
like Bart. There’s a part of me that wants to believe the illusion that
that 2004 team can last forever; that the Wake and Dougie battery will
be there every fifth day for eternity. And that part of me died a small
death yesterday with the news of Mirabelli’s release. Of course, for
Doug Mirabelli himself, the news has to be its own unique form of
dying. It’s the end of the most magical period of his life. "Not a lot
of fun for anybody," said Terry Francona about breaking the news to
Mirabelli prior to yesterday’s game.

Fireworks aren’t necessary, nor is the cover of Sports Illustrated.
I get it. He’s not Brett Favre. But how about a heartfelt "standing O"
for our #28? Those members of Red Sox Nation who have the good fortune
of attending the Red Sox’ home opener, on April 8, will get their
chance to applaud Mirabelli’s contributions to this franchise as he is
introduced to receive his 2007 World Series ring (unless he’s playing
for another team by then). Maybe we’ll get to hear Tim McGraw’s "Live Like You Were Dying"
one last time (the poignant song about making the most of every moment
that Mirabelli chose to blare from Fenway’s loudspeakers every time he
came to the plate). If you’re there that day, I hope you’ll cheer long
and loud. Not just for Doug Mirabelli, but for all members of that
great 2004 team who have slipped away silently from baseball; who, in
the end, could not "resist the corrosion."

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Got Tickets?

red-sox-ticket.jpgAticket to a Red Sox game. There?s nothing quite like holding one in
your hands. It?s that sublime feeling of knowing a Fenway Park
experience lies in your future. The anticipation is palpable.
Regardless of whether the Sox eventually win or lose, with a ticket to
a game, you?re guaranteed the thrill of watching Big Papi and Manny
stride into the on-deck circle; the roar of the crowd following a
spectacular defensive play; the majesty of the Green Monster looming in
left field; two choruses of Sweet Caroline and its euphoric chant, ?So
Good! So Good! So Good!? And for many of us, there?s Fenway?s
time-capsule quality that transports us back to our childhoods and
reconnects us with our parents, or the spirits of our parents who have
passed away, and re-ignites in us the joy of being alive.

And this was all true BEFORE the Red Sox ever won a World Series. Now, when we go to Fenway, we get to see the World Champions!

No wonder it?s so hard to get a ticket. Yes, demand for tickets is
through the roof, and the Red Sox continue to price their tickets at
levels well below ?market value? in order to keep a Fenway Park
experience accessible to the ?average fan.? In addition, ticket supply
is low ? we have the smallest stadium in Major League Baseball and 81
home games just isn?t enough to satisfy our fans? hunger. And as any
college professor of economics will tell you, these three forces (along
with complete lack of enforcement of scalping laws) make a ?secondary
market? for tickets inevitable. So that?s what we have in Red Sox
Nation: a robust, flourishing, highly profitable ticket-booth-at-fenway.jpgmarket for Red Sox tickets that have already been sold once by the team.

Almost nobody loves the ticket reselling ("scalping") industry. Yet,
as I see it, there are only a handful of ways the Red Sox could combat
ticket resellers, and almost all of them seem silly:

1) The Sox could price all seats at fair market value. That would mean a ?dutch auction?
for every ticket, which would lead to prices of at least $500 per seat
for every game. Yes, that includes bleachers and standing room only.
This would kill the reselling industry?s interest in Sox tickets
because, theoretically, no ticket would be sold initially for an amount
less than its highest potential bid.

2) The Red Sox could start to lose more games than they win, which would diminish demand.

3) The Red Sox could tear down Fenway and build a stadium with
100,000 seats. This would probably curtail demand (Fenway is an
attraction, regardless of how well the team plays) and also increase
ticket supply.

4) The Red Sox could petition Major League Baseball to play all
their games at home. If they were successful, this would double the
supply of tickets. Likewise, they could petition the league to play 50
home games against the Yankees, to make these tickets less special.

5) The Red Sox could revoke all season ticket holders? seats. Season
ticket holders are currently the biggest supplier of the ?secondary
market? (after all, who has time to attend every home game?) and
putting more tickets back under control of the team would take a huge
bite out of resellers? inventory and would allow the Red Sox to find
more ?unique? fans to sell them to ? fans who would be more likely to
actually use the tickets rather than resell them.

6) The state of Massachusetts could enforce the law against
reselling tickets at more than $2 of their face value. Which, it
appears, will never happen.

Short of these drastic measures, however, there are proactive ways
to combat the reselling industry and get tickets into the hands of
?regular fans,? and the Red Sox use almost all of them. They:

1) Place strict ticket limits on ticket-buying customers (other than
season ticket holders) to ensure a large number of ?unique? buyers.ticket-scalper.jpg

2) Hold several ?random drawings? before and during the season,
which gives lucky fans the right to purchase online highly coveted
Green Monster seats, Right Field Roof Deck seats, Yankee Game seats,
and even playoff and World Series seats. (I have "won" Red Sox email
drawings three times over the years, proving that it really does work.)

3) Host a ?scalp-free zone? outside Fenway, which enables fans to
sell their tickets at face value on the day of the game. Buyers of
these tickets are required to enter Fenway immediately after buying a
ticket, to ensure the tickets don?t get resold for a profit.

4) Sell ?day of game? tickets at Gate E, beginning two hours before game time.

5) Announce the sale of new blocks of tickets at random times before and during the season.

6) Set technological traps to foil resellers in the online ticket-buying process.

Consider this: By keeping ticket prices well below their actual
market value, the Red Sox are effectively offering ?financial aid? to
every person who buys a ticket directly from them. Absurd, you say? Not
really. If the actual value of a particular ticket is $500 on the open
market, and the Red Sox know this yet choose to sell this ticket for
$80, they are purposefully offering financial aid of $420 to the buyer
of that ticket. And they do this for the same reason that Harvard does
it, or Andover, or any other expensive educational institution: because
they don?t want their customer base to consist solely of wealthy people.

There?s a moral angle here, to be sure, but there?s also a long-term business angle. If the Sox were to maximize their profit now
by selling tickets at their actual market value (which would terminate
the secondary market for Sox tickets), the economic diversity of their
fan base would diminish. Consequently, if the team were to hit hard
times in the future (i.e., they begin to lose more games than they win?
uncomfortable to imagine, I know), they would have a difficult time
selling tickets at the exorbitant prices leftover from the glory days
of 2008 and would probably have to slash prices. In addition,
attracting back the millions of fans who were disillusioned by their
lack of access to games might be a major challenge.

ace-tickets.jpgA
few days ago, the Red Sox signed a sponsorship agreement with Ace
Ticket
and proclaimed them ?the official ticket reseller of the Boston
Red Sox.? Yes, it?s crummy that ANY team has an ?official ticket
reseller,? but to put in perspective how established the ticket
reselling industry is in 2008, keep in mind that Major League Baseball
itself has partnered with StubHub, another ticket reseller, as the
official ticket reseller of Major League Baseball. The entire LEAGUE is
profiting from the ticket reselling industry — it’s not just the Red
Sox.

To the Red Sox? credit, last year they instituted a program called
?Red Sox Replay? that enabled season ticket holders to resell their
tickets online at virtually face value (fans could log on and buy
tickets at a markup of approximately 25%, a small percentage of which
went to the Red Sox for maintenance of the site). But the moment MLB
inked their exclusive deal with StubHub, the Sox were forced to tear
down Replay, since it competed with StubHub?s interests. As Sam
Kennedy, the Sox’ chief Marketing and Sales officer, told The Boston Globe
earlier this week, without Replay, the Sox felt compelled "to identify
and endorse a secure and reputable secondary market option" for their
season ticket holders. 

It?s also important to point out that the Red Sox have not provided
Ace with "tickets for resale" as part of their deal, and the Sox do not
stand to profit from a single ticket that Ace sells. This is a straight
advertising deal – the team is simply accepting a large check from Ace
Ticket for sponsorship (and, we trust, investing this back into the
team on the field), and they have sent a letter to their season ticket
holders recommending Ace Ticket as the team?s reseller of choice.
That?s it.

ticket-line-at-fenway.jpgNow
if Abe Lincoln owned the Red Sox, would he have signed a sponsorship
agreement with Ace? No. What about A. Bartlett Giamatti, the former
commissioner of baseball who was as principled a man as ever lived
(he?s the guy who banned Pete Rose from baseball). Would Bart have
signed a sponsorship agreement with Ace? Probably not. Abe and Bart
would have eschewed any deal that appeared to link their team with
scalpers.

On the other hand, neither of these men were successful businessmen, and neither would ever
have been picked to run a major league baseball team. The Red Sox are
not only our beloved Olde Towne Team, they are a business. ?Good
business? helped us win it all in 2004 and 2007, and good business will
help us win in the future, as well. It?s hard to fault the business
people at the Red Sox for pocketing an easy endorsement check (and
offering a "benefit" for season ticket holders) when not doing
so would (arguably) jeopardize our competitiveness in the American
League East. The money the Sox are making from the Ace Ticket deal
will help them put the highest quality team on the field for 2008 and
beyond. Yup, winning really does have a steep price.

While down here in Fort Myers, I had a chance to talk about all of
this with Ron Bumgarner, Red Sox VP of Ticketing, for about 30 minutes.
And what I?ve concluded is that his job is different from that of every
other VP of Ticketing at every other MLB franchise. While other teams
are busy trying to sell as many tickets as they can at the highest
possible prices, the Red Sox are trying to sell all of their
tickets at a discount (theoretically) to as many unique, regular fans
as is possible, and working assiduously to thwart ticket resellers at
the same time (yes, even though they just advised their season ticket
holders to sell their unused tickets to Ace, the Sox will continue to
try to keep varitek-fan.jpgother individual tickets out of Ace’s and other resellers’ hands). Profit was Ron’s main concern when he ran ticketing for the San Diego Padres, but here at the Red Sox, profit takes a back seat to equitability and wide distribution of tickets across Red Sox Nation’s loyal citizenship.

And you just have to trust me when I tell you that Ron is committed
to keeping Fenway accessible to ?regular fans.? He has a couple of
young children of his own, and I know he relates personally to the
"regular fan" whose parents brought him/her to games at Fenway during
childhood, and now wants to bring his/her kids to the park, too. "It’s
a complicated problem," Ron told me, "But since it means the Red Sox
are winning games, it’s a good problem in the end."Right?

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A Father In Baseball Heaven

ted-williams-statue-at-city-of-palms-park-el-swifterino.jpgYouwant to have a magical Red Sox experience in Fort Myers? You want to go to a place where the players are so close, they walk right past you and even say good morning?  You want to give your kids a chance to
fill a couple of baseballs with autographs? You want to watch the
players stretch, play long-toss, practice pick-offs and and run-downs,
and hear everything they say? You want to mingle with Red Sox legends?

Forget going to City of Palms Park, where the team that’s
Boston-bound practices and plays. The crowds there are so huge, you can
hardly blame the major leaguers for hiding in the batting cages out
back. Instead, head down Edison Avenue about three miles, all the way
to the end, to the Red Sox’ Minor League Complex. This morning, I
strolled in there with two of my kids at 9:30am (admission is free),
and for the next two hours, we (and the 30 other fans there) were in
baseball heaven. Seriously.

As the players emerged from the locker room, every single one of
them stopped to sign an autograph for my boys (ages 8 and 6) and to say
hello. Most of the players are guys you’ve never heard of, but among
them were notablspring-training-autographs.jpge prospects Michael Bowden, Justin Masterson, and Joshua Papelbon, and former major leaguers Tom Goodwin and Billy McMillon.
Did my kids even CARE who they were? Of course not — they were just
thrilled to see pro ball players in Red Sox uniforms up close. VERY
close.

The players split up into about six groups and headed out to six
different fields to stretch and go through their daily drills. From the
center of the complex, you can see all six fields, though it’s more fun
to pick one field and study a subset of players. My boys and I brought
our gloves and a ball, and on the lawn between fields, we tossed the
ball to each other, practicing our fly balls and grounders, playing
monkey in the middle, and just having a grand old time pretending we,
too, were getting ready for the season. Which we were! (Me as a fan,
and my boys as little leaguers.)

A groundskeeper driving past us in his golf cart stopped and handed
a broken bat to each of my children. The bats had the words "Boston Red
Sox" engraved on the barrels. Think they’ll ever forget that?

spring-training-broken-bats.jpgMy 8 year-old is savvy enough to know who Dwight Evans
is, so when I pointed out Dewey to him as he walked from one field to
another, my son ran over and politely asked him to sign his hat. #24
was more than happy to oblige, and he signed my 6 year-old’s hat, as
well. "He’s one of the greatest right fielders of all time," I told my
kids as they gazed at their new autographs. "Lots of people say he
should be in the Hall of Fame."

Tommy Harper was there, too. And **** Berardino. And Frank Malzone.
All of them walking among the handful of fans who were there and all of
them pleased as punch to sign an autograph for a kid or pose for a
photo.

At one point, while watching players practice first-and-third
double-steal coverages, a toddler who was near me started to cry
loudly. One of the Red Sox catchers involved in the drill trotted over
with a baseball, gave it to me, and said, "Give this to the kid, it
should stop the crying." I made the delivery and, he was right, the
tears turned to smiles.

At 11:30am, we left the minor league complex and drove down the
street to watch the big leaguers play in a 1pm game versus the New York
Mets. We had a splendid time and the boys loved starting the "Let’s Go
Red Sox!" cheers and clapping for Manny and Youk every time they
stepped to the plate. But the game will probably fade quickly from
their memories. Afterwards in the car, all they could talk about was
their exciting morning among the minor leaguers and former pros, and
when they called Grandma to tell her about the day, that’s what they
raved about. "I met Dwight Evans! And you know what? The minor leaguers do the same drills we do in little league! Can you believe it?"

I think you understand. Today I was a father in Baseball Heaven.

It’s A Red Sox Universe II

Young_sox_fansI have no doubt that my Red Sox childhood (which really began in 1976, when I was 7) was enhanced by the existence – and personality – of George Steinbrenner. (And Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson, for that matter.) Red Sox Universe is an epic, and every epic needs a legitimate villain. I have to admit, I didn’t even notice that Red Sox Universe was starting to get slightly bland until George’s son decided to speak his mind. I agree with Dan Shaughnessy, who writes in today’s Boston Globe, "Hank is definitely going to be good for the rivalry," and "Having Hank on board is certainly a beautiful thing."

Buzzemperorzurg1
What would Oz be without the Wicked Witch of the West? What would Neverland be without Captain Hook? What would the Galactic Republic be without Jabba the Hutt and Darth Vader? What would Buzz Lightyear’s Intergalactic Alliance be without Emperor Zurg? What would Dora the Explorer be without Swiper the Fox or the Troll? (Those last couple of metaphors are targeted to Red Sox Kid Nation, five of whom I spend all my time with every weekend, at home.)

I’m so happy for my kids that there’s another Steinbrenner running the Yanks. Every kid in Red Sox Universe deserves a full-blown, emotionally charged rivalry, and Hank promises to inject that element we didn’t even know we craved.

Does Hank have kids that will take over in 20 years? Is there a chance this epic drama could extend to my grandchildren’s Red Sox childhoods? I certainly hope so.