What Have You Done 500 Times?

So
Manny finally connected for his 500th career home run (and then his
501st, 502nd, and 503rd). Only 24 people in major league history have
achieved this milestone. That’s one of the marvelous things about
baseball — performance is so quantifiable. We KNOW that Manny Ramirez
is one of the greatest 24 home run hitters of all-time. It’s simply not
debatable.

So this got me thinking — what’s the equivalent of hitting 500 home
runs in non-athletes’ careers? What’s a high level of accomplishment in
your field that only 24 people in history have ever reached?

I was a teacher for eight years. Perhaps the equivalent to 500 home
runs in teaching is having 500 former students credit YOU with having
taught them an invaluable life lesson.

For a pediatrician, how about accurately diagnosing 500
difficult-to-diagnose cases, keeping the patient and parents calm, and
prescribing proper follow-up care?

For a minister, priest, or rabbi, the equivalent might be delivering 500 truly superior sermons.

For a parent of five (like me), I’d say showing up for 500 little
league games, soccer games, swim meets, karate tests, dance recitals,
school plays, class art shows, teacher conferences, and graduations —
without missing one — would be the equivalent of hitting 500 home runs.

Probably during the season of 2011 or 2012, Manny will hit his 600th
home run. I don’t even want to think about what it would require to be
a 600-homer parent…..

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Race to See a No-Hitter

JonLester.jpg

I
have always wanted to witness a no-hitter in person. Tonight, I finally
did. Did I have a ticket to the game? No. Did I watch the whole game?
No. In fact, I slept through a couple of innings. But I was at Fenway
for the last two outs. Here’s how I experienced Jon Lester’s no-hitter.

From 7:30 to 8:00pm, I got my boys (9 and 6) ready for bed and read
aloud to them. As they fell asleep, I also fell asleep in my chair with
the book on my lap. At about 8:30pm, I sat on the couch next to my wife
and we spent perhaps 15 minutes perusing digital photo albums of our
kids with the Sox game on TV in the background. I noticed the Sox were
winning 5-0, but it wasn’t until the middle of the seventh inning that
I noticed the zeros in the Royals’ hit column. “He’s throwing a
no-hitter!” I said to my wife. “I have to drive down there!”

Wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt, I bolted for the car and began my
speedy 12-mile sprint down Route 9 to Fenway Park. Listening to the
game on the radio, I was distressed when the Sox went down quickly in
the bottom of the seventh. “Come on guys!!” I yelled, imploring our
hitters to give me some time to get to the park. The top of the eighth
flew by too as the Royals went 1-2-3, and it was at that point that I
arrived at the section of Route 9 where there is ALWAYS a speed trap.
Reluctantly, I slowed down to the speed limit (prudent — the car
behind me got pulled over).

As the Red Sox batted in the bottom of the eighth, I hit another
sand trap: construction that narrowed the road to one lane of
slow-moving traffic. “NOOO!” I screamed. But I hit mostly green lights,
and as Lester took the mound for the top of the ninth, I turned onto
Boylston Street and searched frantically for a parking spot. Lester
threw ball four to the leadoff hitter, Esteban German, at the same
moment that I found an empty parking space at the McDonald’s opposite
Yawkey Way.

redsoxfans.jpg

A
sprint across the street and down Yawkey Way to Gate B, a flash of my
Red Sox Nation VP credential to the security dude, and I was in the
bowels of the park. Continuing to run at full speed, I headed for the
ramp on the first base side and emerged into Fenway at the same moment
that David DeJesus grounded out to Kevin Youkilis for out number two.
“Wooooo hooooo!!” I had just arrived, but I was immediately in synch
with the rest of the crowd that had been there for three hours.

As I walked along the main aisle towards right field, fans jumped up
and down, screamed, prayed, clapped, smiles on all their faces. Several
people reached out to me with high-fives as I walked by. What a
feeling. THIS IS FENWAY PARK, I was thinking. I found an empty box seat
just beyond first base and planted myself there to watch the last few
pitches. “This is it, I’m finally going to see a no-hitter!” Strike
three to Alberto Callaspo! Then, bedlam. Absolute bedlam. The crowd
noise completely drowned out “Dirty Water” as it blared through Fenway.

I was there. After all these years, I can say I was there.

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Red Sox Nation Loves The Yankees

The
rivalry is back, with the Yanks taking the first of their 18 regular
season meetings this year. 17 more games before October? That’s the
equivalent of an entire New England Patriots season. Almost an
overdose. And with the rivalry stoked by that construction worker who buried a Red Sox t-shirt
in the foundation of the “new” Yankee Stadium, we’re all assured
another century of emotionally charged competition. Would you say that
“the rivalry” is the best aspect of being a Red Sox fan? I would.

Along those lines, I wrote a guest post at the Sox and Pinstripes blog about why most of us who profess to hate the Yankees actually love them. Here is an excerpt:

I like to think that, before I was born in
August of 1968, God let me choose the circumstances of my life: “Well,
being a rabid baseball fan seems like a lot of fun,” I told Him, “So I
think I’d like to live sometime during the 19th, 20th, or 21st Century, on Earth.”

“All right,” said God, “but please be more specific. When and where, exactly, would you like to be born?”

I thought about it and replied, “I hear that
sports rivalries are charged with emotion and excitement, so please put
me in a city whose team has a fierce rivalry with another team – the
fiercest in all of baseball – and let me be born at a time in history
that will allow me to experience that rivalry at its peak, OK?”

“Consider it done,” said God. “But one more
thing – would you like to become a fan of the team that wins more
championships than any other during the 20th Century? Or
would you like to become a fan of the team that wins the first World
Series in 1903, but later on experiences a championship drought
virtually unparalleled in professional sports?”

“Hmmm.” I pondered my options. “Just make me a
fan of the team that gives its fans the lowest lows and the highest
highs. I want to experience the greatest possible range of emotions as
a baseball fan during this lifetime.”

“No problem,” said God as He cracked a knowing smile.

To read the entire guest post at Sox and Pinstripes, click here.

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Opening Day! (the song)

There are hundreds of songs about Christmas, but I can’t think of one song about the best holiday of the year: Opening Day. So this past weekend, with the excitement of the home-opener building, I sat down and wrote a song about Opening Day. On Sunday night, after my kids were all in bed, I recorded it in my basement onto my Mac laptop using GarageBand software. Five tracks: two acoustic guitars and three vocals. Click on the box to listen. Enjoy!

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Opening Day
by Rob Crawford (ASCAP)

Well it’s Opening Day
Winter’s gone, let’s celebrate
Skipping school for the game
Got no choice, it’s in my D.N.A.
Baseball everyday ’til fall
Sing Spangled Stars, then let’s play ball
Yes it’s Opening Day
Life’s good again

Opening Day!
Opening Day!

Well it’s Opening Day
Winter’s gone, spring starts today
Skipping work for the game
Guess I’ll update my resume
From Japan to Canada
U.S.A. to Latin America
Yes it’s Opening Day
Life’s good again

Opening Day!
Opening Day!
This is the year we go all the way
It all starts on Opening Day

Well it’s Opening Day
Winter ended yesterday
Skipping school for the game
It’s a Red Sox Nation holiday
And the rockets’ red glare
The bombs bursting in air
Yes it’s Opening Day
Life’s good again

Baseball everyday ’til fall
No more hot stove, let’s play ball
Yes it’s Opening Day
Life’s good again

Opening Day!

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Fantasy Baseball in Red Sox Kid Nation

fantasy-baseball.jpgI
started playing online fantasy baseball in about 1995 or so, and it’s
now an annual tradition. Draft day has become a holiday on my calendar
and is as eagerly anticipated as any day of the year. This year’s draft
— my son’s first — will go down in history as my favorite of
all-time, for it demonstrated the emotional hold that our beloved Red
Sox players have over us, especially when we’re kids.

A Co-Manager Comes of Age

The last two years, my almost-nine year-old son has “co-managed” my
fantasy baseball team with me (I’m in a 12-team Yahoo! league with my
brothers, sister, father, and several close friends). The main impact
of his co-management has been the reliable presence of Nomar
Garciaparra on the roster and also in the starting lineup whenever he
has been healthy. (“Daddy, put Nomar back in the lineup!”) Although my
son was only five years old when Nomar was traded, #5 remains a god in
our house.

backyard-and-hes-off.jpgThis past fall, my son managed his own fantasy football team against his dad, uncles, aunts, and grandparents and WON the league. He established himself as a draft wizard, grabbing Peyton
Manning, Randy Moss, and Adrian Peterson with his top three picks. So,
riding a wave of pride and optimism, in February he asked to manage his
own fantasy baseball team. Confident that he was ready to compete with
the big boys, we expanded the league to 13 teams.

The Draft: It’s Emotion vs. Analysis

We bought all the fantasy baseball magazines and studied them
closely for a month. The day of the draft (7:30pm start time), I
hurried home from work to be sure he was ready, and when I arrived, I
was treated to a wonderful sight. He had created a information cockpit
for himself at the computer. Surrounding his seat on all sides were
stat sheets, handwritten draft lists for every position, articles about
sleepers and busts, and various pages ripped out of magazines. “Daddy,
I know who I’m going to pick if I get the first pick,” he proclaimed
eagerly. “Jake Peavy!” (Peavy scored the most points in our league last
year — so he was a logical choice.)

A few minutes later, the draft order was revealed on our Yahoo!
draft site. My son had pick #3, and I had pick #4. “I really hope Peavy
will still be there at number three!” he prayed. I set up shop at my
laptop in a room adjacent to his cockpit.

jake-peavy.jpgAt
7:30pm sharp, the draft went live. Suddenly, A-Rod was gone. “Yes! He
took A-Rod!” The second pick was… Hanley Ramirez. And the clock
started ticking on my son’s pick, number three. He had 90 seconds to
click on Jake Peavy. But he froze. Pick Peavy, I urged. “I don’t know,
Daddy,” he said, struggling with a decision. “Maybe I want Josh
Beckett.” Peavy’s a great pick, Beckett’s a great pick, I told him. 20
seconds left. Make your pick! “I want Josh Beckett.” Click.

Emotion trounced Analysis. How great is that??

Fast forward to the second round. My son had spent the rest of the
first round studying his notes to figure out who to take next. “If he’s
still available, I’m going to take Grady Sizemore with my second pick,”
my son announced. Good choice, I assured him. Then came his turn to
draft. And he froze. Pick Sizemore, I urged. “Daddy, do you think I
should take Grady Sizemore or Manny Ramirez?” he asked. You’ll be able
to get Manny in the next round, I assured him. Go for Sizemore this
round. “Don’t tell me what to do!” he said curtly. And suddenly,
Ramirez was Beckett’s fantasy teammate.

Emotion 2, Analysis 0.

Let’s jump to the third round. “I think I’m going to take Jonathan
Papelbon,” he said. “Do you think that’s a good pick, Daddy?” He’s a
great player, I told him, but no one’s going to pick a closer until the
fifth round at the earliest. You can get him in a later papelbon-wins-series.jpground.
“Don’t tell me what to do!” Click. Papelbon joined his Red Sox
teammates on a roster that was looking more and more like a tribute to
the posters on my son’s walls.

Emotion 3, Analysis zilch.

Fourth round — analysis had been totally abandoned and emotion had
taken over. He wanted to pick Dustin Pedroia but I convinced him that
Mike Lowell would be a better pick. And in the fifth round, he picked
his first non-Red Sox player: Torii Hunter. By the end of the draft,
his team included Tim Wakefield, Johnny Damon, and of course, our
favorite player of all time, Nomar Garciaparra (secured with his 24th,
and final pick).

Clearly, my son drafted a good team. With Beckett, Ramirez,
Papelbon, and Lowell anchoring his roster, he’s got as good a shot as
anyone to win the league. But I’ll always remember all the research he
did, all the logical planning and rational reasoning his left brain
performed, and how the loyalty and emotion of his right brain – the
side that loves the Red Sox – swooped in at those moments of truth and
buried his analytical, stat-focused left brain. He’s eight. What a
fantastic age to be a Red Sox fan!

And for the record, my first pick (#4 overall) was Johan Santana,
and the only Red Sox player I secured was Coco Crisp. (My left brain is
counting on him being traded, batting leadoff for a National League
team, and winning the N.L. batting title…..)

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…