Battle of the East
The skyline appeared over a hill on Route 2 in Belmont, the city a distant sprawl of skyscrapers, smokestacks and industrial storage tanks. It disappeared just as quickly, a tease, a promise of what lay past the apparition of Sammy White’s bowling alley and crew teams that were earnestly rowing on the Charles River.
At Kenmore Square, I stood at the crosswalk where a journeyman ballplayer named Tommy Helms nearly got run over in 1977, his final season in baseball. We were both on our way to the ballpark when he stepped into traffic, saw a car barreling toward him and jumped to the curb like he was scurrying back to first base.
At Ace Ticket on Commonwealth Avenue, a clerk handed me an envelope containing two pocket schedules, a receipt, and a $130 face value ticket. The seat was four rows behind the batting circle on the visitor’s side. Ace wanted $135 plus a $10 handling charge, but with “loyalty” points it cost a reasonable $88.
Being 50 feet from the batter’s box was a sensory experience; hearing the loud, penetrating crack of the bat and seeing fastballs slap into the catchers’ mitts. It’s something every fan should have the opportunity to enjoy, of witnessing the imposing presence of David Ortiz at home plate and being within touching distance of batters in the on-deck circle.
It was the first of a four-game set against the Tampa Bay Rays, Boston’s chief rival for division spoils. At this writing, the Rays had won 19 of their last 22 games and were a half-game behind the Red Sox.
“They do all the little things,” conceded Toronto radio announcer Jerry Howarth during the Rays’ sweep over the Blue Jays last weekend.
The Rays are like that old Avis ad: They try harder. They have the third-lowest payroll in baseball ($57 million to Boston’s $159 million) and no fan support, but put them in a major market like Boston or Philly, and they’d be on the cover of SI more times than Lebron James.
Coming into the series, not many fans in Boston had heard of rookie outfielder Wil Myers. He was acquired during the offseason and is batting .322 since being called up in June. On Tuesday he homered and doubled on first-pitch swings that NESN’s Jerry Remy called “hellacious.” On Wednesday he had two RBIs during the Rays’ 5-1 win.
Another key roster addition is 21-year-old Alec Torres, a Venezuelan southpaw whose change-up to right-handed hitters is lethal, at one point holding them to three hits in 51 at-bats. On Tuesday he pitched a scoreless inning in an eventual 6-2 loss.
This would be the Rays’ last trip to Boston and I wanted to see them in person. Seated next to me was an older couple from Worcester who had won their tickets in a raffle. “Lincoln,” said the husband, then nodded toward his wife, “Sandy.”
Sandy probably would have preferred being at the mall. She said she knew nothing about baseball and was awestruck by the noise and pre-game pageantry.
To my left was a talkative, beer-drinking fan with whom I silently quarreled. He was taller and bigger than me, and we competed for elbow space on the thin metal railing between our seats. His got there first and I sat scrunched like an airplane passenger in a middle seat. When he reached for a beer, my elbow went onto the railing. On it went until the second inning when I noticed four empty seats in a row behind me.
I told Sandy I was switching seats and she looked offended. “The guy next to me is annoying,” I explained.
She glanced at him and at the empty seats and then at me. Wide-eyed she said, “I wouldn’t do it.”
But I did, escaping the cramped quarters of Field Box 51, Row B, Seat 3 and into the luxury of an empty row without a fuss. Not long afterward the fan behind me commented on my Springfield Indians hockey T-shirt.
“I used to play hockey,” he said.
“Boston University, I played four years, captain my senior year.”
He introduced himself, Billy Pierce, who played 140 games in his four years at BU. Now a mortgage broker living on the North Shore, Pierce was with his young son Will, his co-worker Tom Logan and Logan’s daughter Michelle.
“I played in four Final Fours, three finals and one championship,” he said. “I was drafted by Quebec and played in the ECHL for the Chesapeake Icebreakers. Our coach was Chris Nilan, I shoulda written a book.”
A Heineken vendor with 12-ounce cans for $7.75 cruised down the aisle and Logan tapped me on the shoulder. “You wanna beer?”
I thanked him and declined.
“You want the money?”
I left after the eighth inning of Tampa’s 3-0 win. Left-hander Matt Moore had pitched the proverbial gem, a two-hitter that boosted his record to 14-3. Two nights later, last year’s Cy Young winner David Price held the Red Sox to five hits in a 5-1 complete-game win. In 18 innings, Moore and Price had held Boston hitters to a .118 batting average (7-for-59).
At this writing the Red Sox, Rays and Orioles would all make the playoffs, but it’s the division winner that will be in the catbird seat while the two wild cards waste a good pitching arm playing each other in a one-game elimination. An online sports betting site (sports.bovada.lv) has Boston at 6-to-5 to win the East. Tampa Bay is 7-5, the O’s are 5-1 and the Yankees are 10-1.
It’ll be a fun trip to October, worth dealing with the elbow room.
Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.