Masked

Today J and I drove down Beacon Street into Boston. It was the first time we’d been in the city since March 1, when we saw Bobby McFerrin perform at Symphony Hall: our last normal outing during the Before Time, before we went into quarantine on March 14.

David Ortiz Bridge

It was strange to drive from Newton into Brookline then Boston after so many months at home. As we passed Boston College, we didn’t see a soul, and at Cleveland Circle, we saw teams playing softball while wearing masks, as if that was how the sport was supposed to be played. As we drove through Kenmore Square and into the Back Bay, we marveled at empty parking spots–plenty of street parking in a town where parking is always at a premium.

Lansdowne Street

We’d driven into Boston to see the new Black Lives Matter mural outside Fenway Park, so after turning around in the Back Bay, we drove back to Kenmore Square, parked on Beacon Street near Boston University, and walked toward Fenway. In a city of pedestrians, we had the streets and sidewalks largely to ourselves–yes, there were other walkers, but not near the number we’d normally see, and nearly all of them masked.

Open year round

It was outside Fenway Park where things started to feel weird. We’ve been avoiding places where we might encounter large groups of people, but there were no crowds around Fenway, and in pre-pandemic times, there were always crowds around the Park: throngs of baseball fans on game days, and throngs of sightseers every other day. The relative absence of people was odd, eerie, and preternaturally unsettling.

Your local mask dealer

Lansdowne Street was open to pedestrians, with tables set up for people to eat outside–and there was indeed a handful of people enjoying a sunny summer day while dining al fresco. But there were no vendors hawking baseball programs, no gravel-voiced ticket scalpers, no jugglers or caricature artists or stilt-walkers. There was a lone vendor selling sausages from a cart who asked almost apologetically if we wanted a cold beverage, and after initially demurring, we turned around, said yes, and tipped him $7 for a $3 soda: the least we could do.

Lansdowne Street

That is when we heard the crack of a bat and the roar of canned crowd noise from inside the park as an announcer intoned the next player at the plate. It was game day in an age with no fans in the stands, players competing for a TV audience and a handful of cardboard cutouts while the streets outside were nearly empty.

Yaz

Walking up Lansdowne Street hearing the sounds of a game played to an empty ballpark, I remembered all the times J and I have gone to games at Fenway Park, cheering ourselves hoarse in the outfield bleachers before streaming down the stairways and flooding into the street with thousands of other fans. The empty streets around Fenway felt simultaneously apocalyptic and surreally normal: on the one hand, so many COVID dead; on the other, the allure of spectator sports and casual outdoor dining.

Google tells me that Fenway Park held 37,731 fans in the Before Times, when living souls packed the stands. Google also tells me that as of today, 162,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. Do the math: that’s more than four Fenways of fans who have been struck, flied, or forced out, game over. What have we as a nation done to mourn these, our presumably beloved dead? Instead of mourning or even pausing, we’ve instead rushed to reopen for the sake of the economy, for the sake of our sanity, for the sake of denial in an amnesiac age.

Black Lives Matter

“Black Lives Matter,” that mural outside Fenway says…but what about the lives of all those lost grandmothers, grandfathers, aunties, uncles, and elders? What have we done to remember and mourn in our rush to return to normal as if none of this–including the lives and deaths of all those lost souls–had ever happened?

Welcome to Fenway Park

During the early days of the pandemic, we often told ourselves that we were all in this together, but now we each navigate these strange days on our own: some of us still sheltering at home, others venturing out and congregating. I remember the first Red Sox game J and I went to after the Boston Marathon bombing: it was both scary and reassuring to be outside in the sun with other fans, game day being a soothing ritual that brought us all together into the reassuring embrace of an anonymous crowd.

Retired

These days, though, crowds are places of contagion, and we steer clear of strangers whose faces are shrouded behind bandanas, gaiters, and masks of all kinds, all of us struggling to get back to normal in a time that is anything but. Who haunts the streets around Fenway Park on a sunny August day: are they the ghosts of those we’ve lost, or our memories of game days past?

Boston = Strong

On Sunday, J and I went to an afternoon Red Sox game. It was a picture-perfect day with a cloudless sky and comfortably cool temperatures: the kind of day when you can’t think of anywhere you’d rather be than sitting in the centerfield bleachers, watching a ballgame on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

Flag at half staff

When J and I bought tickets to this particular Red Sox game months ago, we had no idea the timing would be significant. Happening less than a week after the Boston Marathon bombings, Sunday’s ballgame was the first time after the attack that J and I went to a crowded public event. When J and I bought tickets to this particular Red Sox game, in other words, we had no idea that simply showing up and sitting in the centerfield bleachers surrounded by strangers would feel like an act of purification: proof that life in New England can return to “almost normal” in the aftermath of heartbreak, and proof that we can still gather in a crowd with anonymous others—a big, teeming throng, just like Marathon Monday—without anything bad happening.

Big Papi at bat

When you go to a Sunday afternoon ballgame at Fenway Park, it’s easy to feel like you’re attending a kind of grassy, open-air church with a diverse community of baseball “believers.” There’s something inexplicably wholesome about watching a ballgame on a sunny Sunday afternoon, with everyone’s eyes fixed on the same Field of Dreams, and on Sunday I craved the quiet calm of this kind of secular fellowship.

Playing catch

Today I read a news story about a local priest who spoke at Marathon bombing victim Krystle Campbell’s funeral on Monday, then attended a Red Sox game with his father later that night, and something he said resonated with my own experience:

“Sports has been so important in the past week,” Fr. Hines said. “You’re gathering a lot of people in one place, whether it’s at the Garden or Fenway Park, and it allows them that sort of civic moment where we’re all together. It’s kind of a concentrated moment. Sports in Boston is so important. We’re indoctrinated from a young age. We follow them and bleed their colors and offers us an opportunity to come together and have some enjoyment even if it’s just a moment for us to get together and talk and laugh.”

Grounds crew at work

Fr. Hines talks about the communal feeling fans experience when they’re gathered to root for the same team, and on Sunday, it felt good to feel that kind of fellowship again. Given that I sometimes feel claustrophobic in crowds, I’d wondered if I’d panic when I found myself surrounded by strangers so soon after the Marathon attack, but the familiar atmosphere of “Friendly Fenway” helped quell that reaction.

Jacoby Ellsbury at work

When you go to church on a sunny Sunday, you expect to sing hymns, and I’d wondered whether I’d get weepy when we sang the national anthem before the start of the game, “God Bless America” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch, and “Sweet Caroline” in the middle of the eighth inning. Instead, it was a song I hadn’t expected to hear—Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” piped in on the public address system—that caused my eyes to mist when I heard a handful of fans join together to sing the chorus:

Don’t worry about a thing
’cause every little thing gonna be alright

B Strong poster with peanut shells

I don’t know if I believe in that Field of Dreams enough to say that every little thing is going to be all right: it certainly was bittersweet to enjoy a ballgame on a sunny Sunday with the memory of those who were killed, injured, and traumatized in last week’s attacks. But it felt good to feel like every little thing might be okay, eventually, the fellowship of a ballpark full of fans feeling as close to “back to normal” as I could have hoped for.

Click here for more pictures from Sunday afternoon’s ballgame between the Boston Red Sox and the Kansas City Royals. Enjoy!

Pedroia at bat

Several weekends ago, J and I went to a steamy Sunday afternoon Red Sox game against the Kansas City Royals. The forecast said the day was supposed to be partly cloudy with temperatures in the 70s, but it felt much hotter in the shade-free centerfield bleacher seats.

Too sunny

Whenever J and I go to sunny summer ballgames at Fenway, I remember the Red Sox games we’ve attended in Atlanta, which were far hotter than anything we’ve experienced here in Boston. Watching the crowd at an Atlanta ballgame, you see fans who are acclimated to heat: they know how to deal with it, just as Boston residents know how to deal with snowy winters. Watching the crowd at an Atlanta game, you see spectators who focus all their energy on merely spectating, conserving as much energy as possible while sheltering under any source of shade they can muster: game program, fielder’s mitt, or any kind of hat.

Almost-empties

In Atlanta, we saw seasoned baseball fans–obviously veterans of many hot games–who arrived with frozen bottles of water, soda, or Gatorade that they’d slowly sip as as they melted: a long-lasting ice-cold beverage. We saw fans who, oblivious to fashion, draped their heads and necks with towels soaked in cold water–or, lacking a towel, water-soaked T-shirts. Atlanta fans, I learned, don’t fight the heat: they lean into it. You don’t worry about looking sweaty at an Atlanta game, because everyone is sweaty. You ease into the heat the way you’d settle into a sauna, letting the warmth loosen your muscles and unlock any residual tension in your body. Instead of recoiling against the heat, trying to resist it, you consciously relax, allowing the sun to bake the sweat from your skin, leaving a rime of salt: a gritty residue that makes you feel like you spent the day at the beach, not at a ballgame.

Luigi's Italian ice

The other secret I learned from Atlanta ballgames? Eat frozen lemonade, Italian ice, or whatever similar refreshment you can find. In Atlanta, they sold yogurt-sized cups of frozen Minute Maid lemonade, and at Fenway, they sell cups of lemonade-flavored Luigi’s Italian ice. Thoreau once said that if you chop your own firewood, it warms you twice: once while you chop it, and again when you burn it. Taking a phrase from Thoreau, I’d argue that eating frozen lemonade cools you thrice: once when you hold it, again when you eat it one melting spoonful at a time, and once more when you drink the melted liquid that’s left when you’ve finished: ice-cold citrusy, syrupy goodness.

Frozen lemonade

Going to a ballgame on a hot day is a return to life at its most elemental. It’s just you, the sun, and your own sweaty skin: the beer, hotdogs, and ballgame itself are almost incidental. You could be sitting in the bleachers, or you could be sitting on the beach. Either way, you come home sun-baked and sweaty, as ready to head to the showers as any of the players you watched competing on the field.

Click here for more photos from last month’s game between the Boston Red Sox and the Kansas City Royals.

Fenway classic

When I first envisioned what it would be like to watch a hockey game at Fenway Park, this is the picturesque scene I imagined, with the grandstands full of fans, an outfield full of snow, and an ice rink incongruously centered between first and third base.

Unfortunately, J’s and my tickets to Sunday’s Legends Classic–a charity fundraiser match featuring former Bruins players and celebrities–afforded us this view:

Section 7 obstructed view

Having a great view of a steel girder is a classic predicament at Fenway Park, where architectural oddities provide an abundance of “obstructed view” seats and where the seats in older sections are antiques:

Section 7 seats

J and I were lucky, though. Whereas the guy in the row ahead of us was seated directly behind The Pole, J and I could crane our heads left or right for a pole-free view of the on-ice action:

Unobstructed Section 7 view

Sunday’s Legends Classic was the day-after finale to Saturday’s Winter Classic, in which the Boston Bruins played the Philadelphia Flyers in Boston’s beloved (and history-laden) Fenway Park. J and I couldn’t afford tickets to the Winter Classic, which were going for hundreds and even thousands of dollars on online ticket reseller sites. J and I are diehard sports fans, but we can’t stomach ticket resellers (a.k.a. legalized scalpers) and their jacked-up fees.

No ticket scalping (here)

So while we enjoyed watching Saturday’s Winter Classic on TV from the best seat in our house, on Sunday we took the T to Fenway Park to watch a friendly game of old-time hockey played by old-timers.

Opening face-off

Part of the allure of the Legends Classic for J and me was the simple opportunity to set foot in Fenway Park. Although J and I have been dating for three years and have gone to nine Red Sox games together, we’ve always traveled to other cities (Atlanta twice and Oakland once) to see the Red Sox play. Instead of paying those aforementioned jacked-up ticket reseller rates for baseball tickets, we’ve participated in the surprisingly common phenomenon of the Red Sox pilgrimage, whereby diehard Sox fans converge on cities where the Sox are playing, buy face-value seats to the entire series of games, and root root root for the away team.

Blades & Wally pose by the Green Monster

Sunday’s Legends Classic allowed J and me to kill two proverbial birds with one stone. We got to set foot in Fenway Park, and we got to see the once-in-a-lifetime spectacle of a hockey game there. When else could we watch local youth hockey teams play in the outfield shadow of giants…

In the shadow of giants

…or see the Bruins’ mascot, Blades, greet fans alongside the Red Sox’ mascot, Wally the Green Monster?

Wally and Blades work the crowd

On-ice, a game that matched retired pros with celebrities who haven’t laced up skates in decades offered its own kind of hilarity, with one goalie playing the entire game with two cans of Budweiser and some hydration tubes strapped to his mask…

Bobby Farrelly with his Budweiser-hydration helmet

…while a motley crew of helmeted, hatted, and bare-headed old-timers eschewed the subtlety of puck-passing, choosing instead to congregate in a frozen free-for-all wherever the puck happened to be.

Free-for-all

After spending the first period fighting The Pole for a decent view of the action, during intermission J and I took a walk around Fenway, where we took in the usual ballpark sights and smells…

Beer and nuts

…before finding a section near the electronic scoreboard…

Under the electronic scoreboard

…where there were empty (albeit snowy) seats.

Snowy seats

From this blissfully unobstructed vantage point, J and I had a much better view of those old-time hockey plays as they unfolded…

Old time hockey, played by old-timers

…and we finally got a chance to take a classic shot of Fenway on ice.

View from centerfield

Click here for a photo-set of images from Sunday’s Legends Classic, including two panoramic shots: one from our original section in right field and the other from our adopted section in center field. Enjoy!