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2002: Diary of a Season

Saturday, June 16, Turner Field, Atlanta

Braves 4, Red Sox 2

Turner FieldI have relatives who live in Atlanta, so I flew down to visit for the weekend when the Red Sox would be in town. I used to live there myself a few years ago, so I've been to Turner Field plenty of times, and I'm not exactly a fan of it. I think there are too many gimmicks and too much commercialization that get in the way of watching the game. There's nothing special or unique about it; it's just a typical 1990's cookie-cutter "mallpark." The difference between it and, say, Camden Yards, is that all the seats are blue instead of green. And the fans are too casual for my taste. They'll stand up and applaud after something happens, but there's no chanting or clapping during a potential rally trying to make something happen. But despite their attendance being down all season long, there is always a good crowd on hand when the Red Sox come to town.

This game matched John Burkett up against Greg Maddux. Burkett had pitched in Atlanta for the past two years, and had resurrected his career by learning from Maddux. But Burkett wasn't his sharpest that night. He allowed one run in the second and two in the third. Meanwhile the Red Sox didn't break through until the seventh, when they got four hits and an error but only scored twice. About the only good thing in the game was that Jason Varitek threw out speedy shortstop Rafael Furcal both times he tried to steal.

Sunday, June 16, Turner Field, Atlanta

Red Sox 6, Braves 1

It had been awhile since I had seen the Red Sox win at home, so I had hoped my luck would change on the road. The Red Sox had the best road record in all of baseball, and had set a record by going 21-4 in their first 25 road games. I had also hoped to see Manny Ramirez return to the lineup after being out for a month, but his return was being delayed another week. Saturday's game didn't turn out well in either respect, but Sunday the Red Sox sent Derek Lowe to the mound.

Turner FieldI was in the restroom when the starting lineups were announced (one of the things I like about Turner Field is that they broadcast the P.A. system and the play-by-play of the game in the restrooms and concourses) but that didn't stop me from yelling "Louuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu!" like we do at Fenway Park when Merloni was introduced. Luckily there was no one around to hear me, but I wouldn't have cared. (Hmmm, sounds like a "You Might Be a Diehard If...")

The Red Sox got things started in the third inning, when lefty Trot Nixon homered off left-hander Tom Glavine. (Switch-hitting catcher Jason Varitek chose to bat left-handed against Glavine and also had success, with a single and a hit-by-pitch. He also homered later off Darren Holmes.) Lou Merloni (who was being introduced as "Louis" all day) followed with an infield hit and went to second on an Atlanta error, which brought Derek Lowe up to the plate. He promptly lined his first major league hit into center field. After Rickey Henderson struck out, Johnny Damon's groundout knocked in another run.

Lowe gave up a single run in the bottom of the inning, but the Red Sox were right back at it in the fourth. The bases were loaded when Nixon reached on an error, knocking in two runs. Merloni followed with an RBI-single. With runners on first and second and one out, Lowe was at bat again, and he laid down a sacrifice bunt. Henderson popped out to end the inning, but Lowe maintained his 1.000 average. In fact, he went on to walk in the sixth, staying perfect at the plate all day. He wasn't bad on the mound, either, earning his league-leading 11th win of the season and lowering his league-leading ERA to 1.81. It was days like this that made me say, "Don't even wait for the end of the season, inscribe that Cy Young award right now!"

Tuesday, June 25, Fenway Park, Section 35

Indians 4, Red Sox 2

The red seatIt was another Tuesday night, and I arrived as soon as the gates opened. I tried to buy a hot dog when I first got there, but the concession stands weren't open yet. (That's another pet peeve of mine. It's not like 33,000 people just pop in unannounced. They shouldn't seem so surprised when we get there.) So with plenty of time to kill, I figured I'd go check out the red seat. On June 9, 1946, Ted Willimas hit the longest home run in Fenway history. It hit off the head of a fan 502 feet from home plate in Section 42, Row 37, Seat 21, and today a red seat marks the spot. As many times as I had been to Fenway, I had never actually gone up there and sat in the seat, so I went up and took a couple of pictures, including one looking back toward the field from that seat. 502 feet really is a long way!

View from the red seatI finally got my hot dog and went to my seat in the front row of Section 35 for the game. This game was special, because it was Manny Ramirez's first game back after breaking his finger in May. I know that when a player has been out for six and a half weeks, he can't be expected to fix everything in his first game back. But on the other hand, I went to Nomar Garciaparra's comeback game last year, when he had a homer and the game-winning hit after being out for almost four months. The last few weeks had not gone especially well for the Sox. After losing two of three from the Braves, they won two of three in San Diego, and then got swept in L.A. So many times it seemed the guys at the top of the order would be on base but there was no one to drive them in. Manny's name in the lineup was a sight for sore eyes. After the National Anthem, a moment of silence was observed for Darryl Kile, the St. Louis Cardinals pitcher who had died suddenly over the weekend.

In Frank Castillo's last start, he had gotten in an argument with an umpire over a balk call and stepped on the ump's foot. That earned him his second suspension of the season, but he had appealed and was able to pitch tonight. It wasn't pretty, though. He gave up a big three-run homer to Jim Thome in the first and another run in the second. The Red Sox scored twice in the second on Tony Clark's double and Johnny Damon's single.

Damon had quickly become a fan favorite at Fenway. He was batting over .330 at that point in the season, and was the prototypical lead-off hitter the Sox had lacked over the past couple of seasons. He was also excellent defensively, and seemed to have one impressive play in every game I went to. This time, it was a diving catch for the final out of the sixth, and since we were sitting in center field, the whole section stood up to applaud. The people around me were looking for any reason to cheer for Johnny. When he was in the field it was, "Nice catch, Johnny!" At the plate it was, "Get a hit, Johnny!" When a fly ball was hit to left field, "Way to let Manny get that, Johnny!" And when a routine base hit landed in shallow right, "Johnny would have had that!" One of the guys behind me stood up before the start of an inning and said to his friends, "I'm going to get something to drink. You guys want anything to drink? Johnny, do you want something to drink?" Damon turned to look toward the stands and nodded. We all laughed. So the players could hear us. This just spurred them on. The center fielder for Cleveland that night was Milton Bradley, which has to be one of the cooler names in baseball. They were chanting "Milll-tonnn Braaad-leeey" in the slow, sing-songy way that fans do to opponents' players. Before long, the whole section was involved. One guy would yell, "Milton!" and everyone else would answer, "Bradley!" I guess on nights when the Red Sox don't give us much to cheer about, we have to come up with something.

Besides being Manny's comeback, this game was also the Red Sox debut of reliever Alan Embree, who had been acquired the day before. He pitched a scoreless eighth. In the bottom of the ninth, the Red Sox were down 4-2. Offerman grounded out to start the inning. Johnny got a hit (much to the delight of the Section 35 crowd), Carlos Baerga struck out, and Nomar Garciaparra singled. That meant with two outs and two on, Manny had a chance to win the game with one swing of the bat. I've been to many games at Fenway Park, and I've seen a lot of things - some quite rare, like a no-hitter or a playoff win (1999 Division Series Game 4). But I've never seen a "walk-off" last at-bat Red Sox win, and I was sure this would be the night. I envisioned Manny hitting a blast into the screen above the Green Monster. When I left the park, I was going to take a picture from Lansdowne Street of the game-winning ball still resting in the net. Manny had one single in his four trips to the plate so far, and he worked the count full as he often does. Alas, the next pitch was strike three, and just like that the game was over. I didn't even feel like looking at the Green Monster as I walked back to the T station.

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