When I was kid, I used to score Red Sox tickets from my neighbor, Mr. Collins. His company had season tickets in the Pavilion Box, which used to be called the Sky Box before Fenway Park became so pretentious and unaffordable.
Whenever the Sox were starting a long homestand, I would wear my Boston cap when I went to mow Mr. Collins’ lawn, and drop a few friendly comments about how well Mike Greenwell was swinging the bat these days, or—just as often—how badly Mike Greenwell was swinging the bat these days. Sometimes, when Mr. Collins wasn’t distracted, he would pick up on my hints and offer me his Sox tickets for an upcoming night game.
My fascination with the Red Sox soon metastasized into an aggressive case of baseball fever. I loved everything about the game. I loved the way the radio announcers talked. I loved the rules and memorizing players’ statistics. I loved the smell of a new baseball. I loved the taste of the leather straps on my outfielder’s mitt, which I would pull with my teeth to tighten the webbing. I loved the way a wooden baseball bat felt in my hands as I practiced my swing in front of my bedroom mirror during the winter months.
I cut up Sports Illustrated and baseball magazines to plaster my bedroom with pictures of players from every team. I even ordered baseball accessories that I had no use for—pine tar rags and rosin bags—just to feel closer to the game.
When the Red Sox lost the 1986 World Series, I cried. When the Red Sox won the 2004 World Series, I cried again. Even harder. Then my dad called me from home and I bawled like a baby. Then I drank a lot of tequila.
When the Red Sox won again 2007, it was still awesome, but I didn’t cry. It felt familiar.
It’s funny, but one of my fondest memories of the entire 2007 season was from Spring Training, when I went to Florida with my dad and got to interview Nicaragua’s Devern Hansack, who was trying out for a pitching job on the Red Sox. I spent a beautiful 15 minutes before a Grapefruit League game talking baseball with the “Monster from the Pearl Lagoon.” It was a weird moment of synchronicity between my old love, the Red Sox, and my new squeeze, Nicaragua.
That moment made me very happy. I immediately went home and ordered a custom-made “Hansack” Red Sox shirt (First I tried the team gift shop, but the guy working there looked at me like I was nuts when I asked if they sold Hansack t-shirts. “Who?” he said.)
The next year I got the chance to interview Everth Cabrera, who happens to play for my second favorite team growing up, the San Diego Padres. My fascination with the Padres never made sense to anybody. They sucked and they played far away in the National League. In the pre-satellite dish days, I never even got to watch the Padres play on TV. But I loved Tony Gwynn—the “hit machine.” I would check the Padres’ box score in the Boston Globe every morning to see how many hits Gwynn got the day before. (Now that I’m old and out of shape, I have an even greater appreciation for what Gwynn did as a hitter; he would have batted .400 in 1994 if it weren’t for the baseball strike. And he did it while carrying about 35 pounds of extra fat, which is easy to relate to).
Realizing that my love for the Padres didn’t have to make sense to be real, my dad came up with a huge hit of his own in 1991: he took me to Chicago’s Wrigley Field to see a three-game series against the Padres for my 16th birthday. My dad humored me as I dragged him to the park three hours before each game to watch batting practice and try to get autographs. Gwynn, it turned out, was in a foul mood for the entire series (he went 1-14) and wouldn’t sign an autograph for me.
“Tony, I came all the way from Boston to see you play!” I yelled, baseball and pen outstretched as I leaned against the visiting team’s dugout, wearing my Padres cap and jersey.
“Yeah, well I can all the way from San Diego. Now it’s time to play some ball,” he said, as he walked past me and didn’t even look in my direction.
“Try dropping a few pounds, you fat ass!” I should have yelled back, but didn’t, because my hero had just crushed my soul and I couldn’t say anything.
The Cubs won all three games of that series, which is probably their longest win streak ever. I think they’re still talking about it in Chicago.
Anyway, forget the Padres. I’m a Red Sox fan. But even my interest in the Olde Towne Team has admittedly faded as I’ve gotten older. Last July I went to a game at Fenway with my friends Jon and Bill, but we barely watched the game. We sat in the bleachers and drank beer and talked about stuff. The seats were great, but I don’t even remember who the Red Sox played. I do remember they lost. I also remember not knowing who most of the players were running around in Red Sox uniforms. Mauro Gomez? Ryan Kalish? Who are these impostures?
The highlight of the game was when I got to see Nicaraguan pitcher Vicente Padilla run out to the Red Sox bullpen, near where we were sitting. I wanted to yell something to him—something about Chinandega or cockfighting—but everyone in Boston makes a lot of noise and I couldn’t compete with the din of the bleacher crowd.
As summer came to an end, I was feeling pretty indifferent about my last place Red Sox. Then, as luck would have it, I checked their schedule earlier this month and discovered that they were going to be in Seattle at the same time I was there for the wedding of my friends Jen and Angie. I had never been to Safeco Field (or the Kingdom, or even Seattle for that matter) so I decided to go. Plus, I thought, with renewed optimism, the Mariners are almost as awful as the Red Sox, so maybe we’ll get a win!
Sometime in the third inning, I realized something rather simple but pleasant: I was having a great time at the ballpark again. I was sitting next my lovely wife Cecilia and our good friend Christy, I had some big stupid Seattle microbrew in my hand, and our seats were wicked good—about 13 rows behind Seattle’s dugout (plenty of good seats available when two of the worst teams in the American League square off for a meaningless game in a town that likes soccer more than baseball).
My happiness turned to joy in the bottom of the eight, when Boston’s addlebrained manager Bobby V had a moment of sudden inspiration and brought Vicente Padilla in to replace pitcher Junichi Tazawa, whom I had never heard of.
My wife and I were thrilled—three Nicaraguans all in the same place! (For the sake of full disclosure, I am not really Nicaraguan. But I was so excited to see Padilla pitching in a Red Sox uniform in a strange city, that I temporarily forgot I am a gringo and started yelling to him in Spanish “¡Vicente, Chinandega te quiere, jodido!”
Although Padilla didn’t run up into the stands to hug us, he must have at least heard us yelling. After all, Seattle fans are so well behaved that I was the only jerk making any noise in the stands (can you spot the Boston fan?). Seriously though, Seattle, liven up a little bit. It’s a baseball game, not a funeral—although in the case of the Mariners, it might as well be.
Padilla retired the side on a double play, preserving the Red Sox’s lead and Chinandega’s honor. I yelled some more at him in Spanish as he walked toward the dugout.
Just then, my wife made an excited yelp and pointed at the scoreboard. And there he was: Rivas’ own Erasmo Ramírez warming up in the bullpen for the Mariners. It was almost too exciting for me to fathom. Were we about to witness a Nicaraguan pitching duel here in Seattle?! What are the chances of that ever happening anywhere outside of Nicaragua?!! Have two Nicaraguans ever pitched against each other in the Major Leagues before?!!! Was I going to be the first person to ever see it happen live??!!! Am I sufficiently conveying how excited I was with all this crazy punctuation??!?!?!?!
I nearly wet my pants. I wanted to call Nicaraguan sportswriter and walking baseball encyclopedia Edgar Tijerino to ask if anything like this had ever happened before, and to brag that Nicaragua Dispatch (el líder en deportes) was on the scene to chronicle Nicaraguan baseball history.
The other fans sitting around us started to sense that my excitement level was a little bit more than the situation called for, and was perhaps starting to border on manic. The good folks of Section 123 started to fidget in their chairs a bit and glance at me nervously.
“Let’s go over to the Red Sox dugout and try to talk to Padilla before he comes out to get the save in the 9th!” I told my wife hurriedly, as we hastened our way through the mostly empty aisles from the bad guys’ dugout to the good guys’ dugout, where the Red Sox players had gathered on the top step to watch the final inning. By the time we made it over there, there were already two outs in the top of the 9th, and still Ramírez had not yet been called into the game. An unfriendly usher told us to return to our original seats, so we moved two rows away from him and sat down again (sorry buddy, I’m from Boston, not Seattle. You return to your own seat).
I was determined to cheer for Padilla as he came out of the dugout to record the save for the Red Sox in bottom of the 9th. But, alas, alas, the Chinandegano was pulled from the game for some guy named Andrew Bailey.
So we slumped back in our seats (actually, someone else’s vacated seats) and, with somewhat deflated expectations, settled in to watch another unknown Red Sox pitcher try to get the save. I glanced toward the Mariners’ bullpen and noticed that Ramírez was still warming up in the bottom of the ninth. Wait a minute, I thought. If Seattle comes back and scores two runs, there’s still a chance Ramírez could get called into the game and try to get the win for the Mariners in extra innings.
And then the most extraordinary thing happened. I started to root against the Red Sox. Sitting there on that beautiful late summer evening, with my wonderful wife next to me and a young Nicaraguan pitcher warming up for the opposing team, I had an epiphany: I feel more loyalty and love for Nicaragua than I do for the Red Sox.
In some ways, Nicaragua has become my new Red Sox: I celebrate each victory a little too loudly, I slap my forehead in frustration at all the foolish managerial errors, and I like to drink beers in the grandstands and criticize the fat and corrupt old men who don’t know when to hang up the spikes and make way for some new young talent on the field.
As the Red Sox recorded the final out of the game, killing Ramírez’s chances for an extra-inning appearance, the bullpen gate opened and the Nicaraguan pitcher started to trot in toward the infield to head into Seattle’s dugout.
“Let’s go cut him off at the dugout,” I told Cecilia, as we started to press against the departing crowd to circle back to where we had started the evening. I made it there first, just as Ramírez was about to go down the steps.
“Erasmo! Erasmo!” I yelled to the kid from Rivas. He stopped at the top of the dugout and looked up at me, appearing young and confident in his bright white home jersey. “¡Somos de Nicaragua!” I yelled to him, unable to think of anything else to say. He looked a bit perplexed, because I look more like an Irish dockworker than a Nicaraguan. Then he saw Cecilia come up behind me and take my hand–to my rescue as always. Ramírez smiled at us fully, his face beaming as he gave us a cheerful thumbs-up and then went down into the dugout behind his teammates.
And there I was again: the 12-year-old fan leaning against the back of the dugout waving to my favorite player, excited to be close to the action and boyishly—innocently— in love with baseball, my wife and Nicaragua.