Tonight the Boston Red Sox return, in diminished form but a return nonetheless. And, I confess, I’m happy about that. The game against the Baltimore Orioles offers more than a departure from news about COVID-19, corrupt politics and Terrible Trump. Even without fans and with recorded cheering, even with strong hitters undermined by mediocre pitching, tonight’s shorten-season opener will be a small taste of normalcy. And, as every Opening Day does, this one, too, brings a flood of memories, all explaining why baseball matters.
Before we understood the game itself, on summer nights after supper, boys and girls on Radnor Road played Spud, calling out – instead of numbers – names like Warren Spahn, Johnny Sain, Dom DiMaggio, Bobby Doerr, and other magical intonations.
I was a Boston Braves fan before I was a Red Sox fan. That’s because the first park I could take the trolley to was Brave’s Field, just a straight shot down Commonwealth Avenue from my home in Brighton. When I was a little older, I could get to Kenmore Square and walk up to Fenway with my neighborhood friends from the Alexander Hamilton School. As a child, I was charmed by the design of the park and transfixed by the first time I saw a man pee in public, against the back grandstand wall of Fenway. (With an average of between 4,000 and 9,000 patrons, the park was far from sold out back then.)
In 1948, the Red Sox played a one-game tie-breaker with the Cleveland Indians to see who would face off against the Braves in the World Series. (Clue: we didn’t have an all-Boston World Series.) My elementary teacher, the sainted Agnes Ahearn, allowed a portable radio in class to listen to the hometown team.
My grandmother, who lived with us, had two passions in life (beyond family): the Metropolitan Opera and the Boston Red Sox. On Saturday afternoon, we would sit in front of the boxy RCA TV, with the sound turned down, watching the Red Sox. Simultaneously the radio poured out the soaring coloratura notes of Lily Pons singing Lucia at the Met. Nana, the first multi-tasker in my life, would round out the libretto with the click of her knitting needles. Whenever Ted Williams came up to bat, she said, “Look at him. Every time he comes to the plate, he knocks the dirt off his cleats with his bat.” I still watch players for their superstitious rituals before stepping into the batter’s box.
My father’s furniture Canal Street furniture business was open six days a week, so we never went to games together, but we did watch on television on Sunday afternoons. We shared precious time in the sun room watching the home team almost win. In recent years, I have regularly exchanged long distance post-game analyses with my New York grandson, a – gasp – Yankees fan. (My other two grandsons are soccer and ultimate frisbee players. We took them to a Red Sox game the Saturday after an intense World Cup Soccer final. Note to historians: they were bored.)
Red Sox prospects may be underwhelming in 2020. But we’ll have a season, however short, however strange. And, at the first crack of ball against bat, I’ll be a kid again. If they only achieve the middling performances of the 1950’s, it’ll still be something. And something is better than nothing.