It's weird to think my first trip to Fenway Park was actually in 2009, mostly because from the moment I walked in Fenway Park for the first time it felt like coming home.
Fenway Park was a place I had already known in many ways. In movies, in books, and through constant watching of baseball games. Yet, as a Midwestern turned Southern turned Midwestern again, I never had a good opportunity to make the pilgrimage to Fenway.
Every year, I would promise my best friend that I was going to make the trip out there to see him. But on my graduate school budget it seemed impossible. Every time I was close to buying a plane ticket, something would come up-- parking tickets, textbooks, or a new business suit for a networking event--and I kept postponing the trip.
My best friend, a native New Englander, became my gateway to the Boston Red Sox. I did not have NESN, so he would tell me about the pre and post game shows. He would send me front pages of the newspaper with Red Sox on them. We talked about Peter Gammons and the regional commercials. In a way, he was letting me in on the secret nuisances of everything Bostonian, while I educated him on deep-dish pizza.
And for years, we remained long-distance baseball pen pals. We sent each other baseball cards, we talked about our favorite players, and he educated me on what I missed from the early years of the Red Sox, since I wasn't born into the tradition.
I like to think it all happened organically, but he is easily the reason that I stuck with the Red Sox, because no matter how difficult or confusing life got for either of us we could always talk about baseball. More specifically, we could talk about our favorite player: Jason Varitek.
For me, it was easy to immediately become a fan of Varitek's. His assertive yet calming personality; the fact that he played catcher. In any given baseball game, I spend the majority of the game watching what the catcher does, and Varitek was no exception.
My frame of reference for what a catcher's does was shaped by Varitek's career. He controlled the tempo of the game, he knew which pitches to call, he could relate to his pitchers, but most of all: he knew what it meant to be a good teammate and protector, as evidenced by a glove smashed into Alex Rodriguez's face in 2004.
We got to Fenway Park early for the Friday evening game, mainly because I just wanted as much time as possible in the ballpark. I had taken the tour the day before and learned more about the historical aspects of the park, all in the pouring rain. I arrived in Boston on Wednesday and had rarely seen a moment in which raindrops weren't falling. But about an hour before game time, the rain stopped and the Blue Jays took batting practice.
By happenstance, our seats were in the first row of Bleacher 41, which nestles up to the Red Sox bullpen. Not only was there plenty of leg room, we had an unrestricted view into the world of the bullpen. And since we arrived early, we sat in our seats glued to the warm up routines of Jason Varitek. The stretching, the throwing, his pre-game prayer seemed so routine--like his brain was on auto-pilot whenever it came to preparing for a game. And for a player who had been in the league for ten years at that point, I'm sure that was the case.
The Blue Jays had an early lead when Aaron Hill hit a 3-run homer after Beckett had walked Bautista and Scutaro. But in the fourth inning, the Red Sox turned a string of singles into offensive production. Youkilis singled to left; Ortiz singled to right; Drew singled to right, scoring Youkilis. Varitek had a sacrifice fly to score Ortiz, Alex Gonzalez singled to left advancing Drew, who scored on a Jacoby Ellsbury double.
And just as soon as the Red Sox tied the game, they gave the lead back. Lyle Overbay doubled to left and Rod Barajas hit a home run in the fifth inning. The weather had turned colder than it should in August and I sat in my plastic chair shivering in my damp sweatshirt disappointed. But a Jason Bay home run in the bottom of the fifth left the game tied again.
And in the eighth inning, the rain started.
It had been raining off and on since I arrived in Boston days earlier. It would go from sunshine to monsoon in the matter of seconds. We knew there was a possibility that it could rain during this game because the radar did not favor kindly for Boston that day. But after eight innings of no rain, the skies opened up in the top of the inning with the Blue Jays up to bat.
Daniel Bard walked Travis Snider to start the inning. Jose Bautista struck out looking, and the rain got heavier. Many fans ran to the shelter of the concourse, but not us. I threw on the Red Sox hat I received as a Christmas gift in 2001 that was tattered and faded. I pulled the hood of my sweatshirt over the hat and pulled the strings extremely tight to shield my face from the buckets of rain. I cuddled my hot chocolate in my hands as my most prized possession and only source of heat as the game continued.
With John McDonald standing in the box, Bard left a fastball over the of the plate that McDonald pulled to left field. The ball bounced, then rolled to the corner. Jason Bay hustled to retrieve it, while Travis Snider rounded second intent on going home.
The relay throw by Alex Gonzalez was almost perfect. The throw was a little high, but as Varitek stood planted in front of the plate with his glove out, he reached up with his arm for the ball, and blocked the plate from an oncoming full speed Snider with just his left leg.
Literally, just his leg.
In an era where catchers are being instructed by their coaches to no longer block the plate, an era where young star catchers suffer season ending leg injuries, the veteran reaches for the ball with his glove and blocks the plate with just his left leg, sweeping Snider away from the plate and nonchalantly bending over to tag him out, as Snider spins on his back like a turtle on its' shell away from home plate. In the pouring rain, in front of a crowd willing to brave the elements, in a tie game in the bottom of the eighth.
As soon as Snider was called out, the umpires called for the tarp. Had Varitek not made the play at the plate, the Blue Jays would have been leading 6-5 entering the rain delay and the game might have even been called since the rain showed no signs of letting up.
We spent the hour delay packed into the concourse with others seeking reprieve from the rain. In that hour, we must have replayed the Jason Varitek play of the plate a dozen times. Not only did we discuss that play, we talked about other moments in which Varitek was the hero of the game-- be it catching Tim Wakefield, a grand slam against the Yankees earlier that year, the four no-hitters he caught, and of course that time he punched Alex Rodriguez in the face.
The Red Sox won the game 6-5 after the rain delay, and we left the ballpark joking that Jason Varitek knew his biggest fans were attendance and was just showing off--even though we knew that wasn't true. After all, he was just a veteran catcher blocking the plate which had been his job for the past ten years.
Since my first trip to Fenway Park, I have several trips back for games. And nearly every game I get there early enough to go stand by the bullpen and watch the pitchers and catchers complete their warm ups. In most instances, Varitek is there in some capacity. Even if he is not starting, he is usually going through his game day ritual, ready to play.
The thought of approaching the bullpen on Opening Day to see other catchers warming up, none of them Varitek, is difficult. Perhaps it's easy to create a new frame of reference as new players emerge as leaders and their importance on the team is cemented, or perhaps it will always be difficult to let go of favorite players when they retire. Regardless, I will always remember my first game at Fenway Park and how Jason Varitek made it that much better.