Fluorescent lights cast an eerie glow over the cave-like batting cages burrowed behind the centerfield wall of Boston's Fenway Park. Baseballs whistle past me and strike the padded wall with a confidence-crushing "thud!" An assistant reloads the pitching machine. The next string of pitches brings about a disturbingly similar result: my bat flailing at the stale air. Seeds of doubt are starting to sprout hungry roots in my subconscious.
This is not how I planned my Fenway fantasy. In my baseball hey-dey, I was a decent hitter, a good bet to put the ball in play. Now I feel as though I'm swinging an imaginary bat. I ask the assistant for some advice. Unable to hear me above the drone of the pitching machine, he smiles awkwardly, shrugs his shoulders and loads another ball. The white blur speeds toward me. I bear down, squint, concentrate and uncoil, bringing the bat around in a perfect arc. Thud!
In minutes, I will take the field and step up to the batter's box for 15 swings as part of Fantasy Day at Fenway, a worthy fund-raiser for The Jimmy Fund. The annual event, sponsored by the Red Sox and the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company, helps support the cancer research and treatment at the renowned Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. And though I have always dreamed of crushing a fastball over Fenway's famed left-field wall - the Green Monster - I would now gladly settle for an infield single. Or to make contact of any kind.
Fenway Park, John Updike's "lyric little bandbox," features crooked contours that mirror Boston's mysterious traffic patterns. Built in 1912, the park remains a centerpiece for the city, despite rumblings that the game has passed it by and a new field must be built. It is a stoic reminder of a more innocent age in sports, when sports pages were filled with tall tales about the games and the larger-than-life heroes, not labor negotiations, salary disputes, drug arrests and assault charges.
If Fenway defines the city of Boston, then surely the Green Monster defines Fenway. The towering 37-foot structure - first built of wood and replaced with a sheet-metal version in 1934 - is an edifice that inspires love-hate relationships. With its antique slotted scoreboard running along the warning track, the Green Monster smiled kindly on the Hall of Fame career of Carl Yastrzemski, whose crashing leaps into the wall to snare fly balls are legendary. Looming just 310 feet from home plate, the wall also answered the prayers of future Hall of Famer Carlton "Pudge" Fisk, the New Hampshire native who single-handedly lifted the hopes of Red Sox Nation with one of baseball's most dramatic moments ever, waving and pushing a 12th inning home run off the foul pole to extend the 1975 World Series to a seventh game.
But the Green Monster has not always been a benevolent presence. Witness the crushing three-run pop-fly homer by New York Yankee shortstop Bucky Dent during a one-game playoff on Oct. 2, 1978. It capped a remarkable late-season comeback by the Bronx Bombers and extended the misery of Red Sox fans, who have not celebrated a World Series champion in more than 80 years.
Still, the wall is a constant in Boston, representing all the hopes, dreams, celebration and heartache of New England baseball players and fans. And on this bright, beautiful Saturday afternoon, it's all mine for 15 swings.
I made the 25-mile trip from my home in Hamilton, Mass., to Boston shortly after daybreak. As I exited the Central Artery to pick up Storrow Drive, I peered over my left shoulder at the pile of rubble that was once the Boston Garden. What irony. Here I was headed to the sole remaining Boston sports mecca, only to see the tattered remnants of this once revered arena strewn at the foot of the FleetCenter, the new, antiseptic home of the Boston Celtics and the Boston Bruins. "The Garden" - home to such sports stars as Bill Russell and Bobby Orr - demolished. I felt a slight chill as I passed, like driving past a cemetery. I quickly motored toward Kenmore Square and the famed Citgo sign.
Parking off Brookline Avenue, I jogged down Lansdowne Street, along the red-brick facade of the grand old park. I couldn't help but notice the large screen, reaching some 24 feet above the Green Monster, that was erected in 1934 following the "dead ball" era to protect windshields and windows from fence-clearing home run. I joined the Fenway Fantasy participants at the Red Sox's glass-enclosed "600 Club," a sort of made-for-entertaining bleacher section with commanding views high above and behind home plate. It was a side of Fenway I had never seen - and never knew existed.
On the back wall, behind a steep section of padded seats, a bar and tables better suited for socializing than for watching a game, a retrospective of Red Sox jerseys caught my eye. In addition to the vintage 1901 model, complete with a collar, a lace-up yoke and black letters spelling Boston across the chest, I was captivated by the home white jersey from 1908. It features a large red sock, with Boston embroidered inside. I was also partial to the dark, gray road jersey with pinstripes from 1918, the last Red Sox team to capture a World Series.
I then looked out over this field of dreams, with its classic patchwork cut of natural grass and wide dirt diamond. At every position I pictured a Red Sox legend: Fisk behind the plate, Babe Ruth on the mound, Frank Malzone at third, Joe Cronin at shortstop, Bobby Doerr at second, Jimmy Foxx at first, Tony Conigliaro in right field, Dominic DiMaggio in center and Ted Williams in left. On the baselines, Eddie Yost patrolled third while Earl Combs dispensed wisdom at first. Manager Joe McCarthy held court at the foot of the dugout, as the Fenway faithful, more than 33,000 strong, cheered wildly.
Sunlight sparkled off the rows of dew-covered plastic red seats and the silver benches lining the famed bleacher section in right-center - a favorite haunt during my wild college days. Workers scurried about, watering the infield to keep the dust down. I zeroed in on an old gent with a shock of white hair and rounded shoulders. "That's Joe Mooney, the head groundskeeper," I was told by a Fenway Fantasy official. "When you're out there, don't step on the grass or he'll go nuts. It's his field."
I instantly liked Joe Mooney, and smiled. He knows that this field - his field - is more than a baseball diamond. It is a shrine.
I marched down to the visiting team locker room with three other Fantasy Day participants. Jack O'Sullivan, a businessman from Windham, N.H., was making his third appearance at this event. "I made contact my first year, but nothing much," said O'Sullivan, trim and fit at age 40. "Last year, I put one on the warning track, so I hope to get the wall this time around."
I changed into a trusty but tattered pair of sweats and a brand new dark blue Red Sox jersey, and laced up the closest thing I own to baseball cleats - an old pair of soccer shoes. The four of us then proceeded down the stark runway to the field. I thought briefly of all the baseball stars who have walked this route the past 86 years and, lapsing into a youthful flight of fancy, wondered how I would measure up. The field, a vibrant shade of green, struck me as surreal. We were led along the dirt warning track, past the 310-foot marker in the left-field corner and the slotted scoreboard, to the entrance to the batting cages, near the 420-foot sign in center field.
With an oversized batting helmet teetering on my head, I began taking my practice cuts. I had less than 15 frustrating minutes to prepare for my moment on center stage.
My three "teammates" and I are directed back outside to the visitor's dugout for our live at-bats, stopping just long enough for our "baseball card" photos to be snapped. I smile weakly, unable to shake the thought that, despite 15 practice swings, I haven't hit a ball all morning.
I am scheduled to bat fourth - clean-up. With a superstitious streak that would make any major leaguer proud, I view my place in the batting order as a very good sign. After all, clean-up is the prized domicile of the team slugger, the guy most likely to knock one out of the park.
Ahead of me, Dr. Paul Cochrane of Arlington, Mass., leads off. Despite stroking a few nice hits, he's disappointed with his performance. Jack O'Sullivan steps in and manages to duplicate his feat from last year, hitting the wall on a single bounce. But he falls just short of his goal. He will have to wait until next year, an all-too-familiar chant of Sox fans. With a broad, good-natured smile, he promises he will be back.
Next up is Kevin LaCroix of Methuen, Mass., the thoroughbred of our group who still plays in an over-35 baseball league. He proves his lineage by rapping one of his 15 pitches off the Green Monster, bringing an extra $1,000 to The Jimmy Fund coffers.
Now it's my turn. Over the loudspeakers, long-time announcer Ken Coleman booms my name and birthplace, Hoboken, N.J., instantly recognizing it as the hometown of "The Chairman of the Board," Frank Sinatra. Coleman then recites my scripted fantasy - to be digging in on Oct. 21, 1975, against the Cincinnati Reds' Pat Darcy - but fails to acknowledge the significance of the date. I'm stunned. It was Darcy who served up the pitch that Fisk sent off the foul pole above the Green Monster, winning Game 6 of the 1975 World Series.
I dig in to the soft clay of the batter's box and watch the first practice pitch come in. The coach standing at the pitching machine suggests I move up a bit in the batter's box. Thinking about my pitiful exhibition in the batting cages, I turn to the catcher and say, "I'm going to give you a lot of business today."
"I hope not," he replies with a laugh. He sizes me up quickly and, noticing my Rawlings Big Stick, quips, "All right, a wooden bat. Outstanding!"
I briefly toyed with the idea of using an aluminum bat, and judging from the rest of the participants, I would have fit right in. But this is Fenway. I want to hear the "crack" of the bat - lumber to horsehide - not the "ping" of aluminum. My only concession to the modern game is a pair of batting gloves.
I take my place in the batter's box, and assume the stance that I, in my Little League days, modeled after Yaz - upright, arms and bat held high, right elbow cocked behind me. The first pitch flies in at about 65 mph. I swing and smack a sharp grounder to the shortstop. My glee at actually having hit the ball is short-lived, though, as I feel the old familiar sting in my palms. Being faithful to tradition has a price.
I line or ground the next five pitches to short, looking nothing like a clean-up hitter. I decide it is time to go for the fences. On the next pitch I uncork a mighty swing ... and whiff. Not a good idea. Humbled, I opt to return to Plan A - make contact. On the last pitch, I stroke a soft line drive to left field and set off around the bases. I shake hands with the fresh-faced shortstop, joking, "Hey, at least you weren't bored." I round third a little wide, running out of the base path and onto the grass. Thankfully, there's no sign of Joe Mooney.
Later in the day, two barrel-chested guys from Maine, Billy Milliken and Wallace "Butch" Hall, each send two towering shots over the wall, accounting for almost half of the 10 home runs that will be hit during the event. Milliken finishes his at-bat with a mad dash around the bases, highlighted by a head-first slide into home plate. "This is probably the only time I'll get to do this, so I wanted to make the most of it," he tells me.
I consider my performance a moral victory. After all, I did manage to put the ball in play on 13 of 15 swings, including a few bloop singles to left-center. I will take those numbers, and my cherished memories of Fenway.