Wednesday night I was in the park for a complete-game, one-hit shutout that is probably one of the best pitching performances I've ever witnessed, and is certainly the best I've ever seen in person.
Unfortunately, it was the wrong guy.
Felix Hernandez, aka King Felix, spoiled our Daisuke party with extreme prejudice. The Sox bats that had surged behind Beckett on Opening Day were utterly lifeless--it wasn't until JD Drew hit a single in the bottom of the eighth that the Sox broke up his no-hitter.
By that time, I was sulking in my seat along the first base line. That wasn't how the story was supposed to go. It should have been Daisuke out there dropping the hammer--instead, he pitched okay, but not brilliantly, giving up 3 runs on 8 hits.
The moments just following the game were strange, as I trudged out of the park past souvenir stands stuffed with Daisuke memorabilia, past all the Japanese signs and fans wearing karate-kid headbands. I remembered what Edw. had said when we talked about Daisuke, and it occurred to me as I passed a rack of T-shirts with Daisuke's face on them that this could all look very foolish indeed in six months' time depending on how things go.
On my way home, though, I called Sam and she talked me off my ledge a bit, first by mentioning the fact that Kenji Johjima has 118 at-bats against Matsuzaka in the Japanese league and batted .271 against him there. "What are the odds that one of the only hitters on the planet familiar with him and with success against him would be in the lineup against him in his Fenway debut?" she said.
I had listened carefully to the conversations around me leaving the park, to see what people were saying about Daisuke now that the feted first appearance had come and gone. Despite my own dejection I was also worried that people would be jumping all over him already and dreaded the prospect.
To my surprise, fans leaving the park weren't talking about Daisuke at all--the majority were instead grumbling about the bats. "No support at all," I heard one guy in a Papelbon jersey snap to his friend.
I didn't think that was entirely fair myself. I kept remembering Kevin Millar's quote about the Cardinals in the 2004 World Series--"They were not dead. They ran into Schilling and Pedro--that's what makes you look dead." The Sox bats ran into Hernandez. That's pretty much all there is to it. Their phenom bested ours. End of story.
In the day or so since, I've also been pleasantly surprised to hear very little in the way of Daisuke-bashing elsewhere, either (this could also have something to do with the fact that I have scrupulously avoided any mainstream sports medium besides the box score on Game Day). "Don't jump," my Red Sox Oracle told me at the office yesterday, patting me on the shoulder. "He's gonna win a lot of games." If anything, it actually seems I'm taking that game hardest of anyone I've talked to yet.
I think that might have something to do with the experience of being in the ballpark just before the game and in the first inning. I still have some cognitive dissonance when I think about the game as a whole, actually, and what I want to say about it--that's part of what's kept me from posting this sooner.
Because while I walked out disappointed, the time I spent in the park prior to the game and up until the bottom of the first Wednesday night now ranks among my best moments at Fenway, ever.
I've never been to a playoff game at Fenway, but I think I got a taste of the atmosphere as soon as I got to Kenmore Square Wednesday night. Yawkey Way wasn't as crowded as on Opening Day, but by the time I got inside the park, found my seats, took a few pictures and headed back to the concourse in search of a hot dog the park was packed to the rafters. The first concession line I waited in on the big concourse ran out of hot dogs, and the workers there told everyone not waiting in line for hot dogs to cut ahead of those of us who were, and so I moved about twelve places back in the line after waiting fifteen minutes. I waited another ten before I finally gave up--the concession kids were still yelling about how hot dogs would be another five minutes. I waited in another line a little bit further down until I started to hear a commotion in the park behind me and decided eating was not worth missing Daisuke's bullpen session.
Thus already hungry and irritable, mixing with excited and anxious, I ran up to the bleacher aisles behind the bullpens, determined to get pictures come hell, high water or Fenway Security.
Unfortunately, it was the latter I encountered--and the particular security guy I met with was just as hyped as I was for his own reasons--all around him in the bleachers, a crush of fans pointed a sea of cameras at the field. I squeezed my way in behind the home bullpen and managed to get some pictures of Daisuke playing long-toss as well as Jason Varitek in the 'pen before I could no longer ignore the security guard's harangue about how I couldn't stand there, needed to keep moving, needed to find my seat.
Maybe I'm the asshole here, but I thought the guy could have let me stand there and take a couple of pictures, given it was kind of a special occasion. As he confronted me, meanwhile, I realized I was not going to be able to watch yet another bullpen session before a game no matter what my determination to actually do it this time, and finally, I turned and questioned a security guard about their total uptightness over otherwise completely peaceful fans near the bullpen during games.
"I'm not hurting anybody," I said. "I'm just trying to take a picture."
He didn't quite hear me at first, just saw me turn and answer him back, and there was a terrible split-second as his eyes widened and I could see the pulse jump out on his neck inside the collar of his polo shirt. It was in that second I became fully aware again of the mob behind him and realized he was probably on the edge of going house on someone already. Immediately I was afraid that I was going to become that person.
In other words, whoops.
"What did you say to me?" he demanded.
I repeated what I'd said. When he fully understood it, he relaxed a little, but still told me I needed to leave. I walked away just grateful not to have been kicked out, and marvelling at how the man tossing a ball back and forth on the green grass just a few yards away from where the security guard and I had been negotiating could make two complete strangers wig out so completely at each other.
That was far from the last evidence of the overflowing energy of the ballpark as the tension built leading up to the first pitch. 36,630 packed the stands before the National Anthem--an unusual sight as there's almost always a good portion of the crowd who straggle in between the first and third innings. Not that night. And all 73,260 eyeballs were trained on the bullpen where Daisuke was throwing.
The Fenway announcer saved the most momentous introduction for last. Daisuke's face and name appeared on the screens above the bleachers, and then the announcer was speaking in Japanese, slowly but clearly. The crowd exploded just at the sound of it, and when he got to "Matsuzaka, Daisuke," following the Japanese tradition of saying the last name first, the place was in a complete frenzy. Matsuzaka kept throwing and the announcer began to repeat his announcement in English. "Tonight's starting pitcher for the Boston Red Sox...Daisuke...Matsuzaka."
Daisuke kept throwing. I was amazed at how composed he was, from continuing the bullpen without skipping a beat in the midst of 190 decibels of insane Red Sox fans shouting at him from the bleachers and beyond, to his placid trot across the field to the dugout in front of yet more screaming hordes, to--most incredibly--the fact that after reaching the dugout and removing his warmup jacket, Daisuke popped back out again with Kevin Youkilis to play catch behind the first base line before the rest of the team took the field. I wondered watching it if the other players had drawn straws to see who was going to have to stand out there with Daisuke in front of all the frothers-at-the-mouth. I can't think of another player I've ever seen stand so nonchalantly in the midst of that kind of chaos.
Meanwhile, I have also never seen the chaos itself ratcheted up to quite that level, at least not firsthand. The entire ballpark stayed on its feet from the first introduction to the last out of the top of the first. We were on our feet for the National Anthem. We were on our feet and screaming as Daisuke left the bullpen, as he and Youkilis started throwing, as Manny finally appeared to lead the rest of the team onto the field, as Ichiro strolled out to the on-deck circle. The crowd just kept cheering whether anything was happening or not.
And when Daisuke came set for the first pitch to Ichiro, that's when the flashbulbs started.
That little video doesn't really do it justice, but it gives you some idea.
Ichiro grounded out to the mound, and as Daisuke relayed to Youkilis for the out, there was a gathering roar, and when the tag was applied the celebration would have been more appropriate for the final out of the World Series. Another standing ovation followed after the final out of the scoreless half-inning, and only then did we take our seats for the game. Behind me some Japanese fans chanted in quick staccato, accompanying themselves by clapping, "Daisuke-san. Daisuke-san. Daisuke-san." A guy behind me picked up his cell phone, pressed some buttons, and let loose with a torrent of animated Japanese.
Brian quoted me a good line yesterday from Jay Mariotti that Mariotti made prior to the game--"It's international intrigue meets religion." It was a feeling really almost beyond description, being there with all the profound implications and anticipation blending together. And so when the rest of the story didn't play out as scripted--when it was Hernandez and not Daisuke who dominated--the letdown had almost equal impact.
I guess it's just a matter of half empty vs. half full. On the one hand, the disappointment was undeniable--not in Daisuke but for him, and maybe a little for myself, that there weren't any more moments quite like the first inning as the game went on. On the other hand, I still wouldn't trade getting to see Daisuke's introduction the other night for any amount of money, or even for a win under some other pitcher. That was an all-time Fenway moment, right there, just when I thought there couldn't possibly be any that would surpass what I've already experienced in that place. It was a privilege to be a part of it.
Either way, it's safe to say I'll never forget it--the flashbulbs, the signs, the chants, the frenzied cheering, or that moment before the events unfolded, watching that lone, brave figure, tossing the ball back and forth in front of the rioting crowd as if to say, go ahead. Make my day.
P.S. A must-read by Bradford on Papelbon.