When I was 10 years old, my parents began the family summer tradition of loading us into a minivan and driving across the Midwest for two weeks. At the end of that first trip, we stopped off in Cooperstown for a visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame that would be memorable for all the wrong reasons.
This stop, like an ill-fated detour to South Bend, Indiana to tour the legendary football field of Notre Dame, was mostly for my father's benefit, and what little he derived was filtered through an atmosphere thick with whining from me and my younger sister. We were tired, we were bored, it had been two weeks of 10, 12 and 14 hour drives as cornfields flashed by; we were right on the cusp of getting home and this pause to tour a baseball museum was not welcome.
Or, at least, that's what I imagine was going through our heads. Honestly, though I have no doubt that my father's remembrances are accurate, what I remember most about the Hall of Fame visit was an exhibit about Roger Clemens' first 20 strikeout game (the second had yet to happen). I also remember staring at a huge picture of a player sliding in to a base, surrounded by a violent tsunami of dirt, above which an umpire spread his black wings, wide as a condor's: Safe!
Fast-forward 18 years to last Sunday. It was an irony not lost on any of us in my family that my birthday gift from my parents was being treated to the Baseball as America exhibit at Boston's Museum of Science, featuring a traveling collection from the Baseball Hall of Fame.
This time around, it was fascinating. From an Abner Doubleday baseball to a hands-on pitching cage, a mid-sized exhibit hall at the museum had been turned into a complex maze of artifacts and interactive displays. You could test out different pitch grips on a set of mounted baseballs, or heft a set of four bats tethered to a wall, each of them built to replicate the actual bat of a great hitter. I liked Babe Ruth's bat the best--it had a little heft to it, but was still light enough to manipulate easily. It felt balanced.
The exhibit wound its way around a temporary wall, so you couldn't see one end of it from the other. Thus it wasn't until the very end of an hour and a half spent mooning over ancient baseball cards, antique seats from long-dead ballparks that look just like the grandstand seats at Fenway (only bigger), and old-school ads featuring a young Roger Clemens, that I rounded the last corner and saw what would be the high point of the exhibit for me: a pitching machine.
It was set up at the end of a 60-foot 6-inch cage, the receiving end of which had a catcher's mask embedded in fiberglass. A sign encouraged you to stick your face in the mask, to "see what a Major League catcher sees." The ball looked like a sinking fastball to me, and another person watching the machine said it was coming in at 90 miles an hour, but I never saw where that speed was posted.
The balls being launched by the machine were not actual baseballs--they looked more like oversized golf balls to me. They didn't finish with the sounds I'm used to hearing from a real baseball--the pop into the catcher's mitt, and up close, the hum of the seams through the air. Instead, these mechanically-fired sinking fastballs crashed and richocheted like missiles into netting in front of the catcher's mask, rolled around on an inclined plane designed to funnel them into a tube, and then shuttled back along that tube to re-load the machine.
But stick your face in that catcher's mask, and you were still in for a treat. At least, if you're me. You heard the hiss of the hydraulics setting, and then the muzzle of the machine glowed green for a second. After that warning, the ball was incoming, looming large through the mesh of the mask after just a split second. It reminded me of what I've heard said about Josh Beckett's pitches at Fenway--the ball seemed to be coming in faster than the layman's brain suggests is possible. (Although Josh throws five to seven miles an hour faster than the machine.)
The true moment of Zen for me was when I finally tore myself away from the catcher's mask and walked to the other end of the cage, to look at the machine itself. It was about seven or eight feet tall from base to the uppermost point of the hydraulic mechanism, part of which was comprised of a cannister about a foot in diameter, and a four or five-foot long muzzle that looked like it would have been at home mounted on the front of an Abrams tank.
All this to recreate what's normally accomplished with only an arm, a brain and a body.
I was so caught up in the pitching machine that I almost missed the other highlight of the exhibit. I had originally stuck to one side, thinking we would loop back around and I'd catch the other side on the way back. That turned out not to be the case by the time I got to the pitching machine, which was just before the gift shop and exit. At the last minute I decided to go back and just glance at the things I'd missed quickly, more out of my usual weird brand of compulsive perfectionism than anything else.
This time, it turned out to be an asset--what I would have missed had I not gone back was nothing less than the Bloody Sock itself, which was mounted at the center of one case along the wall I'd skipped.
Other people in the group of family and friends I was with had heard the Sock would be a part of the exhibit, but I hadn't. It even took me a few minutes of reading the tiny plaques next to Clay Buccholz's hat and David Ortiz's jersey surrounding it before I looked, and double-taked, and realized what I was looking at.
For one thing, I wasn't prepared for how big it was. It was easily three or four times the size of any sock I've ever encountered. I guess there's a reason Pesky calls Schilling "Big'un."
And, of course, there was the blood. It was clearly blood, not something I've ever not believed, but it helped to finally see it with my own eyes.
All I can say is, it would've taken a world-class painter to create the Sock artificially. Actually, there would have to have been two socks, to be accurate, one with bright red markings worn during the actual game, and this one, with the same stains in the same place but dried to maroon and brown, with varying degrees of depth to the stain. You know, as if someone bled into it through various apertures on the uneven surface of an ankle bone, to varying degrees of saturation.
Do I believe in a vast Right-Ankle conspiracy running that deep? No, I do not.
But apparently even in Boston there are some who have been taken in by the libelous work of Baltimore beat writers and TV announcers. "That's not really blood," a guy next to me said to a little girl by his side. "Just ketchup." Then the two of them walked off.
I didn't say anything, but I can't front like it didn't help that he left right away.
That day in non-historical, non-mechanical Red Sox pitching was less inspired. After the exhibit, we headed to Maggiano's for dinner and then I caught the first seven innings of the Sox-Yankees game at my best friend K's house. I left when Javy Lopez relieved Tim Wakefield and blew his two-run lead before recording an out.
"I'd rather be on my way home to bed than sitting here watching the bullpen blow this one," I said on my way out. And then I did just that, skipping that entire excruciating extra-inning experience, and I'm still glad I did.
At the same time, I'm not glad that my prediction was right. I'm not glad that the bullpen door opening this year has become, to quote the Matrix, "the sound...of inevitability."
But just when you think it's that simple, the Sox come home and sweep the red-hot Twins--and do it mostly on the strength of their pitching, taking two of the three games of the series by a run. That's two back-to-back one-run wins that directly followed two back-to-back one-run losses at Yankee Stadium.
In the third game of the Minnesota series, Josh Beckett, the same guy for whom the Sox couldn't muster a third run in Houston, was showered with 18, making his five-run day look dominant by comparison.
At 34-11 on the season, the Red Sox have the best home-field record in the AL, and home cooking this week has shrunk the deficit in the AL East to two games.
But they're 21-29 on the road. And the key to last year's bullpen--Hideki Okajima--is a shadow of his 2007 self. And from what I've gathered watching the shows this week, nobody outside the Red Sox clubhouse, myself included, has really been able to figure out why.