BOSTON -- I took my family of four to Fenway Park on Thursday with a few reachable goals. I'm proud to report that we attained all of them.
If I'm being honest, I probably overshot the learning curve concerning baseball for my first daughter, Mirabelle, now four years old, when she was younger. I still remember sitting her on my lap at Citi Field, not long after her first birthday, and calmly explaining things like the double switch and pitch selection.
Spectators around me would usually follow the same script: look up at my explanation, check around me to see who I could be talking to, other than a baby, and eventually put on that look of sadness and amusement mixed together, the same look often seen after discovering that the guy you thought was talking on his phone with a Bluetooth headset does not, in fact, have a Bluetooth headset, or a phone, or pants.
So for our first time in Fenway, I tried to keep it simpler. My daughter is smart enough to pick things up and remember them, so I read her several age-appropriate books with Red Sox themes, including "The Unforgettable Season", which partially is about when Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941. Her encyclopedic knowledge of MLB mascots meant that she knew we'd see Wally the Green Monster.
I thought we had a decent chance of getting her excited about the true mascot in Boston these days, David Ortiz. I wanted her to leave with a sense of both the passion of Red Sox fans and the incredible history of Fenway Park. Still, I wasn't willing to let my desire to make Fenway a teachable moment overwhelm her ability to have fun at the park. When her choice of souvenir at the team store was a Wally doll -- and not, say, a Carl Yastrzemski jersey -- I didn't push back.
Thursday afternoon's game offered plenty of star power and small baseball pleasures, considering that neither team is especially close to the playoff chase. Besides Ortiz, we got to watch Jon Lester on the mound, in what oddly might be his final few months in Boston. He was brilliant, allowing a single run over seven innings and striking out 12. Our seats, grandstand between home and third, offered a view not only of Lester's pitches, but of the increasingly befuddled responses from White Sox hitters.
In general, it was an odd disconnect to see these Red Sox, mere months after I covered them in last fall's World Series triumph, trotting out so many of the same faces, yet playing relatively meaningless baseball in July. It was like seeing a band that somehow had slipped from the zeitgeist in concert, hearing all the hits, wondering how it all went wrong.
Fenway made Mirabelle feel like she was attending a party on a random Thursday afternoon in July, before we ever got to the baseball. Yawkey Way is a carnival in the best possible sense. My wife Rachel, holding our four-month-old Juliet, observed a man on stilts, while another nearby made Red Sox-themed balloon animals. I purchased a Cuban sandwich from Luis Tiant's stand, and we consumed it on a stoop next to fans lining up to take pictures with authentic 2004 World Series rings.
By the time we entered -- Mirabelle now sporting her "My First Game at Fenway" button, Red Sox sticker and Red Sox Nation bracelet, which the Red Sox had given out at Fan Services -- she was ready for baseball. A round of Fenway Franks (excellent, as I'd remembered) along with a Red Sox batting helmet filled with popcorn bought us a few innings.
The Red Sox even helped with the historical context, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Babe Ruth's debut with the team on Thursday. We took our seats, and our first sight was Ruth's granddaughter, along with the great-grandson of Jack Dunn (the man who sold Ruth's contract to the Red Sox). Also there to sanctify it for Mirabelle: Wally.
It struck me how remarkable it is to be able to visit Fenway, the first place where Ruth played major league baseball. I can take my daughters to a place that saw some of the greatest moments in the career of in the greatest hitter ever, many decades after he's gone. It's perhaps more incredible to think that the park itself, which opened in 1912, predates the beginning of Babe Ruth's career.
The seating was quaint (or cramped, depending on how tall and tolerant of history you are), but peeking between two gentlemen in the row in front of us, we saw Jose Abreu. We watched him stretch in the on-deck circle, taking vicious cuts to prepare. I wowed Mirabelle with his home run total; she's used to hearing the stats of Mets hitters. Then she saw Abreu lace a double over the left fielder's head, the ball seeming to travel faster off Abreu's bat than virtually anybody I can remember.
We had a few moments like that Thursday, baseball showing off the way it can, so that even a four-year-old child can appreciate what transpires. In the third, against Jose Quintana, David Ortiz launched what looked to be a home run, deep into the triangle in right-centerfield. Adam Eaton launched himself toward the fence and made a leaping catch to keep Quintana's record spotless, as it would remain into the sixth inning.
Ortiz got another chance with two on and the game knotted at 1-1. By then, Mirabelle had migrated to Rachel's lap, and I'd taken Juliet into my arms. My goals for my younger daughter were purely aesthetic. I believe deeply in the science behind reading to your child, exposing her to great music after (and even before) birth. The ballpark as immersive experience, preparing her for a lifetime of fandom, fit neatly into this parenting theory. If Rachel doesn't completely agree, she at least doesn't view it as harmful enough to put a stop to it.
I may have told the baby, at some point, that 2-0 and 3-1 were hitter's counts, and that she ought to look for fastballs. Ortiz, already knowing this, laced a two-run double to put the Red Sox ahead. Again, my mild disbelief that Boston wasn't a candidate for October baseball only increased as I watched the inevitables: "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" in the seventh, "Sweet Caroline" in the eighth, Koji Uehara in the ninth.
By then, Juliet had returned to Rachel for a nap we hoped would take us clear into postgame, and Mirabelle and I headed to the center field bleachers to line up for a postgame treat: Kids run the bases. We gathered with several hundred children and their various caregivers, ready to charge the infield by way of the warning track along first base and right field. But Uehara cruelly ignored this collective group of sun-fatigued children, giving up a game-tying home run to Conor Gillaspie. Then, in the bottom of the inning, White Sox manager Robin Ventura completely ignored the internal bedtime of Mirabelle and many around her, something we parents considered with a mixture of wariness and dread. Twice, Ventura changed pitchers, to a general chorus of adult groans and younger kvetching.
Finally, in the bottom of the 10th, defender of children Mike Carp delivered a game-winning single to lift the Red Sox to victory. Mirabelle cheered along with the Red Sox Nation around us, parents more excited than they typically would be to see Boston claw back to ten under .500. Once the players' dogpile celebration on the infield had moved to the clubhouse, a security attendant gave us the go-ahead, and a kind of Pamplona for Children ensued.
Despite all the delay -- despite the lateness of the hour, for a girl usually into her second hour of pajama time by this point -- Mirabelle's eyes lit up when we walked through the center field tunnel, as her rainbow-colored sandal made its first contact with Fenway's brown warning track. The angst melted away from everyone. Pictures were snapped -- Mirabelle, sitting in front of Pesky's Pole. The two of us, in a camera-exchange program with another family, smiling in front of the Green Monster. Today, she loved it. Someday, she'll know what it all means.
She was in no hurry to complete that trip around the bases, much to my amusement. While the other kids all raced around the bases, Mirabelle walked patiently, taking it all in. She stopped around second, heading into the traffic of gleeful children of all ages intent upon stretching a double into a triple, then headed back to first. Eventually, between second and third, she wandered out toward left field, before a security guard kindly walked her back to the path. She took the final 90 feet most deliberately of all, before triumphantly stomping on home plate.
We'd played enough backyard T-ball and watched enough baseball that I knew she wasn't unaware of the base order. When I asked her why she'd wandered, she answered, simply, "I wanted to see more of the field and what it was all about."
She recognized the statue of Ted Williams as we walked out of Fenway and headed to our car. She also said this, both before falling asleep holding her Wally doll, and again the next morning: "I had a great time at Fenway Park. Let's go back really soon!"
She may not be calculating WAR just yet. But this will do nicely for a start.