Vintage tale: The baseball season of 2015 has not generated fond memories in South Florida or Boston, as the resident major league teams in both areas occupy last place in their respective divisions entering the final month of the season. As a diversion from bad baseball, trip back to 2007 when the Red Sox were leading the pennant race on the way to their second championship in four seasons.
By Craig Davis, Craigslegz.com
We are on our way to Saturday mass, T-shirted pilgrims moving en masse on mass transit bound for the most sacred place in the Commonwealth of Mass.
For most of the 36,000-plus converging on the shrine at 4 Yawkey Way, this is what you do in the summer when the Red Sox are in town – if you can score a precious ticket. You don the colors, jam onto a T train, talk “Sawx,” curse the Yankees and proceed directly to the nearest concession stand upon arrival at Fenway Park.
For my daughter Allison and I, wayward wretches from the baseball wasteland of South Florida, this is a spiritual quest: to experience baseball not only with a pulse but with a soul. The journey was Allison’s wish when she turned 21.
“I wanted to go to a place where they really love baseball. I don’t think there’s any place that cares about it more than Boston,” she said.
Unlike at home where our beloved Marlins have delivered two championships in 10 years but are as popular as a telemarketer at dinner time.
Allison has the passion of a Red Sox fan for a team whose mission seems to be to develop star players for other cities to enjoy. Nonetheless, she follows every Marlins game, even while she was attending college at Florida State in Tallahassee.
It’s all my fault. I taught her the nicknames and logos of every major league team when she was 3. At bedtime I’d read Casey at the Bat, substituting “Canseco” for each reference to the mighty slugger.
So, her first sports idol became the poster boy for steroid abuse and her favorite team can’t afford to keep its players. Only fair that I’d take her to visit a city where even an 86-year championship drought couldn’t kill the passion for the Old Town Team.
Allison had another request that clinched the trip: “We can visit the Sam Adams brewery.”
This is what happens when you grow up the daughter of a sports journalist in a house where religion is the Church of Baseball and holy water contains barley and hops.
Long history of hops
This is to be a whirlwind weekend, 48 hours in the Mecca of baseball and beer. Other cities could make that claim, but none have the history to match Boston, at least when it comes to beer.
It has been documented that one of the main reasons the Pilgrims came ashore was they were running low on beer. The American Revolution fermented in the taverns of Boston, and by the 1890s the city had more breweries per capita than any in the nation.
Within an hour of arrival at Logan International in late July 2007, we’re aboard the Orange Line of the T to pay homage to a great American revolutionary, past and present.
The Samuel Adams Brewery is a few blocks from the Stony Brook station in a venerable brick building in a residential neighborhood of the historic Jamaica Plain suburb, appropriately enough at the end of Porter Street.
Fitting, too, that the patriot Samuel Adams, also a brewer, once lived in Jamaica Plain. The area has been the focal point of Boston brewing since the mid Nineteenth Century, largely due to proximity to the Stony Brook Aquifer. The Haffenreffer brewery occupied the building until 1964.
We stroll in and are handed a tour ticket, which for this session is the label that goes on bottles of Samuel Adams Scotch Ale. There is no charge for the tour, which runs about every half-hour Tuesday-Thursday from noon-3 p.m., Friday noon-5:30 and Saturday 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
If you’re not already a Sam Adams disciple, you will be by the end of the hour, if the taste of beer holds any allure. Because you’ll spend more than half the time in the tasting room sampling the product.
The company knows what it’s doing. Our tour guide, Miguel, understands why we’re here. After an introduction he asks if there are any questions. Surveying blank stares, he says, “You’re all just here for the beer, right?”
The tour part of the brewery offers just enough to satisfy the inquisitive. A short video recounts the tale of Jim Koch, a sixth-generation brewer who dusted off a recipe from his great-great grandfather to produce a batch of beer in his kitchen that became Boston Lager.
Coincidentally, it was about the time Allison was born, in 1985, that Koch entered his new old-style beer at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver and it was voted “Best Beer in America.” That suggests that not only did Koch have a fine product, the American beer industry at the time was putting way more emphasis on profit than taste.
I’m not a corporate person, but I can certainly salute a company that makes its fortune by creating the best product it can, regardless of the cost. I will do that just as soon as we get to the tasting room.
First, Miguel gives us an overview of the brewing process. He passes around samples of malted barley and hops and explains how variations of the grains yield different types of beer. Then he takes us to see the big tanks where the ingredients are combined with water and yeast to make the Sam we love in about six weeks.
The brewery isn’t as big as you’d expect. This is mainly an R&D facility. The beer brewed here is distributed in Boston and consumed by tour groups. Most of the Samuel Adams sold in stores comes from larger plants in Cincinnati and Pennsylvania.
So it doesn’t take long to get the whole spiel and see all there is to see. That is good because by now we’ve worked up a wicked thirst, as they say in these parts.
Just in time we line up for the ritual checking of ID’s. Upon being certified legal, we each are given a new 7-ounce Samuel Adams glass to use for sampling and to take home. By the time the last of the group is seated in a cozy tap room, pitchers of Boston Lager are being passed down the tables.
Miguel gives us the rundown on how beer is judged, explaining the steps of appraisal for appearance, aroma, body and flavor. I’m sipping, nodding, holding my glass up to the light. He gets to Step 5 and tells us to hold our glasses to our ears. Sheep that we are, many of us do, and Miguel enjoys a big laugh at our expense.
“Ha! You don’t listen to your beer. That doesn’t tell you anything.”
Hey, for free beer, I’ll do a handstand.
Pitchers of Summer Ale and a new experimental beer follow. As the afternoon turns into a Cheers episode, I’m thinking that no American patriot has received a greater tribute than to have this beer named after him.
Samuel Adams, the original, was a brewer who became one of the main instigators of the uprising against England. Samuel Adams, the beer, helped spark a revolution in the industry, inspiring microbrews and specialty brews that made American beer worthy of drinking again.
Allison and I linger after the tour, browsing displays in the lobby and receive a bonus treat. Someone calls out, “Hi, Mr. Koch,” and we turn around to see the modern Samuel Adams himself striding through the brewery. He graciously poses for a couple photos with Allison.
“No problem,” Koch says, “I just work here.”
Wet your whistle at Doyle’s
After Koch created Boston Lager he took his new beer to taverns around Boston. The first to serve it was Doyle’s Café, a landmark in Jamaica Plain. To return the favor, brewery tours end with the recommendation that patrons continue the party at Doyle’s.
We misunderstood the directions and set off on foot thinking it’s only a few blocks away. Turns out we should have gotten back on the T and taken it two stops to Forest Hills station. Instead we set off on a seemingly endless trek through Jamaica Plain.
By the time we get back on track, we’ve not only walked off the beer from the brewery, we’re famished. But our destination remains elusive. Just as we’re beginning to doubt there is a Doyle’s, we encounter a passerby who confirms we’re getting close.
“It’s a good place,” he says. “Try the Pickwick’s Ale.”
Doyle’s has existed since 1882. It has been a favorite stop of politicians on the stump and a frequent setting for movies and television shows including Boston Public. Inside, the paint is peeling, it’s loud and cavernous. There’s an Uncle Sam poster next to a Sam Adams poster. In other words, it’s a charming locals hangout.
I opt for the Pickwick’s and order the German plate in recognition of the immigrants who worked the many breweries of Jamaica Plain in the 19th Century. Allison is contemplating the lobster roll but concerned it may come with too much mayo.
The waitress reassures her: “I’m a wicked lobster roll snob, and I like ours.”
Old photographs on the walls make Doyle’s a museum of Boston history. Above our booth is a photo of the 1946 Red Sox, who won 104 games and lost the World Series to the Cardinals, and next to it a shot of Ted Williams posing for a Boston Police Department mug shot (The picture was a gag, according to bartender Tommy Sullivan). It’s a reminder that for better or worse, Boston loves its Sox.
Exiled from Fenway Park
We have tickets only for the Saturday afternoon game, but Friday night we have plenty of company outside Fenway Park as the Red Sox play the White Sox. Many fans gather in the pubs surrounding the park, such as the Cask ‘n Flagon and Boston Beer Works.
As long as you are not wearing anything bearing the initials NY, it’s easy to blend in. Nonetheless, we stay mum about our allegiance to the Marlins. Earlier in the week I’d heard a Boston sports writer rant on a South Florida radio station that our team doesn’t deserve to exist.
Marlins fans we can claim a tenuous kinship. Our team won the 2003 World Series in Yankee Stadium the year before the Red Sox ended their championship drought, and former Marlins Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell are key components of the 2007 Red Sox’s pennant push.
Still full from Doyle’s, we stand in the street with a group watching televisions in the window of Game On! sports bar outside the Green Monster as Beckett attempts to win his 13th game of the season. Due to the delay in the broadcast, every time the crowd reacts with a loud cheer it is several seconds before the cause of the excitement appears on the screen.
Those outbursts only add to the dismay of the kid in the Youkilis jersey whose face is pressed against the window of the nearby WEEI sports radio studio. The host on the air is already taking calls about Red Sox manager Terry Francona’s ejection in the first inning. The forlorn fan is attempting to tell the producer his tale of getting tossed an inning later but can’t get through on his cell phone.
“All I did was stumble, and they threw me out,” he says. “I went to get hotdogs for my three friends. This lady [from security] saw me and said, ‘Come with me.’”
He’s not slurring and appears as if he could walk the foul line, so we empathize as he shows us his crumpled ticket. Considering how hard those tickets are to come by, it’s a tough penance.
“I’m so fine,” he says. “I’m so not drunk.”
Harvard is for Dummies
Boston is one of those places where it is never hard to fill time. You can visit Faneuil Hall or take a funky Duck Tour on a pink or yellow World War II amphibious landing vehicle.
I find serendipitous sightseeing to be most rewarding and tend to shy away from guided tours.
For instance, Sunday morning before leaving Boston we hike the Freedom Trail and find the grave of Samuel Adams in the Granary Burial Ground not far from Paul Revere, who history tells us made a famous ride to warn his friend Sam that the British were coming to confiscate his beer.
Saturday’s pregame journey to Harvard Square led to a more unlikely discovery.
Strolling the famous campus, it appears to be a quiet morning until we spot a crowd gathered outside Memorial Hall, an impressive gothic structure built to honor Harvard alumni who died in the Civil War. Upon approach we step through another portal of history onto the set of an Oprah-produced movie called “The Great Debaters.” It stars Denzel Washington as a professor who brought a debate team from a small college in Texas to challenge Harvard for the national championship in 1937.
Washington is nowhere to be seen. The stars enjoying the attention of bystanders are a couple hundred extras in costume waiting outside the hall. Just as we arrive their cues start to come in.
“Send in the academics!”
“Send in the press!”
As we chat with three young women in 1930s attire, an assistant with a clipboard offers a phone number to call if we want to return the next morning and be part of the gallery watching the debate in the hall. It seems they are still about 150 extras short.
In lieu of live bodies, empty seats will be filled by dummies, legless torsos with heads, which form a comical mob on the grass behind the hall. Suddenly another production assistant bolts out of the building, shouting, “Get the dummies! Get the dummies!”
It is our cue to head to the ballpark.
Putting up with the pole
Saturday afternoon at Fenway Park is a street festival that begins as soon as we exit Kenmore Station. Someone hands us a free copy of Metro Gameday, a 12-page tabloid of Red Sox news updated through the previous night’s game. Every 10 feet someone is peddling T-shirts, many bearing clever rips at the Yankees, even though the White Sox are the day’s opponent.
Only fans with tickets can enter the block outside the stadium on Yawkey Way. Inside Gate A, Red Sox wives Karen Varitek, Nilda Cora and Kristin Mirabelli are working a table for the Greater Boston Food Bank’s fight against hunger. Everyone passing by should be giving because nobody is going hungry here.
There’s food everywhere – Cuban sandwiches and El Presidente beer at El Tiante, footlongs and Hebrew National dogs at Summer Time Grill, Rem Dogs and Rem Pups at RemDawgs. And everywhere they’re selling it there’s a line. Fans who aren’t eating are browsing in the mammoth “Souvenir Store Across From Fenway Park.”
Inside the park the concourse is lined with more concessions with enough choices to make your mouth water: Fenway Franks, sausages (Polish and Italian), panini sandwiches and ̶ where else but Fenway? ̶ lobster rolls and chowder. And, naturally, all the beer you could want to wash it down with. Just be sure not to stumble.
Food and drink can wait. First we must visit the altar. So we take a left and follow signs that point to Monster Seats, then climb a ramp toward bright light.
We emerge from the shadows and there it is, the most recognizable icon in baseball, the Green Monster itself looking none the worse for all those doubles and ricochets it has endured. Stately organ music is playing, and I feel chills and a sense of reverence that I’ve never experienced in any cathedral. There’s the last hand-operated scoreboard in the major leagues and next to it the American League East standings showing Boston in first place, eight games ahead of New York .
At the time of our visit the Red Sox are approaching 400 consecutive sellouts. I paid $112 for $45 infield grandstand tickets from a broker on Ebay. The location seemed ideal, just to the first-base side of home plate. It wasn’t until we’re climbing the stairs of our section that I get an inkling why those seats may have been available: They were two rows behind a support pole.
Fenway Park is like a favorite elderly uncle, flawed but still lovable. The new ballparks built in the past 15 years are better for watching a game, but none can match Fenway for experiencing it. For much of the game that’s what we do, experience it.
We name the pole our Little Green Monster and enjoy baseball with a lean.
“I’ll tell you what happens at second base, you cover first,” Allison said.
The saving grace is that the couple to our left has two small children. If this were Dolphin Stadium, they’d last about four innings. Being Red Sox fans they make it to the seventh inning stretch. When they finally depart and we move into their unobstructed seats, a fan behind us says, “Welcome to the game.”
It’s just in time to see the Red Sox score seven runs in the bottom of the seventh on the way to an 11-2 romp and to join the mass singing of Sweet Caroline that occurs in the middle of the eighth inning of every game (“Good times never felt so good … so good, so good, so good.”).
Afterward, we linger to watch matching mascots, left and right red socks, cavort on the field with furry cohort Wally. Outside the stadium a crowd gathers where a young man plays a drum solo on overturned buckets and food bins.
“I want to move here,” Allison says. Then, after a pause, adds, “I like the Red Sox, but I still love the Marlins.”
The Red Sox would win another World Series in 2013. The now-Miami Marlins moved into a new ballpark in 2012 with a retractable roof to shield fans from heat and rain. Alas, it hasn’t altered the fortunes of the franchise. Allison is still waiting for a winning team to root for in Marlins Park.