Monthly Archives: March 2008

Red Sox Nation is Flat, and other final thoughts from Japan

manny-hits-double-in-japan.jpgFinal reflections from Japan as I wait for the bus to the airport:

An Important Call From Home

Calls from the U.S. to Tokyo are expensive, so when I received a call from my wife on Tuesday morning (Monday night in the U.S., several hours after the Sox’ opening day victory), I knew it had to be about something important. “Your son wants to talk with you,” she said. Then my almost-nine year-old got on the phone. “Daddy, guess what, Manny Ramirez got me 8 points for my fantasy baseball team last night, and I’m in first place!”

OK, who wants to bet with me about who’s going to have more fun playing Fantasy Baseball this year?? (That was a priceless phone call.)

wally-yonamine.jpgWally Yonamine: The First Japanese Player to Hurry

This morning, I read that the first American born man to play in Japan (Wally Yonamine, Central League MVP in 1957, born in Hawaii) was the first professional player to sprint from home to first on ground balls (before him, Japanese pros jogged or walked – could Manny Ramirez possess the soul of an ancient Japanese baseball player?) and the first to break up double plays by sliding hard into second base. That helps explain why no one is ever in a hurry here in Japan.

I mean, I felt no need to wear my seatbelt in the taxis I rode in. You just have to trust me when I tell you that Tokyo drivers are the safest on the planet. No one’s driving is even remotely aggressive. This was a problem when I was in a rush to get to the Tokyo Dome to film some interviews with Japanese fans for NESN. In Boston, my half-hour trip would have been cut down to 10 minutes (at the expense of the safety of other drivers on the road). Drivers here are actually cooperative, as if the people in the cars around them are members of their family or close friends. (Let me be clear: I think this is awesome.)

interviews-with-japanese-fans.jpgInterviews with Japanese Baseball Fans

Before the second game of the Sox-A’s series, I had a chance to interview Japanese fans through an interpreter. Their answers to my questions were truly illuminating. First of all, three different people said, “Please take good care of Matsuzaka and Okajima” in response to my question, “Is there anything you want to tell the baseball fans back in the U.S.A?” Secondly, in response to my question, “What do you think of the U.S. fans who are here at Tokyo Dome?” all six of the fans I interviewed said, “We are grateful to the U.S. fans for coming here and showing their teams so much support.” Grateful is the key word. Several of the fans with whom I spoke said that their favorite Red Sox players were people other than Matsuzaka and Okajima (with Ramirez and Ortiz leading in popularity).

red-sox-nation-is-flat.jpgRed Sox Nation is Flat

Ladies and gentlemen, not only is the world flat, as Thomas Freedman’s book title declares, Red Sox Nation is flat. Although I don’t have a specific quotation to prove it, it’s obvious to all U.S. fans here that the Red Sox fans at Tokyo dome are true fans of the Red Sox, not just fans of their country’s stars playing in the Major Leagues. They talked about the history of the Red Sox, they talked about Fenway Park, and they talked about current players as knowledgably as a Boston fan would. “Manny’s my favorite player because he’s so goofy and relaxed, and a great hitter,” said one young fan wearing a Ramirez t-shirt. “I became a fan of the Red Sox because of Nomar Garciaparra” said another fan. “I love his style of play.”

One fan who believes my powers as VP of RSN are supreme bent my ear for five minutes, expressing her frustration that “the Yankees and Mariners games are all televised in Japan because Matsui and Ichiro are everyday players, but Red Sox games are only televised when Matsuzaka pitches. Can you change that?” She also let me know that MLB-TV doesn’t work in Japan. “All of Japan is a blackout area,” she said indignantly.

remy-orsillo-drew-and-others-in-japan.jpgQ&A With Ramirez, Remy, and Friends

The Red Sox hosted a luncheon for Red Sox fans in Tokyo on Wednesday, and after lunch we were surprised with special guests J.D. Drew, Alex Cora, Manny Delcarmen, Manny Ramirez, President Jerry Remy, and Don Orsillo. Obviously, Ramirez’s presence was electrifying. After they all signed autographs, there was time for a Q&A. Here are the highlights:

One fan asked all of them, “What’s surprised you most about being in Japan?” and Alex Cora immediately responded, “That Manny [Ramirez] made it here.” (laughter) “And by the way, his grandmother’s doing fine.”

Ramirez was asked who he considers to be the toughest pitcher to face in baseball, or which pitcher he fears the most. Manny thought for about five seconds, then responded jovially, “I’m ready. Nobody’s tough for me. I’m ready.”

One fan asked Don Orsillo to name the announcers who have been his biggest inspirations. He responded immediately, “Ken Coleman and Vin Scully.”

A fan asked Jerry Remy if, when he was a player, he ever thought he’d be a baseball TV announcer. “No, because I couldn’t put a sentence together then, and I still can’t.” (laughter) “I really have no idea how this happened!” Then Ramirez added, “When we all saw him playing, we knew he’d be an announcer.”

One fan asked Ramirez if he could please let us know which exact date he expects to hit is 500th home run. “Hey, my goal is to reach 500 this month.” (He currently has 492 career home runs.)

J.D. Drew was asked why the Red Sox don’t run more. “Well, we don’t have a lot of speed. (laughter) And I think we all saw how fast Manny is yesterday.” (laughter – Manny stood at home plate to admire his game-winning double before beginning to run, and was almost out sliding into second.)

When Ramirez was asked to make a prediction for this season, he said, “Man, I’m gonna lead the league in RBIs. AGAIN. (laughter) And we’re gonna repeat, we’re gonna do it again. We’re a DYNASTY.”

kid-red-sox-fans-in-japan.jpgJapan’s Social Culture is Highly Advanced

A Red Sox fan asked me this morning, “What’s been the most memorable moment of the trip for you?” My answer was, “Brandon Moss’s game-tying homerun (9th inning of Opening Day victory) and shaking Manny Ramirez’s hand.”

But I know that the more enduring memories of my trip to Tokyo will be about the people here and the stunningly advanced social culture of cooperation and respect for others. As one Japanese fan said to me in an interview, “We have learned a lot from American baseball players, but we think American players can learn a lot from how the Japanese play the game, as well.” This is absolutely true (the Japanese are obsessed with fundamentals and practicing), but in terms of what all Americans can learn from Japanese culture, the fan’s comment doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Opening Day “Wa”

(“Wa” is a Japanese term meaning “unity and team spirit.”)

japan-trip-sox-fans-celebrate.jpg

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What a way to start the season! I officially lost my voice when Brandon Moss hit that game-tying home run in the top of the ninth inning off of Oakland’s ace reliever, Huston Street. How about that — a rookie gets an unexpected start on Opening Day japan-trip-sox-fan.jpgand makes it his best Major League game of his (short) career. Awesome.japan-trip-lugo-fan.jpg

Some observations about the fan experience:

1. I was very surprised at the relatively modest applause that Matsuzaka received at the beginning of the game. (When I say “relative,” I mean relativejapan-trip-nomo-fan.jpg to the kind of cheer that even someone like Dave japan-trip-father-and-daughter.jpgRoberts or Doug Mirabelli would receive upon returning to Fenway Park.) I expected the noise and excitement level to be so high, Tokyo Dome’s roof would blow off. Not even close. The fans’ applause was certainly enthusiastic, but definitely not memorable.

2. Once again, I was sort of unnerved by the total silence between pitches in thejapan-trip-clemens-fans.jpg first through third innings. Each pitch felt like (and sounded like) a serve at Wimbledon. All of us in the Red Sox Nation section half-expejapan-trip-mother-and-son.jpgcted an usher to kick us out when we cheered loudly for Youk, or Lowell, or whomever. But the place erupted when Okajima took the mound in the ninth, and the Dome stayed loudjapan-trip-varitek-fan.jpg after that (by “loud,” I mean “Fenway loud”).

3. The Japanese fans at Tokyo Dome were eager to celebrate with the fans from the U.S. during and after the game. They came over in waves to give us high-fives. While spontaneous, it was a very welcjapan-trip-drew-and-ortiz-fans.jpgoming gesture and an exhilarating cross-cultural experience for all invjapan-trip-kid-fans2.jpgolved.

4. You gotta love that after Manny was presented with the MVP Award (post-game ceremony), Hideki Okajima was presented with the “Fighting Spirit Award.” I read in Robert Whiting’s superb book on Japanese baseball, You Gotta Have Wa, that “the emphasis on making thejapan-trip-pedro-fan.jpg effort is sjapan-trip-little-girl-fan.jpgo strong in Japan that how hard a man tries is considered by many to be the ultimate measure of his worth. Results are almost secondary.”

5. After seeing the variety of Red Sox players’ names and numbers on the backs of Japanese fans’ t-shirts, I do not buy into the idea that Japanese fans are only fans of the Red Sox because of Matsuzaka and Okajima or because we recently won two World Series. Yes,japan-trip-manny-and-jacoby-fans.jpg Daisuke’s and Okie’s shirts are popular, but equally popular are Ortiz and Ramirez shirts. And I saw severajapan-trip-kid-fans-4.jpgl Garciaparra shirts and Clemens (Red Sox) shirts. Being a huge Nomar fan myself, I went up to all those Japanese fans wearing #5 and japan-trip-as-fans-at-sox-as-game.jpgwe had little five-second Nomar parties. (“Nomaaaaaaah!”)

6. And finally, if I were Hank Steinbrenner, I’d be very worried about falling way behind in the japan-trip-sox-fans-5.jpgglobal competition for fans. He can call Red Sox Nation whatever he wants to call it, but it doesn’t change the facts. The Red Sox have become an irresistible international sportsjapan-trip-as-and-sox-fan.jpg franchise whose popularity transcends the particular names on the roster, and little children around the globe are growing up chanting “Let’s Go Red Sox!” before they’ve even heard the word Yankees. japan-trip-yankees-fan-at-sox-as-game.jpgCertainly Japan, as these photos show, is squarely in the center of Red Sox Nation (although I did see one bold Yankees fan, who politely allowed me to photograph him for this blog… and there were some A’s fans too… so in the spirit of journalistic integrity, here they are).

Rules of Tokyo Dome

japan-17.jpgI was told that the Japanese are rigid about rules, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when I and about ten other Red Sox Nation members were barred from entering the Tokyo Dome with the rest of our group. Why were we not allowed to join our party to see the Red Sox’ afternoon workout? Because, you see, we were not wearing our Red Sox Nation badges around our necks. (We had left them at the hotel.) No badge, no entry, period.

Our tour guides explained in Japanese that we were legitimate members of the Red Sox group, but the security guards seemed genuinely puzzled — as though no one had ever, in the history of the Tokyo Dome, attempted to talk his way into the park. And yet, while refusing us admission, the security guards could not have been more polite and considerate. Still, rules are rules in Tokyo. No badge, no entry. Period.

japan-trip-18.jpgNow eventually, they did let us in, and the solution to the problem tells you more about Japanese culture than anything else I’ll write while I’m here. Several Japanese people working outside the dome with badges found out what was going on and handed us their security badges to borrow for two hours. As soon as I had Tomoko Hiragi’s badge around my neck, I was whisked into the Dome as if I were the President of Red Sox Nation. Amazing, no?

Itavarez-and-manny.jpgnside the dome, 150 of us crowded into the front two rows along the first base line and into deep right field to watch a baseball practice. Other than the fact that J.D. Drew entertained us with multiple bombs into the right field seats, there really isn’t much to report about the practice itself. They played catch. They fielded ground balls. They jogged a lot. They took B.P. Hey, it was their last practice before a grueling 162-game schedule, and they were just trying to stay loose.

But you know what I’ll remember about today’s practice? Billy Torres, a seventh grader from Swampscott. Billy’s dad, Bill, won an all-expenses paid trip for two to this opening series in a random drawing on WEEI and decided to bring his son with him. Today, Billy had a fan experience that will be difficult to top during his lifetime.

japan-trip-19.jpgStanding in the first row in right field’s foul territory with a glove on his hand, Billy was intent on getting a ball. Somehow. But the players were pretty much ignoring us, the security guards on the field (following a Tokyo Dome rule, no doubt) would not even pick up foul balls at their feet, and we were too far foul for any batting practice shots to reach us. So Billy took matters into his own hands and set out for the right field bleachers.

Good thing he didn’t know that fans aren’t allowed up there, or else he wouldn’t have grabbed a Manny Ramirez home run ball, then asked Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima in Japanese to sign his ball (a local TV reporter taught him the words). Both stars, who were standing on the warning track chatting during B.P., billy-torres-and-autographs.jpghappily obliged for the only kid near enough to them to get their attention. Billy threw them his ball and a pen, they signed, then they tossed them back. Seconds later, a polite security guard asked Billy to leave the bleachers and return to the group.

There really aren’t many things better than seeing a kid’s expression when he or she is breathlessly, speechlessly thrilled about getting a ball, an autograph, or both at a ball game. “Rob, this makes my whole trip!” he said to me. “I guess some rules are meant to be broken!”

Fenway Natives Invade Tokyo Dome

dsc07131.jpgNo time for sleep! Even though our bodies were craving some shut-eye, the Red Sox Nation crazies from the U.S. who are here in Japan boarded a bus at 5:30pm Sunday night (that’s 4:30am on Easter Sunday back home) to go see a ballgame.

On the bus, I sat next to Deanne from Melrose, an E.R. nurse at a hospital just outside of Boston and a single mom, who said she made a “spur of the moment decision to take a vacation and come to Opening Day in Japan.” Before we could have a real conversation, though, the bus was invaded by a TV crew from Tokyo’s TBS network and a bubbly young Japanese reporter wearing Red Sox gear and a lot of make-up. She asked us questions about our fanhood in broken English and before long we were chanting “Let’s Go Red Sox!” and yelling “Red Sox are number one!” in Japanese (she taught us these words). She even got us to sing a verse of “Sweet Caroline,” a song that she said is also very popular in Japan.

(At midnight last night, I caught the ten-minute piece TBS did on the Red Sox’ visit to Tokyo, and the first image was of yours truly jubilantly walking off the bus at the Tokyo Dome. It’s wild to see yourself on Japanese TV.)

Walking from the bus to the game, someone in our group reflected, “You know how we always see big groups of Japanese tourists roaming the streets of Boston? Well, that’s us.”

dsc07199.jpgOnce we got through the tight security at the Dome (close examination of everything in our bags and individual encounters with a metal-detecting wand), we found our seats just beyond third base, about halfway up, and settled in. I was fortunate to sit next to Red Sox Nation members who had come to Tokyo on their own, from very, very far away. To my right was Chris, who flew to Tokyo from his home in Thailand. Chris spent four years at Boston University and reflected that this was his first Red Sox game since 2001. “Only Wakefield and Varitek are left from the last team I cheered for at Fenway.”

To my left was Dalton Maine, whose plane from Chicago had gotten him to Tokyo just in time for this game. Before settling in Chicago, he grew up in Framingham and played minor league baseball in the Orioles’ organization. (With some probing, I learned he struck out Vladimir Guerrero, Miguel Tejada, and Frank Thomas at different times in his pro career.) Dalton was there with his mom, Billie Maine, who recalled taking Dalton to his first game at Fenway when he was a little boy. “A player threw him a ball, and then he expected to get a ball at every game after that.” The player, Dalton informed me, was Royals pitcher Dennis Leonard.

When Dalton saw that I was taking notes about aspects of Japanese baseball that are different from Major League Baseball, he was very helpful in adding to my list. Here are some of our observations:

dsc07154.jpg1. The Japanese are obsessive about safety. 20-foot high nets line the first and third base lines (making it impossible for a fan to get hit by a low line drive); there are 2-3 rows of seats in front of these nets, and all children in these rows are required to wear a baseball helmet; the bat boys and ball boys wear helmets too and behave much more like Wimbledon ball boys, sprinting on and off the field like lightning bugs. japan-trip-12.jpgEvery time foul ball lands in the crowd, the loudspeakers make a “ding-dong” sound, and the message, “Please watch out for batted balls” flashes on the scoreboard. (It’s funny when there are 3 or 4 foul balls in a row, and this message is flashed over and over.)

2. I heard that Japanese fans are rabid and crazy, but here’s what I saw: there are about 200 fans (many wearing orange, others wearing yellow scarves, all banging drums) in the right field seats who sing and chant constantly, reminding me very much of the college football fans of Clemson University, and the rest of the stadium is virtually silent during most of the game. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that it’s as quiet as the first tee at the dsc07203.jpgMasters prior to every pitch (unless the cheerleaders in right field haven’t finished their song yet). It’s not that fans are not allowed to make noise, but whereas there’s positive pressure at Fenway to yell, “Come on, Papi!”, at the Tokyo Dome, you’d be the only one doing so. (And when I did, I’m sure Papi could hear me loud and clear from 150 feet away.) And the fans never stand up, except when there’s a home run (thank you, J.D. Drew and Jed Lowrie).

3. The stadium is ultra-clean. When I told Dalton I imagined we could eat our dinner off the floor, he said, “Are you kidding? I’d rather have surgery on this floor than in a Chicago E.R.” I went to the bathroom for the first time in the 7th inning, and it had obviously just been cleaned minutes before. Either that, or no one else had used it before the 7th inning, either.

4. The hot dogs they sell in the stands are all individually wrapped in elegant cellophane envelopes. Quite a contrast to the (delicious) Fenway Franks that are removed from the mysterious, oily water and placed in buns before our very eyes back home.

japan-trip-11.jpg5. Beer is sold in the stands by girls wearing short skirts who appear to be between the ages of 15 and 21, and they carry very heavy canvas kegs on their backs, fill a cup, and hand it to you. A Japanese native explained to me that, to become a beer vendor, you have to pass a vigorous physical test. (Oh, and they also sell little bottles of hard alcohol.) All vendors are just about the most polite people you have ever met. And there’s a rule that vendors are only allowed to sell to the section on their right — so even if you’re sitting next to a vendor on the end of an aisle to her left, she can’t serve you unless she runs up her aisle and down another aisle to put you on her right. I’m sure there’s a good reason for this, but man, if this policy were implemented at Fenway, there’d be a revolution in the bleachers before the end of the top of the 1st inning.

It’s interesting to note that, although alcohol (of all kinds) is so readily available and freely imbibed at the Tokyo Dome, there is not a shred of drunken behavior in the stadium. Can you imagine attending a game at Fenway Park and not seeing anyone who has had too much to drink? Being at Tokyo Dome last night made me realize just how accustomed we have become to the “bar atmosphere” at Fenway (and they don’t even sell beer in the aisles there).

japan-trip-16.jpg6. When the Yomiuri Giants are in the field (and the Red Sox are at bat), all of the Giants’ bench players run out to foul territory in deep right field. They do calisthenics, active stretching, practice their swings (without a bat), and just stay physically active the entire half-inning. When their teammates get the third out, they all sprint back to the dugout and sit down on the bench. These Japanese guys are READY to take the field at any moment, and they are FOCUSED on playing baseball every minute of the game. (As opposed to the typical bench player in the U.S. who, according to Dalton, “Sits there for a couple of hours chewing sunflower seeds, shooting the breeze with his buddy.”)

dsc07182.jpg7. Under the stadium seats on the concourse, there are three small, glass “smoking rooms” that are jammed with fans staring up at the large flat screen TV through a thick, white fog. When the door opens and a fan enters or leaves, huge clouds billow through the doorway.

8. In the later innings, the Giants sent a pinch-hitter to the plate, and clearly it was his big day, because the fans broke out singing “Happy Birthday” to the player as he stood in the batter’s box. It’s clearly a tradition here to help players celebrate their birthday. “Friendly Fenway” isn’t quite there yet.

9. Generally, the Tokyo Dome uses the same cheering tunes we do in the U.S. (If I could hum them to you in this blog, you’d know them all.) But the voice that said “Charge!” at the end of that familiar trumpet blast could not have been mellower. And these fans get into “Y.M.C.A.” with the best of U.S. fans. When the popular song was blared in between innings, Japanese fans were standing, contorting their bodies into the letters as the song went along. The Japanese version of the song (which is not sung by the Village People) has them yelling, “Gimme a Y, gimme an M, gimme a C, gimme an A!” Is it not truly incredible that this song has infiltrated the culture of the world so thoroughly??

japan-trip-14.jpg10. Speaking of music, we were treated to “Sweet Caroline” in the 8th inning, and “Dirty Water” coursed through the stadium after the Sox had won (do you think The Standells received some royalties in yen last night?). I have to say, while I was impressed to see so many Sox fans singing Sweet Caroline at the top of their lungs, the song was definitely not as much fun for me to sing away from Fenway and without my kids being there with me. In fact, I think we might want to create a rule in Red Sox Nation against singing the song in large groups outside Fenway Park. It’s really not even close to being the same experience away from home (and away from my children, too).japan-trip-8.jpg

11. Like at Fenway, there were a lot of kids in the Tokyo Dome, and also like at Fenway, many of them were wearing Red Sox t-shirts. Of course, 75% of them were Matsuzaka and Okajima shirts, but I saw several Japanese kids around 10-12 years old wearing Ramirez and Ortiz shirts. Curiously, I don’t think I saw a single little girl at the game, except for the beer vendors.

12. Finally, the place truly came ALIVE when Hideki Okajima took the mound in relief. These Japanese fans ADORE the Major League players fjapan-trip-15.jpgrom their homeland. Now, this just was an exhibition game in March, but there were more flashbulbs going off for every pitch he made, and every pickoff throw to first base, than if it were the first pitch of the 7th game of the World Series. It was as if Babe Ruth himself had risen from the grave and was pitching for the first time in a century. The fan behind me quipped, “It’s like flashbulb spam.”

I missed the bus that brought us back to the hotel because I stayed at the Tokyo Dome a bit longer than others did to take a few more photos. So I took a cab (which, like all other cabs in Japan, was immaculate on the outside and inside) and arrived back here around 11:30pm Tokyo time. Walking to the elevators in an oddly quiet and deserted lobby, I suddenly noticed three men sitting at a small table, talking casually. There was David Ortiz wearing a black leather jacket and dark sunglasses. We made eye contact. I instinctively offered a “hello” gesture. He waved back.

He’s seen me in the lobby twice now. We’re pals.

Spring Training in Alaska

This is the first blog post in a series of posts I’ll be writing during my trip to Japan in my role as Vice President of Red Sox Nation.

Our JAL 747, loaded with excited Red Sox fans from across the U.S., took off from Logan Airport at 7:30am on Saturday morning and headed northwest. Destination: Tokyo, Japan.

But the trip to MLB’s Opening Day had a scheduled pit stop at the very edge of North America in the shadow of the continent’s highest peak, dsc07077.jpgMount McKinley (which can be seen on the horizon in this photo). After soaring over some of the planet’s most spectacular scenery during our approach into Anchorage International Airport, we touched down at 10:15am local time and de-planed while the plane was refueled.

Then, it was time to play some baseball.

At first, no one took my offer of playing catch seriously. I mean, who packs two Rawlings baseball gloves and a ball in their carry-on luggage for a 16-hour flight to the Far East? (Those of you out there who are either related to me, or know me from high school or college, know “Rob does.”) japan-trip-7.jpgBefore long, we had a crowd of people taking turns playing catch on the airport’s observation deck (which was, curiously, shaped exactly like a bullpen). And I gotta tell you, it was truly a rush to throw around a baseball in the 27-degree Alaska air at the foot of one of the most breathtaking mountain ranges any of us has ever seen.

“This is the first time the Red Sox have had Spring Training in Alaska!” quipped Red Sox COO Mike Dee, who threw some pretty nasty curveballs in his first baseball japan-trip-2.jpgworkout of the spring. Other front office folks took turns, including Chuck Steedman, Joe Januszewski, and Sam Kennedy, as did several members of Red Sox Nation, such as Dave Ross and Kevin Kempskie, both of whom work for EMC. I’m happy to report that all participants made accurate throws and skillful catches – despite the imposing distraction of Mount McKinley looming off to the north.

“When will I ever play another game of catch in Alaska?” reflected Steedman. Answer: never again. Is this the beginning of a string of once-in-a-lifetime experiences for the gang of Red Sox fans making the long trip to Opening Day in Japan? Answer: stay tuned.

I saw Papelbon and Big Papi in the lobby as we arrived. They appeared relaxed and comfortable in their new environment. “Hey, Regular Rob, what’s going on?” said Pap. “Yo Reg, how was your flight, man?” said Papi. (Actually, they looked right through me as we walked past each other.)

Tonight, we head to the Tokyo Dome for an exhibition game versus the Yomiuri Giants. I’m excited to see Japanese baseball first-hand, for the first time, and to meet members of Red Sox Nation from The Land of the Rising Sun…

Farewell Doug Mirabelli

mirabelli.jpgDoug Mirabelli had the best timing of any backup catcher in the history of major league baseball. He joined the Sox in the middle of the 2001 season, as the team hurtled towards its 83rd straight year of unfulfilled hopes, then celebrated a joyfully apocalyptic championship in 2004 and another for good measure in 2007. Upon his release yesterday, he left the Red Sox as one of only eight players who played on both championship clubs.

I’m a sentimental baseball fan, so I was truly saddened to hear the Sox had let Mirabelli go. But I trust Theo and Terry and I’m sure it was the right thing for the team.

What never ceases to surprise me, however, is how easily fans and media let someone like Doug Mirabelli just slide out of sight. He’ll get a short article in the Herald and Globe that will be primarily about how important Varitek is to the team, and the callers to our sports talk show radio stations today will say, “Doug was overweight and slow, and he couldn’t hit a lick, good riddance!” We obsess over these players and cheer for them like crazy, then when their usefulness is spent, we discard them like old cell phones.

I realize that every professional baseball player’s career must come to an end, and that they always come to an end while the player is relatively young (Doug is 37, and in the whole scheme of things, that is young). I realize that turnover in baseball is inevitable – and, ultimately, desirable. I realize that Mirabelli’s batting average dipped to .202 last season and would probably have dipped below the Mendoza Line this season. I’m not saying that releasing him was not a smart move.

But let’s give the guy his due. He was the only player capable of catching Wakefield’s wicked knuckleballs. He hit some dramatic, key home runs as a member of the Red Sox. He accepted his backup role with grace and appeared to be a good teammate, too. And most importantly, he was our backup catcher during the greatest era in Boston Red Sox history since the early 20th Century.

The former baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti once wrote, “The game breaks my heart because it was meant to, because it was meant to foster in me again the illusion that there was something abiding, some pattern and some impulse that could come together to make a reality that would resist the corrosion…”

“Of course, there are those who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever.”

mirabelli-and-kapler-on-duck-boat-2004.jpgI’m like Bart. There’s a part of me that wants to believe the illusion that that 2004 team can last forever; that the Wake and Dougie battery will be there every fifth day for eternity. And that part of me died a small death yesterday with the news of Mirabelli’s release. Of course, for Doug Mirabelli himself, the news has to be its own unique form of dying. It’s the end of the most magical period of his life. “Not a lot of fun for anybody,” said Terry Francona about breaking the news to Mirabelli prior to yesterday’s game.

Fireworks aren’t necessary, nor is the cover of Sports Illustrated. I get it. He’s not Brett Favre. But how about a heartfelt “standing O” for our #28? Those members of Red Sox Nation who have the good fortune of attending the Red Sox’ home opener, on April 8, will get their chance to applaud Mirabelli’s contributions to this franchise as he is introduced to receive his 2007 World Series ring (unless he’s playing for another team by then). Maybe we’ll get to hear Tim McGraw’s  “Live Like You Were Dying” one last time (the poignant song about making the most of every moment that Mirabelli chose to blare from Fenway’s loudspeakers every time he came to the plate). If you’re there that day, I hope you’ll cheer long and loud. Not just for Doug Mirabelli, but for all members of that great 2004 team who have slipped away silently from baseball; who, in the end, could not “resist the corrosion.”

Got Tickets?

red-sox-ticket.jpgA ticket to a Red Sox game. There’s nothing quite like holding one in your hands. It’s that sublime feeling of knowing a Fenway Park experience lies in your future. The anticipation is palpable. Regardless of whether the Sox eventually win or lose, with a ticket to a game, you’re guaranteed the thrill of watching Big Papi and Manny stride into the on-deck circle; the roar of the crowd following a spectacular defensive play; the majesty of the Green Monster looming in left field; two choruses of Sweet Caroline and its euphoric chant, “So Good! So Good! So Good!” And for many of us, there’s Fenway’s time-capsule quality that transports us back to our childhoods and reconnects us with our parents, or the spirits of our parents who have passed away, and re-ignites in us the joy of being alive.

And this was all true BEFORE the Red Sox ever won a World Series. Now, when we go to Fenway, we get to see the World Champions!

No wonder it’s so hard to get a ticket. Yes, demand for tickets is through the roof, and the Red Sox continue to price their tickets at levels well below “market value” in order to keep a Fenway Park experience accessible to the “average fan.” In addition, ticket supply is low – we have the smallest stadium in Major League Baseball and 81 home games just isn’t enough to satisfy our fans’ hunger. And as any college professor of economics will tell you, these three forces (along with complete lack of enforcement of scalping laws) make a “secondary market” for tickets inevitable. So that’s what we have in Red Sox Nation: a robust, flourishing, highly profitable ticket-booth-at-fenway.jpgmarket for Red Sox tickets that have already been sold once by the team.

Almost nobody loves the ticket reselling (“scalping”) industry. Yet, as I see it, there are only a handful of ways the Red Sox could combat ticket resellers, and almost all of them seem silly:

1) The Sox could price all seats at fair market value. That would mean a “dutch auction” for every ticket, which would lead to prices of at least $500 per seat for every game. Yes, that includes bleachers and standing room only. This would kill the reselling industry’s interest in Sox tickets because, theoretically, no ticket would be sold initially for an amount less than its highest potential bid.

2) The Red Sox could start to lose more games than they win, which would diminish demand.

3) The Red Sox could tear down Fenway and build a stadium with 100,000 seats. This would probably curtail demand (Fenway is an attraction, regardless of how well the team plays) and also increase ticket supply.

4) The Red Sox could petition Major League Baseball to play all their games at home. If they were successful, this would double the supply of tickets. Likewise, they could petition the league to play 50 home games against the Yankees, to make these tickets less special.

5) The Red Sox could revoke all season ticket holders’ seats. Season ticket holders are currently the biggest supplier of the “secondary market” (after all, who has time to attend every home game?) and putting more tickets back under control of the team would take a huge bite out of resellers’ inventory and would allow the Red Sox to find more “unique” fans to sell them to – fans who would be more likely to actually use the tickets rather than resell them.

6) The state of Massachusetts could enforce the law against reselling tickets at more than $2 of their face value. Which, it appears, will never happen.

Short of these drastic measures, however, there are proactive ways to combat the reselling industry and get tickets into the hands of “regular fans,” and the Red Sox use almost all of them. They:

1) Place strict ticket limits on ticket-buying customers (other than season ticket holders) to ensure a large number of “unique” buyers.ticket-scalper.jpg

2) Hold several “random drawings” before and during the season, which gives lucky fans the right to purchase online highly coveted Green Monster seats, Right Field Roof Deck seats, Yankee Game seats, and even playoff and World Series seats. (I have “won” Red Sox email drawings three times over the years, proving that it really does work.)

3) Host a “scalp-free zone” outside Fenway, which enables fans to sell their tickets at face value on the day of the game. Buyers of these tickets are required to enter Fenway immediately after buying a ticket, to ensure the tickets don’t get resold for a profit.

4) Sell “day of game” tickets at Gate E, beginning two hours before game time.

5) Announce the sale of new blocks of tickets at random times before and during the season.

6) Set technological traps to foil resellers in the online ticket-buying process.

Consider this: By keeping ticket prices well below their actual market value, the Red Sox are effectively offering “financial aid” to every person who buys a ticket directly from them. Absurd, you say? Not really. If the actual value of a particular ticket is $500 on the open market, and the Red Sox know this yet choose to sell this ticket for $80, they are purposefully offering financial aid of $420 to the buyer of that ticket. And they do this for the same reason that Harvard does it, or Andover, or any other expensive educational institution: because they don’t want their customer base to consist solely of wealthy people.

There’s a moral angle here, to be sure, but there’s also a long-term business angle. If the Sox were to maximize their profit now by selling tickets at their actual market value (which would terminate the secondary market for Sox tickets), the economic diversity of their fan base would diminish. Consequently, if the team were to hit hard times in the future (i.e., they begin to lose more games than they win… uncomfortable to imagine, I know), they would have a difficult time selling tickets at the exorbitant prices leftover from the glory days of 2008 and would probably have to slash prices. In addition, attracting back the millions of fans who were disillusioned by their lack of access to games might be a major challenge.

ace-tickets.jpgA few days ago, the Red Sox signed a sponsorship agreement with Ace Ticket and proclaimed them “the official ticket reseller of the Boston Red Sox.” Yes, it’s crummy that ANY team has an “official ticket reseller,” but to put in perspective how established the ticket reselling industry is in 2008, keep in mind that Major League Baseball itself has partnered with StubHub, another ticket reseller, as the official ticket reseller of Major League Baseball. The entire LEAGUE is profiting from the ticket reselling industry — it’s not just the Red Sox.

To the Red Sox’ credit, last year they instituted a program called “Red Sox Replay” that enabled season ticket holders to resell their tickets online at virtually face value (fans could log on and buy tickets at a markup of approximately 25%, a small percentage of which went to the Red Sox for maintenance of the site). But the moment MLB inked their exclusive deal with StubHub, the Sox were forced to tear down Replay, since it competed with StubHub’s interests. As Sam Kennedy, the Sox’ chief Marketing and Sales officer, told The Boston Globe earlier this week, without Replay, the Sox felt compelled “to identify and endorse a secure and reputable secondary market option” for their season ticket holders.

It’s also important to point out that the Red Sox have not provided Ace with “tickets for resale” as part of their deal, and the Sox do not stand to profit from a single ticket that Ace sells. This is a straight advertising deal – the team is simply accepting a large check from Ace Ticket for sponsorship (and, we trust, investing this back into the team on the field), and they have sent a letter to their season ticket holders recommending Ace Ticket as the team’s reseller of choice. That’s it.

ticket-line-at-fenway.jpgNow if Abe Lincoln owned the Red Sox, would he have signed a sponsorship agreement with Ace? No. What about A. Bartlett Giamatti, the former commissioner of baseball who was as principled a man as ever lived (he’s the guy who banned Pete Rose from baseball). Would Bart have signed a sponsorship agreement with Ace? Probably not. Abe and Bart would have eschewed any deal that appeared to link their team with scalpers.

On the other hand, neither of these men were successful businessmen, and neither would ever have been picked to run a major league baseball team. The Red Sox are not only our beloved Olde Towne Team, they are a business. “Good business” helped us win it all in 2004 and 2007, and good business will help us win in the future, as well. It’s hard to fault the business people at the Red Sox for pocketing an easy endorsement check (and offering a “benefit” for season ticket holders) when not doing so would (arguably) jeopardize our competitiveness in the American League East. The money the Sox are making from the Ace Ticket deal will help them put the highest quality team on the field for 2008 and beyond. Yup, winning really does have a steep price.

While down here in Fort Myers, I had a chance to talk about all of this with Ron Bumgarner, Red Sox VP of Ticketing, for about 30 minutes. And what I’ve concluded is that his job is different from that of every other VP of Ticketing at every other MLB franchise. While other teams are busy trying to sell as many tickets as they can at the highest possible prices, the Red Sox are trying to sell all of their tickets at a discount (theoretically) to as many unique, regular fans as is possible, and working assiduously to thwart ticket resellers at the same time (yes, even though they just advised their season ticket holders to sell their unused tickets to Ace, the Sox will continue to try to keep varitek-fan.jpgother individual tickets out of Ace’s and other resellers’ hands). Profit was Ron’s main concern when he ran ticketing for the San Diego Padres, but here at the Red Sox, profit takes a back seat to equitability and wide distribution of tickets across Red Sox Nation’s loyal citizenship.

And you just have to trust me when I tell you that Ron is committed to keeping Fenway accessible to “regular fans.” He has a couple of young children of his own, and I know he relates personally to the “regular fan” whose parents brought him/her to games at Fenway during childhood, and now wants to bring his/her kids to the park, too. “It’s a complicated problem,” Ron told me, “But since it means the Red Sox are winning games, it’s a good problem in the end.” Right?