A surreal night at Fenway

If you spend 14 days in New York and two in Boston, you figure the latter would be less exciting. I proved that theory very wrong this month.

I travelled to Boston on Tuesday, 8th of September, not fully aware of what the city had in store or who I would meet over the course of the two days I would be there. Departing New York via Chinatown – not the most glamorous place and certainly not the smell you want on a morning following a bustling street market – the weather was 15 degrees warmer than back home in London and the coach trip cost $16, a far cry from the three figure sums you tend to pay for any form of public transport in England.

I could write about the great place my girlfriend Myriam and I were staying – 1010 Massachusetts Avenue to be precise – or the Harvard lecture we attended, soaking in the intellectual intensity of MIT or walking around Boston Common, but what really kept my adrenalin up was the thought of my first visit to Fenway Park, where the Red Sox were set to host the Blue Jays on Wednesday night, also my final night on the short trip.

Let’s start there. I had just finished an hour of yoga on the Harvard campus (as you do) outside a square of dorms, college students frequently taking in the sight of two apparent mistakes in the system. What I’ve tried to wrap my head around is that every act to follow before I arrived at Fenway was essential to me having the best evening of my life. I decided not to shower before I left because, well, who wants to miss batting practice even if it means an uncomfortable time for those around me? It was 4:45 and I had to jump on the red line, then change to the B, C or D. I stopped at 7 Eleven for cash, and I was on my way.

Inside the old and in-need-of-a-do-over Boston subway, I stood next to plenty of Sox fans, later that evening finding out for sure that they are the best in all of baseball. A pilot was on my left, holding his hat and looking very professional. The train pulled up for its penultimate stop before Kenmore, and as I turned to look outside the train, I did a classic double take as I thought I saw and then definitely saw Don Banks, the writer for Sports Illustrated who I had fortunately had previous contact with and arranged to meet in Brooklyn the following week. Not wishing to sound like a stalker, he checked the train was correct before sprinting – Don might refute that statement but I want it to sound as dramatic as possible – onto the cabin next to me. At this point I had no idea whether he had entered or not, and anyone who remembers the final Friends episode where Ross was screaming down the phone regarding Rachel: “Did she get off the plane, did she get off the plane?!” … Well, I was doing the same: “Did he get on the train?”

I exited at Kenmore, turning as casually as possible to notice Don also leaving, and headed up the elevator. He came up, I introduced myself and both slightly bemused that this chance meeting had even occurred, he offered to buy me a beer and then told me more good news; he was watching the game with Peter King.

It was a strange feeling walking towards the stadium, because all I had thought about since I booked my trip was being able to watch the Red Sox in the Mecca of baseball. But now, as I passed all the bars and baseball hubs surrounding the park that I had read about, I was trying to take in everything one of my favourite NFL writers was saying to me whilst soaking in the atmosphere. Don told me that he and his wife had met at a game – talk about a potential movie script – and after picking up our tickets we went to the bar where not only had they had their first date but where Peter would join us in a few minutes.

It was called the Eastern Standard and here I learned that iPhones can be spoken to and they not only hear what you say but then type it for you in a message. Don was doing this to a few people then Peter called, and once he told him there was someone he was going to meet, namely me, I thought I was in dreamland.

Holy crap, I thought, this is Don Banks and that’s Peter King as the MMQB King strolled in. Over the next 30 minutes, I was asked what I did at the Guardian, told countless stories and even offered multiple beers. I had two bought for me and at the behest of Don who admitted he was the only one who could calm Peter down, had to down the second as we shot off to find our seats, but not before Peter had taken a picture of the beer he drunk so he could remember it for his ‘beernerdness’ section of the Monday morning column. After reading it, he stated that it was one of 765 beers on offer at the Eastern Standard, his being the Cellar Door Saison.

Once Peter knew I was a video producer for the Guardian he said ‘you know what, we should do a video’. Why would I turn that down? I recorded their Super Bowl predictions outside the stadium, learning quickly from Peter’s introduction that Fenway opened the same week that the Titanic sunk. Quite surreal, even more so than their agreeing on the winner in 2015; the Green Bay Packers. Why do I get the feeling their pick will come back to bite them?

Peter was excited, just as I imagined him, buying ‘Free Brady’ stickers and a game programme outside, telling a woman I was from London while she took a photo of the three of us. I also posed with the ‘Lucky Strike’ man (or woman) before we headed in. We didn’t have tickets anywhere near each other but they said ‘just come with us’ and I wasn’t about to refuse. This sort of stuff doesn’t happen again.

Wow. This stadium is something else. Someone needed to throw beer over me so I would wake up. The inner concourse was old but classic, busy but excited, hosting a struggling team but infused with boisterous die hard Sox fans, and I was with two of them. Don had told me in the bar that he and Peter both loved baseball more than the sport they covered for a living. “Why not make a video about baseball?” I asked. Don’s response, and I’m paraphrasing: “It’s the last true love I have in sports. Once you cover something for a while, it becomes another job.”

Peter lined up for more beer while Don and I entered the ground behind home plate, finding an empty row of seats in a section where neither of us had tickets. I was supposed to be behind first base and they in the grandstand.

I walked a little closer to ground level to take it in. These were my first impressions:

  • The Green Monster is WAY closer than you can imagine. Every fly ball to left looks like it’s gone.
  • The field looks extraordinary under the lights, like no other ballpark I’ve visited (Five on the list now – Dodger Stadium, Safeco Field, Yankee Stadium, Citi Field and Fenway).
  • The owners have done a tremendous job of expanding the stadium with modern concepts, but helping the park remain sacred and steeped with tradition and history.
  • There is no foul ball netting slightly to the right and left of home plate and fans in the first few rows are ridiculously close to the action, and that has to change. Someone got hit in the first inning and there was a short stoppage.
  • The fans are loud, and the stadium is wrapped in a constant cloud of chitter chatter. People are happy to be there, they arrive early and enjoy the evening. They are certainly not passing through. It’s a fantastic atmosphere.
  • The pressure and expectations on the players can be felt from the stands. Playing in Boston is as hard as the players and media say it is.
  • Watch your back on every foul ball, because most of them cannon off the stands and fall into the section below. I didn’t get a ball. You can’t have everything.

I called Myriam as the Canadian anthem began – a woman in front of me turned in disgust, but I couldn’t hold the news to myself any longer – and began to chime about the slim chances of all of this happening. Apologies, Canada.

As I mentioned that I’m also with Peter King, arguably the best NFL writer in the business, I turned to see him standing right behind me, cap over his heart as he sang the Canadian anthem. He then sang the American anthem with equal gusto before we headed up to our seats. For an inning anyway.

In the middle of the first, Peter spots the ‘WEEI seats’ for the local radio broadcast and exclaims to Don that we are heading there. Joe Kelly has just retired the side and already we are poised to move, but Don convinces him to stay here until the end of the inning.

We move down and slot in to the spare seats after one – there are many perks when you’re around these sort of people – sitting roughly ten rows up between home and first. Cries of ‘Mookieeeee’ for Mookie Betts and ‘come on Peed!’ for Dustin Pedroia are new to me, and then the guys talk business politics as I turn my attention to the game. What I found most rewarding was how friendly they both were. I didn’t have to buy a drink all night, I ate a pretzel and had the chance to buy Don and I a ‘Fenway Frank’ after his recommendation. Although it tasted like any other hot dog, I wasn’t about to disagree that this was the best dog you could buy on the planet.

And heck these two love baseball. When Josh Donaldson stepped up, they knew what his batting average was for the season. They know Russell Martin has killed them in the past. Don explains to me that most, not all, of the Yankees world championships came about because the competition at the time was limited, and watered down. I was enamoured with the Red Sox by this point and glad to accept and agree with this explanation. Bemusement followed when I heard that Don had turned down two seats for Game 6 of the 2013 World Series, the night Boston secured their third title since 2004 and their first at Fenway since 1918.

Don and his son Micah were driving back home and had zero service during Game Two of the AL Championship encounter with Detroit the same year they won it all. They were somehow able to find out that David Ortiz had tied the game with a grand slam in the bottom of the eighth – I can’t recall whether his wife had called or the radio worked for a split second – but needless to say they acted like two school kids going crazy. Real fans. After watching a game here, I can only imagine what it must be like during the postseason.

While chatting with Peter he told me that he stays awake until 9am on Monday morning to write his column from the Sunday slate, and I was beginning to truly understand his connections when he casually said he had to call Richard Sherman at 9:45. Another big name, David Ortiz, hit his 498th career home run to dead centre during the game, along with a long ball from Betts and a solid outing from Joe Kelly.

My phone had 1% battery remaining two hours in, just enough life to have a selfie with the both of them before Peter stood up and said he had to have a photo of me. I went down to the front and smiled before he asked for my email and sent it to me. Turns out we all have AOL accounts … small world, proving over these three hours even smaller than I thought.

To contextualise what this meant to me is very hard. People always say you should never meet your heroes, because they tend to let you down. I read Don and Peter’s work every single week back in England, staying up late to watch games, throwing a baseball around the park instead of kicking a football. I would rather watch a mid-season baseball game than a Premier League game, and I travel to the United States primarily to soak in the sporting culture, pick up newspapers that have copy on what I want to read and attend games. To bump into these two, have a video with them which includes Peter saying I had become their friend, about to buy me a beer and then having the pleasure of enjoying a ballgame with them. Come on … How does that happen?

I did what I have never done before – leave a game early – because it was 10-1 Boston after six innings which had taken three hours. The guys had to head back because it was the NFL opener the following evening at Gillette Stadium between New England and Pittsburgh, hence them both being in town.

What I haven’t mentioned to this point is that whilst we were in the bar, I said to the two of them that my media idol was Dan Patrick, of the Dan Patrick Show and Football Night in America. I listen to his show religiously, and Peter laughed and said, “Funny, I just spent the last four hours with Dan rehearsing for the show tomorrow.” I laughed. I thought that was the end of the DP conversation.

“Why don’t you come to the Four Seasons hotel tomorrow at 2:30 and I’ll introduce you?” There was a man screaming inside my head at this point.

Three hours later we left Fenway, I said bye to them both and spent the next 45 minutes in the club store, trying on everything before finding what I wanted as I’m walking to the checkout with something I half wanted. I had a coach booked for 1pm the following day to take us back to New York, but I rescheduled to 4pm so I could see Peter again and meet Dan. $38 never felt so good.

I was very nervous because I had tried to find out where the DP Show was recorded in New York, but to no avail. Peter talked with Myriam and I outside the hotel, was very gracious and introduced me to Tony Dungy, the former NFL player, coach and Super Bowl winner. I turned around and there stood Dan. We shared pleasantries, chatted briefly about the London Olympics and Al Michaels’ love of steak, then had a quick photo before the NBC crew left. The day after the best evening imaginable, I met Dan and Tony, stood next to Rodney Harrison, Hines Ward and Bob Costas and then headed back to New York.

Some people reading this might think I am just bragging about what happened, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I work in the sports media and I look up to these people. If I wrote this before it happened, I would never believe it could actually happen.

It was something that goes way beyond a dream and I hope the people involved realise how crazy it was and what it meant to me. Don was just like his Snap Judgements column; sharp, witty and entertaining. Peter was just like his MMQB column; intelligent, insightful and honest.

The trip of all trips.