Fenway Park, the iconic stadium that's supported generations of Red Sox fans, is ready to open for business come Friday. (AP)
There is nothing like the home opener at Fenway Park, a day that is viewed as an unofficial city holiday in Boston. I still remember when my mother allowed my sister and I to skip school to attend in 1983. Fifth grade me was very excited.
This year, the day has added meaning because it takes place on Jackie Robinson Day. Unlike many previous home openers in Boston, the weather is expected to be pleasant on Friday, remaining in the 60s all day.
Three or four hours before the scheduled first pitch of 2:05 p.m. ET, the scent of the sausage carts on Jersey Street will already be prevalent. Fans will be lined up outside the players' parking lot, looking for their first glimpse of core members of the 2022 version of the Old Towne Team.
The excitement will build from the morning until the early afternoon, through the pomp and circumstance of pregame ceremonies and all the way to the game’s first pitch and beyond, as it should.
In a thrilling ’21 season, when the Red Sox exceeded the expectations of everyone but themselves by advancing all the way to the American League Championship Series, excitement was rejuvenated at Fenway Park.
With the majority of that squad back, and a prized new addition at second base in Trevor Story, the Red Sox expect to do more damage even while playing in perhaps the most loaded division in baseball.
To get there, the rotation will need to hold down the fort until Chris Sale and James Paxton return in the summer months. The bullpen will need to establish an identity that is very much a work in progress at this stage.
And the offense will simply need to live up to projections, which didn’t happen often on the season-opening road trip until the final game in Detroit on Wednesday, when the Red Sox erupted for nine runs. But nobody is worried about a 3-3 road trip at this stage.
“We always hit,” manager Alex Cora said.
Whether the ’22 season becomes a hit in Boston is a long way from being known.
But the first day at Fenway will be one for a baseball-crazed region to rejoice.
KIKÉ CRUSHES MIC'D UP
Red Sox center fielder Kiké Hernández nailed his MIC’d up segment for ESPN in the bottom of the fourth inning of Sunday Night Baseball at Yankee Stadium. In a unique version of “the ball will find you,” the Yankees had four base hits that Hernández fielded while he was mic’d up. At times, the audience could hear him huffing and puffing in pursuit. Boston’s leadoff man proved to be a good multi-tasker. Just as announcer Karl Ravech introduced Hernández to the audience, the first pitch of the inning was belted to the wall in left-center for a double.
“Not giving me much of a chance to settle in,” Hernández quipped.
Unprompted, Hernández offered a good-natured jab to color analyst Eduardo Pérez for a conversation they had during batting practice.
“Hey Eduardo, first at-bat of the game, I went to ambush, you told me to hit it to right-center, and it was right down the middle, and I was late because you told me to hit it to right-center,” Hernández said. “Last time I’m listening to you. I was late because I was trying to go to the other way. That’s not me.”
He also provided some streams of consciousness: “Is it cold in the booth? It’s really cold here.” … “Opening Day, first time in my life, I grounded into two double plays in one game.” … “You guys think I’m going to go hitless all year?”
There was plenty of inside baseball, too, most notably when Hernández said that if Anthony Rizzo hit the ball to him, he was going to fire home to try to cut down the runner from second. But Hernández added that if the ball wasn’t hit that hard, he’d need to hit the cutoff man to prevent Rizzo from getting to second. As if on cue, Rizzo followed Hernández’s pre-pitch analysis by slapping one up the middle. “Oh, here it is!” Hernández exclaimed as the ball came his way.
Hernández made a strong throw, but Xander Bogaerts cut it off. Rizzo was held at first. The Red Sox wound up winning the game, 4-3, and the segment was everything it should have been: Entertaining, insightful and making spectators feel like they had VIP access on the field during that half-inning. As Hernández ran back to the dugout, he nominated Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies to be the next player ESPN MIC’d up. After Reds first baseman Joey Votto and Hernández turned in stellar performances, Albies will have a tough act to follow on Sunday.
When the Red Sox beat the Mariners, 9-7, on a walk-off grand slam by Mo Vaughn in the 1998 home opener, who was the losing pitcher for Seattle?
A) Heathcliff Slocumb
B) Tony Fossas
C) Mike Timlin
D) Paul Spoljaric
THREE AND OUT WITH RICH HILL
Each week in the newsletter, we will ask three questions to someone affiliated with the Red Sox. With the home opener upcoming, it was a good opportunity to talk to 42-year-old lefty Rich Hill about pitching for his hometown team for the first time in seven years.
Growing up in Milton, you know as much as anyone how special the opener is at Fenway every year. How much do you look forward to running out to the first-base line on Friday during pregame introductions?
Any time you get to be part of an Opening Day at the highest level, it’s an honor. It’s something you don’t take for granted. At my age, you don’t know how many more you have. Just being back home and having my wife and my son be able to go to a lot of games, plus family and extended family, it obviously means a little more for me being from Boston and putting on a Red Sox uniform after growing up a Red Sox fan. When you look at the game and why we’re playing it and why we started to play it, it’s great. I think that’s something I definitely appreciate more and more as I’ve gotten older, and this is going to be special.
You mentioned your 10-year-old son Bryce, who is following in your footsteps by playing in Milton Little League. How cool is it for you to know you will get to some of his games and practices this year?
Being able to go to his games is going to be great and really important. Catching a game before going into Fenway or taking him in for batting practice and to enjoy the time we have. Because, again, it’s fleeting. That’s what I love about what [manager] Alex [Cora] has done here in Boston. We had that in Los Angeles, and Tampa Bay and Minnesota were the same way.
I look back at your first stint with the Red Sox, from 2010-12, and you were dealing with a lot of injuries at that time and just trying to keep your career going. And also before that and after that, you hit roadblocks. Could you have ever imagined being out here at 42 years old, and in the rotation for a team like Boston?
The easy answer is no. But there’s also the determination and work ethic and time and effort that goes into continuing to stay on top of your game as much as possible that has allowed me to still be here. As you’re getting older, you have to combat different kind of issues that you might not have encountered before. Even getting out of bed. Stretching in the morning. Things we didn’t have to do when we were younger.
But now, it’s more just keeping that part of your daily routine. That keeps you pliable and ready to go at this age. The other side of it is I never really planned on doing anything else. I think that’s why I went to the bullpen, then I went to independent ball, and came back as a starter. There was never another option in my mind. Everybody has ability. But you have to have that work ethic and that effort.
While the daily ups and downs are felt throughout the 162-game season, particularly in a place like Boston, the developments in the Minor Leagues are always important to follow.
In the first week of MiLB action, some of the Red Sox’s top prospects stood out.
In the home opener for Triple-A Worcester on Tuesday, Triston Casas unloaded for a 477-foot homer, per Statcast. Even though Polar Park is known as a launching pad, that's a long way to hit a baseball. Casas is ranked No. 16 among MLB prospects, and second in Boston’s farm system.
Meanwhile, Marcelo Mayer, the fourth pick in the 2021 MLB Draft and Boston’s No. 1 prospect, is taking no time to adjust to Single-A. The stud shortstop had 10 hits in his first 19 at-bats for Salem, including three doubles.
You don’t hear as much about No. 13 Red Sox prospect Matthew Lugo, but the club’s second round pick from 2019 could be on the verge of a breakout year. The toolsy, 20-year-old had nine hits -- including three doubles and a homer -- in his first 19 at-bats for High-A Greenville.
THIS WEEK IN '07
Throughout the season, we’ll take a 15-year look back at the most underrated of Boston’s four World Series championships this century.
April 18: On the 13th game of the regular season, the Sox won, 4-1, behind home runs from Mike Lowell, Doug Mirabelli and David Ortiz. Tim Wakefield's knuckleball danced for seven strong innings. What was so significant about this game? The Red Sox went back into first place in the American League East that night and stayed there for the rest of the season.
A HOME OPENER FROM THE VAULT
Throughout the season, we will share our extensive archived collection of great Red Sox moments. To stay topical, here is the dramatic moment prized free-agent acquisition Manny Ramirez provided in his first home at-bat for Boston in the 2001 home opener.
C) Timlin, who was part of two World Series-winning teams in Boston later in his career, was saddled with the L but Spoljaric gave up the game-winning slam to Vaughn. The Sox scored seven runs in a wild bottom of the ninth against the four possible answers to the trivia question and didn’t make an out.
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