Anybody arriving at Fenway Park on Wednesday evening for Boston’s last home game of the regular season would certainly have characterized the atmosphere as festive. In the street outside the park, as the Dixieland band played on, a big creature made of red and white balloons was swaying in the breeze. Sausages and pepper steaks sizzled on numerous grills. Between a couple of those grills, former Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant, looking like a mustachioed Cuban Buddha, was signing autographs and posing for photos.
Meanwhile, inside the park, a couple of hours before the game against the last place Baltimore Orioles would transpire, the Red Sox were taking fielding practice. They’d frittered away all but two games of the nine game lead they’d held over Tampa Bay in the wild card race at the beginning of the month, so fielding practice was an excellent idea. It could have been argued that they needed batting practice and base-running practice, too…and pitching practice, or at least a couple of healthy pitchers.
But beside the Boston dugout, as if everything was just fine, catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia was obliging some youngsters by signing autographs…and clowning:
“Can you sign my jersey?” the kids were shouting.
Saltalamacchia signed the jerseys, and the baseballs, and the programs, and then he pretended he was going to sign my microphone. After he had scrawled a final signature, I asked him if he enjoyed the drill.
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s awesome.”
“Has there been any decline in autograph seekers as the lead has dwindled?” I asked.
“Ah, no, not that I know of,” he said. “You know, we come to the ballpark, and it’s nice for the fans to be able to interact with us, and for us to interact with them.”
I didn’t doubt that. Still, Boston had just lost two in a row to the Orioles and six of seven to the Rays. They were 5-15 for September. Surely, coming to the ballpark under those circumstances couldn’t be the same as it would have been if Boston hadn’t kicked away all those games.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia shrugged off that notion.
“I think the focus is still the same,” he said. “We’re going to go out there and focus on tonight’s game, play as hard as we can, and try to get the win.”
It sounded like the party line to me, and that impression was reinforced when veteran Boston knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, who had thrown about 11 pitches Jarrod Saltalamacchia couldn’t catch in one of those losses, whistled essentially the same tune.
“Ah, everybody’s good,” Wakefield said. “You know, for me, with experience, I think I’ve been here before, so it’s a matter of knowing from past experience and winning today, worrying about today only. When tomorrow comes, you worry about tomorrow. That’s kind of been my attitude.”
The slide from virtual lock on the playoffs via the Wild Card toward October irrelevance put Red Sox fans in an odd position. Since Wild Card contender Tampa Bay had a critical handful of late September games against the Yankees, Sox fans had to cheer for New York. Or they had to try to. Or something:
“No,” one of those fans told me as she shook her head. “Absolutely not. But in this case, I think I could, a little bit.”
“It hurts,” said another. “It hurts. But we’ll do what we have to do to get to the playoffs.”
“It’s just not gonna happen,” a third added. “I can’t. I don’t even have it in my blood to root for them at all. I know it will get the Red Sox where they need to be, but still, it’s hard to do. It’s hard to do. But maybe I’ll do it for them.”
Obviously, those fans found themselves counting on the Yankees because for weeks they have been unable to count on the Red Sox, who have blown late inning leads, allowed the opposition to run them out of games, and generally looked as if they don’t belong in October.
Nick Cafardo, who’s been following the team for the Boston Globe, felt the fundamentals weren’t the only things the Sox were missing.
“The Red Sox are always under the microscope because they, like the Yankees, are a big budget team,” he said. “The Tampa Bay Rays are an example of a team that has a $42 million payroll, and the manager, Joe Madden, gets every ounce of blood, sweat, and tears out of those guys, and you just don’t see that in Boston for some reason.”
On Wednesday night, Cafardo characterized the home team as “tense:”
“It’s not just one guy,” he said. “And they can say all they want, ‘Yeah, we’re trying hard and blah, blah, blah,’ but then they miss cutoff guys, they’re throwing to the wrong base, they’re misplaying balls, and all those things give you an indication that their heads just aren’t in it.”
All that aside, Nick Carfardo figured that with their ace on the mound Wednesday night, the Red Sox would begin to turn things around by beating the Orioles. They didn’t, and the final out seemed emblematic of the month of fecklessness. It came on a dribbler back to the pitcher. At that point, Sox followers could take some solace from the fact that the on the same day, the Yankees knocked off the Rays twice: Boston had actually gained half a game on Tampa Bay…by losing. But that’s not a strategy likely to inspire even the most optimistic Sox fan.
The Red Sox are currently in New York to play the division-winning Yankees.