FARM REPORT by Gary Jacobs
August 26 | FENWAY PARK - You could see it from the first toss of BP.
If you're around major-leaguers for any length of time, you know the look I'm talking about. It's a combination of the swagger, the "thousand-yard stare" they give the media, and the sense of athletic superiority that oozes out of every pore.
It's a look that is shared beyond the Bigs, as well; most of the PawSox have The Look displayed proudly, broadcasting machismo and Alpha Dog status like a peacock strutting its tail feathers in front of the females. And why not? If you've made it to Triple-A, you've earned The Look. You've survived rookie ball, Short-A, Long-A, and Double-A. It's been usually three or perhaps four years and you're still playing baseball for a living. You're used to big games and bad games, of being ignored by and sought by the media, you've perhaps even done some TV. There are places you go where you're recognized. People ask you for your autograph. The Look is yours by right.
But last Saturday at Fenway Park, watching the Lowell Spinners, the Sox' short-season single-A affiliate, take BP as the front half of the Futures at Fenway promotion, The Look was on every face, the swagger on every set of hips.
What have these kids done to merit The Look?
Maybe it's the venue: there is something undeniably cool about playing before 34,000 fans at Fenway. A fellow scribe of my acquaintance who plays the annual game between members of the New York and Boston media agrees: "Come on. You're playing at Fenway," he says. "Of course you have The Look."
My friend has a point. Certainly this is not an ordinary game; the Fenway mystique has to count for something. After all, if by rough estimate 5 percent of all NY-Penn leaguers make it to the bigs, this is the career highlight for 19 out of 20 of these players. And one of the cardinal rules of playing professional sports is, act like you belong there. So maybe these guys cement The Look on their faces to prevent wide-eyed wonder from taking over.
And as one watches this game unfold, one finds it easy to believe that only five percent of all these players are going to make it: the baseball lacks a certain crispness that Fenway is used to hosting. It's good, the baseball we're watching - but it's definitely not great. Pitchers sometimes fail to cover first quickly enough; close plays in the infield are hits instead of outs. But it's single-A ball. No blame to the participants; they're kids. For some of them this is their second - or even first - professional season. They don't have the hundreds of games under their belt that it takes to do the right thing every time.
But they all have The Look.
* * *
We find the answer to the question after the conclusion of the front half of the Futures twinbill (Spinners win, 3-1, Josh Papelbon pitches a perfect ninth for the save). As the players lined up for high-fives, The Look vanished from the Spinners' faces, replaced with a rosy-cheeked enthusiasm for the experience they'd just undergone.
Spinners shortstop Ryan Khory, who went 0 for 2 with a sac fly and an RBI, was typically effusive after playing Fenway.
"Yeah, I was really excited to be out there," he said immediately after the game. "Obviously you can't really imagine it until you're here, but it was exactly what I expected."
Papelbon, brother of Big Club phenom and Rookie of the Year candidate Jonathan Papelbon, was equally as pumped.
"It was unbelievable," he said with a yard-wide grin on his face. "I didn't want to leave. I wanted to stay here forever."
Even though their baseball journey has brought them closer to the Show, the Fenway atmosphere was not lost on the PawSox players, either.
"I don't think they realized it until they got here," said their skipper, Ron Johnson. "Even me. I walked through the center field door [the double-wide garage door near the triangle] and I said, 'whoa!' To play in front of all these people…the atmosphere is just electric."
Somehow it's comforting to know that The Look isn't a permanent condition; that sometimes the men playing a boy's game can, for one final time in their lives, be boys, and let sheer wonder live on their faces for just this one game.
* * *
The Futures at Fenway was as well-received by the fans as it was by the players; the paid attendance was 33,394, a sell-out of Fenway. It presented a great opportunity for families who aren't in the highest income bracket to come out to the ballpark and soak in the ambiance of America's greatest ballpark.
For some perspective: Suppose Dad wants to take his three kids to see the Red Sox play. Let's further suppose that four together could be had at the box office (I know, I know - but this is hypothetical). He picks up a decent set of ducats, say, Loge 148, right around third base. At $85 a pop, that's $340 in tickets. Add $30 to park, $60 in souvenirs (a conservative $20 per kid), a couple of beers for Dad, hot dogs and sodas all around - call it another $50 for food and drink. Now you're looking at the better part of 500 bucks to watch three hours of baseball (baseball that, it needn't be mentioned, isn't the finest that The Nation has witnessed recently).
Let's compare that with the Futures at Fenway price schedule: $10 to park. $20 for each ticket for the same seat. Most of the concessions sold at a $1 discount. Bottom line, that family of four now pays $80 for tickets, $10 to park, $40 for food and drink, and the same $60 in souvenirs. And all of a sudden $480 turns into $190. For two games, not one.
Josie Catino, who attended with her husband Dave Smith, and their son Evan, viewed the Futures at Fenway Day as a godsend.
"I think it's great," said Catino in between games of the doubleheader. "It means I get to bring my son to Fenway Park without blowing $200. We get to see the minor-league players we've been following and hearing about. It's definitely a family day."
Over and above the atmosphere of Fenway there was some decent baseball played as well. "I was thrilled to see Josh Papelbon pitch," said Catino. "They seemed pumped up as well. I think it's good equally for the players and the fans."
Mike Hazen, Director of Player Development for the Red Sox organization, couldn't agree more. "I don't think you can underestimate what this means, to the players as well as the fans. Look around [gestures to the crowd]. Look at all the children here. They're the next generation of Red Sox fans. We're really fortunate to enjoy the support of Red Sox Nation and we're fortunate to be able to put on an event like this."
So - all in all the Futures at Fenway day was a complete success. The fans certainly embraced it. For some of the players that participated it was a harbinger of their future, but for most of them it'll be the opportunity they had to tell their grandchildren the day they played at Fenway Park. They can affect The Look all they want - we know better.
Gary can be reached at email@example.com.