Not too long ago, my buddy had a religious baseball experience that involved a bowl of French onion soup, a pint of Guinness, a mascot and — of course — the city of Boston.Though first, because we humans have mercifully short memories and tend to forget the miseries inflicted on us only months ago, a primer on winter: It’s that absurdly romanticized season when you hack at your iced-over car windshield before the sun’s up, and your nose hair freezes, and your co-workers all have pockets full of used tissue wads and smell of cough drops and raw-garlic-based cold remedies.
(To those readers who live in Canada or north of, say, Springfield, Mo., in the U.S.: I’m sorry. Roll up this issue and read it when things thaw out.)
But here’s the real soul-sucking rub of winter: no baseball.
Two months ago, pitchers and catchers pulled their customized Hummers into spring-training-facility parking lots in Florida and Arizona. With the turn of April, however, exhibition games end and real ones begin. Shells from sunflower seeds are being spit all over 30 major league infields and outfields as we speak. Umpires are rubbing balls with mud from secret banks of the Delaware River. Jim Leyland is squinting. These developments are being covered simultaneously on eight cable sports networks to which your spouse is going to be very angry you subscribed.
But there was indeed once a season called winter when the only baseball news available — middle reliever you’ve never heard of signs one-year deal for more money than you’ll make in your life; player to be named later traded to Kansas City for ribs and baked beans after Minnesota general manager gets a craving — was confined to a tiny blotter in the sports pages’ nether regions, next to ads for girdles.
Now that I’ve set the dismal seasonal scene, allow me to introduce this tale’s protagonist. Chris Sweeney is a journalist who has just left his full-time gig in balmy Florida to follow his girlfriend to Boston. It’s one of those walking-out-on-the-tightrope acts everybody is inclined to perform a few times in their lives.
Even though Chris is, like me, a pitiable New York Mets fan, he has moved into the rabid heart of Red Sox Nation: Fenway, as the neighborhood that surrounds the team’s storied ballpark is called.
So Chris walks to Thornton’s Fenway Grille (the watering hole just down the street from his apartment), takes a stool, orders a Guinness and French onion soup, and ponders his employment prospects.
But then the bar’s door swings open, and Chris suddenly is pondering far more enjoyable things. To wit: Why is a giant Muppet-like creature with a Red Sox jersey and baseball cap sitting at the bar across from me, studying a menu?
Wally the Green Monster — referred to almost exclusively by his first name, usually screamed while spilling your beer when you spot him dancing on the dugout — is the Red Sox’s mascot. Named in homage to Fenway’s giant left field wall, he’s furry, green and bulbous. He wears eye black, blue shorts that are high on his belly and a huge Sox cap that, in an overlooked feat of human engineering, he can remove during stadium renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” but keep from losing when he trots, dances or falls down during games.
So Wally’s entourage of a few Red Sox employees chows down, the mute mascot does some Man in the Iron Mask–style gesticulations to diners and Chris goes to pay for his soup and beverage.
That’s when the bartender refuses to take his cash, saying: “Wally’s got you covered.”
Any lover of baseball, of summer, of free food and beer — if I haven’t described you yet I’m a little worried for your soul — may now pause and look out the airplane window if feeling a bit verklempt.
Chris wasn’t the only benefactor of surprise generosity from Wally, who, as it turns out, spent weeks throwing around gifts like a drunk lottery winner. I called the Red Sox and was patched through to Dan Rea, who is one of several people who speak “on behalf” of the mascot. To celebrate the holiday season, Rea told me, Wally and the Red Sox bought Bostonians their morning coffees and doughnuts at select locations. Wally also paid for some commuters’ transit tickets. He got many locals out of parking tickets by bartering sacks of toys to the usually draconian Boston parking authority.
Since the encounter, Chris still sees Wally wandering around the neighborhood, swaggering like Vito Corleone on Long Island, pointing at well-wishers.
It’s warming up in Fenway. Wally is now back to his day job, dancing on dugouts. And Chris landed a great job of his own, thanks, no doubt, to the mystic qualities imparted when a baseball mascot buys you a soup and a beer.