Spring is officially here; baseball is back

PROVIDENCE, RI – Proust had his madeleines. New Englanders have our own rituals that connect us to our collective childhood. One of those vivid memories is the first time you went to a baseball game at Fenway Park or McCoy Stadium.

At Fenway, the left field wall -The Green Monster- was bigger and greener than it ever seemed on television. Those of us of a certain age remember the voice of Ned Martin spilling from the car radio; when he faded on a summer vacation trip mom or dad fiddled with the dial anywhere between Winooski and Westerly and found another station carrying the Red Sox.

In our tradition-bound corner of America, we know spring is here when baseball comes back. This year, it happens Thursday (April 5) when both the Boston Red Sox and the Pawtucket Red Sox play their first games.

Times may change, but baseball doesn't. Other teams play at Big Bailout Bank Park or Goliath Domed Telecom Stadium, but our games are played at Fenway, named after its Back Bay neighborhood, and McCoy, named for Pawtucket Mayor Tommy McCoy, one of Rhode Island's legendary machine politicians.

Through world wars and depressions, family milestones and cultural change, baseball has always been with us. Fenway Park opened a century ago, six days after the Titanic sank. John Updike's lyric bandbox celebrates its 100th birthday on April 20. The Red Sox have a long ceremony planned before an afternoon game against the arch-rival New York Yankees.

Rhode Islanders are luckier than the rest of Red Sox Nation. We are home to the Pawtucket Red Sox, the Boston club's top minor league franchise. We get to see tomorrow's stars today.

McCoy was built during the Great Depression. It was once a seen-better-days stadium but was redone in the 1990s and now is one of minor league baseball's best ball parks. There is a timelessness, too, to the Paw Sox. This team has become a paragon of family entertainment; where else these days can you take a carload of kids for less than the cost of the movies.

The longest professional baseball game ever played happened at McCoy, a 33-inning match that began on a dreary, chilly April night in 1981. When fans flock McCoy this year they will be greeted by a new 21st century scoreboard that will make video replays more accessible.

Life size videos won't change the experience of McCoy. Baseball is a game firmly rooted in the 19th century, the only team sport that measures time in innings, rather than an electronic time clock.

New Englanders have a reverence for the past that is unparalled in the United States. Some outsiders scoff that we are little more than America's attic. We know better. Our historical memories and love of baseball has leavened many a cold winter.

Red Sox fans were once stuck in the rut of a team that regularly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Four times in the 20th century, in 1946, 1967, 1975and 1986, Boston went to the seventh game of the world series, only to lose.

Those memories were happily erased in 11 giddy days in 2004, when the Red Sox improbably won eight consecutive games in the post season to become world champions for the first time since 1918, when Woodrow Wilson was president. In 2007, the Sox won the World Series again.

In this season of hope, renewal, Passover and Easter, let's stand for the Star Spangled banner and the umpire's cry of ``Play Ball.''

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