When you are in fifth grade and the teacher announces, in front of the class, that the principal would like to see you in his office, the feeling is beyond uncomfortable.
It was April 4, 1969, at Proctor School in Topsfield. My face went red as the wheels turned in my head. Had I done something wrong?
After a walk that seemed like five miles, I entered Mr. Miller’s office. He scowled and read my mother’s note out loud with a disapproving tone. “Please excuse Mark and Eric Fredrickson from school at 11:00 today. I am bringing them to Opening Day at Fenway Park.”
He looked up and decided to stop torturing me. With a big smile, Mr. Miller said this kind of excused absence was a new one for him. And he started talking about the new Red Sox season.
Thursday will be my 50th Opening Day in a row at Fenway Park. Red Sox baseball is a lifelong passion, ignited by our mother, ahead of her time in so many ways, on her knees pounding the carpet during the Impossible Dream season of 1967. Reinforced by our Dad and grandparents and uncles and cemented for me by childhood best friend Don Coulter.
Our Mom kept springing us each Opening Day, principals and teachers got used to it and those annual April mornings made my brother and me feel like the luckiest kids in the school. Peter Gammons helped our cause when he wrote in the Globe that Opening Day is a legal holiday in New England.
For many New Englanders, through thick and thin, the Red Sox are like family. A tradition passed on from one generation to the next. A bond formed by decades of heartbreaking finishes, then rewarded with the greatest comeback in history and three parades in the years since. Shared around radios at the beach and TVs in living rooms and bars. And most of all at Fenway, America’s oldest and smallest ballpark, a cathedral of baseball history where hardened locals, still thawing from another winter, start high-fiving strangers as the Sox rally in the late innings.
The most successful brands can only wish to create such an enduring presence, one that transcends products or campaigns or this year’s model. The Red Sox experience is part of the fabric of life in New England.
Naturally I started bringing our four kids to Opening Day as each of them reached fifth grade. Our family tradition bridges from Yaz, the Hawk and Tony C through Fisk, Lynn, Rice and Tiant, the eras of Boggs, Clemens and Hurst and then Nomar and Mo Vaughn, through Pedro and Papi to Betts and Sale.
Some Opening Days stand out. That 1969 opener, my first, was the first time local prodigy Tony Conigliaro stepped back into the Fenway batter’s box nearly two years after being tragically beaned. His single broke a 3-3 tie and was the game-winning hit that day.
Forty years ago in 1978, newly acquired Dennis Eckersley threw 9-2/3 innings before Jim Rice’s single won it in the 10th – a full decade before Eckersley himself, by then a closer for Oakland, coined the term “walk-off” to permanently label a game-ending hit.
Thirty years ago in 1988, Roger Clemens and Jack Morris dueled for nine innings but the Sox’ new closer, Lee Smith, served up a 10th-inning home run and sent us all home fearing the worst. The Herald’s headline the next day: Wait Til Next Year.
Twenty years ago in 1998, after I had taught my kids you never leave a baseball game early, we grudgingly left with the Sox trailing Randy Johnson 7-2 in order to make sure we weren’t late for my son’s youth hockey championship game. We were sitting in Memorial Drive traffic when Mo Vaughn blasted a game-ending grand slam to complete the comeback. We heard it on the radio, but I’ll never hear the end of it.
Nothing could match 2005, when the Yankees visited Fenway for Opening Day, less than six months after the Sox overcame an 0-3 deficit to humiliate them and advance to the World Series. That ring ceremony seemed to stretch quite long as the Yankees watched from their dugout, and the 8-1 Sox romp that followed made it even sweeter.
Opening Day triumphs seem to generate extra good karma and momentum, while ugly defeats can easily become bad omens. I remember thinking, how can the Sox recover from Carlton Fisk returning to Fenway in a White Sox uniform in 1981 and blasting the game-winning home run over the same Green Monster that defined his legend? (They didn’t, finishing fifth.) Thankfully, the Red Sox tend to send us home happy more often than not on Opening Day. They are 32-17 in my first 49 home openers.
Each spring, an updated collection of hitters and pitchers and coaches arrives in Boston with Florida tans and fresh optimism. We’ll meet for lunch and walk up the ramp to see our favorite view: the stunning green field, the old Monster hovering over it, and the smells and sounds of a new season.
Keeping the streak alive has required persistence and luck. Business trips have been rescheduled, meetings moved, teachers and coaches negotiated with, tickets scalped, brutal weather ignored.
Most of our family’s Opening Day streaks were broken along the way by life’s unavoidable conflicts. Not mine, and not our daughter Amy’s. Even when she lived in New York for five years, she escaped enemy territory and got to Boston for every opener. She’ll be with her brothers, uncle and me on Thursday for her 23d straight. I’d say she’s got a real shot at 50. Her grandmother would agree.