Watching your favorite team in person adds an extra something to the baseball experience. That first trip each year generates a feeling unlike any other. When you step through the turnstiles, you can’t help but be flooded with emotions. The feeling is undeniable, whether it conjures fond memories or the anxious hope that the team will do well. In the past few seasons, I’ve felt some of that awe had vanished at Fenway Park.
Despite success in recent years, and a sell out streak that continues to grow, I can’t help but feel something has been missing. They have added new seats, including stools atop the storied Green Monster. You can buy a Cuban sandwich endorsed by Luis Tiant or a cup of famous New England clam chowdah, but still the experience seems lacking. Superstars have come and gone; some, like Jason Bay, barely even had a cup of coffee.
Trip after trip, I expect that former excitement to return, but it never does. I finally realized what is missing from the Fenway experience: a legitimate pitching ace. Sure, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz have had their moments, but I don’t recall being overly thrilled to see either one of them listed as the probable starter for a game I was attending.
Do you remember Pedro Martinez? His dominance between 1998 and 2004 is nearly unmatched. Each time he took the mound at Fenway was like an event all its own. It didn’t matter who the opponent was, if Pedro was starting, you were excited to attend. If you got lucky enough to see Pedro versus one of the aces of the league, like Roger Clemens, it was worth 10 trips of seeing Wakefield pitch (no offense to the knuckleballer.)
Over his career, Pedro was 58-19 at Fenway, which means he won 75 percent of his decisions. He had over 800 strikeouts, giving him 10.9 SO/9. The ever-recognizable K cards filled the stadium, most notably plastered up by Kerrigan’s Kids. Yes, the park was abuzz each and every time Pedro took the mound.
Since his departure, it feels like some of the air has leaked out of Fenway. Sure, there has been occasional excitement. Fenway has seen two Sox throw no-hitters during life-after-Pedro, but I still wouldn’t get amped to see either of them start. As a matter of fact, the last pregame goose bumps I got for a pitching match-up was during a 2006 interleague game. And you guessed it, that was Pedro’s return to Fenway. Admittedly, not his finest performance, but still it was Pedro.
When the Sox acquired Josh Beckett from Florida, I was certain he would bring the same energy to the ballpark that Pedro did. A tall, brash fireballer from Texas. Sounds a bit like another former Red Sox player fans flocked to see, doesn’t he? During his 2006 debut season with Boston, Beckett threw more than adequately, but his numbers at Fenway were underwhelming. He notched just nine Ws in 17 starts at home.
In 2007, the Beckett Sox fans had hoped for appeared. During his Cy Young-worthy campaign, Beckett had nine victories at Fenway. He even went 4-0 in the postseason, allowing just four ER while the Sox marched to their second World Series in four years. It seemed he was on his way to filling Pedro’s shoes.
But in 2008, he delivered only five Ws at home and his ERA climbed to 4.03 — hardly numbers the Fenway Faithful could get excited about. Compared to Pedro, who never posted and ERA above 2.89 in his first six years with Boston, Beckett was average. It seemed that a blister issue that had plagued him throughout his career had returned. The same injury led to a rather forgettable year in 2009, though he did grab 10 wins at Fenway. His outings that year included stat lines like the following: 7 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 10 K and 9 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 7 K, which seemed promising.
Hype surrounding Beckett crashed back to earth last year, as he battled injury and made just 21 starts. The biggest news was that the Sox inked him through 2014 in hopes he would go on to put up stats like he did in 2007. His four-year, $68 million deal is a bargain compared to the albatross contract handed out to John Lackey in the prior off-season.
This year’s spring training depth charts had Beckett slated as the two or three for 2011. Lester has done his job, arguably the main proponent of Boston’s recent surge in the standings, but Beckett is lurking in the wings ready to reclaim his throne at the top of the staff. Look at his early-season numbers — 1.69 ERA and 58 Ks through 10 starts.
Just last Thursday, Beckett was facing the Detroit Tigers and Justin Verlander. In a year ruled by the pitcher, this was the marquee match-up of the year. I think it even surpassed the duel of elite pitchers Roy Halladay and Josh Johnson. Granted, Beckett didn’t have his best stuff and left in the sixth inning, but the energy at the start of the game was undeniable.
Here we sit a quarter of the way through this season and I can say the magic has officially returned to Fenway Park. If he remains healthy, Beckett is the ace of the staff and one of the premier pitchers in the league. The anticipation of Beckett games feels like Pedro games use to.