The Story behind the Story
Fenway Fever Book Trailer
and Parent Resources
It was the last of times, it was the first of times.
It was the old ending. It was the new big inning.
It was the magical year of 2012.
And among the fens and bogs of Boston town, something was amiss . . .
Let’s face it, baseball fans, no ballpark on earth holds as much legendary drama, karma, curses, heartbreak, and hope as Fenway Park at number 4 Yawkey Way in Boston. Sure, you got your Wrigley Field in Chicago town with its ivy-covered walls or the old coliseum out Oakland way or the big blue sea of seats in Dodger Stadium in L.A. A lot of greats have passed through their gates, no doubt, but when it comes to legends, no ballyard anywhere holds a candlestick to the ol’ Fen.
And no one knows that better than Alfredo Carl “Stats” Pagano, who’s spent half his life (that’s six out of twelve years or, more precisely, 73.5 out of 147 months or, expressed as a batting average, an even .500 of this baseball lover’s lifetime) gathering stats and data on the Boston Red Sox and their quirky hundred-year-old ballfield.
And during Fenway Park’s hundredth anniversary, in that legendary year of 2012, the place went bonkers. Banners flapped from bridges. Billboards told the tale.
100 Years of Cheers and Tears! they read. Catch Fenway Fever! others proclaimed. It’s a Fan-demic!
Old pros and Hollywood celebs alike recorded Jumbotron testimonials recalling what the ballpark had meant to them. Centennial posters hung in bookstore windows, while “First Fen-tury” flags adorned the walls of sports bars everywhere.
Ah, but deep beneath all the festivity and hooplicity, there crept the foreshadows of a calamity that no one in town, from the sea captains of Gloucester to the philosophers of Harvard University, seemed to notice.
Luckily, one small and brilliant boy and one rather strange Red Sox pitcher saw the signs and decided to step up to the plate and swing away.
What happened next was out of this world.
The pregame street scene rivering past Papa Pagano’s Red Sox Red Hots hot dog stand, just outside the gates of Fenway Park, had grown loud and tense.
A certain fear hung in the air.
“No, no, I’m telling you,” one Red Sox fan bellowed at his buddy. “Orbitt should not be pitching. After four straight fiascos, why is he starting? He should be in the bull pen. And I mean the one down in Pawtucket.”
“Like I said before, Mr. Beer-for-Brains, he’s had some weird luck, is all. The Spacebird is still the man. You’ll see.”
“Weird is right. I got twenty bucks that says Billee Orbitt, the space cadet, won’t get out of the first inning.”
All afternoon, from his station at the back of the handcrafted wrought-iron hot dog stand on Yawkey Way, statistical whiz kid Alfredo “Stats” Pagano had taken these friendly quarrels in stride.
Tonight’s match, the third of a four-game series pitting the Boston Red Sox against their arch rivals, the New York Yankees, had the streets and bars around Fenway Park packed and punchy, even three hours before game time.
“Hey, was that guy right?” asked Pops Pagano, a burly man with a husky voice. He plopped a fresh-grilled Smokey Joe wood-fired dog onto a toasted bun. “Billee’s on the hill tonight?”
“Last I heard,” said Stats, who tended two steamy kettles next to Pops’s grill. “Unless they make another change.”
And even though the Red Sox had dropped the first two games to the so-called “Evil Empire” from New York—or maybe because of it—Stats could hardly wait to head inside and catch the action.
He took a second Smokey Joe from Pops and began to wrap them both. “They skipped over Billee last time around. So he should be up.”
His older brother, Mark, who at fifteen towered head and elbows over Stats, called from the cash register up front. “Skipped over him? They sunk him just because of a little bad luck.”
“Ahh,” Pops growled, as he slapped a half dozen more hot dogs onto the grill. “He’s a tough kid. He’ll bounce back.”
Stats boxed the Smokey Joes and slid them forward.
Mark caught the box and passed it to a shirtless fanatic everyone called Announcer Bouncer—a guy with a voice so loud you could hear it from home plate to the Green Monster seats high above left field. Rainbowing across his bouncing belly, he’d painted Billeez Boyz! in white, blue, and red.
“Here you go, Bounce,” said Mark. “See you inside.”
“I’ll put it on my calendar,” he barked.
Mark shook his head, laughing. “Get outta here. Next!”
Up stepped a white-haired man in a rumpled dark business suit, sans tie. “I’ll have two Teddy Ballgamers, kraut, no mustard, two Smokey Joes, mustard, no ketchup, three Chili Billees, and one foot-long Hit Dog with everything.”
Pops, in his high-top chef’s hat, looked up from his grill. “Got it, buddy! Hey, is that for here or to go?”
The man arched his eyebrows. “What?”
Pops was always using that line on new customers, just to bust their chops. Here or to go? What could the guy say?
Mark waved his hand. “I’ll take that as a ‘to go.’”
Stats had already grabbed two Smokeys and set them aside, then he fished two regular dogs and a footer from his saltwater kettle. He put the regulars inside fresh Boston rolls atop blue paper sheets stamped “Teddy Ballgamer” and dropped the footer onto a soft steamed bun.
Next, Stats sprinkled onions and diced tomatoes on the foot-long Hit Dog, which actually measured 12.5 inches, because, as the sign for this one promised, You get Mo for your money.
He slid all five down the side counter to Mark, who dumped a ladle of sauerkraut on the Ballgamers, finished wrapping them, and started a box.
“Waiting on the Billees,” called Stats.
“Can’t rush magic,” said Pops.
Stats knew that, as did all loyal Red Sox fans. Magic can take a long time.
It had taken until 2004, in fact, for the Sox to win their first Major League World Series in eighty-six years. And they did so in magical Red Sox fashion, mounting a surge from three games down in the League Championship Series to stop the New York Yankees in seven (becoming the first team to ever do such a thing), then swept the St. Louis Cardinals in four to win the World Series and break baseball’s longest running bad luck streak, the legendary Curse of the Bambino.
Sparked by the sale of Red Sox ace pitcher and long-ball hitter, Babe Ruth, the Great Bambino, to the Yankees (of all teams!) way back in 1919, this phenomenal curse had spanned several generations, breaking millions of hearts along the way.
But those days were long gone now, Stats felt sure.
Seeing Mark take the customer’s money, Stats started his mental stopwatch—a game he often played while waiting on Pops. Mark punched the register, scratched out the change from his coin bins, added a few bills, and handed it all over. Then, using his hip, he clanged the cash drawer shut and pulled the food box close, shot a thick river of mustard on both Smokeys, spooned a scoop of relish on the footer, added ketchup and mustard, and folded each into their wrappers.
All in nine seconds! Not a record, thought Stats, but still remarkable by any measure.
Being younger, and a bit less coordinated in the hand and eye department, Stats never begrudged Mark his dexterity and athleticism. Having been born with a damaged heart, Stats had long ago resigned himself to the world of mental gymnastics. The only thing that really irked him was when people would note that he was “rather small” for a boy his age.
Well, maybe he was, which any boy born with a balky heart might be. Still, he regarded such comments as “rather rude” and had learned to respond politely, but firmly.
“Actually, I’m not small for my age,” he would say. “The truth is, I’m rather old for my height.”
This, he found, usually shut the errant observers rather up.
He gave each of his kettles a stir. In one, he boiled several kinds of hot dogs in saltwater brine. In the other, he stewed fresh organic chili, which he ladled onto the all-veggie Chili Billee dogs, filling them full of beans, as promised, “just like their namesake.”
Resting his stainless steel ladle against the black kettle rim, Stats slipped his hand into his front pocket and anxiously fingered his two game day tickets. Still there. His heart boomed.
These, you see, were not your ordinary everyday baseball passes. These were family heirloom tickets—season tickets—seats his grandfather, Papa Pagano, founder of the Red Sox Red Hots stand, first purchased for himself and his new American bride seventy-two years ago. Front row, field level seats, just past third base on the edge of the outfield grass.
“Heaven on earth,” Stats liked to call them.
Some days, Pops might pass the tickets along to various associates of the family hot dog stand, and sometimes they might end up in the offering plate at St. Francis of Assisi’s or dropped through the mail slot of a homeless shelter in Southie. But today, the seats belonged to him and Mark.
And on such days, as soon as they heard “The Star Spangled Banner” from their stations at the sidewalk stand in the shadow of the ruddy brick walls of Fenway, they’d slip off their long white aprons, wipe the mustard from their hands, sing out, “See ya, Pops,” and dash inside.
Needless to say, Stats and Mark Pagano were, by all decent and acceptable standards, the luckiest boys on planet earth.
This, however, was about to change.
As the afternoon wore on, Stats tended his kettles, while Pops did his best to hustle up customers from the throng moving down the street.
“Get-cha Red Sox Red Hots right hee-ya!”
Pops Pagano sang his Bostonian-laden incantation loud and strong, as if he were a priest calling to his flock.
And business at the sidewalk stand was booming.
“Here’s four more,” said Pops, depositing four Chili Billees on toasted buns onto the workspace in front of Stats who, in turn, smothered them in chili, wrapped them into their green paper sheets, and sent them sliding toward the front.
Mark stuffed the order into a box. “Put a jalapeño in it?” he asked.
“Go ahead,” said the man, who stuck a five dollar tip into an old pickle jar, which was guarded by a stubble-bearded Kevin Youkilis bobble-head doll.
“Thanks!” called Mark. “Next!”
“Hit me with your best shot, Stat Man.”
That order did not come from the front of the line, but from a curly-headed young man standing just outside the booth next to Stats. He was wearing aviator sunglasses, a white cowboy hat with a Red Sox logo, a blue Red Sox hoodie with the hood up, purplish tie-dyed drawstring pants, and white moccasins. To Stats, the guy appeared to be a cross between a ’78 “Buffalo Head” and an ’04 curse-breaking “Idiot”—two of the more colorful eras of Red Sox players.
“My best shot,” said Stats, “has your name written all over it.” He snagged two red-hot freshly charred veggie dogs off of Pops’s grill.
“What the heck are you doing out here on a game day, Billee? Aren’t you starting?”
Mark and Pops kept working, as they usually did at these moments, to let the two “kids” talk. Billee Orbitt frequently visited Papa Pagano’s on his off days to grab a few dogs, a good-luck ritual he had begun last year—which he claimed “worked like a snake charm”—but Stats could not ever recall him stopping by on a day he was scheduled to pitch.
Billee grinned, looking himself over. “Just trying to shake things up a bit and break my routine. Besides, I’m starving. Red Sox have no food left in there.”
“Shake what things up?”
“You kidding? Look, I’ve lost four in a row, and my ERA’s still around 3.20. What does that tell you?”
Stats thought a moment. “It’s 3.13, actually, but what’s wrong with that? Allowing three runs per game is not a bad average at all.”
“I agree, which proves I’m throwing about as good as I ever have, with nothing but a lousy one-and-four record to show for it. Last game, for example, I was zoned, baby. Zoom, ziggy, zoom.” He wing-waddled his hand through the air. “But it wasn’t enough. And not only that, we have gone from four games in front of the Yankees to one game behind in, what, ten days? We’re not that bad of a team, Stat Man. Something else is going on.”
“I have to believe there are some outside forces at work here. After all, it’s 2012.”
Stats had heard that talk before. Actually, a lot of people believed this year, 2012, was supposed to be earth-changing—maybe even the end of the world as we knew it.
“Hasn’t been all that bad,” offered Stats, who put very little stock in the whole 2012 doom-and-gloom scenario.
“Hey, you win tonight,” Stats continued, “and we stop the slide. We’re back even with the Yanks, with a chance to split the series tomorrow and regain first place. Besides, the last time you pitched, what was it? You left in the fifth, game tied four–four, right? Then a seeing-eye single and a pop flare scores two? Not your fault we lost. In baseball that stuff happens. But it always evens out over time. And I got the stats to prove it.”
He grinned widely.
Billee shook his head. “Wish that were true, Stat Man. But this year’s different. It’s not just a bad bounce here, bloop hit there. Most of the time, that stuff does even out. But this is pure bad luck. It’s like September 2011 all over again. One thing goes wrong, then two, then three. Before you know it, I get hung with an ‘L,’ the team goes downhill, and, buddy”—he waggled his cowboy hat—“it’s driving me ba-zerko.”
Ah, thought Stats, so that’s what does it. But he decided not to say anything. He did have to admit, though, Billee had a point.
Last year, during his rookie season, Billee was baseball’s star attraction, a twenty-one-year-old phenom. People packed the parks in every city he pitched just to watch his ninety-five-mph “buckler ball” buckle a batter’s knees, his “dipster ball” dip and dash, and his world famous slo-mo “leaflutz” pitch flutter like a falling leaf, while hitters flailed away, smacking nothing but air.
Of course, it also helped that Billee was a local boy, born in Worcester, Mass, and raised in Northborough. In his year at triple-A Pawtucket, he was tagged the “Worcester Rooster,” as much for his habit of scratching up the mound between innings as the fact that around here those two words actually rhyme. Later on, fans dubbed him the Spacebird, partly because of the rooster tag and partly because of his often-stated dream to one day fly through space and visit his ancestors.
Needless to say, the loony (as in lunar) left-hander became an overnight fan favorite. But as most folks would agree, last year ended on a sour note, and Billee’s star was beginning to fade.
He grabbed the first chili dog Stats set on the counter, then walked over to pitch a wadded-up twenty into the tip jar. Billee never had to pay for his food—one of Pops’s rules—but he always left a generous tip.
“Hey, Pops!” called Billee, holding his chili dog high. “Have I ever told you this? Your hot dogs are a legend in their own brine.”
Pops threw his head back and roared. “About a thousand times, you Wiener Schnitzel. Now, move along.” He pointed in Mark’s direction with his silver tongs. “Look how slow the line’s going with you standing around.”
Despite being incognito, the gangly, animated pitcher had been quickly identified by several fans, who started bunching up at the counter to gawk.
Billee, however, simply scooped up the next chili dog and sent a wave to everyone as they, in turn, wished him luck. Then he began his customary stroll toward a small nook in the brick wall behind the sidewalk stand, where he and Stats often conferred. Stats slipped under the countertop to follow.
“All right, Stat Man,” said Billee. “Status report. What’ve you uncovered so far?”
“Thought you’d never ask, Billee. I’ve had the whole Stat Pack helping me all week, and there’s one thing we came up with that you might be very interested in.”
Billee’s upside-down traffic cone of a goatee sprouted a full toothy grin from somewhere inside. “That’s why I hired you, kid.”
“Hired” was stretching it. But last week Billee had asked Stats to research a few things, and, as usual, Stats was happy to help.
His task was to scour the scorebooks and compile data on such things as uncompleted double plays that led to a run being scored; bad hop, “seeing-eye,” or fluke hits that scored key runs; and passed balls or wild pitches that advanced runners who later scored. Billee labeled these “bad luck runs.” He wanted to know if, as he suspected, the Sox had lost more close games because of bad luck runs (BLRs) than other teams up to this point—the first six weeks of the season.
“First, I sorted through all the data on all of the teams, and the Red Sox have already had six BLR losses this year. Which is more than any other team we know of.”
Stats paused while Billee chomped down into his chili dog and leaned against the ancient wall covered with posters shouting FENWAY FEVER! 100º AND RISING! He nodded.
Stats went on. “The interesting thing is, four of those losses happened when you pitched.”
“Well,” said Billee. “Maybe I’m not so crazy after all.”
Again, Stats thought it best not to comment. But he did feel compelled to inject an element of logic.
“Billee, I know what you’re thinking. You gotta remember what I said, though. In the long run, statistically speaking, there really is no such thing as good luck or bad. It pretty much evens out over time.”
Billee lowered an eyebrow and cocked his head. “And like I say, this is different. Trust me, Stat Man. I’m tuned in to stuff like this. They don’t call me Spacebird for nothing.” He set his fists against his temples, then extended both pointing fingers and wiggled them. “Voom, zoom!”
He winked, then grew serious. “Okay, bud, here’s what I’d like you to do next. Start tuning in to the vibe around here. Find out all you can about anything around this ballpark that could’ve knocked things out of whack.”
“Out of whack?” said Stats. “Like what?”
“Like anything. With all the recent renovations, who knows? Renaming the .406 Club could’ve done it, replacing all the solid oak seats with plastic might’ve done it, or even installing those three new HD video boards. And it might not be just one thing. They all add up, you know.”
“Add up to what?”
“To a new balance. Which means the old balance we had back in ’04 and ’07 may be long gone. And if that’s the case . . .” Billee lowered his voice. “I fear there may very well be a new Red Sox curse afoot.”
“Oh, you don’t really mean that, do you?” Stats could feel his heart plump up and flutter out a double beat.
The pitcher narrowed his eyes. “As far as I’m concerned, we’ll find out tonight. This game will be the real test. If the momentum shifts, if things start to turn around and go my way, then I’ll say, okay, maybe it will start to all even out. No harm, no foul balls. But if not, then—”
He took another bite, looking high over Stats’s lucky 2007 Red Sox cap, far into the clouds.
Stats turned around and looked up, too, but didn’t see much. “Then what?” he asked.
Billee chewed slowly, pondering.
“Then, it’ll be up to guys like you and me to stop this new curse.”
* * *
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Fenway Fever is published by Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Group USA, New York.
© John H. Ritter, 2012 ISBN #978-0-399-24665-4.