My visit to Fenway Park wasn't supposed to happen. When my dad and I planned a trip to the East Coast to visit colleges, we tried countless travel combinations in an effort to find time for the ballpark that epitomizes baseball.
Fenway captures the imagination of all ages; if you're a fan who's never been, you have a giant hole in your résumé. My dad, who taught me how to love baseball by taking me to the now-demolished Kingdome in Seattle, needed to fill that hole as much as I did. Doing it together was the only option, we decided.
But no itinerary worked. It seemed as though we'd have to content ourselves with the historic, but concrete, Yankee Stadium, as colleges took first priority.
On a whim, my dad networked through his office to find a rare prize: a pair of tickets in a little red envelope, which proved worth some schedule wrangling.
But first, there was real life to attend to. As my dad and I slogged through work and school, my excitement burgeoned with each conversation with friends who'd seen the famous ballpark. I felt like someone about to see Sasquatch, even though I knew Fenway was real. But how real?
The school year finally ended, and I scoured online reviews of the park before our flight to New York, the first stop on the tour and a cultural shock for two Big Apple neophytes. We read about Yankee controversies and watched a basketball game at the famed West Fourth Street courts.
We would later return to New York, but that city's sports obsession prepared us well for baseball-crazy Boston.
By Monday morning, when we picked up Boston sports radio - all baseball during the summer - on the way out of Amherst, Mass., Sunday's humidity had turned to rain. Rain - on the game day I'd waited for all my life.
But the showers stopped, and I accepted the stifling weather in exchange for finally attending a game.
As we walked out of our Boston hotel, I tried to visualize Fenway. But I knew it only from television. I couldn't really trust my friends' exaggerations. It was probably overcommercialized, I thought, and only special for a pivotal game, not some inter-league matchup, as the one we would see.
And then, there we were, standing on Yawkey Way in the heart of Red Sox Nation.
T-shirts passed: "WWJDD: What Would Johnny Damon Do?" Souvenir shops carrying only Sox (and anti-Yankee) gear beckoned. An unofficial ambassador noticed our glazed eyes and snapped a photo for us: father and son, glassy-eyed on Yawkey Way.
We milled around the shops for a few minutes, too dazed to buy anything. At 5:15, we found our gate and walked into the concourses, where we speed-walked to our seats with Fenway Franks and souvenir sodas.
Crack! Baseballs flew out of the batting cage. I settled into my seat near the Red Sox dugout, which was draped by a hundred other pilgrims chanting their idol's name: "Manny! Manny! Manny!"
I was too excited to sit, so I wandered toward the Green Monster, Fenway's 37-foot left-field wall. It didn't growl, but it did clank when hit by baseballs. I gazed up at it and felt a sudden desire to touch it. The kid in me still couldn't believe it was real, and I was here.
Together my dad and I headed for the right-field bleachers, past the bullpen where Jay Buhner once robbed a homer. From the last row in the park, we drank in the Green Monster, the Pesky Pole, and the field before us. Another photo opportunity.
It hit me: Babe Ruth had patrolled this outfield, which was the stage for the seasons of 1918, 1986, 2004.
History such as this, back home in Seattle at Safeco Field? No way. The Safe imitates the great ballparks, but can't capture the feel. The soul, the spirit, is missing.
By the first pitch a little after 7 p.m., my T-shirt was damp with humidity and hope. Although I'd booed these same Sox a month earlier in Seattle, we roared as Damon, Jason Varitek, David Ortiz, and other heroes took the field. For one day, we were Sox fans, watching real baseball. There were no fake hydroplane races between innings. Instead, we sang "Sweet Caroline" with a 36,000-person chorus.
Glowing twilight framed the Monster as ex-Mariner John Olerud's late-inning base hit stretched the score to 10-1. Everyone knew who was going to win. But Sox and Cincinnati Reds fans alike stayed through the end. Covered in peanut dust and clutching my glove, I couldn't imagine leaving early.
My dad whispered to me, "We're at Fenway!"
And at that moment on that unforgettable summer evening, I understood exactly what he meant.