Fastballs and fisticuffs at Fenway

Early spring baseball conjures up happy images - Crackerjacks and crowded bleachers, grand slam homers and triple plays. Here in the North, spring games also mean raw winds, soggy fields, and sometimes even snow.

It's been that way this spring. But it's also been a spring of great baseball.

The other day here at America's oldest big league field, Fenway Park, it had rained all day. A mean wind blew. It was 49 degrees.

But it takes more than foul weather to discourage the Boston Red Sox faithful, bundled up in their down jackets, rain parkas, and Survivor boots. With the skies still misting, nearly 30,000 turned out for a memorable match.

The dreaded Cleveland Indians, first place in the American League with an 11-3 record, were in town. Even worse, the Red Sox were in a miserable hitting slump. In their first 15 games, they had scored fewer runs than any other team in the majors.

By game time, the rain finally stopped, the tarp was dragged off the diamond, and teams took the field. And right away, it was clear: Nothing had changed for the hometown team.

The first Indian to the plate, Kenny Lofton, cracked a home run into the right field stands. From there, it only got worse. By the middle of the fourth inning, it was Cleveland 5, Boston zip.

The Sox finally scratched out a run in the bottom of the fourth, and got a lead-off homer in the fifth. But fans' hopes were still low as Darren Lewis, Boston's No. 9 hitter, came to the plate.

That's when it happened.

Lewis and Indians pitcher Jaret Wright had a personal history going back to last fall's American League divisional playoffs. In that series, Wright beaned Lewis with a fastball that temporarily damaged Lewis's eardrum.

Now, after brushing Lewis back with a close pitch in the third inning, Wright threw a high, inside curve that hit Lewis on the shoulder. Lewis yelled at Wright, and started trotting toward first base. But the pitcher mouthed something back, dropped his glove, and stepped off the mound, as if inviting Lewis to challenge him.

And Lewis did - running toward the 230-pound Wright and delivering a flying, one-footed kick that touched off a brawl between the two teams. Even the managers were yelling at each other and had to be restrained.

If the down-in-the-dumps Sox needed an incentive, they had gotten it. Lewis (along with Wright) was thrown out of the game. But the remaining Sox were so fired up they promptly scored four more runs with a barrage of doubles to go ahead 6-5.

The Sox, however, weren't satisfied. And that's where this became a morality tale, a fitting end to what was half-priced "Family Night" at Fenway.

The Sox wanted more than the lead, they wanted revenge. In the next inning, Sox pitcher Rheal Cormier's first pitch thumped into the ribs of Indians All-Star first baseman Jim Thome. (A Boston coach later said he was supposed to aim for Thome's backsides.) Another brawl broke out. Cormier and Thome were ejected.

In hindsight, Boston should have taken the lead, and expressed thanks.

Instead, by hitting the first Cleveland batter, the Sox put an Indian runner on first base. And the next Indian batter, Wilfredo Cordero, blasted the ball over the deepest part of the centerfield wall. Two runs. The player that Cormier put on base, in essence, provided the winning margin for Cleveland.

Revenge may be sweet, as Lord Byron suggests, but this had more the taste of vinegar.

Yet as the Boston fans, hoarse from screaming, filed out of the park, most were wearing smiles. They had a feeling - after a long slump - that their beloved Sox had finally come back to life.

As it turned out, they were right. Boston won both of the two remaining games against Cleveland.

Lord Byron would be smiling.

FOOTNOTE: Cleveland's Thome and Boston's Cormier patched things up after the game. "No hard feelings. It's part of the game," Thome said when they met outside the ballpark. Cormier reciprocated by giving Thome a ride to his hotel.

FOOTNOTE NO. 2: Boston's Lewis thinks what Cleveland pitcher Wright needs is a stint in the National League, where pitchers have to bat, just like everyone else. Said Lewis: "One day, if he gets ... hit in the side of the head, then maybe it will hit him what he's doing."

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