Commentary

No-hit wonders of fatherhood

A boy's first Fenway game, a dad's anxiety and Clay Buchholz's magic collide

Updated: June 16, 2012, 5:18 PM ET
By Steve Richards | ESPNBoston.com

Clay Buchholz AP Photo/Winslow Townson
For New England sports fans, going to your first game at Fenway Park is such a rite of passage it borders on cliché.

"I'd never seen greens so green as when I walked up the ramp to the field ... "

Taking your kid to his first game adds another layer of romanticism, recalling trips to the old yard with your own father, family and friends. It's the stuff that cynics pooh-pooh and out-of-towners don't get. But it's real, truly emotional, and uplifting and wonderful.

I figured I'd been to more than 200 games at Fenway since making my first three-hour trek from western Massachusetts with my dad, mom and brother. But this was different -- I was going with my own son.

[+] EnlargeLevi Richards
Steve RichardsThere was a lot to smile about during Levi's first trip to see the Red Sox at Fenway.

Harp music would play, sunbeams would shine on our shoulders as we walked up the ramp and saw the greenest greens ... and it would all turn south after an hour or so, 'round about the fourth inning, when the 5-year-old had a predictable and totally understandable meltdown.

I'd do my best to hold things together, hold him together, undoubtedly running up a Ruthian bill at the concession stand in the process. And eventually I'd be forced to hoist him under my arm, crying and kicking, and begrudgingly bolt from the game.

Going to a ballgame is about leaving responsibility at Gate C. Tending to your kid, solo, on a two-hour trip east, then amid a crowd of 35,000, was taking responsibility to unforeseen levels for this dad. Not to mention the prospect of missing the second half of the game and violating my No. 1 principle of fandom -- thou shalt not leave early -- in the process.

I had a pair of tickets to a September Saturday night game against the Orioles but hadn't purchased them with Levi in mind. However, with his budding love for baseball and the Red Sox, and his persistent pestering, I was wavering.

Could I pull this off? Could he? I guessed we'd find out.

Our seats weren't the best, but they had their appeal. We'd be far from home plate, little more than an arm's length from Pesky's Pole in right field, but in the first row, right on the field. So no big people to block my son's view. I figured we'd go early, for batting practice, in hopes of snaring a ball.

There were no harps or angelic sunbeams as we entered the park, but certainly pride and warmth for me as we went down to our seats.

"What do you think, pal?" I asked.

"Good," Levi said, his smile telling a story his words didn't.

We were stationed with our gloves on the rail in right as the Orioles took BP. It didn't take long for a ball to one-hop into the stands a few people past us, at a frightening speed for the protector of a 5-year-old's precious face.

But that was the closest a ball would come to us. As batting practice went on and we didn't get a sniff of a souvenir, Levi clearly was disappointed. My suggestion that we might be able to catch a ball had been heard as a promise.

It seemed the whole outing was being tarnished, maybe even ruined. That meltdown might be coming before the first pitch.

Actually it turned out to be nothing a hot dog and some popcorn couldn't fix. After getting some food and wandering around the concourse a bit, Levi was back on track for the game. Clay Buchholz, who was making his second major league start after just being called up from Triple-A, was on the hill for the Red Sox. There was no guarantee he was going to be around any longer than we were.

As the game got going, Levi settled in nicely. As night fell and the lights got brighter, he must have realized this was a pretty cool place to be, much cooler than where he'd normally be at this hour -- his bed.

The Red Sox scored a run in the second and three more in the fourth, so there was lots of action and cheering to keep Levi engaged. Even so, we were coming up on 9 o'clock. It had already been a long day. I was prepared for a hasty departure, taking some solace that at least the Sox seemed to have things well in hand.

But it was right around this time that a potential problem occurred to me, a bigger issue than I could have ever envisioned. Buchholz had yet to give up a hit. While this seemed highly unlikely to last, I started trying to figure out how to ensure that just in case it did, I'd be there -- oh yeah, Levi too.

[+] EnlargeClay Buchholz
Steve Babineau/Getty ImagesClay Buchholz and his Sox teammates celebrate his Sept. 1, 2007, no-hitter against the Orioles.

We could walk all over Fenway. Buy ice cream on top of peanuts on top of cotton candy. Pledge to get T-shirts, posters and foam fingers on the way out. We could even do the wave.

As I struggled to formulate a strategy, it almost became difficult to enjoy the game, to appreciate the moment. In the middle of the sixth, we'll get ice cream in a helmet. In the seventh, we'll go to the bathroom. In the eighth, did we already see Wally?

As Buchholz continued to cruise and the tension rose in the ballpark, mine grew doubly. In the many games I'd attended, I'd never seen anything close to a no-hitter. And I'd left early maybe a half-dozen times and always at the insistence of my companions. And now I was going to be forced not only to leave a game early -- by my own flesh and blood, no less -- but to miss a no-hitter?

Unthinkable.

Unthinkable, indeed. What I hadn't accounted for was not only the tension at Fenway rising, but also the energy and excitement. Levi was engulfed in the buzzing crowd and ate it up. He got it, and got it good.

We went for that ice cream in a helmet -- couldn't pass that up -- and while he couldn't have realized the baseball significance of the moment, he was wrapped up in it just the same. As the outs ticked off, it was clear we weren't going anywhere, that Levi was perfectly happy, face glowing in Section 7, Box 93, Row E, Seat 21.

So that's where we were when Buchholz froze Nick Markakis with a curve and became the third pitcher since 1900 to throw a no-hitter in either his first or second major league start. No runs, no hits, no meltdowns.

In fact, our biggest issue came not because of a whiny 5-year-old -- Levi walked from the park to the subway for a jam-packed 30-minute ride with nothing but a smile -- but from dunderhead Dad, who locked the keys in the car at the train station parking lot. Not even the wait for a local mechanic would faze Levi, who finally crashed a minute after we hit the highway, with nary a complaint.

Later that school year, Levi wrote a story about going to his first Red Sox game. He wrote about not getting a foul ball, eating ice cream in a helmet and, of course, Dad locking the keys in the car. His final line: "And it was a no-hitter."

I'd write about going to a game and experiencing the wonders of parenthood, reliving my magic times at Fenway, and locking the keys in the car. I'd also write about thinking as I walked from the park with my son, each clutching the other's hand, that I got something even better than a foul ball: the gift of knowing I'll always have someone to go to the game with.

And it was a no-hitter.

Steve Richards is an editor for ESPNBoston.com.

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