Baseball Almanac tells me September 2nd, 2004, was the day I had my one and only encounter with the Master of Horror himself. It was a Thursday night. The Red Sox were facing off against the Anaheim Angels in a late-season game at Fenway Park. The Sox that year were on their way to breaking an 86-year-old curse. My buddies and me were making our annual trek to the ballpark. The Sox won the game 4-3, after putting down a ninth inning rally by the Angels.
The game over, I was exiting the ballpark, by then separated from my friends who were lost in the departing throngs twisting and turning their way through the cavern-like innards of the ballpark. It was while walking through the narrow tunnel behind first base that I saw him. He was walking by himself, carrying a slew of paperwork beneath one arm; his scorecard, no doubt, as well as the books he famously brings with him to while away the increasingly interminable intervals between pitches. For all the world, he looked like a loner kid carrying his books through the high school hallways.
Shorter than I thought he'd be, he seemed to have a slight hitch in his giddy-up, no doubt the lingering effects from his near-death pedestrian accident of some years before. And yet, there he was, all by himself, walking out of the ballpark, just like the rest of us. Just like me.
Before I go any further, and in my own defense, I had been drinking. I wasn’t drunk, though, just buzzed enough to be feeling good, not just from the beer, but from a fun night spent at the ballpark in the company of my longtime Rotisserie League buddies. We’d had the league for about fifteen years by then, with very little turnover. We knew each other real well. We made this pilgrimage every year.
And though I don't normally, I remember I was wearing a sportcoat that night, one I kept around the office. Knowing it might be a cool evening, I grabbed it before leaving my building and heading to the ballpark. I looked respectable enough, anyway.
I'll admit too, I suppose like most everyone, in those few encounters I’ve had with celebrities, I don’t acquit myself well. I get tongue-tied. I start shaking. Mostly, I prefer to remember the good encounters I’ve had, the ones where I don’t make an idiot of myself.
I made an idiot of myself the time I met Red Sox legend Johnny Pesky. I was bartending at a function facility, and some organization or another had Pesky on their board. A V.I.P. room was set up, and all I had to do was go in, take drink orders, and deliver them. I nervously took Pesky’s order, and then, while walking out of the room, I forgot what he had asked for. Totally blanked. Was it scotch and soda? Bourbon and water? A Manhattan? I had no idea.
Unable to bring myself to go and ask him again (knowing I'd only screw that up too) I fixed him a bourbon and water (or a scotch and soda. I don’t remember which) and then delivered it. I’m almost certain it wasn’t what he asked for. He smiled anyway and thanked me graciously, took the drink and drank it. I’ll never forget him for that.
A better memory for me is the time I bumped into then-Patriots tight end (and three-time world champion) Mike Vrabel. It was at a local McDonalds on a Saturday morning, the weekend just after the Patriots had lost in the divisional round of the playoffs. He was there with his wife and adorable little boys.
I had known he lived in my town, though I’d never encountered him. Funny thing too, while walking in, I did notice a well-worn Range Rover with Ohio plates in the parking lot. I knew too that Vrabel had attended “THE Ohio State University.” Putting two and two together, I figured now at least, I knew whose it was.
Anyway, I left him alone and gave him his space. He and his wife were lazily reading the paper at a table in the corner. The kids -- twins, I'd guess, but maybe not -- were running around being adorable. There were only two or three other people in the place.
While eating my pancakes, he walked over near my booth to empty his tray. Catching his eye, I said, “I bet there’s something else you’d rather be doing this weekend." He smiled. I asked if I could shake his hand. He put out his hand and we shook. I might even have thanked him. At any rate, I think I acquitted myself well enough, didn’t say or do anything too bad or gushy. In short, it was a cool experience, one I don’t at all mind looking back on.
Another brush with fame was the time I bumped into former Red Sox player Oil Can Boyd at a local 7-11. Then already well into his forties, he was following in the footsteps of his idol, Satchel Paige, playing baseball for a local Independent League team, the Brockton Rox. He was at the counter. I was behind him in line. Funny, he too was shorter than I expected him to be. Thin and gangly as ever, though, and wearing dark shades. I noticed he was buying liquid detergent and a pack of Kool. I smiled, thinking, just the necessities.
After paying, the two of us approached the exit at the same time. He might even have held the door for me. I couldn’t help myself. “I’m a huge fan of yours, man,” I said. “Have been for a long time.”
Still holding the door, he looked up and gave me a long look. Almost an up and down look. Even, a suspicious look. It was long enough anyway that it gave me time to recall all the crap he’d put up with while in Boston, the rumors and innuendo, the Sports Illustrated with him on the cover asking the question, “Banned in Boston?” and the disrespect he felt being passed over for the 7th game of the World Series in favor of Bruce Hurst. But after giving me that look, he held out his hand and we shook. I felt like I had passed the muster of whatever demons still haunted him.
Where was I? Oh, yeah. The Master of Horror. And remember, once again, I had been drinking.
The crowd leaving the ballpark was dense, but I was able to sidle up beside him. After getting next to him, I put my arm around his shoulder. He flinched. Didn’t look at me though, just raised his head slightly in my direction, almost as if this had happened before. While walking, still with my arm around him, I muttered something about how his books had really mattered to me, said something about how important they were in my life. Then, I thanked him and let him go. Meanwhile, he never said a word. Just kept on walking.
It was only as I was walking away that the embarrassment set in, though strangely, not so much for me, but for him. It was while walking away, I realized and remembered how important the ballpark was to him, how much of an escape baseball is for him. I'd known he was a longtime season ticket holder. I knew he came to nearly every game. He even visited the team in spring training. He’d written frigging books about it. I'd read them.
I remember thinking as I walked away, I bet the season ticket holders in his section leave him alone, or if they approach him at all, I bet it’s to ask, “How’s the family?” They’ve been around him long enough, seen him at the ballpark enough, to understand what Fenway means to him. What an escape it is for him. Why he even goes. I should have known that too. I realized then that by approaching him in the way I did, I had violated that sanctity. That’s what I felt worst about. Still do.
So, I did my best to put it out of my mind, telling only a few people about it, vowing that in the future, should I ever again encounter a celebrity, I’d simply leave them alone. I’m just not good with them. I can’t be trusted.
Of course, those 2004 Red Sox went on to win a world championship that year, as improbable a championship as there ever was. It was only a day or two after that victory, with the glow still lingering, I learned TO MY HORROR (appropriately enough) that Stephen King (along with Stewart O’Nan) had been writing a book about that baseball season, in diary form, in which after every game, the two authors corresponded with each other via e-mail, sharing their thoughts on the game, on current events, on life, etc.
Seemingly defying all laws of physics, the book (titled Faithful) was published and available mere days after the series ended. Of course, all I could think was, in Stephen King’s diary entry for the night of September 2nd, 2004, in his e-mail to Stewart O’Nan giving his thoughts and recollections about the game, was going to be something like this:
“Had a real jerk walk up to me while leaving the ballpark tonight. Scared me a little too. Why don’t these idiots just leave me alone? They claim to be my fans, yet they don’t understand WHY I GO TO THE BALLPARK?”
So, it was with much trepidation that I went to the bookstore, bought the book (which I would have anyway) and opened it up to the entry for September 2nd, 2004. To my relief, I didn’t merit a mention. For that, I am eternally grateful.
And next time, Stephen, I promise, I’m going to leave you the hell alone.