One thing about Boston and baseball in April: hope springs eternal. The Red Sox play their season home-opener at historic Fenway Park Monday, April 13, against the Washington Nationals. (For 2015, the team's first game takes place on the road one week earlier against the Philadelphia Phillies.) The Sox may have finished dead last in 2014, but fans are hoping and Vegas is thinking there might be a repeat of the worst-to-first swing of 2013.
Whether you're a diehard local or a traveler passing through town, opening day (or any game) at Fenway is a reason to get excited—and get tickets. We caught up with Sox players Shane Victorino, Dustin Pedroia, Justin Masterson and Craig Breslow, and third-base coach Brian Butterfield (with whom this writer played ball back in 1974 on the Orono Red Riots), at the start of spring training in Fort Myers, Fla., and chatted about the excitement, the jitters and the special moments.
As a kid, what was your favorite baseball team, and as a young fan what were your thoughts about opening day?
Victorino: My favorite team was the Atlanta Braves. I got an opportunity as a little kid growing up in Hawaii to see them on TBS. As it got closer to opening day, you’d get excited to watch those games ’cause you get to watch these great athletes go out there and compete and try and win a World Series.
Pedroia: The Giants were my favorite team. I think there’s just excitement because it’s the start of the season and every team thinks they have the chance to win the World Series.
Masterson: I grew up in Dayton, Ohio just a little north of Cincy, so the Cincinnati Reds were my favorite team. I didn’t follow baseball real hardcore when I was a kid. I was outside playing more than I was inside watching.
Breslow: I was a Mets fan growing up—which was an often forgotten-about team in Connecticut. People always asked me if I was a fan of the Red Sox or the Yankees and I had to remind them there was a third team in the area. Opening day signaled a couple of things: Spring! For a guy growing up in the Northeast, it signaled that warmer weather was upon us. And my favorite sport would now be on TV, and I could enjoy rooting for the team that I enjoyed.
Butterfield: I was always real excited. I was one of so many kids in my hometown growing up, and we all loved and couldn’t wait to see the Red Sox. The great thing about it is—even to this day and I’ll be 58 in a couple of weeks—when I first drive into a spring-training facility it chokes me up a little bit just because I’m wearing that big-league uniform.
What are your most profound opening-day moments?
Victorino: It would have to be the two years I received my rings. To get that opportunity to be considered a world champion. You get to go to opening day knowing all the hard work you put in before. Those are the kind of moments that keep you working hard and keep you wanting to continue to go get another one.
Pedroia: Every opening day is special, but I think about my first one in Kansas City, my rookie year. We ended up losing, but you’re in the big leagues: You get a chance to compete at the best level.
Masterson: For me, my first time being an opening-day starter was pretty cool. It also happened to be one of the longest opening-day games in baseball history, which makes it somewhat memorable.
Breslow: I’d probably point to two significant opening-day moments. One was in 2008. I was with the Indians and it was the first opening-day roster I’d ever made. Just participating in the opening-day ceremonies and getting caught up in the excitement is something I’ll always remember. Then I would say 2014 opening day coming off the World Series championship and the ceremony and the theatrics that go along with that.
Butterfield: The one that I remember most is being in Yankee Stadium before my first game as a coach. We were playing the Texas Rangers, and it was 1994. Don Mattingly grabbed me and he said Bob Sheppard, the greatest P.A. guy of all time, is going to introduce you and say “Butter-field.” That just gave chills. When I ran out to the chalk line, I remember being overtaken by it, being in Yankee stadium and the crowds, a dream come true. When Bob said that name, it choked me up, I felt emotional. That was my biggest thrill.
It's only one game of 162, but given the heightened excitement and anticipation in the stands as well as on the field, do you get jitters? How do you get mentally centered for the game itself?
Victorino: It’s definitely nervewracking, but if you’re not nervous, you’re not prepared. I’m nervous every single day, but on opening day obviously a lot more. It’s the start for fans to get excited, to see their team, and get ready for the season ahead. As a player, you’re nervous to go out there, because it’s that time, that first game of the year. As an athlete to be at this level you want to compete after all the hard work you put in the off-season. This is where it all begins. You can’t play 162 if you can’t get ready for game one. You look at that and prepare yourself mentally and physically and go out there to have some fun.
Pedroia: It’s hard to keep your emotions in check. You want to win, you want your team to start out well so you gotta try to calm down the best you can and go play. You put a lot of work in the off-season to get ready and you want to start out well, but you can’t keep your emotions in check. That usually happens the second day.
Masterson: Well, if I’m not pitching, I got no nerves whatsoever. I’m just hanging out! Honestly, if you’re pitching that day, the nerves are the same as every single game you go out to start. There’s always some nerves; there’s always some sort of butterflies—it just means you’re alive! But when you get past that, once you start warming up, it’s just like every other game. The great part of it is no matter where you are for opening day, there’s always a great energy and that’s what makes it always fun.
Breslow: I think the most important thing I do is try to remember is that it is just game one out of 162. Certainly, there are pivotal moments throughout the season that shape the direction of the season and some of those could well come on game one, but I think most of us would say the anxiety, the nerves and the jitters escape once the first pitch is thrown. Then it just becomes the game we have played thousands of times.
Butterfield: If they say there’s no butterflies, especially early in that opening game, they’re probably lying. Everybody in the league has high expectations and you want to live up to your end of the bargain, have things go well. Plus this is the most extremely passionate sports town in America. They have demands. I don’t think 40,000 people at Fenway Park make more demands than what I make on myself or on the team, but the demands and expectations are high so you’ve got to try and bring your A-game every day.
Let's say you have a great opening day. What does that mean in terms of momentum, going full-steam into the season?
Victorino: My big belief is: It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. You can start off great because it makes the road easier as you go down a season. Obviously, you want to get off to a great start, but if it doesn’t happen [then] it doesn’t happen that way [and] you got 161 games to go.
Pedroia: It’s one game. Obviously, you want to play well, but there’s a lot of guys who’ve had great opening days who didn’t do nothing after that. It’s a long year; it’s a process.
Masterson: No, none whatsoever. It can’t hurt if you have a great opening day, but if you don’t, it doesn’t really take away from what you’re going to do. There’s 162 games and a lot of time to build back up and to hit your stride.
Breslow: I think a lot of people will tell you that baseball is a game of momentum. Certainly getting out of the gates well, and having guys feel good about themselves, and getting that first game under your belt can go toward building some momentum. But it’s hard to get caught up in the results of one game. That being said, if you get off to a good series or a good week it’s a lot easier to compound, and it’s a lot easier to keep the ship headed in the right direction.
Butterfield: No, because I think we’ve all learned as players and coaches that it’s a marathon. You don’t get too high or too low. Look at the San Francisco Giants and their last two world championships; they were slow to get out of the gate. You‘d like to get off to a good start, yeah, but if you don’t it’s OK. You get that 24-hour mentality. You’re not overly elated over a come-from-behind win because you gotta turn it around and do it again in 24 hours. And we look at a demoralizing loss the same way.
What would an ideal opening day be for you?
Victorino: The fans are excited to see their team back out there, but I don’t focus on opening day than any other game for me.
Pedroia: A win.
Masterson: A perfect game!
Breslow: It would be nice to get that first appearance of the season out of the way, but those are things beyond my control. If we win game one, I’ll be happy with it.