In the bowels of the beast | Bleader

In the bowels of the beast

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At the do-or-die third playoff game against the Rays on Sunday, I wasn't just nervous about the outcome. I was nervous because, courtesy of a press pass, I was venturing into unknown territory: the realm of skyboxes and sports columnists.

It was a bit different from climbing the ramps up to my usual cheap seats. As a credentialed journalist, once you get your lanyard and badge and your bags checked, you enter on the ground level, just past Gate 6, and emerge into a vast circular tunnel with cinder-block walls and doors marked "X-Ray," "Plumbing Maintenance," and "Woodshop." Golf carts buzz past; there are unmarked doors and loading zones all over the place, each guarded by an attendant.

I was glad for a guide in Ted Cox, who led me up to the fourth-floor press boxes, where we picked up scorecards and media guides. But the press box would be an arid place to actually watch a game. There's of course no cheering (though I'm told there are sometimes groans or snorts), and the view in the auxiliary box--far along the third base line, with a partially obstructed view of home plate--is nothing to brag about. So we headed out, past skyboxes that look like only moderately updated versions of the basement bars swingers had in the 70s, all black and chrome, with tall stools perched in front of the windows and round coffee tables piled with salty snacks.

Before finding a place to watch the game, we swung by the conference room, a subdued chamber with tiered seating and a decorous moderator. We didn't hear much beyond the usual pregame pabulum, except when Ozzie responded to a question about the Cubs' playoff ouster the night before: ''I don't want to say I'm very sad, but I have friends out there," he said. "As soon as the game was over, I text Zambrano and--I can't say what I said. I told him to keep his head up, don't let these people bring you down.''

The minute he was out in the tunnel, though, Ozzie was himself again. Let's just say the sensitivity training he went through may need some tweaks.

From there we briefly went onto the field, where I'd stood once before, during a preseason press visit--and trust me, that dugout reeks. Dressed all in black, Jerry Reinsdorf stood at the top step to the dugout, chatting with Ozzie and Alexei Ramirez, the hero whose grand slam against the Tigers had forced a tiebreaker between the Sox and Twins. Behind the batter's box A.J. Pierzynski was leaning on the end of his bat as Fred Astaire would lean on his cane. Don Cooper came jogging in from the outfield as a coach who looked to be in his 50s effortlessly fielded shags.

Wandering the upper-deck concourse a short while later, badge tucked under my coat, I paid a visit to our favorite Beers of the World vendor, who seems like a pal after a few years of season tickets. "What do you think?" I asked him of the game's prospects. "I'll see you tomorrow," he said with assurance. By this time the seats were packed with black-clad fans--there would be no chance of sneaking a couple vacant ones. So we headed down to the below-ground patio section behind right field. The view of the action wasn't great--the area sits behind a chain-link fence--but I can see some people liking it when the girls come around throwing T-shirts at the crowd. I ended up watching most of the game on TV at the Bullpen Bar, the better to keep score. Plus, they have Maker's Mark.

John Danks pitched a strong game, and the Sox had some offense for a change, even playing some small ball in the third. In the seventh, with the score 5-1, the Rays mounted a challenge, scoring two more. Unbelievably, with the Sox still in the lead, some people began leaving the game, so we hustled back to the 100 level and were able to find two seats in the lower boxes just behind home plate (thank you, idiots). From there we watched relievers Matt Thornton and Bobby Jenks hold the Rays down, and with Jenks's strikeout of Carlos Peña, the Sox won 5-3 for their fourth must-win victory in eight days.

When Ted headed up to the press box to file his story, I went down to the conference room again, behind a line of the players' wives, kids, family friends, and hangers-on. More than half of the 20 or so people at the postgame press conference were members of the Japanese media, there to cover Rays second baseman Akinori Iwamura, who batted .389 in the series with a slugging percentage of .722 (all the worse for Kosuke Fukudome). No one was exactly exulting--the Sox would have to win two more to advance, and that seemed highly unlikely. But Danks and Pierzynski, taking questions after Ozzie's session, were loose and upbeat.

Reentering the tunnel, I realized I had no idea how to get back to the fourth floor. I walked a good quarter mile before stopping, thinking I'd probably passed the elevator or stairs. That's when I saw Alexei Ramirez again, dressed all in white and accompanied by his wife and little boy, who was swinging a miniature Sox bat with a pretty mean cut.

I walked back and found an attendant, who pointed me to a freight elevator across the way. The doors and gate opened with a clang, and a bunch of vendors came spilling out, among them the Beers of the World guy. "Hey, what you are doing down here?" he called. "I'm headed up to the press box," I told him, rather dazed. I'll take section 530 and the fans there any day. 

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