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A day for the ages

A day for the ages

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BOSTON -- It was a day that started with rejoicing, then went to reconciliation and eventually worked its way back to rejoicing. Even for Fenway Park, that's a full afternoon.

This was the home opener on Tuesday for the defending World Series champions, the Red Sox. No expense was spared, and neither were the visiting Tigers.

The Red Sox won the game, 5-0, but only after they also were victorious in the pregame ceremonies. Handing out World Series rings is not a novel event. It happens somewhere every April. But this franchise, in celebrating the 2007 championship, produced ceremonies that lifted the spirit and touched the heart.

The flags of 62 nations lined up on the warning track in left, each representing a locale of Red Sox fans, were colorful reminders that Red Sox Nation had basically evolved into Red Sox Planet.

The presence of former champions from the full range of other Boston/New England sports franchises was a suitably imposing touch. It is impressive to some of us when Bill Russell and Bobby Orr are merely mentioned in the same paragraph. To have them both on hand at the same time means that what you thought was an important event was actually a transcendent event.

But what the Red Sox did best for their 2008 home opener was to have Bill Buckner throw out the ceremonial first pitch. It was basically a "we're-beyond-all-that-now" moment in the history of this franchise and its fan base.

Perhaps no other single player was as closely associated with this team's chronic frustrations and disappointments as Buckner. This was never quite fair on several levels. True, Mookie Wilson's grounder going through Buckner's legs ended Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, a contest in which seemingly certain victory became crushing defeat. But there were other Red Sox with their fingerprints all over this outcome. Buckner was not the sole cause of defeat. He was merely the last guy to make a mistake.

Plus, Buckner had a Major League career that was extremely worthy. So when he was introduced on Tuesday he received a long and affectionate ovation. He had not been in Fenway for nearly 11 years, and it was as though people had been waiting for an opportunity to say "let's let that grounder be bygones," or something along those lines suggesting that to err is human and to forgive is divine.

It was a very nice moment, a genuinely touching moment.

"I was literally almost in tears," current first baseman Kevin Youkilis said.

As Youkilis pointed out, Buckner had received death threats after the '86 Series, people had said "horrific things" about him, his whole life had changed and definitely not for the better because of one play.

"For a man to step out there and do what he did, it shows what kind of man he is," Youkilis said of Buckner's appearance here.

This whole episode illustrated a larger point for Youkilis. People always say that baseball is merely a game. That wasn't the case with Bill Buckner and the ground ball.

"Sometimes this is more than a game," Youkilis said. "It's life here in Boston."

But for this opener, for this chapter of baseball/life in Boston, it was as though everybody on hand had graduated from the school of masochism and had gone on to a happier vocation. The Red Sox, after all, are the only team to win two World Series in the new millennium. When there is a record-setting harvest, why fixate on the drought?

It was as though a more pleasant view of history was being written here, and it was all made possible by the soothing balm of triumph, courtesy of the 2004 and '07 Red Sox.

The 2008 Red Sox then did their bit to create the necessary happy ending to these festivities, by defeating the Tigers. There had been just a hint of hand-wringing going on, since Boston did arrive at its home opener as a last-place team after being swept three straight in Toronto.

This should have been absolutely no cause for alarm. First, everything was relative. Their problems were nothing like those of the Tigers, who were picked by many to win everything and who are now 0-7.

The performance of the Tigers to date is inexplicable. The early shortcomings of the Red Sox had obvious explanations. They were tired. Over a period of nearly three weeks, they had an itinerary that went from Ft. Myers, Fla., to Tokyo to Los Angeles to Oakland to Toronto before returning to the comforts of home. That looked like a Red Sox schedule that could have been drawn up by, oh, perhaps the Yankees. The Red Sox weren't using this five-city, three-nation, two-hemisphere trek as an excuse, but that didn't mean that the excuse wasn't valid.

With perfect timing for this celebration, the Sox returned to form. Daisuke Matsuzaka kept the Tigers from getting their offense started, shutting them out for 6 2/3 innings, the first five of which passed almost without a hint of trouble.

In the other half of the game, if the Red Sox were not explosive, they were otherwise typical of their better efforts; selective, patient, persistent, forcing veteran lefty Kenny Rogers to throw 106 pitches just to get through 4 2/3 innings.

All in all, it was a day for the ages. Perhaps the climate could have been a bit less brisk, but the sun was shining in more ways than one.

"It was a wonderful day for the organization, and when you end up winning, it makes it even better," manager Terry Francona said. "It was a good way to say goodbye to '07."

The Red Sox used to suffer from what seemed to be a perennial shortage of glorious days in franchise history. Now, these days are occurring with something like regularity. Tuesday was one of those days; a celebration, the public restoration of a fallen first baseman and another Red Sox victory.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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