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I'd never been to Fenway Park and for a few years I'd been telling myself that *this* was the year I was going to go, without following through. As the 2006 season was winding down and it was looking more and more as if the Red Sox season would come down to the final series with the Yankees, I thought what better time to see Fenway than in the closest race in 27 years between the greatest rivalry in American sport?

Tickets a week before the game were still reasonable. I could get a flight for just over $200 and decent tickets to the final two games for $200 each (they got a lot pricier as the week wound down). For a week I rooted for the race to stay close, so the series would be packed with drama. Things could hardly have worked out better. As I flew into Boston Friday, the Red Sox won behind ex-Yankee David Wells to tie for the AL East lead. After each team had played 160 games, it was a dead heat.

The weather was sunny and in the 70s for both weekend day games. It was extremely easy to get to the park from my hotel via the subway, and a perfect day for wandering around the ballpark. Bill Davis, who grew up in the area, came down on the train from Portland Maine for Saturday's game. After the game, Bill lead me on a long and excellent walking tour of all the main neighborhoods of the city, with stops at various gin mills on the way.

The Sox got to Randy Johnson for a couple in the first but the Yankees pounded Tim Wakefield Saturday to win 8-4. This, combined with another Indians loss in Chicago, clinched the division for the Yankees (even if the Red Sox won the next day to tie, the Yankees would win the tie breaker, and with Cleveland out, no extra playoff games would be scheduled).

On Sunday the Red Sox could still get into the postseason as the wildcard team (just as they did last year to eventually win their first World Series since 1918) by beating the Yankees or if the Indians lost to Chicago. Sunday's game was very much a party atmosphere. The Red Sox have sold out every game for the past three years and the packed crowd went crazy when, after the 5th inning, the manual scoreboard on the Green Monster changed to show the score in Chicago was a final, and the Red Sox were in with the Indians' loss. By that time the Yankees game was also fairly well in hand (6-0 after 5); Manny Ramirez had smacked a 3-run HR in the 4th (his 3rd HR in the those two games) and the crowd was celebrating over the final 4 innings, dancing and singing with extra gusto to the traditional "Sweet Carolyne" ("So good! So Good!") played in the middle of the 8th at Fenway.

The ballpark and streets nearby were crawling with cops brought in from all over the area for those last two games, but they were unnecessary. I went to a couple bars on Lansdowne St. -- The Tiki Room (a tiki bar right on famous Lansdowne St! Who knew?) and the famous Cask and Flagon -- and soaked up the party.

Of course I knew Fenway was a great park, and you've seen so many pictures of the playing field that the most interesting parts are the surroundings. Even so, Fenway in person was even more box-like that it seemed on television, with even the modern additions standing at starkly perpendicular angles to the field. I like the work they've done so far to expand and modernize it (I would have liked to have a seat for one game on the Monster, but those were going for $1,000 and up). Closing Yawkey Way and including it as part of the ballpark during the game provides a nice breezeway redolent of Camden Yards. The bar in right field and expanded seating in the upper sections fit in nicely -- superbly on a sunny, Indian Summer October afternoon.

The culture, too, lived up to expectations. It's fun being in a city where people talk differently ("Hey, get me a fried dough and a Sam from the Bah!"), and it was always abundantly clear that Red Sox baseball was much more of a religion -- among the 40 year-olds no less than among the 6 year-olds or 70 year-olds -- than pretty much any other baseball town. The fans I heard took it for granted that both they would have little problem with the White Sox and were sure to again meet the Yankees for the pennant -- a faith that would later turn out to be wrong on both counts. But even if one doesn't believe that the outcome of baseball games is determined by some mystical forces of fate, the more time you spend at Fenway, the more your skepticism seems to wane.

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