By Paul White, USA TODAY
TAMPA — Terry Francona recalls walking into a hotel elevator in Baltimore this month, still smarting from a galling loss that night. The Boston Red Sox manager was joined by two Sox fans, also guests in the hotel where the team was staying.
"One of them told me I took (pitcher Daisuke) Matsuzaka out of the game too early," Francona says. In no mood to debate baseball strategy with strangers, he said nothing.
"Then the other guy said, 'So, what are you going to do tonight?' " Francona recalls. "I said, 'Get away from you as quick as I can.' "
These days, the Red Sox are learning that it's not always easy being the biggest attraction in baseball. For much of this decade, that honor — and all the hype and scrutiny it brings — has gone to their archrival, the New York Yankees. But in two of the three seasons since the Red Sox ended an 86-year drought and won the World Series in 2004, the fan base known as Red Sox Nation has grown into its name: No one, including the hallowed Yankees, plays to bigger crowds on the road.
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The cheering, fawning and often angst-ridden Red Sox Nation is everywhere, some nights outnumbering the home team's fans at Red Sox road games. Some fans are newcomers, having latched on to the team of the moment. Others are die-hards who have found it easier to see their beloved Sox away from Boston because it's often difficult and expensive to get tickets to games in Boston's tiny Fenway Park.
Still others follow the Sox all over the place on increasingly popular chartered trips arranged by the Red Sox and private operators. Wherever the Sox play, their fans arrive by plane, bus and car. In Baltimore this month, downtown hotels near Oriole Park at Camden Yards had been booked for the Orioles' three-game series against the Sox since Major League Baseball's schedule was announced last winter.
"It used to be, 'Yeah, but they always choke.' Now, they're the best team," says Rocco Onofrietto, 52, who this week made the trip to Tampa from West Palm Beach, Fla., with his son Zack, 20, to see the Sox play the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. "It's really great after all those years."
Wilfredo Santa and his wife, Martha, made the trip here from Puerto Rico, the second year they've done that. Wilfredo, 33, was born in Boston but moved to Puerto Rico as a preschooler.
"It's our tradition," he says of being a Boston native and a Red Sox fan. "I suffered a long time" when the team wasn't as good.
Francona and his players say they appreciate the adulation, but acknowledge it can be smothering. The first-place Red Sox are being chased in the American League East by the Yankees, who through Wednesday were five games behind Boston in the standings — down from 14 games on May 30.
With the Yankees turning up the pressure, the Red Sox also seem to be feeling it from adoring fans who chase them from coast to coast.
"They have passion, really care, really love us. But the best time to be a Red Sox player is game time," says first baseman Kevin Youkilis, a fan favorite usually greeted with chants of "Youuuk."
"We're told to leave it all on the field," Youkilis says. "But with the fans around so much, it becomes a 24/7 thing. You can't escape it. The hardest time is at the hotel. Sometimes that takes away from the whole experience."
"That's a little disappointing to hear," says Red Sox fan Scott Patterson of Cranston, R.I., who graduated in May from Southern New Hampshire University and started a blog (bostonsportslife.blogspot.com) with a classmate.
"We as fans have taken a huge part of our lives and invested it in this team," says Patterson, who grew up as a Sox fan and went to the series in Baltimore.
Fans stake out hotels
The Red Sox don't reveal the hotels where they stay on the road, but it's hardly a secret among their fans, who share the information on blogs and Internet message boards.
When the Sox came to this area to play the Devil Rays this year, the team — seeking a little privacy — switched hotels from the Renaissance Vinoy in downtown St. Petersburg to the Don CeSar Beach Resort, 10 miles away.
"There were people staking out the floors" of the Vinoy, says Red Sox traveling secretary Jack McCormick, who handles the team's travel arrangements. "If they can't control it, the players can't even come out of their rooms."
And yet, when the Red Sox went to the Don CeSar for the first time for a series in late July, hundreds of fans found them.
"Yeah? Try to find us next year," McCormick says, laughing. "Maybe I'll move us to Orlando," 107 miles away.
Hotels that host the Red Sox or Yankees typically beef up security more than they do for other visiting teams, even getting help from local police departments.
"It's not easy," says Meade Atkeson, general manager of Baltimore's Renaissance Harborplace, which McCormick says is his favorite among the Red Sox stops because of how it handles security.
"It's a fine line balancing security and what our guests want," Atkeson says. "We post signs that say no pictures or autograph requests. If you're not staying at the hotel, we set up a place across the street," where fans can wait to get a glimpse of Sox outfielder Manny Ramirez or scream "Papi, Papi," the nickname of designated hitter David Ortiz.
'It's rock-star status'
Red Sox Nation began growing in 2003, when the team reached the playoffs for the first time since 1999. It exploded after the Sox won the World Series in 2004 for the first time since 1918, after surprising the Yankees in the American League Championship Series by becoming the first baseball team to win a seven-game series after losing the first three games.
The Red Sox returned to the playoffs in 2005 and led the majors in road attendance — topping the Yankees, baseball's top road draw from 2001 to 2004. The Red Sox fell to third place in the AL East last year, missed the playoffs and saw the Yankees reclaim the road attendance crown.
This year the Sox are surging again and averaging 39,136 in road attendance. That's about 1,300 more than the Yankees draw in road games, and nearly 2,000 more than the Sox drew in road games in 2005, when they were the defending World Series champs.
"What we have is a perfect storm," says Sam Kennedy, the Red Sox senior vice president of sales and marketing. "It began in the early part of 2003. That's when our fans really went crazy with the idea we would have a competitive team for a long time."
Kennedy says the rise of Red Sox Nation has little to do with a marketing strategy. "We'd be foolish to say we had anything to do with Red Sox Nation."
However, the team has responded to its rising popularity by operating what is now a 35,000-member fan club with fans from every state and 15 countries.
Kennedy, a Boston native, previously worked for the San Diego Padres. "I remember the first time (the Red Sox) came to San Diego (in 2002) for interleague games, and I'm not exaggerating when I say the stadium was half Red Sox fans."
When the Red Sox travel to Seattle they land at Boeing Field, a public cargo/charter facility where the aircraft-maker tests its planes.
"When we got there (recently), the Blue Angels were also there for a show," McCormick says. "They somehow got word we were coming in and their support people were all out there with Red Sox signs. That happens everywhere we land. Workers come out of nowhere, the food service people, cleaners, baggage people, just to see us. It's rock-star status."
That's why Francona's recent seven-block walk to the hotel from Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards — one he hoped would help clear his head after his team allowed four runs in the bottom of the ninth inning and lost — turned into a gantlet of well-wishers, supporters and, yes, second-guessers.
"Most people are really nice," the Sox manager says. "Sometimes I probably seem surly when I don't want to be. But people just walk up to you on the street and start talking. You just don't know which one might be that 'one.' "
He's referring to every major league manager and player's nightmare: A supporter like the one played by Robert De Niro in the 1996 movie The Fan, in which a baseball fan is driven to murder by his obsession with a player.
Youkilis and other Red Sox players acknowledge that the movie — even more than a decade after its release — has given them pause in dealing with fans, although none says he has seen or experienced anything close to such a situation.
"No, it's never been frightening," McCormick says. "But you didn't ask me about aggravating."
In Florida, security personnel at the Don CeSar found a fan they remembered from the last Red Sox visit who was checking out the hotel's layout — including its elevators, stairwells and guest rooms — the night before the team arrived this week. He was threatened with arrest and told not to return.
"We haven't seen him since," says Jim Marus, a hotel security supervisor and former New York Police Department officer. "I'm a Yankees fan, but I also have a job to do."
Easier to see them on the road
At Boston's Fenway Park, the smallest stadium in the majors with a capacity of 36,108, the Red Sox have not had an unsold seat since May 15, 2003, a streak now at 370 games. That's the second-longest in baseball history to Cleveland's 455 from 1995 to 2001.
The difficulty of getting into Fenway Park for one of the team's 81 games there each year has created a travel industry fueled by Sox fans. Patterson says he traveled to Baltimore to see his Sox this month because "it was cheaper to drive down to Baltimore for two games than to go to one in Fenway."
Orioles' home-game tickets range from $8 to $65. When Baltimore plays in Boston in September, the main option for fans such as Patterson who aren't lucky enough to have Red Sox season tickets is to buy from ticket brokers.
Broker StubHub lists a standing-room ticket for that series Aug. 31-Sept. 2 at $80 to $142. Outfield bleacher tickets are offered for up to $300; seats atop Fenway's Green Monster, the venerable 37-foot-tall wall in left field, run about $2,000.
Such prices have fostered a market for trips to Sox road games organized by travel operators.
Dan Pranka runs New England Sports Tours after a 30-year career as a Delta pilot that included flying some Red Sox team charters. For the Baltimore series, Pranka sold 245 seats on planes and several more on a bus to Red Sox fans who traveled to Baltimore, paying $300 to $800 for packages that included hotel rooms and tickets.
Pranka says that before each season, he tries to learn the Red Sox travel schedule as soon as possible, then book hotel rooms in visiting cities before the hotels jack up their rates in anticipation of Sox games.
"They'll go up about $50 a night" when the Sox are in town, he says.
The Red Sox have created their own tour firm, Red Sox Destinations. "This year we had six outbound trips — to Texas, New York, Arizona, San Diego, Chicago and Baltimore," Kennedy says. "And we ran trips for people outside the market and brought 2,500 people into Fenway."
With that kind of demand and the continuing success of the Red Sox on the field, no one around the team expects life on the road to change anytime soon.
For all the hassles that come with intense fans, "we're in first place with the best record in baseball," Youkilis says. "You have to enjoy it, soak it up."
Share your most memorable tales about being a Boston fan and, for followers of other teams, tell us about your most unforgettable encounters with Red Sox fans.
The Boston Red Sox have been among Major League Baseball's biggest road attractions in recent years, but since winning the World Series in 2004, their average road attendance has ranked first or second:
Source: Elias Sports Bureau
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