By David Willis
---- — Andover’s Ryan Hanigan already had registered 494 games as a Major League player during his stellar big league career. But last Tuesday was special.
Game No. 495 — for the first time in his career — was at Fenway Park.
“Fenway Park is the cathedral (of baseball),” Hanigan said. “Everyone in New England loves the Red Sox, and I went to so many games here growing up. To have the chance to play at Fenway, in front of my family and so many friends, is really exciting.”
On April 29, Hanigan took the field at iconic Fenway Park for the first time in his eight-year MLB career, as the starting catcher for the Tampa Bay Rays.
“Fenway is such a special place,” Hanigan’s mother, Helen, said. “We used to bring Ryan here as a kid so often, so to see him on the field as a major leaguer is very, very exciting.
“His (Major League) debut was so special, but this is right up there with that day.”
The former Andover High star lived out every Boston sports fans’ dream last week. He not only started a Major League game at Fenway — with more than 102 friends and family on hand to root him on — but he hammered a line drive RBI single off the park’s iconic Green Monster during his debut against the team he grew up rooting for.
“We are so thrilled for him,” his father, Mike Hanigan, said. “The first game I ever brought him to, Roger Clemens pitched a shutout. That was a long time ago. Ryan is a mature, experienced major league player now. It’s amazing to see him here.”
Despite a lengthy and productive Major League career since his debut on Sept. 9, 2007, Hanigan had never appeared at Fenway, given the first seven years of his career were spent with the Cincinnati Reds of the National League. The Reds never played an interleague series against the Red Sox during Hanigan’s time there.
However, in the off-season, Hanigan was traded by the Reds to the Tampa Bay Rays.
So, the former Golden Warrior and Rollins College star would not only visit Fenway, but he will take on his hometown team 19 times during the 2014 season.
And no one is happier to have Hanigan in a Tampa Bay uniform than Rays manager and two-time American League Manager of the Year Joe Maddon.
“Ryan has been a very refreshing addition to this team,” Maddon said. “I love the way he goes about his business. He cares as much as anyone could care about the game. His attention to the pitching staff is incredible. The thought that he will be here for three more years is great because he is very, very good.”
While Hanigan had never played a professional game at Fenway Park until last week, he is no stranger to the 102-year-old ballpark.
“I went to so many games when I was young,” he said. “I would go to the park with friends and family, catch a game then go out afterward. Ever since I was a little kid, it was a great place to watch a game, and I loved the Red Sox.”
His mother remembers her son’s excitement of going to Fenway as a kid.
“Fenway is a very special place to us because we live so close,” she said. “We have been looking forward to him playing at Fenway for a long time.”
Hanigan actually had taken the field at Fenway Park twice before, prior to his professional baseball career.
“I actually played there once in high school for a Mass. state team against Connecticut,” he said. “Then I played for the Cape Cod All-Star team. I had the chance to walk around the field, and it was special.”
After outstanding careers at Andover High (.397 as a senior) and Rollins in Florida (fifth in school history with a .358 average) and a breakthrough performance in the Cape Cod League, Hanigan was signed by the Reds as an undrafted free agent.
After five Minor League seasons, he debuted in the majors at age 26 during the 2007 season.
In seven seasons with the Reds, Hanigan hit .262 and gained a reputation as one of the best defensive catchers in baseball.
So the Rays were thrilled to acquire the backstop in the off-season.
Tampa’s Matt Joyce calls him “Ryno,” but also nicknamed Ryan “The Rock.”
“Just because he reminds me a little bit about Rocky,” Joyce said. “Behind the plate, he takes a beating and just keeps coming.”
While Hanigan is making Tampa his home, All-Star teammate Evan Longoria sees the spirit of Boston in the Rays’ catcher.
“Although now we like to think of him as a Tampa Bay Ray, he kind of epitomizes what this city (of Boston) is all about,” Longoria said, adding, “He’s a hard worker.”
Hanigan may be known for his intense “game face,” but he could not hide his excitement for his return to Fenway last week.
“I have been around the majors for a long time and I don’t get too caught up in things,” he said. “But this is definitely cool. It definitely feels like a home crowd for me. This is special.”
Hanigan ended up starting two of the three games in the series against the Red Sox. He expects to see more action when he returns to Fenway on May 30.
“We have really been looking forward to this season,” Hanigan’s father said. “We went to a lot of games over the years, but having him this close to home in the AL East is great. We can travel up the East Coast watching him play, and he will be back at Fenway.”