By Jason Brannon
Cast your mind back, if you would, to three years ago, all the way back to the summer of aughty-aught. A heated presidential race was a-brewing, the Olympics were just around the corner, and the whole country was taking a much-needed nap, having just survived the Y2K catastrophe, snug in their Y2K-compliant apartments, wearing their Y2K-compliant outerwear. No one had yet heard of that horrible “Saddam Hussein” character, and the domestication of the dog continued unabated.
At the same time, a certain nationally-known interWeb baseball columnist–for the sake of discussion, let”s call him “Rob N.”–was in Boston writing his masterwork, the diary of a summer spent watching the Red Sox in their storied home, Fenway Park. Feeding the Green Monster, thanks to its unlikely addition to the Oprah Book Club, went on to become one of the best-selling books of the decade. And everyone associated with it, from the author himself to his lowly research assistant, would for a time know the kind of fame usually reserved for rock-and-roll singers and rejects from reality-TV programs. O, what a glorious time!
A lot has happened to the Red Sox since that magical, bygone era. A manager and general manager have been sacked, and the Bostons finished two more seasons in second place to the (bad word) Yankees (making it five seasons in a row). Perhaps most significantly, the longtime owners of the Red Sox, the Yawkey trust, headed by John Harrington, sold the whole kibbles and bits – team, ballpark, NESN and all – to millionaire industrialist (or is it “moneyed magnate”?) John Henry and some guys he knows (in a process The Boston Globe‘s Dan Shaughnessy referred to as a “bag job”). Now that the new owners have held the reins of power for more than a year, let’s take a look at how the new regime differs from the old one, especially with respect to Fenway Park.
Fenway itself seems to no longer be in immediate jeopardy, as it had been under the previous administration. Gone are the days when management would routinely disparage the old ball yard. “Look at how dilapidated this place is!” they’d tell us over and over again. “See that?” they’d say, pointing to some cracked concrete or chipped paint, “You can’t fix that!” Little perks that fans of other ballclubs enjoyed, like having the park cleaned between games, were gradually phased out during the last regime, until there was something like a consensus in favor of tearing the decrepit old building down and starting all over again. Luckily for Fenway fans, the new owners, whether because of a genuine desire to keep the old park around for a while or just because of political and financial realities (ballparks is expensive!), seem to have decided to renovate Fenway, rather than demolish it. Hooray!
So what are they doing to spruce up the place? As you’ve no doubt heard, seats have been installed above the Green Monster. Some 280 barstools, plus a standing-room area, now stand beyond the Wall. Somewhat surprisingly, people have taken to the idea, and the predicted howls of protest from the Fenway Faithful never materialized. They must take it as a good sign that the new owners don’t want (or aren’t able) to build a new “mallpark.”
A few of the changes at Fenway have been decidedly fan friendly, such as the opening of the exclusive Diamond Club to the riff-raff after the 7th inning. Also, the bleachers are no longer cordoned off from the rest of the park, so the deprived denizens of the outfield now have the full run of the place, as it should be. Yawkey Way was fenced off late last season to create a concourse outside Fenway, similar to the newer parks like Camden Yards. A few saw this move as an unjustified attempt by the Red Sox to seize all the concession and souvenir business for themselves (the sausage and clothing vendors who used to line Yawkey have been displaced), but the fans seemed to enjoy it, and the Yawkey mall is back for 2003. More bathrooms and concessions inside the ballpark have been added, too.
Before long, the new owners will build a picnic area beyond right field and attach seats to the right-field roof. The old National League scoreboard, which had been gathering mothballs in North Dakota for decades, has been returned to the Monster this year, lending a sort of retro feel to the Fenway fence (can advertisements for Lifebuoy Soap be far behind?), notwithstanding the new seats. Additional revenue-generating signage was placed throughout the park last season, raising the ire of the usual suspects. For the most part, however, things are looking up at Fenway. It’s well maintained (for a change), and the renovation plans for this year have even met with enthusiastic approval from the Save Fenway Park folks.
The news on the ticket front isn’t quite so positive, however. Ticket prices are up again this season (to the surprise of no one in particular), and a day at Fenway remains the most expensive in baseball, as has been the case for several years. The new owners have sought to mollify season-ticket holders, sometimes at the expense of the less well-heeled, by giving them first dibs on–well, on just about everything, from the new Green Monster seats to the tickets normally reserved for the general public (and scalpers) each winter. This move has not been well received, as these 69 pages of vitriol will attest. But like Rob says, there are always tickets available, if you know all the tricks. Try dressing up as a police officer, or one of the players. (Hint: there have been a lot of ballplayers, if not a lot of Boston cops, with the name Cruz.)
In the area of public relations, things are much, much better than before, though it’s hard to imagine anyone approaching the nadir reached in the final days of the Harrington/Duquette regime. The new owners’ relationship with local government seems amicable, or at least not antagonistic, as evidenced by the lack of hubbub surrounding the Green Monster seats, which require large support beams that will enclose a section of public sidewalk (the Cubs are having a tough time with their Wrigley expansion plans because of a similar “usurpation of the public streets”). The team’s rapport with the local media seems cordial as well, owing in part to the new owners’ and especially new general manager Theo Epstein’s accessibility. Before the bullpen problems in April, Epstein’s team received glowing reviews from most quarters (even if a few dissenters, Luddites who resent the influence of the Bill James set, do remain).
All in all, if I had to give the new ownership a grade — and I don’t — I’d give them a solid B+. Good so far, with a little room for improvement. If I were grading on a curve, they’d get an A for sure. But wait! I just remembered, given the state of grade inflation at our nation’s colleges and universities, a B+ might as well be a death sentence, so let’s bring that up to a solid A for “adequate”! Well, better than adequate, especially if you’re a fan of the olde-tyme baseball parks and/or sabermetrically-inclined (which I’d imagine you are, given that you’re visiting this particular interWebSite).
The Red Sox now have the kind of forward-thinking organization that should be able to keep the team in contention in near-perpetuity. And the new administration, having learned the lessons of the Duquette era, seems at least somewhat interested in not alienating the fan base or the local media. Perhaps best of all, Fenway Park seems to be safe from the wrecking ball. The cost of buying the team, coupled with a reluctance on the part of government officials to use public funds for what is essentially a private enterprise, has made tearing down Fenway untenable. Renovation is not only being seriously considered, but is in fact already happening. For that, we can all celebrate. So, let us toast to that venerable old ball yard, Fenway Park.
May her shadow never grow less!