Saturday, April 7, 2012

Happy 100th to the Lyric Little Bandbox known as Fenway Pahhhhhhk

Anyone from Boston -- or anyone who likes to make fun of the Boston accent -- will understand the proliferation of "h's" in the title. It's how we speak.

And it's worse when you listen to the radio squawk shows around here, and hear someone get on there and say "they're ruining my summmaaaaaaaahhhhhhh" with regards to the Red Sox and their propensity to excite us and frustrate us all at once.

In fact, in 1999 I had the thrill of a lifetime when the all-star game was at Fenway Park and Major League Baseball unveiled its nominees for "team of the century." Among the nominees was Bob Gibson, who pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals, and who won three games in the 1967 World Series ... and whom I always admired for his sheer ferocity and competitiveness on the mound.

I went up, shook his hand, and told him I was from Boston.

"Oh, NO," moaned Gibby. "I can just hear it now ... YOU BROKE MY HAHHHHHHHHHHT."

Actually, he didn't. I was only 14 in 1967, but I knew greatness when I saw it. And Gibby was pure greatness. In fact, in the overall realm of greatness, I'd put him above any pitcher I've seen since ... and that includes Clemens, Pedro Martinez circa 1999-2000, and Justin Verlander today.

But I digress. This is about Fenway Park, not Bob Gibson (though I could probably write an entire blog item on that seventh game of the 1964 World Series when he threw about 700 pitches -- OK, a slight exaggeration -- and beat the New York Yankees).

Fenway Park had just turned 50 when I first saw it up close and personal. That was in 1962, when I was nine years old, and my father took my sister and I to see a Yankees game so we could watch Mantle and Maris hit home runs (Mickey hit one out; Maris did not).

And even though it was 50, it was less than 30 years removed from the massive renovations it underwent when Tom Yawkey took over ownership of the club in 1934.

Being only nine, I had no idea about significant anniversaries. And besides, I don't recall there being much of a fuss over Fenway's 50th (though in retrospect, I wonder ... the all-star game was at Fenway in 1961, and perhaps that was why).

The only thing I remember about my first experience at Fenway -- and this is so horribly cliche I almost hesitate to mention it -- is that coming up the runway into the grandstand, it was hit with two memories I'll never forget. First, before my eyes, was the greenest and most perfect grass I'd ever seen. Don't forget that in 1961, most TVs in America were still black and white, and you didn't get a sense of how lusciously green those fields were with a B&W TV screen the size of a shoebox.

The second memory is the smell of the park itself. I can't describe it today. I can't possibly count the number of hours I've spent at the ballpark since 1961, and the place still smells the same ... a combination of stale cigar smoke (well, maybe less so now that you can't smoke there), stale beer, stale popcorn, and maybe a whiff of "fresh roasted peanuts here."

In those days, the Red Sox served popcorn in a container that looked like a megaphone. When you were finished, you could pop the cover off the bottom and actually USE it as a megaphone.

The kid behind me was from New York, and he was freak-in obnoxious. He laughed at everything the Red Sox did wrong. And there was plenty to laugh at, too, as the Yankees quickly got up 10-2 in that game before the Red Sox got home runs from Jim Pagliaroni and Bob Tillman to make it 10-6. Pags and Tillman went back-to-back (Pags was the catcher and Tillman, who was a rookie, pinch-hit). I remember that shut the New York kid up but good.

At least once a year until I got into high school, and was old enough to ride the rattle-trap Green Line trolley cars of the Boston MBTA system on my own, my father took us in to Fenway at least once a year ... sometimes twice. We saw doubleheaders most of the time (the man was a saint, taking two little kids to doubleheaders during an era when the team was dreadfully bad).

If Fenway was a lyric little bandbox, which is what John Updike called it when he wrote his farewell to Ted Williams in 1960 (Gods do not answer letters), it was news to me. It was just the place where the Red Sox played. There wasn't anything more significant to it than there was to Yankee Stadium, Tigers Stadium, Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, or Chavez Ravine in Los Angeles. Back then, just about every other ballpark in the American League was named either Memorial, Municipal, or -- in the case of the Minnesota Twins -- Metropolitan. These were the days before naming rights.

National League parks had the much more interesting names ... Forbes Field, County Stadium, Crosley Field, Candlestick Park, Dodger Stadium, Sportsman's Park (later, Busch Stadium), Connie Mack Stadium, Wrigley field. And if you can name the teams that played in those edifaces in the 1960s -- before most of them were torn down in favor of the cookie-cutter era -- you're good. Hint ... only two of them are still in use for baseball, though the name for a third one -- which has since been torn down -- is still used.

Fenway fit right in. It was always a more interesting looking part, having been built to accommodate a neighborhood that, in 1912, was rapidly developing. The "green monster" was made of wood, and covered with ads until after the renovation, at which time was reinforced with tin, painted its famous color, and adorned with what was, at the time, the most state-of-the-art scoreboard in baseball.

There was a 10-foot incline leading up that wall -- a reinforcement of the wall, actually -- known as Duffy's Cliff, which forced the left fielder to run uphill to catch fly balls (it was named for Duffy Lewis, the Sox left fielder at the time). Since the field was -- as it is today -- below the level of Lansdowne Street, the cliff served to compensate for the differences in grades.

That imperfection was remedied in the 1934 rehab.

Other along-the-way quirks and revisions occurred early in the Ted Williams era, when the bullpens were built in right field, ostensibly to give "The Kid" an easier chance to hit home runs (duly named "Williamsburg); and the construction of an elaborate left-field screen to catch fly balls as they went over the wall (so they wouldn't wreak havoc with business establishments and cars on the other side).

Williams once hit one so deep into the right field seats that the chair it hit was painted red for posterity.

Fenway had both an auspicious and inauspicious beginning. On the good side, the Red Sox beat the New York Highlanders (later the Yankees), 7-6. On the down side, coverage of the momentous event was overshadowed by the sinking of the Titanic just days earlier.

Fenway's first decade was perhaps its finest until this most recent one. The Red Sox won numerous world championships, the last one being in 1918 over the Chicago Cubs, and served as the first professional home of perhaps baseball's most historic figure ever ... Babe Ruth.

There's are lots of theories as to why owner Harry Frazee sold off Ruth and many others from that team to the Yankees -- thereby helping to create that dynasty -- and most of them are wrong. Some think Frazee sold Ruth to finance "No, No, Nanette," but that is incorrect. So all you people out there who want to gag every time you hear "Tea for Two," keep your food down. That had nothing to do with it.

It was true Frazee was hard up for money, but it's also true that The Babe, by 1919, was already developing a reputation as a man whose penchant for being a colossal pain in the ass approached his historic abilities. It's been said that Frazee breathed a sigh of relief that he was no longer in the business of babysitting the Bambino.

Of course, history has proven Frazee tremendously short-sighted. Athletes who are difficult to handle thrive in just about every sports ... perhaps just as much today as they did then. The only difference, really, between then and now is that thanks to the International Brotherhood of Baseball Players, pain-in-the-ass athletes have more power.

That trade, though, put the Red Sox into a tailspin they didn't really break until a 20-year-old Theodore Samuel Williams showed up on their doorstep in 1939. You can always tell an athlete's worth, and his future legacy, by how many nicknames are bestowed on him. Williams had his share ... "Teddy Ballgame," "The Splendid Splinter," "The Kid," and probably a few others that can't be printed among more genteel folk.

Williams is easily the most famous and celebrated player in Red Sox history. He is generally acknowledged by all knowledgeable fans as the most gifted pure hitter the game has ever seen ... or, if that's too hard to take, in baseball's modern era. He is really the first player to actively turn hitting into a science that went beyond "see the ball ... hit the ball."

In fact, every time I hear some crazed high school coach yell out to his batter "hit the top half of the ball" I want go down there and tell him, "hey, Jack, Teddy Ballgame could only do that one-third of the time, and he's the greatest hitter who ever lived. So let the kid breathe, would you?"

Teddy Ballgame's the last player in MLB history to hit .400 (though Tony Gwynn might have had a shot at it were it not for the 1994 strike/lockout).

Williams is also among the last of the true larger-than-life ballplayers in Major League history. Think about it. After the 1950s, baseball, as America's official pastime, ceased to exist. By the 1960s, football had risen to the point where it was just about equal to baseball in popularity, and it has surely surpassed the Grand Old Game by now. Why else would Major League Baseball take to ending its season on a weeknight? Why else would it start the World Series on a weeknight, instead of a weekend? It's because weekends are totally taken up with football ... colleges on Saturdays, and the NFL on Sundays.

Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle are the last two -- in this writer's opinion -- truly larger-than-life figures in Major League baseball. This doesn't mean there haven't been great players since, but nobody since has commanded the type of all-out attention these guys created. Not even Hank Aaron. Not even Willie Mays (who perhaps would have qualified had he not been banished to San Francisco for so much of his career), and certainly not Barry F. Bonds.

The Red Sox had a brief burst of relevance in the mid-to-late 1940s -- winning their first AL pennant since 1918 in 1946 (but losing in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals thanks to Enos Slaughter's mad dash), but then receded into mediocrity and outright incompetence until 1967, when Dick Williams, Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Lonborg authored "The Impossible Dream ... Baseball Style."

Along the way, the Red Sox themselves hardly covered themselves with glory as the game shifted away from its whites-only history into historical compliance with regards to race relations. They were the last of the established Major League teams to integrate, finally seeing the light in 1959 when they called up Elijah "Pumpsie" Green to the big club.

The club also, in this rather inglorious years, stood pat while its players were subjected to some horrendous racism during spring training when the club moved its headquarters to Florida (Earl Wilson, who was a very good pitcher, was traded away because of such an incidence in 1966 in favor of a severely broken-down -- but white -- Don Demeter).

Once the Sox of 1967 won the pennant, they remained relevant, with few lapses, until the present time. And it was as the sixties turned into the seventies that some of the older parks were razed in favor of ugly, all-purpose facilities complete with artificial surfaces that lacked character and ambiance. Three Rivers Stadium. Riverfront Stadium. Shea Stadium (which might be the worst ballpark ever built). The Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis with a baggie for a right-center field wall.

These were some of the most horrendous edifices known to man, and it's worth noting that the four aforementioned stadia, along with several more, have been sacrificed to the great God of progress for baseball-only fields that somehow managed to combine modern accoutrements with an old-time flavor. Camden Yards in Baltimore was among the first, but more followed.

It was during this transitional era that Fenway became the darling of baseball dilettantes, going from a rather run-down facility that had already, by the end of the 1975 season, undergone major facelifts to a park that local histories fought diligently to preserve when it looked as if, in the 1990s, it would be replaced.

The first such facelift occurred after the '75 World Series when Fred Lynn almost broke his back trying to catch a fly ball in Game 6 (the Carlton Fisk game). After the season, the wall was padded.

That wasn't all, though. in recognition that times had changed, a brand-new jumbotron scoreboard was added in center field, and half of the left-field scoreboard -- which included National League scores -- was taken down (it has since been put up again, along with other embellishments, that make the one constructed in 1934 look tiny by comparison).

Finally, a new more spacious, the club built a new, more spacious, indoor press box (to that point, the facility was woefully inadequate with nature's air conditioning to boot).

The next major facelift occurred after the 1990 season, when the grandstand-level press box was demolished for a facility halfway to heaven, with the previously existing space used for the abominable, poorly conceived 600 Club (that was changed to .406 Club after Williams died in 2002).

About the only noteworthy thing about the 600 Club was that hitters claimed the change in wind currents that resulted from its construction changed the course of fly balls, making it more difficult to hit home runs.

But then again, Fenway always had its critics based on its dimensions. Many experts claimed that the park, with its short (310 feet) dimensions to left field prevented the club from winning more because it spent too much time and money trying to find hitters who could knock home runs over that wall rather than pitchers who could actually get people out.

That wall also took away as many home runs as it gave up, as rising line drives became singles and fly balls that would have been outs anywhere else ended up as round-trippers. Or, to put it another way, if that 1978 playoff game had been anywhere else but Fenway Park, the Red Sox might have won, 2-0, and Bucky Dent would have flown out harmlessly to left field.

It appeared, though, that Fenway had run its course by the late 1990s. By then, the new parks were starting to emerge, and architects such as Janet Marie Smith (who designed Camden Yards) were able to convice people you could have it all, with regards to ballparks. The groundswell began to do the same to Fenway.

And the groundswell almost became a reality in 1999 when plans were unveiled to build a new stadium next to the old one. It would have involved the usual funky financing, as well as improvements to the existing infrastructure (a fancy way of saying roads), but it looked as if all systems were go.

Now, let's break from our rather objective historical narrative to express the following opinion: I was on John Harrington's side on this. Fenway by the mid-1990s was a tired ballpark that had been surpassed in almost every capacity by the newer structures. It may have been historic, but that's all it was. The seats were uncomfortable (unless you were Twiggy or Hopkin Hopkins (look him up); if you were sitting in the wrong spot in right field, you couldn't see parts of center field and left field. Ditto along the third base line (where the left field corner was totally obscured). Support poles blocked the action (instituting the aptly named term "obstructed view"), and seats were actually pointed away from the plate.

This may not have seemed relevant in 1912, or even in 1962. But if you went to places such as Camden Yards, or Pac Bell Stadium, or Jacobs Field, and saw the potential to have a much more enjoyable fan experience and still feel like you were at a real ballpark (as opposed to a cereal-bowl multipurpose stadium), and then went to Fenway Park, the difference was palpable.

So I do not think John Harrington was evil. I think John Harrington tried to do what he thought was right when it came to providing his ever-growing fan base with an enjoyable experience.

But into the breach came the "Save Fenway" crowd, and in the beginning I thought they were both crazy and obstructionist. I'd have preferred to see all them rounded up and transported to Saturn.

They brought up some valid points. Fenway Park was historic, and it existed in a city that place an important value on such things ... unlike New York, which suffered greatly under transportation/urban planning czar Robert Moses (it was Moses, and not Walter O'Malley, who was most responsible for the Dodgers moving to Los Angeles because of his intractability when it came to helping O'Malley find a spot to build a new stadium in Brooklyn.

Much of New York's early history was bulldozed (something that, sadly, is still an isue today, as evidenced by the callous destruction of "The House that Ruth Built" in favor of a modernized and more expensive Yankee Stadium).

But the historical issues could have been resolved. Perhaps the essence of the old park could have been transferred to the new facility; maybe some of it could have been preserved as part of an on-site museum. And maybe some of it could have been incorporated into the new design.

There was no reason that Red Sox fans, the same as Orioles, Indians, Giants, Pirates, Reds and Tigers fans, couldn't enjoy a modern facility with an old-time feel.

The only reason was the "Save Fenway" crowd.

So it was with great disappointment, to me and countless others, when John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino announced, upon acquiring the team in 2002, that they'd explore ways to keep Fenway as it was and improve it as much as they could.

Not what I wanted to hear. But Lucchino had worked with Janet Marie in Baltimore, and brought her in design the improvements. I'd never heard of Janet Marie Smith, but I can honestly say, now, that as far as members of this organization go, she's the one most responsible for turning Fenway into something approaching a modern ballpark.

Smith was responsible for all of it ... the "monster seats," the pavilion, improved sight lines, new seats and a better venue for standing room along third base, and the destruction of that god-awful 600 Club in favor of regular seats. By doing all this, she (and the Red Sox) improved Fenway's capacity, and -- in the process -- turned it from a moribund relic into a pretty attractive place ... albeit with many of the same limitations that caused people to pine for a new stadium in the first place. She is a true hero in this story.

She was also responsible for opening up much of the concourse, especially along the right field seats, and turning Yawkey Way into a bigger concourse on game days. Now, at least, if there's a fire, we have a chance of an easier egress.

For her efforts, Janet Marie was -- of course -- shown the door in what can only be seen as some kind of power struggle somewhere. That's too bad. It would have been nice to see what other ideas she had. But this fan will always be grateful that there was a Janet Marie Smith, and would, someday, love to meet her and thank her for all she did to make Fenway as attractive as it is today. Because quite honestly, and despite everything I still dislike about it, the park has never looked better.

So as we prepared to celebrate Fenway's centennial, we can, in the end, be thankful that a significant piece of Boston's historical landscape has been saved and, more importantly, cared for by the likes of Larry Lucchino (this may be the only time I ever say anything remotely nice about him) and Janet Marie Smith.

Be it ever so humble (and believe me, it still is), there's no place like home.

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