Cheers from (no) peanut gallery

Red Sox are expanding their efforts to give allergy sufferers a crackerjack game day experience

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By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / June 12, 2011

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Peanuts have permeated Fenway Park for a century: cracked between fingers, crunched beneath feet, and hurled through the air by vendors with the arms of center fielders.

The song tells fans, “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,’’ and the faithful comply. At a typical game at Fenway, spectators peel 3,000 bags of peanuts, haphazardly scattering a half-ton worth of shells.

That was why 8-year-old Silas Clark was so scared.

“We’d spent eight years telling him that peanuts could kill him,’’ said his father, Andrew, 43, who treasured ballgames with his dad and tried to bring his son to a Red Sox game in August. “There were peanuts in front of us. Peanuts behind us. He could smell them. He could see people eating them.’’

With tears, the Clarks left in the second inning because Silas has a peanut allergy and had trouble breathing. But the Barnstable family returned to Fenway last week and sat nine innings in seats where shells did not go crunch underfoot.

Peanuts were banned last Sunday from an entire 226-person section of the ballpark for the second time this season as part of a growing effort to accommodate fans with allergies. From ivy-covered Wrigley Field to the new Nationals Park in Washington, nearly half of Major League Baseball teams set aside seats for at least one game without peanuts and Cracker Jack — which also contains peanuts.

“We could never chance it down in the regular seats with peanuts everywhere,’’ Karyn Wildes, 44, of Marshfield, said last Sunday at Fenway as her 11-year-old daughter Madison tapped a black-and-pink baseball mitt on her knee while waiting for a foul ball. “It just makes her feel normal. There’s so many things she can’t do,’’

At birthday parties, these are the children who cannot eat the cake. They sit isolated at specially designated tables in the cafeteria. On schools trips, parents pack their snacks and when other children go help themselves, they reach for a bag of grapes.

But there they were at Fenway last Sunday in an airy block of seats looking down on the Green Monster. Children with cotton candy stuck to their chin and pennants and foam fingers like the one worn by 7-year-old Jack Maloney, who proclaimed to all that the Red Sox were number one.

“He wants to do what all the other kids are doing,’’ said his mother, April Maloney of Lexington. “He can go to school tomorrow and tell everybody, I went to a Red Sox game.’’

But for fans like Brian Gannon, 37, peanuts are as a much a part of the baseball ritual as beer and foul balls. They stuff their pants pockets with peanuts before games or, as Gannon did last week, stop by a supermarket for a “small’’ 48-ounce bag on the way to the ballpark.

“Always bring the nuts,’’ said Gannon of East Boston, who shares his bounty by filling the hats of strangers with peanuts. “It brings people together in a section. It’s like glue.’’

But studies show that the number of people with peanut allergies has doubled over the last decade, although exact figures are hard to pinpoint, said Dr. Wayne Shreffler, director of the Food Allergy Center at Massachusetts General Hospital. The increase is difficult to explain.

One theory, known as the hygiene hypothesis, suggests that disinfectants have curbed children’s exposure to natural microbes and infections, making new generations more susceptible to allergies. Others argue that withholding foods like peanuts from infants to protect against reactions can have the opposite affect and create allergies.

No matter the cause, roughly 1.5 percent of people in the United State have peanut allergies, Shreffler said, and the close confines of a peanut-infested ballpark presents a potential hazard.

“There is a legitimate risk, but it’s hard to define how high it is,’’ said Shreffler, who noted that the greatest danger is accidentally eating a nut. “But there are well documented reactions of inhaling particulate matter. If someone is aggressively cracking peanuts and a child gets a breath of that dust, they certainly could have a serious reaction.’’

That could include hives, difficultly breathing, vomiting, anaphylactic shock, and — in extreme cases — death.

“I’ve been eating peanuts my whole life,’’ said Todd Fratzel, 38, of Newport, N.H., as he sat in allergy-friendly seats at Fenway last week with his 6-year-old son, Timmy, who has a deadly reaction to peanuts. “I had no concept of what a peanut allergy was like. A lot of people think it isn’t a big deal. After a couple trips to the emergency room, it changes your outlook.’’

The Red Sox first offered peanut-free seats in 2007, when five children with allergies sat in glass-enclosed boxes at two games. The next season, 50 families with children with peanut allergies crammed a designated section in right field on a warm Tuesday night in July as Manny Ramirez launched a two-run homer in a 6-5 come-from-behind win over the Minnesota Twins.

“We realized that the demand was growing,’’ said Stephanie Maneikis, manager of fan services and entertainment. “We really do believe that no child should be robbed of the opportunity to come to Fenway because of an allergy.’’

The Red Sox have a list of nearly 500 families interested in allergy-friendly seating and have never had a major adverse reaction in the specially designated seats, Maneikis said. Behind home plate, Booth F is used by broadcasters for national telecasts, but during other games it is made available to families with allergies dozens of times each season. It can accommodate eight people and tickets cost $55 each, the same price as a seat in the infield grandstand.

As an enclosed space, the booth can be used for people with extreme allergies. Spectators enter and exit the booth through the Red Sox offices, avoiding Fenway’s concourses and an accidental exposure to peanuts or another allergen.

This season for three games an entire open-air section was designated peanut allergy friendly, with the last scheduled for August 28. Fans sit in the Coca-Cola Corner Pavilion in left field. Tickets cost $75 for a seat and $25 for standing room.

The seats are washed, swept, inspected, and swept again, adhering to cleaning guidelines from the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, New England Chapter. Signs posted last Sunday made a simple request: “Thank you for not eating peanuts and Cracker Jack.’’

Last Sunday, ballpark greeters stood at the entrance to the section and acted as peanut police, alerting fans of the ban.

A critical-care nurse and an emergency room doctor from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center stood in the aisle with stethoscopes dangling from their necks and an extra supply of EpiPens — syringes filled with epinephrine to treat severe allergic reactions. The medical staff on duty said they have never had to use an EpiPen during an allergy friendly game, but it offers piece of mind for parents.

“Think about all the kids that want to come to the ballpark and feel comfortable,’’ said Andrew Clark, the father from Barnstable, as he watched the Red Sox bat. “I grew up going to baseball games with my dad, it was one of those signature moments of childhood — going to Fenway Park.’’

His son, Silas, sat in the next seat digging through a bag of Jolly Ranchers. Red Sox Adrian Gonzalez slugged a high fly ball rising toward left field. The crowd roared and rose to their feet as the ball cleared the Green Monster.

Silas hugged his dad.

Ryan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAndrewRyan

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