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During the parade Saturday, Pedro Martinez was hit in the forehead by a baseball thrown from the banks of the Charles. (Courtesy of WHDH-TV (Channel 7))

Crowd size could be in the eye of beholder

Call them nitpickers, naysayers, or even closet Yankees fans.

But as soon as Mayor Thomas M. Menino's staff announced that the crowd at Saturday's Red Sox ''rolling rally" celebration totaled 3.2 million people, some skeptics began to scratch their heads and pull out their calculators.

Was it really possible that roughly the population of Madrid or Chicago had squeezed into Boston and the Cambridge side of the Charles River to see the World Series champions rumble by in duck boats? How did they get here? How did they get home? Where did they all park?

The scene was remarkable: Fans pressed into overpasses, lined sidewalks and balconies, and spilled onto bridges and riverbanks. But some people with experience in the murky science of crowd estimates say there is no way the masses were as massive as Menino's staff reports.

''It sounds to me like an overestimate, which is natural," said Farouk El-Baz, director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University, who analyzed crowds at the Million Man March in 1995.

El-Baz watched news clips of the Sox parade from his home in New Hampshire. Counting heads on the television screen, he estimated the crowd to be about 20 people deep along Boylston Street.

Adding fans packed into plazas and along the Esplanade, he came up with his own figure: 2 million. Even that impressive total is still big enough to make the Red Sox rally the biggest single mass gathering in Boston history.

Pope John Paul II drew roughly that number at a series of events in 1979. The New England Patriots have twice drawn more than 1 million to Super Bowl celebrations. And an estimated 500,000 turned out for the 100th running of the Boston Marathon in 1996.

Officials at the MBTA say that 1 million people used public transportation on Saturday, far more than the average of 600,000 for a weekend day.

According to El-Baz, the only way to accurately count heads in a large crowd is to graph areas on a photograph taken from a plane. And no planes were overhead for that purpose Saturday. Otherwise, even the most eagle-eyed mayoral aides are engaging in the public equivalent of counting dots on a canvas by Seurat.

There is also the small matter of hometown pride, El-Baz said. After 86 years, it's nice to think that Red Sox Nation would come out in force for a victory celebration, as well they did. The emotion of the moment practically demands it.

And in a region where most everyone sees things through red-and-blue tinted lenses, it's hard to find an impartial observer to tally a crowd. Ideally, El-Baz said, academics or news organizations would perform the count, and even then skeptics would probably attack their objectivity.

Crowd counts become particularly contentious when political stakes are high. Protesters against the Iraq war, abortion, and gun control have all disputed official crowd estimates at various events, alleging bias.

After a dispute over crowds at the Million Man March, the US Park Police stopped publicly releasing estimates, per order order of Congress, said a spokesman, Sergeant Scott Fear.

And who's to say the end of the region's baseball curse is any less a partisan issue for Bostonians? ''We in Boston, who are Sox fans, want to emphasize the crowd," El-Baz said. ''It's good for the city. And it's natural."

Among the face-painted, sign-toting, and bewigged paradegoers, opinion appears to tilt heavily in favor of the official estimate of 3.2 million. ''Ain't no doubt about it in my mind," said John Sinner, 38, a Sox fan from Ellicott City, Md., who surveyed the crowd from the Sheraton Hotel to Fenway Park. ''There was a lot of fans there."

Trey Sasser, 29, was wedged in with Sox fans on Cambridge Street, in a spot he claimed early, in anticipation of huge crowds. Sasser was also among the estimated 1.5 million people who attended the Patriots Super Bowl parade last February.

The Red Sox event felt much bigger, he said.

''It's tough to imagine 3 million people," he said, ''but the crowds were huge."

Seth Gitell, a Menino spokesman, stood by his office's estimate yesterday.

Staff members, he said, based their figure on eyeballing the crowd along the route, 3 miles on land and 4 on the water.

''With people lining the streets, sometimes 75 deep, people in buildings, people on roofs, people in boats, people on land, and on the river, this was the largest crowd anyone has seen in Boston history," Gitell said.

Stephen K. Doig, an Arizona State University journalism professor who conducted crowd-count analyses as a reporter for The Miami Herald, faulted the methodology.

''It's guesswork," he said. ''Unfortunately, that's the least accurate way of doing a crowd estimate. Humans are incapable of eyeballing a crowd and coming up with a number."

Gitell acknowledged the perils of the practice. ''With that density of people, in such a relatively compact place, it's always hard to figure out exactly how large an undertaking it is," he said.

In any case, El-Baz said, Sox fans should be happy, having probably notched the largest public celebration in Boston history.

''Two million in one city is a huge crowd," he said. ''Even if it were 1 million people, that would still be a wonderful thing."

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