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A new field of dreams

Fenway Park gets an offseason makeover

Remember all the defensive problems the Red Sox were having for the first two-thirds of last season? All those games thrown away by unearned runs? Then it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that the world champs finished with the fifth-worst fielding percentage in the majors.

But it may be quite surprising to learn that Fenway Park may have had a lot to do with it. The boisterous support of the Fenway Faithful notwithstanding, it turns out the Red Sox suffered a serious home field disadvantage. It may be a great place to watch a game from the stands, but it’s one of the toughest parks in which to play.

Which is why the changes they’re making to the field this offseason may contribute as much to the team’s success next year as anything they’ve done to the roster.

Fenway has long been known among players as one of the worst fields to play on in baseball. It came in near the bottom of a poll by Sports Illustrated a few years ago. And, baseball being wonderfully dissectible statistically, the numbers bear out that reputation.

According to the Bill James Handbook, in 2004 the Red Sox made a total of 66 errors at Fenway (in the 72 American league games they played. The Handbook doesn’t include interleague play in this stat category). But they made just 39 on the road. What’s up with that?

And the difference isn’t just with the Sox. Opponents in those 72 games at Fenway made 56 errors, but just 47 in the games they played against Boston in other ballparks.

And it wasn’t just last year. The Handbook reports that for the 2002-2004 period, The Sox made 160 errors at home, 130 on the road. Opponents made 151 at Fenway, 123 in games played against the Sox in other parks.

Is it the infield? The outfield? It’s both. From 2002-2004, the Red Sox committed 80 infield errors at home, 48 on the road, and opponent infielders erred 65 times at Fenway, and just 51 times at other parks. While Red Sox outfielders made 80 errors at home and 82 on the road, (the Manny factor?) opponent outfielders erred 86 times at Fenway and 72 times at other parks.

True, both teams play on the same field, so the visitors suffer the same bad bounces the Sox do and Fenway’s problems shouldn’t put Boston at a disadvantage. But if the Sox want to raise their fielding percentage, they need a truer field to play on for half their games. So this offseason, the Red Sox owners did something even more fundamental to shore up their defense than signing Gold Glove shortstop Edgar Renteria.

They ripped up the old field and rebuilt it.

It’s not your father’s Fenway anymore. Or your grandfather’s. For the first time since the major league’s oldest park was built back in 1912, the playing surface has been dug up, down to as much as two feet, and completely reconstructed. And even though the dimensions of the park will be exactly the same, the field will definitely look different. Especially the infield.

It’ll be flat. There will be no blade of grass in the Fenway infield any higher or lower than the one next to it. The old Fenway infield was crowned, to encourage water to drain off. They were playing baseball on a hill. The grass around the base of the mound was as much as eight inches higher than the foul lines. So a ground ball to first or second might bounce or roll a little to the right, and one to short or third might head a little left. Or it might not. Not great for your team fielding percentage.

Shortstop David Eckstein, formerly of the Angels, said “The players around the league all know, it’s one of the toughest infields in the American league.” A Boston infielder said ”It’s one of the toughest in the majors. Not only is it crowned, but there are hard spots and soft spots. The bounces aren’t even. You can’t take as many risks.”

The outfield had a pretty bad reputation, too. There were soft spots and hard spots and uneven bounces. Depressions around the sprinkler heads and drainage holes would change the direction the ball would roll.

No more. The infield of Joe Cronin and Bobby Doerr and Nomar, and the outfield once patrolled by Tris Speaker and Ted Williams and Yaz, is gone, dug up and replaced down to its roots. Head groundskeeper Dave Mellor, who planned and supervised the work, said “I thought about all the people who played out there, the impressions that field made on so many peoples lives. It was a great privilege, but also a lot of responsibility. Nothing this major had ever been done. It’s probably the most antiquated field in baseball.”

The digging proved it, and helped explain some of those uneven bounces.

“We found a few old bottles, a lot of stone, fill, footings for old bleachers,” Mellor said.

And subsurface soil packed down more in some spots than others after 92 years of use. That old mess has been replaced with a 3-inch layer of gravel specially manufactured so all the grains are uniform in size, on which is laid a grid of perforated 6-inch drainage pipes, and a modern automated irrigation system. (Ever see how they used to irrigate the outfield? The grounds crew guys would schlep hoses to two spigots, one by each dugout, then run them out to eight mechanical sprinkler heads they’d have to set up by hand. Ah, the good old days!)

On top of all the pipes, they laid nine inches of USGA-certified sand (the kind approved for use on golf courses). Then they laser-leveled everything, to make sure it’s REALLY flat. Actually, there will still be a slight crown, but only in the outfield. About 40 feet past the infield dirt things will slope off slightly toward the outfield wall and the foul lines, to help with drainage. It’ll barely be noticeable.

The field was resurfaced with a specially grown sod, composed of four species of perennial Kentucky blue grass (The old field had some perennial bluegrass, some annual blue grass, some perennial rye grass ... SOOOO messy!) -- 96,000 square feet of it. Two acres worth. It was laid down In four-foot-wide swaths 45 feet long. Bigger pieces mean fewer seams, which will take a few months next spring to really knit together, Mellor said.

The field should play truer. The grass should stay healthier and resist wear and tear better. The irrigation will help keep it in shape. The whole playing surface will drain faster. Rain delays will be shorter. And the view of the game will improve for a lot of people in the stands. For the first time since Fenway opened, people who sit in the first 15-20 rows will be able to completely see the opposite side of the field. So will the players and coaches in the dugout. They used to not be able to see the outfielders below their knees. Now they’ll be able to see their feet.

“Next to my daughters being born and getting married, the Red Sox winning the World Series and being part of putting in a whole new field are my biggest dreams come true,” Mellor said. He declined to say how much this new field of his dreams cost to build. One source suggested it was several million dollars, the going rate for a No. 3 starter these days. If it helps reduce some of those excruciating unearned runs and turns a bunch of games from Ls to Ws, it could be one of the best offseason acquisitions the Red Sox have made.

The new Fenway field is protected from the winter elements.
The new Fenway field is protected from the winter elements. ( Photo / David Roepik)
More from David Ropeik
Fenway insider homepage correspondent David Roepik lifts the curtain and sheds light on the inner-workings of one of baseball’s oldest ballparks.
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