The long wait begins

Workers prepare Red Sox home for a melancholy winter

By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / October 25, 2008
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Plywood the color of dead leaves has already been laid diagonally across the mouths of the dugouts like worn shutters bracing for the bitter months ahead.

Soon, home plate and the pitcher's mound will be covered with an inch-thick slab of Styrofoam, held in place with more plywood and nailed down to prevent frost heaves in the reddish infield clay. Picnic tables are stacked, turnstiles carted away, awnings taken down.

While the World Series plays out on another stage, Fenway Park is being shuttered after its 97th season. And like the task of closing up any summer home, the process at the oldest ballpark in Major League Baseball can be laborious and often melancholy.

"It takes a little bit of work to button this place up," said facilities director Thomas L. Queenan Jr., who sighed as he recalled the last out of the season just before midnight Sunday. "We were here Monday, 7 a.m."

It means taking down the swallow-tail pennants, many of which have been torn or faded by the sun. The 2004 World Series banner looks washed out and almost pink next to the brilliant red flag from the championship in 2007.

The white pennant for capturing the American League East in 1990 is fray ing and will be mended. Others will be replaced.

Working from a flatbed truck with a bucket arm this week, a two-man crew moved along, pennant by pennant.

"I can't wait 'til next year," said a somber Joe Gravell, 31, as he folded a flag from the 1915 World Series.

In the concourse under the seats, plumbers crawled into manholes, shut off water, and opened drains. Water will be squeezed out of every flushing mechanism in all 40 bathrooms to prevent frozen fixtures.

Most years, temporary wooden doors are built over the tunnels - known as vomitories - that lead from the seats down into the lower concourse. Construction will make that unnecessary this off-season, as crews replace a swath of seats and make other renovations that have yet to be announced in detail.

Hardhats have already replaced batting helmets around Fenway, which echoed this week with the rattle of jackhammers.

On Thursday, the concourse was lined with massive cardboard boxes bursting with maroon seats. Pallet jacks and forklifts rushed though the hallways faster than a bleacher bum trying to get one last beer before the taps are shut off at the end of the seventh inning.

Painting crews will work around the construction to refresh the vibrancy of Fenway's color palette. Fence-green for the columns, walls, and steel superstructure. Railings are vermilion. And safety-yellow keeps the foul poles glowing.

In right field, Pesky's Pole will be taken down this year and painted on its side. Inside the Green Monster, the crew will sort piece by piece through the 1,600 metal plates used on the manual scoreboard, identifying which numbers, letters, and team names need to be touched up or replaced.

Even with the hatches battened down and the din of construction, there are some portions of Fenway that never close.

The EMC Club and State Street Pavilion are already booked every weekend and three out of five weekdays through opening day, according to the Red Sox. Those bar mitzvahs, board meetings, and wedding receptions look out over the silent ball field, the site of the most intensive element of Fenway's winter hibernation.

The infield, foul lines, and grass, worn thin after 86 home games, were repaired this week with 20,000 square feet of sod. The infield clay will be leveled with the aid of a laser. The entire field will be fertilized, cut to 1 1/8 inches tall, dusted with a fine layer of sand, and aerated with thousands of dime- to nickel-sized holes.

"Many of the same things I'm doing, a homeowner can do," said David Mellor, director of grounds for the Red Sox.

Finally, that lush Kentucky bluegrass will be covered with 95,000 square feet of paper-thin plastic, a woven blanket that captures heat and wards off biting wind.

"It acts like a greenhouse," Mellor said. "It can increase the temperature by 5 to 10 degrees. It gives us a jumpstart in the spring. It won't look like plywood on April 6."

For those who can't wait five-plus months until that home opener for a glimpse of Fenway, there is a new option on Lansdowne Street: Nestled beneath the tiered seats in center field, the Bleacher Bar will be open the entire off-season.

The focal point of the pub is a roughly 12-foot-tall-by-15-foot-wide window built into the center field wall, looking directly at home plate. Covered by a protective grate, the opening is so close to the field a stiff wind can blow reddish dirt in off the warning track. During those dark, baseball-less days ahead, it may provide some refuge for fans until spring.

"Just wait until it's zero outside, there's a few inches of snow on the ground, and the sidewalks are ice," said Marty Ray, a Red Sox spokesman. "They'll be here."

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