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Fenway is history - and belongs in the past

By Bob Ryan, Globe Staff, 04/11/00

It's Opening Day in Detroit, and it will be a very bittersweet affair for those who love baseball.

That's because the Tigers will be entering the 21st century in Comerica Park, and not beloved Tiger Stadium. Don't for one millisecond think Boston and Chicago have cornered the market on ballpark passion. For many people, myself included, there never was a better pure baseball experience than spending a sunny day ensconced in the upper deck at the Grand Old Lady at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull.

But the Tigers and the city of Detroit have chosen to acknowledge the cold-blooded reality of the modern-day baseball business. Please never forget that it is a business, and always has been. Hence, the word "professional." I loved Tiger Stadium, but I didn't have to run a franchise there. And you may love Fenway Park, but you don't have to run a business there, either.

It also happens to be Opening Day here, in hallowed Fenway Park (weather permitting, of course). It will not be the last Opening Day played in baseball's oldest park. There will be one next year, and the year after that and the year after that. If all goes well, Opening Day in 2004 will find the Red Sox playing in a new ballpark. If all goes only partially well, postpone that date by a year. Don't even think about prolonging this necessary change any longer than that. If there isn't a new ballpark by 2006, there more than likely won't be any Boston Red Sox.

This being Boston, the subject of a new ballpark is a touchy affair. It is first necessary to demonstrate what should be obvious to any rational sports fan: namely, that a new ballpark is desirable. Should that be accomplished, the matter of location becomes an issue. There is, of course, the distasteful subject of financing.

Here in Boston, there is even a fourth contingency. The hardest decision of all might be to determine just what the new ballpark should look like.

It is often amusing listening to some of the Fenway Park zealots argue that time should stand still forever. They will rhapsodize about the Good Old Days when Tom Yawkey owned the team. They have convinced themselves that the Old Man will file some sort of celestial class-action suit if the Red Sox dare leave Fenway for some new edifice.

What they almost undoubtedly don't know is that for many years before his death in 1976, Yawkey pined for a new ballpark. He may have liked to play pepper at Fenway when the team was on the road, but he was still a businessman at heart and he was not as emotionally attached to Fenway as these people might think.

Here, for example, is Yawkey, as quoted in the June 24, 1967, issue of The Sporting News: "You ask me how I feel about the stadium and I ask you what has changed about the stadium picture since I left here last fall? As far as I can see, nothing has happened. My position is the same as it was six months ago. I feel the stadium is necessary for Boston, this state and all of New England."

Since that time, Fenway Park, after years of benign neglect (check out attendance figures in the '50s and early '60s), has become some sort of certified baseball hallowed ground. Dewy-eyed people talk about how daddy, grandpa, or Uncle Louie took him or her to that famous First Game. OK, fine. People rhapsodize about The Wall. Going to Fenway has become the New England baseball fan's version of going to church. That is to say, many people don't go because they really want to go. They go because they feel they should go. It validates them as proper New Englanders. Meanwhile, they show up waiting for something bad to happen. It should be pointed out that the last time people went to Fenway Park in good spirits was Oct. 2, 1978 - innings one through six. From the moment you-know-who hit the ball you-know-where, cynicism has become the predominant outlook of people trooping into the ballpark.

Except when Pedro pitches.

The ballpark in question has its charms, but it also happens to be thoroughly uncomfortable, which is hardly surprising, since it was built in 1912 for tiny people born in the 19th century. Take it from a 6-foot-1-inch season ticket-holder who cannot put his feet on the ground without his knees smacking up firmly against the seat in front of him. A whopping 19 percent of the seats are in the bleachers. Of the remaining 81 percent, a great many are actually very bad seats, a figure that would include just about everything from first base to the bleachers. Don't even talk about parking.

Fenway being small and poorly configured, is it any wonder that its average ticket price is the highest in the major leagues? The franchise being so desperate for income, is it really a surprise that management would feel forced to construct something as hideous as the truly loathsome 600 Club, a monstrosity that both spoils the park aesthetically and gobbles up space that could have been better used by both real fans and - OK, I'll say it out loud - a press corps that operates from a press box that is so useless for so many that the only logical conclusion is that it was constructed this way out of spite?

A new park is the only answer, and by a new park that should mean a new park, not the old park with better aisle space. I take it from the monster ad supplement I saw in the Sunday paper that the Red Sox higher-ups are planning on a new park with the same 37-foot wall. Does anyone really think that will make people who love the original feel any better about its passing? We're kinda gonna know that neither Jimmie Foxx nor Wade Boggs ever hit one off the new wall, so whom are they kidding?

This is the faux Las Vegas-style approach to ballpark construction. If there is to be a new park, it must develop its own character. If you want a wall, fine, have a wall. Make it high enough to stop something, say 15 or 17 feet high. Or put up a scoreboard wall, a la right field in Camden Yards. But constructing another 37-foot wall is classically retrograde Boston, and totally pathetic. We will be mocked for not knowing the difference between history and parody, and rightfully so.

History. Don't get me started. I love history, but this is a town where people all too often choose to wallow in history rather than to honor it. History is only important if it can be used as a tool to help us manage our future. There are any number of ways we can honor the history of Fenway Park. I welcome that discussion, but it can wait until we move into the new blank.com Ballpark, and the sooner the better.

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