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Fenway forever

Our Red Sox are red hot again as they go into Yankee Stadium tonight to take on the best team money can buy. Can we compete? Whether we can finally win what has eluded us for so long will depend on Pedro's arm, our reconstituted bullpen and, of course, Manny's mood. What we can no longer blame is the economics of Fenway Park. Trivia quiz: Which team had the highest gate receipts in all of Major League Baseball last year?

The Damn Yankees is the obvious but wrong answer. The Seattle Mariners, which edged out the Yankees for the top attendance in baseball last year, is another good but wrong guess, too. The surprising answer: The smallest, oldest ballpark in the country, Fenway Park, was number one in gate receipts.

According to numbers compiled by Forbes magazine, the Red Sox had $98 million in gate receipts last year, topping the Yankees, which brought in $96 million at the gate. The San Francisco Giants, with its beautiful new ballpark, made $81 million; Seattle did $79 million. The major league average in 2002 was just $43 million, according to Forbes.

Former Red Sox "owner" John Harrington and his supporters in the business community -- Jack Connors, David D'Alessandro, and Chad Gifford, to pick on just three -- sold us a bill of goods on the urgent need to replace Fenway. "It's clear we are maxed out on seating capacity and ticket prices," Harrington said in 1999 when he pushed for a new stadium. "In the long run, it's just not feasible to compete in Fenway." Fenway's industry-leading gate receipts show just how wrong they were.

Most major league teams would line up for the Sox's problems. Overall, the Red Sox were third in total revenue, with $171 million last year, according to Forbes. Only the New York teams -- the Yankees at $223 million and the Mets at $175 million -- had higher revenue last year. That allowed the Sox to have the second-highest payroll in baseball last year at $124 million. We couldn't compete last year, but it was not for a lack of revenue.

The small park has created the most expensive ticket prices in baseball, more than twice the major league average. But still we go. While Boston ranks only ninth in attendance this year (Yankees rank first with 2.9 million fans compared to the Sox's 2.3 million) the Red Sox have sold an incredible 99.9 percent of all available seats, according to ESPN.com. By comparison, the Yankees have sold 79 percent of all seats; the Mets only 50 percent. The Sox have had 39 consecutive sellouts. You do not need an MBA to understand that kind of demand will allow the Sox to continue raising prices.

The new economics of baseball, which taxes big spenders heavily, and the harsh economics of local government, which makes public subsidies a relic of another era, are powerful disincentives for new parks. "It's a different time," acknowledges Red Sox president Larry Lucchino. And for all the hype, those parks have produced mixed results, anyway. Baltimore, which set the standard with Camden Yards' opening in 1992, is running at only 64 percent capacity this year, down the last two years in a row from 79 percent in 2001. Across the board the story is the same: Atlanta, Cleveland, Houston, and Colorado, which all built new parks in the last decade, have seen their percentages fall for the past three years.

Fenway isn't perfect. The seats are cramped. There are obstructed views. The aisles are impossibly crowded on the way to buy the overpriced beer. There aren't enough bathrooms. The baseball-under-glass experience of the .406 Club needs fixing. But the new owners have brought new thinking. The Green Monster seats make you wonder why they didn't happen before; the $200-and-up new seats along the foul lines were a seamless addition. More changes are on the way next year.

Fenway, one of a kind, isn't perfect. But on a perfect night, in the middle of a pennant race, it sure feels like it to me.

Steve Bailey is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at 617-929-2902 or at bailey@globe.com.

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