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Isn't It Time We Said Goodbye To Fenway Park?

Why can't we put aside our nostalgia for the cute little 93-year-old ballpark and build a stadium worthy of world champions?

The best movie ever made about baseball in Boston was a 1962 film by the Spanish surrealist Luis Bunuel, called The Exterminating Angel. The plot is twisted: People arrive for a dinner party, enjoy themselves, get drunk, snipe at one another, and trade gossip. Then, when the time comes to go home, they stand up, they approach the door. But not one of them can bring himself to pass through that door. They know that the party's over; they cannot leave it. Soon, this group becomes a sensation in the city. Townspeople gather on the street, staring, wondering why the party won't end, long after it has ceased to be fun.

Think of Fenway Park as that dinner party.

One week from tomorrow, a world champion Red Sox team will take the field here for the first time since 1919. It will be a moment of triumph, the culmination of bold and brilliant decisions by a front office willing to try anything in pursuit of victory, even trading the storied Nomar, a player no one had ever envisioned wearing any uniform but a Boston one. Just two weeks ago, the ownership group announced that it is more committed to Fenway than ever. It's a shame, because, in truth, will there ever be a better time to say goodbye to Fenway than now, when the fabled curse has been lifted, the stadium has at last fulfilled its mission, the fans are more passionate than ever, and the city is embracing its team and its owners as it has no other franchise in history?

In April 1912 (the same month the Titanic sailed), Tiger Stadium in Detroit was opened; here in Boston, men in boaters and gaiters, smoking cheroots, worked their way up past Kenmore Square, by horseless carriage or trackless trolley, to see the recently renamed Red Sox, who had been the Pilgrims and, before that, the Somersets, inaugurate their new ballpark. (Full disclosure: The 1904 team was a gift from Charles Taylor, then owner of this newspaper, to his son John, who would later build the park; and today, the New York Times Co., which owns The Boston Globe, owns a stake in the Red Sox.) In a few years, a pitcher named Babe Ruth would join the team. In six years, a Mexican-American power hitter by the name of Ted Williams would be born.

Tiger Stadium is no more; Ted Williams has passed on; and some readers will have to look up words like "cheroots" and "gaiters." To paraphrase "The Whiffenpoof Song," most of the great and good of that era have passed and been forgotten with the rest. But Fenway Park still stands.

"Blow it up," Mo Vaughn has been quoted as saying.

Ted Williams once said, "I won't shed a tear" if Fenway were torn down.

"Ballparks have moved forward," says Ted Sarandis, host of the Ted Nation sports talk show on WEEI-AM. "They've incorporated all the elements of human comfort with a sense that you get a good view of the field. Camden Yards [in Baltimore] got it right. . . . PacBell [now SBC] Park in San Francisco is just remarkable. The reality is, there are many bad seats in Fenway Park."

Last spring, on the second day that a home series with Baltimore was rained out, Terry Francona came back to the clubhouse from inspecting the field. Talking to the press, the newly minted manager used the word "quagmire" to describe the field's condition. Later, sitting in his office, out of uniform, getting ready to go home after another washout, he described the outfield inspection he had performed with general manager Theo Epstein: "The water was over my shoes. The drainage isn't very good." Withal, Francona insisted that he loved his new park. "They've made great improvements," he said. "There's a lot of history in this place."

Ask people in baseball about Fenway, and the sugary accolades could send you into diabetic shock. They don't just come from Red Sox fans. Elrod Hendricks, the legendary 1970 World Series catcher for the Orioles, now their bullpen coach, is gray-haired today, though still a mountain of a man. From the visitors' clubhouse at Fenway, he says: "I love the beauty of this ballpark. I look forward to coming here. Orioles fans, Yankees fans – everybody says, 'Before they tear it down I've got to see it.' It's been here too long, and it's been nice to too many people to take it away. To take that away from them would be a crime."

Even a top executive of a team that lusts for the chance to defeat the Sox in the next World Series grows reverential when he discusses this temple of baseball. "If I see Wrigley Field or I see Fenway Park, I know where I am," says Mark McGuire, a vice president of the Chicago Cubs. "They can't create the years of traditions, of father and mother bringing their sons and daughters to the game."

Scratch a baseball fan, and you will usually find such sentiments. Yet when Hendricks spoke so feelingly, he was standing in a dingy room behind a metal grate guarded by a pleasant but firm security officer, Fenway's visitors' clubhouse being reminiscent of nothing more than the visiting room at the old Walpole state prison. Small, cramped, devoid of the amenities of most modern ballparks, the windowless and clammy locker room is just slightly more depressing than the home clubhouse. In some parks, players reach the dugout from a holding room amply stocked with water and soft drinks, flat-screen TVs, and comfortable furniture. At Fenway, they struggle through a dank tunnel with a floor of planking, a safeguard against seepage that might inundate their cleats. Hendricks is wider than two of the cramped lockers; he seems to take up half of the tiny room. Still, Hendricks insists, "What's good enough for Ted Williams is good enough for me."

Tom Menino, a longtime season ticket holder, seemed ready a few years ago to endorse a plan to replace Fenway Park. No longer. "I was willing to help with some of the acquisition," the mayor says, "but with economic times changing – and I've seen what the new owners have done with the renovations – I don't see any need for a new ballpark." Like one of Bunuel's party guests, he won't go through that door. "It's beloved, Fenway Park; it has a uniqueness and a closeness," he says. Like so many, Menino has emotional ties to Fenway. "My father used to take me to the ballpark all the time," he says. "We'd sit in the right- field area."

Perhaps there is a connection between a venerable ballpark and the tendency of cities to elect mayors who romanticize the past. Every mayor of Boston in living memory has hung out at Fenway; the sentimentalist Richie Daley is mayor of the town where Wrigley Field sits. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani was a regular at Yankee Stadium, the park in the Bronx that is as revered as much as Fenway is here. But even the House that Ruth Built is apparently on its way out, as soon as the city and the team can figure out how to split the costs of a new stadium. If Yankee Stadium can go, why not Fenway?

For decades, Fenway Park has turned the heads of visiting sportswriters and broadcasters. "Guys like George Will and Bob Costas come in and want to romanticize Fenway Park," Sarandis complains. "But how many times have they had to sit in Section 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5? You sit in sections 6, 7, 8, or 9, you could get a crick in your neck from having to turn to the left all the time; you're looking straight at center field."

Even so, the politics of nostalgia – to steal a phrase from the historian Isaac Kramnick – is a powerful force. You couldn't grow up in Boston without warm memories of the rickety old pile. My grandfather used to take me to games a few times each summer. We'd stop for a dime bag of peanuts on Jersey Street, back when the term "dime bag" meant something wholly benign. For 50 or 75 cents, you could buy hot dogs inside the park. You'd line up for your place at a smelly antiquated latrine, work your way up the steps, take a seat behind the dugout – they cost $2.50 in those days – and watch Ted Williams take batting practice. Sometimes, you'd catch a double-header for the price of one ticket. The grass was fresh-clipped and fragrant, the crack of ball meeting bat in the batting cages sharp and transcendent. It was very bliss, Paradise enow.

"If you name the four most storied franchises in baseball, they're the Sox, the Cubs, the Yankees, and the Dodgers, in that order; and they play in the four oldest parks," Larry Lucchino, the Sox team president, told me last year during the season. Boston is a city enmeshed in rapturous memories, and Fenway is the quintessence of Boston. It may just be possible for a city to have too much history. We are weaned on stories of the Puritan migration, John Winthrop's city upon a hill, and the bridge where once the embattled farmers stood and fired the shot heard round the world. As the city matured, new images entered the collective memory: the burning of the Ursuline convent and the creation of the Underground Railroad, the immigration of the Irish, the Italians, the Jews, the displaced persons, the African- Americans, the Chinese, the Cape Verdeans, and the rest who have repopulated this city and developed their own lore and legends.

For a city snug in the embrace of nostalgia, the 1975 Series happened yesterday. Anybody who lived back in the day can still see Williams and Yaz and Pudge and Luis on the silver screen of memory. The day that Tony Conigliaro was hit still haunts countless witnesses. What could be more sacred than Fenway?

Try St. Peter's Basilica. The succession of popes who rebuilt the Vatican church, "maintained the esprit, the moral and philosophical sense of tradition," says Watertown architect Webb Nichols, who in 1994 led a design team that drew up a set of reconstruction plans for the previous Sox owners. Not many people today think that the current St. Peter's is all that shabby.

"Fenway Park is baseball," Theo Epstein told me last year. "I used to go to the Boston Garden when I was growing up," he said. "The FleetCenter will never be the same." But only fools and fabulists fail to understand that time marches on. Even 40 years ago, Fenway was a magic place only if you willed yourself to ignore the fact that it was dank and mildewy, the concrete cracked, the aisles crowded. (Nichols refers to the crossover aisles by the architectural terminology "vomitoriums," which, alas, has never been an inaccurate description.) Then, as now, you jammed yourself into trolleys with hundreds of other fans or paid gas stations outrageous parking fees. The seats – installed in 1934 – were made of punishing wooden slats; those same seats are still in the grandstand.

One cold spring afternoon last year, on the hourly Fenway tour, a delightful guide led a group of visitors – from California, the Midwest, even England – through the innards of the park. At the luxury-box level, he announced, "You've got to go to the bathroom, wait till you get up here; this is 1989. If you go downstairs, that's 1912."

"We were one of the largest parks in the country," he said. "Today, we're the smallest."

The group stopped in the grandstands, and the guide invited a 5-foot-11-inch member of the tour to sit in one of the ancient seats. "Now, cross your legs," he said. The man couldn't do it, couldn't even come close. If he had somehow managed the contortion, his leg would have been squarely in the lap of the person in the adjoining seat.

Watching the only game of the Baltimore series last year that was actually played, a viewer in the press box was struck by how often sportswriters were forced to ask one another what had happened on the field; loudspeaker announcements from the official scorers were sporadic; long periods of silence were only occasionally punctuated by information. The writers could have achieved the same effect by watching the game on TV at home, with the sound turned down.

This entire park – with its overpriced souvenir stands, bazaarlike array of concessions, and standing-room tickets at prices that could have bought you a box seat a few years ago – is a relict, a vestige. Its ticket prices are the highest in Major League Baseball. The box seats behind the home dugout still cost two-fifty; they've just removed the decimal point. It's $250 now, not $2.50. At Fenway, the national pastime has become the tycoon's toy. With a capacity of 36,298 (Oriole Park at Camden Yards, by comparison, accommodates about 49,000) for night games (cut to 34,482 for day games, because a section of bleacher seats has to be covered over to keep the sun's glare out of batters' eyes), the management has to charge outrageous prices to keep up with player salaries and run the park. If you're lucky, and one of the corporate leaseholders turns back tickets to the .406 Club, you can sometimes snag one for $150, but think Tigers, not Yankees. The team's payroll – the second highest in baseball – surpasses $130 million, not counting front-office payroll, stadium upkeep, and other expenses; simple arithmetic dictates that the team must wring every penny it can out of the tiny, antiquated facility. And since the management bought the team for a Major League Baseball record of $700 million (including $40 million in assumed debt, but with ownership of Fenway and the lucrative New England Sports Network part of the bargain), it's easy to see why a family of four can spend $300 for a night at the ballpark: The organization needs their money. A trip to the ballpark becomes a special graduation gift for Joey or Janie, not a monthly ritual.

As baseball executives go, Lucchino is a philosopher king, engaging, soft-spoken, and cerebral. "We were the one group that ran for office, so to speak, on a platform of preserving and protecting Fenway," he told me last year. "We've been able to do a series of annual tranches: 2002 improvements, 2003 improvements, now 2004 improvements. What that's enabled us to do is put off the ultimate issue of renovation or replacement, so that it's an organic process."

The word "tranche," or installment, is rarely used outside of finance or diplomacy; to hear it in a ballpark is jarring. But no diplomat would ever make the admission that followed. "We don't have an endgame strategy," Lucchino said. "We haven't completed it. We have an annual improvement of the quality of life, the quality of Fenway. We're focused more on the short and medium term rather than the longer term." Of course, that was before last month's announcement that the team is staying put.

Everybody in Boston knows about the changes: new right-field seats and, cantilevered above the Green Monster in left, a platform of bar-stoollike berths, raked for good sightlines from every row. The Monster seats are comfortable – if it's not raining, or if a cold April or October wind isn't blowing, or if a murderous summer sun isn't beating down. The extra seats in right field have taken the stands practically up to the foul line. Add, now, tranche 2005: expansion of the .406 Club area behind home plate and removal of the glass windows that separate fans there from the game. For future growth, management is looking inward: Last month, officials revealed plans to relocate team offices to nearby buildings, freeing space for fans.

In the interview last year, Lucchino insisted that it was too early to make an irrevocable decision on Fenway's future. "I don't think we've maxed out our capacity just yet," he said of a park that looks to be bulging at the seams. "There is nothing that is compelling us to make a final decision on this, other than the constant impatience of the media," he said good-naturedly. Since Fenway renovations had begun, according to Lucchino, there had been a marked shift in the attitudes of the audiences he addressed: "They're now about 70-30 in favor of renovation. Only once did I speak to a group that was 90-10 for replacing it; they were real estate developers." He added: "Are we going to replace Fenway Park? The answer is 'Not right now.' "

Janet Marie Smith, the architect who has been overseeing the renovations, agreed last year that there was no need to hurry: "I don't have a crystal ball. I don't know that it will last a hundred years. We've looked at the structure itself, and it's not falling down. There are sewer and gas lines that get replaced over time, but there's no deadline."

Smith and Lucchino said that more renovations will be made, although they wouldn't specify what the changes would be.

The ultimate question, of course, is what would take the current Fenway's place? There are three basic options: renovation, reconstruction, and replacement. Renovation involves the sort of tweaking, face-lifting, and improvement around the margins that is happening now. Reconstruction would involve preserving the footprint of Fenway while essentially tearing it apart and rebuilding it. Most plans speak of reraking the grandstands to provide more comfortable seats, adding luxury boxes, and creating new seating in an upper deck. Replacement is an all-new park; even most replacement advocates call for preserving Fenway as a baseball museum and a venue for college games, a kind of Cooperstown on the Charles.

When architect Nichols drew up his plans, they represented an audacious scheme to rebuild in place over several years, doing minor renovation during away games and major construction during the off-season. Nichols would have added thousands of seats on a new upper tier, created more luxury boxes, and wound up with a capacity in the mid-40,000s. "It would be costly in terms of time and money," he says. "But site-assembly costs and legal costs [for a new location] can mount up and become more expensive."

As an alternative, Nichols has suggested building a temporary structure to speed the pace of Fenway reconstruction. "They could tear it down and sell it for scrap metal when the renovation is finished," he says. Since Nickerson Field at Boston University seats about 10,000 and Harvard Stadium, though much larger, is not con- figured for baseball, there are no existing venues to which the Red Sox could decamp. One proposal included the idea of building parking garages over the Mass. Pike, although Lucchino insists that parking is not an issue. "It's been here for 100 years," he says. "People develop their own patterns and practices. It may not be as problematical as you may think."

Miami architect Rolando Llanes, who has worked on park designs for Seattle and Milwaukee as well as a number of minor league and spring training parks, drew up an elaborate scheme in 2000 for reconstructing Fenway. "The spirit was to preserve what was valuable and acknowledge that changes had to be made for comfort and size," he says, adding that he came up with the concept of putting seats on the Monster, which the new management has done. He would have added an upper deck and luxury boxes, but his plan had a steep price. For a season and a half, only about 21,000 seats would be available. While the grandstands were rebuilt, the field itself would be rotated, with home plate shifting to the right- field corner, placing the Monster temporarily in shallow right. Of course, that would also place the Sox bullpen in turmoil, with pitchers having to adapt a wildly altered geometry. Even though Llanes worked with Sox owner John Henry on the Florida Marlins' park in Miami, there has been little enthusiasm from management for his plan.

Other suggestions have been floated. One would dig up and lower the playing field, adding seats while improving drainage. Another would push the park into Lansdowne Street, essentially making the street disappear. That would also be expensive and probably unpopular with neighbors, who already lose use of the street during much of game days.

Then there's the Ted Sarandis solution. "The ballpark should be built on the waterfront," he says. "It should have a retractable roof. All 81 games would be played; people who are coming from Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Canada to see a game know they would see a game. Make sure you have plenty of restaurants, plenty of amenities, nice wide seats, and make sure the proximity of the fans to the field is a priority."

Of course, a waterfront park would probably require the city and state to upgrade access, roadways, public transit, and parking – and Menino is not in a spending mood. (Another scheme that has been mentioned would be a franchise swap. Boston developer Frank McCourt owns the Dodgers; except for principal owner John Henry, the inner circle of Sox management came from or worked in Southern California.)

Rebecca Hale, spokeswoman for the Seattle Mariners – consistently among the top Major League teams in ticket sales, despite a recent downward trend – says that the club's new Safeco Field has made a tremendous difference. For one thing, it has a retractable roof. More than half the team's patrons come from beyond Seattle's metropolitan area, she says. "For them to get here to know that the game is going to be played is very important." At Safeco, designers struggled to create a sense of intimacy: The front-row seats are at ground level. Behind home plate, they are closer to the batter than the pitcher is. And though Safeco's average ticket prices have risen, Hale attributes that to a proliferation of luxury boxes. "We still have tickets available for fans who can come out and pay $7 to sit in the bleachers. We can't put baseball into the position of pricing people out of the market." With 47,000 seats, Safeco Field can afford to offer a wide range of pricing and seating. Seattle's pricing experience is typical; average ticket prices always rise in new stadiums, according to Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist, but the driving force is not player salaries or construction costs (the Mariners paid just $145 million of the $514 million cost of Safeco; the public is funding the balance). Prices go up, Zimbalist argues, because they can: A popular team will always adjust ticket price to the limit the market will bear. In fact, he believes, player salary demands have risen because ticket prices have risen, not vice versa.

McCourt, who put in an unsuccessful ownership bid for the Red Sox and eventually bought the Dodgers, wanted to build a stadium on land he owned on the South Boston waterfront. Developer Stephen Karp, another unsuccessful bidder, did not return calls requesting comment, although he also talked of a new park in a new location. John Harrington, when he ran the team, proposed building a simulacrum of the park across Yawkey Way, complete with a Green Monster. These options are still in play, although land prices have risen and the window of opportunity to assemble parcels is closing.

Still, there is ambivalence even among advocates of a new park. Dave Campbell, a former Detroit Tiger infielder and now an ESPN commentator, makes a case for tearing down Fenway for the sake of the players. "The clubhouses are crowded," he says. "When the Yankees are in town, the New York writers are in there, the Boston writers are in there, the cameramen are in there. The players look like deer in the headlights. I almost don't want to go in.

"In a lot of places, the players love to go there early and play cards in the clubhouse; that's not the way in Boston. There are a million reasons to replace it." And yet, he hesitates. "I'm a traditionalist," Campbell says. "I love the history of the game. On a Sunday morning, I go out there when the workers are watering the field. It's a sight New Englanders cherish."

The party's over, it's just that the guests are not ready to leave.

Michael Ryan is a freelance writer in New York who grew up in the Boston area. Send e-mails to magazine@globe.com.

Pop-up GLOBE GRAPHIC: Fenway Grows Up
Fenway's punishing seats were installed in 1934, and those same seats are still in the grandstand.
Fenway's punishing seats were installed in 1934, and those same seats are still in the grandstand. (Globe Staff Photo / Bill Greene)
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