Saturday, April 21, 2012

Happy 100th Birthday To Fenway Park

One of the charming things about baseball is that, unlike other major sports, no two fields are alike.   Every football field is 100 yards long and basketball courts have precise measurements, but baseball parks are all different from each other.  There must be 90 feet between the bases and the pitching rubber has to be 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate, but otherwise the dimensions of each one only has to conform to whatever space it happens to inhabit with its own signature characteristics and quirks.  Fans hope to visit as many baseball stadiums as possible (see below) but you don't hear that from fans of other sports.

Whether you love or hate the Boston Red Sox, you've got to admit that Fenway Park, which opened on April 20, 1912, and is the oldest stadium in the Big Leagues, is uniquely special with the Green Monster (the massive 37-foot high wall in left field, only about 310 feet from home), Pesky's Pole (the right field foul pole named after 1940s infielder Johnny Pesky), and 100 years of history.

My first game at Fenway, in September 1981, gave me plenty of time to take it all in as it turned out to be the longest game in Fenway Park history.  I was so excited to be there and loved the first few hours.  But the game was tied after nine innings and then neither team scored for another ten, and I must confess my relief when the game was mercifully suspended at 1 o'clock in the morning, after 19 innings, so we could go home.  (We didn't make it back the next morning for the completion of the game, and therefore didn't see the Sox lose to Seattle in the 20th inning.)

Last summer, you may recall, my friends Farnaz and Paul embarked on a two-month long road trip, stopping at major- and minor-league ball parks and writing about their experiences.  To celebrate Fenway's 100th birthday, I am re-posting Paul's piece about their visit there, originally posted on May 22, 2011:

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I. Bleachers

Boston for two days. Tigers lose to Red Sox 4-3, Chicago loses to Boston 15-5. That's seven games in a row the Red Sox have won. They've moved up to second in their division, 1/2 game behind Tampa Bay after an awful start that had the Red Sox nation howling about the apocalypse. We see Beckett v Verlander, and then Lester v Doug Davis. Beckett and Lester are off their game, but good enough: they get men out when they need to. Lester gives up 12 hits and 5 runs (not all earned), but the Cubs are awful. Soriano makes one of his classic Sorianos, letting a routine single bounce by his outstretched glove to the wall for a double. The Cubs leave 10 men on base in the first 7 innings. Maybe 10,000 Cubs fans are at the game, wearing regalia, cheering on their flatfooted warriors. The huge screen in Fenway's center field periodically declares the park "the most beautiful in baseball," and in the team store you can buy a green t-shirt that declares: "No ivy grows on our walls."

This is an historic event: the first time Chicago has played a game in Fenway Park since the 1918 World Series, 93 years ago. Fenway and Wrigley Field are the touchstones of old school ball: Fenway opened in 1911, Wrigley in 1914. Until 2004, both teams were the perennial almosts, victims it seemed of their own frustration as they struggled to win a World Series. Both are spendthrifts, though Boston seems to use its money more wisely. It's fun to be here, out in the bleachers surrounded by disappointed Cubs fans; fun to go back to our hotel and sit at the bar beside more Chicagoans, in town for this once-in-a-century event.

We sit in Section 41; in the next section over, one of the seats is painted bright red instead of green, and remains empty: a monument to Ted Williams' 502 foot home run on June 9, 1946. Boston bathes in nostalgia, from the slatted, flat-backed seats squeezed together in the grandstands to the between-innings videos on the screen; from honoring an old vet each night (Carlton Fisk last night) to singing "Sweet Caroline" in the 8th (fans wait to sing before streaming out). It's easy to be snide about all this luxuriating in the past. The Boston Nation identification drives me crazy when they assemble for a game at Oakland. But there's something sweet about sitting in the park, surrounded by fans who scream their appreciation for every out, every safe call. There's something to those remembrances, the old black and white films of Tris Speaker, Jimmie Foxx, Williams, Yastrzemski; color shots of Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens. I sit in these stands, some of the seats older than my long-dead father. I feel the kid in back of me banging my seat with his feet; I'm unable to find a place for my arms; I'm struggling to keep my knees from straying to left or right or into the back of the man in front of me; I'm twisting my head from side to side to see the batter. And I'm reveling in the energy of this dinosaur of a stadium that makes me feel a part of something older, deeper, more sustained than today's game. It's seductive, that pull to identify with this rewritten baseball past where all is glory, Green Monster style.

II. The Agony and the Annoyance.

We return to our hotel from the Boston game, have a drink at the bar downstairs, go up to our room, listen to the A's/Giants' game on the iPad. This keeps us up until nearly 1 a.m., when we both give up as the game heads into the bottom of the 9th tied 1-1. I say the A's will lose in the 9th; F says they'll lose in the 12th. Instead they lose in the 10th.

During the game we hear that McCarthy and Ross have gone on the disabled list. Along with Dallas Braden, lost for the season, that makes three of the six pitchers who have started games for the A's so far this year on the DL. It happens. Fuentes, who lost a closer job with the Angels, gives up the winning run to the Giants on two hits and a walk, giving him a 1-5 record so far. It happens. The regular closer, Bailey, is still a couple weeks away from returning to his closer role. The A's starting lineup for most games features one hitter out of nine with a batting average over .250, and none over .275. The A's are 7-10 in one run games, which means that 17 of the 45 games they've played so far have been one run games. We could do a more detailed analysis and learn that 13 of those 17 games were low-scoring: 4-3 and under. But bad as these numbers are, they don't tell the whole story. The A's play lackluster baseball. They don't believe in themselves, in that impossible to define way that makes teams potential winners and not. They are stagnant, haven't put together more than three wins in a row. They are a majestically dull, solid .500 ball club, which keeps them from being an embarrassment and denies them the pride of being a winner. We listen to their games with that fan's fatalism that we've learned in the last five years. We watch Carlos Gonzales win games for Colorado. We see Andre Ethier win games for Los Angeles. And we wonder what we got in those trades. We hear manager Bob Geren's cliched comments and we shake our heads from side to side in despair. We see one outfielder, Sweeney, sitting in the dugout with his .317 average and skills in the field. We watch free agents refuse offers from the A's. We see Curt Young the pitching coach desert to Boston, Ron Washington manage the Rangers into the World Series. And we sigh.

Surely part of the baseball fan's psyche is drawn to suffering. And being an A's fan doesn't even qualify for the Suffering Finals next to fans in Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Chicago (the north side of town). What hurts this year is the way the starting pitching is so good we could win with just a little more hitting. What hurts this year is that we lose so many games we might have won with just a . . . or a . . . . What hurts this year is that the Angels and Rangers are, so far, lackluster too, so we hover near the top of our division even with this ineptitude. But what hurts most is the feeling that we're paddling water, circling the airport, twiddling our thumbs, going nowhere. Of course "we're" not doing any of those things: the players and coaches are. But once you settle into that passion for a team, you're in it, stuck with your body in the stands, in front of the TV, listening to the radio, poring over statistics online and in the newspaper down to the last out, even if you're as asleep as the players seem to be by the time the game ends.


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