Play Ball

All photographs by the author

A sure sign of spring is opening day of the Major League Baseball season.  This year the Red Sox begin defense of their 2018 World Series title on Thursday, March 28 in Seattle with the home opener at Fenway Park in Boston scheduled for April 9th.  I’m looking forward to another exciting season and blocking off my calendar for the first week in November just in case there’s another championship parade.  You never know!

Big Pappi, David Ortiz, was the star of the 2013 Red Sox Championship and ensuing parade
Will the Duck Boats carry another World Series trophy in 2019?

Last week I had the pleasure of taking a behind the scenes tour of Fenway Park with its storied history and its intricate nooks and crannies.  Although the cool temperature and biting wind still suggested winter, being inside the park and seeing the playing field free of snow assured me that not only spring, but summer too, is just around the corner.

The seats are empty now but . . . 
. . . soon the park will be filled with fans as it was on this April, 2015 Sunday afternoon

About forty people were part of the tour and our guide proved to be both knowledgeable and entertaining.  I thought I knew quite a lot about Fenway Park but I learned several things along the way that now make me appreciate this jewel of a ballpark all the more.

Built in 1912 it is the oldest of the major league parks with Chicago’s Wrigley Field and Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles occupying second and third place, respectively.  The first game held at Fenway was on April 20 of that year but newspaper coverage of the event was overshadowed by continuing reporting of the sinking of the Titanic.  The park’s current seating capacity is 37,755 making it the fourth smallest baseball stadium in the big leagues.

Our guide pointed out that Red Sox teams have preferred to win their championships at the beginning of each century – capturing titles in 1903, 1912, 1915, 1916, 1918, 2004, 2007, 2013, 2018 – then taking about an 80 year break to “give other teams a chance” to celebrate victory.  Using that formula, 2019 would be the last year to win it all before bowing to the rest of the league and giving the remaining teams an opportunity to hold their own parades – a kind gesture to say the least.

The team took an 86 year break after the 1918 title

Fenway has undergone numerous changes over the years and one of the more recent modifications is the addition of seats above the “Green Monster” wall in left field.  Our tour took us up to the monster seats where one could practically reach out and touch the left field foul pole made famous by Carlton Fisk’s dramatic home run in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series.

Fisk’s bomb just barely clanged off the pole allowing the ball to remain in fair territory and win the game.  The guide also spoke about how that home run changed the way television coverage of the sport now takes place but she didn’t tell the entire story.

Now known as the “Fisk” pole
View from the Green Monster seats in left field

There was a cameraman stationed inside the Green Monster scoreboard and his instructions were to follow the ball when hit to the outfield – standard practice at the time.  However, for this famous homer the cameraman chose to zoom in on Fisk as he tried to wave the ball fair with his arms as he left the batter’s box.  What the guide didn’t tell us is that the cameraman had been distracted by rats “as big as cats” roaming inside the scoreboard and he needed a hasty Plan B when Fisk stepped up to the plate.  You can learn the rest of the story here.

The Fisk mural near the entrance to the Green Monster seats

A lesser known fact brought to light during the tour included how the initials of long-time owners of the team, Tom and Jean Yawkey (now both deceased), are subtly displayed on the left field scoreboard.   Apparently the Yawkeys used to enjoy picnicking on the left field grass before games or when the team was on the road and they wanted to honor this tradition without much fanfare.  So, they had their initials inscribed on the scoreboard in Morse Code. This led to some controversy in 2018 when the Red Sox organization  petitioned the city of Boston to change the street name in front of Fenway Park from Yawkee Way to its original name, Jersey Street, in order to distance itself from the Yawkee’s racist past.  Many wanted the Morse Code initials to also be removed but in the end, only the street name was changed.

Look for the dots and dashes on the two center vertical white stripes.

I also learned the story of the “red seat” in the outfield bleacher section – something I was totally unfamiliar with.  The story goes that in 1946 Red Sox legend, Ted Williams, hit the longest home run ever recorded at Fenway – 502 feet – that landed on the head of a fan named, Joe Boucher.  The ball knocked Boucher’s straw hat off and by doing so left a gaping hole in his summer headwear.  Years later, engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded that the ball would have traveled another 20-30 feet had it not hit the fan.  Boucher’s response when asked how he felt about the ordeal was “Geez, how far back do you have to sit at Fenway to not get hit by a ball”.  Seat number 21 in Row 37 of Section 42 marks the spot and is the lone red seat in the bleachers.

Retired uniform numbers adorn the right field facade

The entire grass surface of the field is currently being replaced with new sod – no doubt, a pricey endeavor.  Turns out that this winter’s edition of the extreme sport “Crashed Ice” severely damaged the playing surface.   Therefore, the grounds crew ripped up the old grass and has been laying down the new sod in 4 x 6 foot sections.  Barring a major Nor’easter, the field should be ready in ample time for opening day.

Looking towards the Pesky pole in right field.  The new sod is taking shape.

The outing includes a tour of the press box and ends in the Fenway Park Living Museum which contains an extensive collection of memorabilia.

Fenway’s seats weren’t always this nice (see below)

 

They don’t make baseball gloves like they used to (thankfully)

I’ve probably seen about two dozen Red Sox games at Fenway Park and, win or lose, I’ve never had a bad time there.  Getting to the park has sometimes been challenging – the combination of Boston drivers and streets laid out with no rhyme or reason tend to try my patience but it’s all worth it.  I’ve had the pleasure of seeing and photographing some Hall of Fame players in action but I’ve never seen a playoff or World Series Game.  The closest I’ve come to a very meaningful game was in 1978.

Hall of Famer, Jim Rice, was on his way to the MVP when I took this photo in 1978
NESN broadcaster Dennis Eckersley circa 1980

That year the Sox built a formidable early lead in the standings and in July I bought tickets to the final game of the season not knowing how important the game would eventually become.  Beginning in August, Boston blew that lead to the New York Yankees in historic fashion and with one day remaining in the season trailed the Yanks by a single game.  The best the Sox could hope for was a victory in the final contest against Toronto while hoping and praying the Yankees lost to the Indians thereby forcing a one game playoff between the two teams the next day.  Boston jumped out to an early lead against the Blue Jays as the Yankees were getting thumped by the Indians.  By the fifth inning the Red Sox announced that tickets for the playoff game in Boston were now on sale and I had a chance to score some pretty good seats. Unfortunately, I had just bought my first house several weeks before and money was tight.  I had to make a decision:  get those drapes for the bedroom that my wife wanted or buy a ticket to what might be a once in a lifetime opportunity.  In the end the drapes won out and thanks to Bucky F-ing Dent I don’t regret that decision as the Red Sox lost that playoff game on a day that now lives in Boston infamy.

Carl Yastremski in 1978
Yaz tried but couldn’t bring home a championship
. . . but it was enough to erect a statue of him outside the park

I’ll have a chance to make more memories at Fenway Park soon.  My family and I have tickets to the May 19th game against the Houston Astros.

Little did I know in 2015 that the Sox and Manny Machado would meet again. This time the Sox prevailed.

 

I can’t wait to once again hear the call of “Play Ball”.

 

 

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