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IN THE BALLPARK

Breaking the Curse
By Neil deMause

In May of 1999, the citizen action group Save Fenway Park! unveiled its initial proposal for renovating the Boston Red Sox' home field. Known as the "Hagenah Plan," for its designer, architect Charles Hagenah, it would have radically reshaped the old single-deck ballpark, adding a 10,000-seat upper deck and a layer of club seats. A drastically modernized Fenway, went the thinking, while not ideal, was at least better than no Fenway at all.

Two days later, Red Sox management released its own plan: to raze baseball's oldest ballpark and replace it with an extravagant new stadium with all the trimmings—plus a $545 million price tag. The day after that, the Boston Globe published a special section on Fenway's imminent demise. As I described it at the time in an investigation for Extra! magazine into media coverage of sports:

 

The lead headline on the paper's special "Fenway: A New Pitch" section was "Proposed $545m ballpark to retain cherished details." The plans for the new park, enthused reporters Gregg Krupa and Meg Vaillancourt, "mimics so many characteristic details of the beloved current stadium that the team even plans to dig up some of the old turf and play on it in the new facility."

In an accompanying story, staff reporters Lynnley Browning and Steven Wilmsen described neighborhood response to the new ballpark proposal as "quiet admiration for the proposal's aesthetic dimension but voiced fresh questions over how ordinary life in the area would be affected." (Those who argued in favor of keeping the old ballpark, as is often the case in such stories, were dismissed as expressing "nostalgic melancholy that a legendary institution would be irreparably altered.") The headline, meanwhile, accentuated the positive: "Park's design impresses many."

So sure was the Globe of the certainty of a new ballpark that they ran a special "Thanks for the memories" section featuring staffers' memories of Fenway.

 

In July of 2000, I Amtraked up to Boston to testify at a hearing of the Massachusetts legislature to decide whether the state would provide $100 million in public funds toward the stadium project, now expected to cost $664 million. I and other witnesses waited through an entire day of city, state, and Red Sox officials testifying on the "blight"-curing wonders of a new stadium. (When one legislator questioned how the rapidly gentrifying Fenway neighborhood could be considered blighted, Mayor Tom Menino memorably explained: "We don't mean Žblight' in the real sense of the word Žblight.'") Finally, as dusk neared and I was about to bolt to catch my train back to New York, I was allowed to read my three-minute statement, which concluded with these lines:

 

The White Sox ten years ago bulldozed friendly old Comiskey Park, built in 1910 by Charles Comiskey himself, because their owners thought a modern, concrete monolith would better equip them for the twenty-first century. But after the initial excitement wore off, fans stayed away in droves from the sterile food courts and the steeply pitched upper deck. The White Sox now draw fewer fans to new Comiskey than they did to the old, despite the best record in the American League.

Two years ago, as the disaster in Chicago became apparent, Chicago Tribune columnist John McCarron wrote that "We now know, though certain suits will never admit it, that old Comiskey should have been saved and rehabbed; that the old neighborhood around it should have been renewed, not removed. But it's never too late to use your imagination. Just close your eyes and remember how it used to be."

It's too late for the city of Chicago to unmake that decision. It's not too late for Boston not to make it in the first place.

 

State Senator Dianne Wilkerson, who was chairing the hearing, listened intently and asked tough questions of the stadium plan. The next morning, she joined a majority of the legislature in voting for the Red Sox subsidy. As one of the few no voters remarked at the time: "It looks like a deal in progress."

Yet looks were deceiving. And so it came to pass that on a rainy Wednesday this March, the current incarnation of Red Sox management gathered in the .406 Club behind home plate to announce that the team "will remain at Fenway Park for the long term"—no upper deck or club seats required. Declared principal owner John Henry:

 

It is an honor to have the opportunity to protect and preserve Fenway Park. We see how its history and charm attract people from all over the world, and how it helps connect generations within families.

We will continue to listen to our fans and make improvements inside the park, at our own private expense, as we have done over these past three years.

 

There will still be squabbles over future renovations, no doubt (some of the Sox' recent additions, like the Green Monster seats atop the left field wall, have been cheered by fans; others, like increased ad signage, not so much), and over desired "improvements" to the neighborhood, like a new parking garage that Sox execs hinted might be paid for with city money. But with team president Larry Lucchino proclaiming that "this is a no-strings-attached commitment" to stay put indefinitely, it looks as if Fenway, improbably, will in 2012 become the first major league ballpark in history to celebrate its one hundredth birthday.

Looking back, many factors conspired to save Fenway from what once looked like a near-certain wrecking ball. After the $100 million in state funds went through, an additional $212 million in city money became stalled when city councillors questioned what, if anything, the public would be getting out of the deal. Then, bankers balked at lending the Sox $352 million for their private share of the stadium's cost, reasoning that the team was making money hand over fist at a perennially sold-out Fenway and would be hard-pressed to improve on that at a new venue. Finally, when Henry bought the team from its former owners in late 2000, the Sox front office became markedly more interested in preserving what it had rather than lusting over what it didn't; one of Henry's first moves was to bring in Janet Marie Smith (a key contributor to the design of Camden Yards) to see how the team could better utilize its current park.

It's hard to say if any of this would have mattered, though, were it not for Save Fenway Park! (The exclamation point, as in Earth First! and Youppi!, is mandatory.) For seven years, this thrown-together assemblage of preservationists, good-government advocates, and Fenway bleacherites lobbied the city council, held design symposia on how to upgrade Fenway without doing damage to its historic character—and simultaneously pressured and encouraged ownership to find ways to cheaply improve upon the old rather than simply demand that taxpayers build anew. (The latter approach, incidentally, being a tactic that Henry had used unsuccessfully when he owned the Florida Marlins in the late 1990s.) Drawing lessons and inspiration from prior grassroots campaigns—in particular, Detroit's Tiger Stadium Fan Club, which kept Fenway's sister park (they both opened the day the Titanic sank) alive for ten years before succumbing to the machinations of pizza baron Mike Ilitch—SFP! volunteers were a ubiquitous presence at Sox games, handing out newsletters, proffering petitions, and relentlessly asking the question: Isn't there a better way to do this?

When the news broke of Fenway's official reprieve, I e-mailed Dan Wilson, Save Fenway Park's longtime president, for a comment. He wrote back:

 

We are thrilled that the Red Sox have now committed to remaining at Fenway Park for the long term. There is a deep sense of satisfaction at having worked long and hard and achieved a significant goal that benefits our city, our ball team and all who love baseball history and tradition. We are also deeply grateful to John Henry, Tom Warner, Larry Lucchino and their staff for loving Fenway the way we do and keeping alive the best experience in baseball eighty-one plus days a year. Time to hoist a few in celebration.

 

Whether you love the Red Sox or loathe them, there should be celebrating across the country as well. Not only has a great ballpark—a great historic building—been saved for future generations, the people of Massachusetts have been spared several hundred million dollars in unnecessary taxpayer subsidies. But even more, it's been demonstrated that with the combination of foresighted management, a handful of elected officials who will stare down a public-stadium steamroller, and organized community activists, the tide of history can be turned.

In 1986, in between my sophomore and junior years of college, a friend and I took a road trip across the Midwest to see ball games at five different parks. By the turn of the century, all would be either demolished or abandoned. At our stop in Chicago, I was handed a flyer by a member of Save Our Sox, my first encounter with what seemed like an endless stream of noble, failed efforts to put history before salesmanship, and people before profits.

Now, the curse that claimed Comiskey Park, Tiger Stadium, and so many other less-celebrated but no less loved ballparks has been broken—at least for the moment. After watching and writing about so many tragic baseball tales, it's nice to finally see a happy ending.

—EFQ

Editor’s note: In the summer of 2000, Save Fenway Park! and the Fenway Community Development Corporation hosted a design charrette led by Chicago architect Philip Bess, author of City Baseball Magic. That event, titled the Future Fenway Symposium, is largely credited with creating the vision for a renewed Fenway Park that the current Red Sox ownership group has embraced when making improvements to the ballpark the past few seasons. A detailed discussion of Boston stadium politics in 2000, as well as a summary of the design and transit ideas that were developed at the week-long Future Fenway conference, was featured in the Fall 2000 issue of Elysian Fields Quarterly (vol. 17, no. 4).

NEIL deMAUSE runs the website fieldofschemes.com, and is a regular contributor to Baseball Prospectus. If Ebbets Field were still around, he could walk to Dodger games from his house.

© 2005 Neil deMause

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