Commentary

Long live Fenway Park

Even a century later, it's still a magical, wondrous place to watch a game

Originally Published: April 20, 2012
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

I hope Fenway Park lasts to celebrate a second full century in baseball. Although I shudder to think what ticket and beer prices could be there in 2112.

Fenway Park opened 100 years ago April 20, and it's still the model for what a baseball stadium should look like. Ever since Camden Yards opened in 1992, teams have blackmailed taxpayers into spending billions of dollars for lavish, new stadiums, many of them designed to remind fans precisely of old parks such as Fenway, which was built in less than seven months and without public financing.

What a cathedral. It's like going to church. The stadium is the star here. Fenway is the star.

-- Former Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield

Fenway doesn't have an aquarium behind home plate and a nightclub in left field like the new $600 million-plus stadium in Miami, or a Ferris wheel and a merry-go-round like the $300 million stadium in Detroit, or a swimming pool like the $360 million stadium in Phoenix, or a train engine like the $250 million stadium in Houston. It doesn't have an expensive steakhouse like the $1.5 billion new Yankee Stadium, or a brewpub like the $300 million stadium in Denver, or an Alyssa Milano boutique like at the $850 million Mets stadium.

It also hasn't sold its name to a massive insurance company, a telecommunications giant or a soulless, bailed-out bank that charges you 6 percent interest while paying one-quarter of 1 percent on your savings, either.

What Fenway Park has is what it always has offered for exactly 100 years: baseball in an intimate, beautiful, green park as cherished as Yosemite or Yellowstone (though somewhat easier to hit a ball out of).

"What a cathedral. It's like going to church," said Tim Wakefield, who pitched 17 seasons at Fenway before retiring this spring. "The stadium is the star here. Fenway is the star."

Which is saying something, considering the stars who have called Fenway home. It's where Babe Ruth pitched, Ted Williams batted, Carl Yastrzemski played balls off the Wall, Carlton Fisk waved his home run fair and David Ortiz has repeatedly delivered in the clutch. (It's also where Josh Beckett and Jon Lester ate fried chicken, but there's no need to go into that on such a happy occasion.)

"Honestly, I have a T-shirt that says 'Fenway Is My Happy Place,'" Red Sox fan Laura Ryan said at last week's home opener. "It's one of my favorite places to be, it really is. I miss it in the offseason. I just love being here. I love the green. I love how bright it is. I love the players. Everything gives you that warm feeling where you're just you happy to be here."

[+] EnlargeFenway Park's open house
David L Ryan/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesFans streamed into Fenway Park for an open house the day before the 100th anniversary.

I also love being at Wrigley Field, which is nearly a century old as well, but the difference is the Cubs have let their ballpark seriously decline in recent years. (Would it kill them to have decent concessions or a video replay board somewhere?) That's not the case with Fenway, where the Sox have been constantly upgrading their park ever since the new ownership took over a decade ago. Every time I go there, I find something new, like another concession area or new seating. I also find something old, like some historic door, tunnel or wall that is helpfully indicated by a plaque.

On this precise spot, Don Zimmer "slipped to the ground" while he and Pedro Martinez were "discussing" a pitch thrown in Game 3 of the 2003 ALCS.

"It's amazing to see it transformed from where it was in 1995," Wakefield said. "I played in the days when the field was so sloped in the dugout you couldn't see below the left fielder's knee. They modernized it the best they could but kept the original historic Fenway Park intact, which is phenomenal. It's unbelievable how they accomplished that. To have the same old feel as 100 years ago and to be playing in modern day with new amenities, it's really amazing."

It really is. The updates and improvements have all been made so thoughtfully that brand-new blends into decades-old as seamlessly as a Red Sox fan shifts from self-absorbed joy to self-absorbed despair. Although admittedly, I don't recall Yaz playing balls off a Covidien ad on the Green Monster. (But if ads offend you, bear in mind that before 1947, the Wall was all advertising. Squeezing as much revenue as possible from a stadium is nothing new, folks.)

What helps with the old-time feel is Fenway's distinctive, soothing and almost omnipresent green. Miami's new stadium has electric lime walls that are distinctive/alarming now and undoubtedly will be as out of date within a decade as Logan Morrison's current walk-up music. But the green that covers virtually every square foot of Fenway will still be an inviting classic when Dustin Pedroia's grandkids are big leaguers dirtying their knees diving for grounders.

The color is most famously on display on the 37-foot-high Green Monster, baseball's largest, most comforting and iconic structure outside of Big Papi standing at the plate, as well as the most famous wall outside of China. The Wall is so special to Rich Maloney, the longtime scoreboard keeper I met when I spent a game inside the Monster back in 2003, that he painted a mural of it inside his house. It meticulously recreated the scoreboard from the day his son was born.

"I found out what color paint the Red Sox use and where they get it," he told me back then. "The guy doing the mural was just going to paint it kelly green and I had to say, 'Sorry, but it has to be the exact color.'"

I don't think people will be building scale replicas of Miami's hideous Home Run Sculpture in their living rooms 90 years from now. At least I hope not.

Some of baseball's most beloved ballparks -- Ebbets Field, old Comiskey Park, Forbes Field, Crosley Field, Tiger Stadium -- were built in the same era as Fenway, but only it and Tiger Stadium survived through the early '70s, and only Fenway made it to the 21st century.

Glenn Stout writes in his recent book, "Fenway 1912," that what saved the park was, first, inability/reluctance at the local and state government level to build a new multipurpose stadium a half-century ago, and then the 1967 Impossible Dream season that rejuvenated the dwindling Red Sox fan base (467 fans attended the final game of the 1965 season, or fewer than you'll normally find standing ahead of you at a Fenway concession stand today).

"The reason Fenway has survived and other parks from that same era have not is that Fenway was allowed to evolve and change," Stout said. "Even during the 1912 season, once they realized the World Series was coming up, they added extra seats. Then during 1933 and 1934, the park was reconstructed again. Even during the last 10 years, with all the additions they've made to Fenway, the park has been able to adapt and evolve. That wasn't the case for the other parks. They were more complete in the beginning, so it made them harder to renovate and harder to change later."

This is not to say Fenway was safe from the wrecking ball. Ownership in the late '90s began spreading the canard that the park was unworkable and needed replacement. At the 1999 All-Star Game, ownership displayed plans for the new Fenway Park to be built at considerable public expense. I remember being angered by their attitude that it was a done deal and Fenway was beyond saving.

Fortunately, when the current ownership took over, it recognized what Wakefield said, that Fenway is the star. And the owners treated it as such, investing money to bring the park to its current glory.

Of course, there are people who strongly disagree with this view, insisting that Fenway is old, feels extremely uncomfortable and desperately needs replacement. You particularly hear this from the fans forced to pay the park's exorbitant prices for tickets and wind up sitting behind a pole or in a seat so narrow and with so little legroom that even American Airlines wouldn't place it in the coach section of its planes. But if Fenway is so uncomfortable, then why has it been sold out for eight consecutive years?

Ultimately, it is the history that makes Fenway truly special. The official capacity is 37,493, but you always feel the presence of far, far more people there, even when not trapped in the cramped middle seat of a row or waiting in line for the bathroom. Walk into Fenway and you feel you are entering someplace special, someplace magical, some place that connects you not only to Yaz and Williams and Ruth, but also to your parents and grandparents and great-grandparents.

Which is why in "Field of Dreams," before Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) can reconnect with his father, he first must take author Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) to -- where else? -- Fenway Park.

"I think something is going to happen at the game," he tells his wife, trying to convince her he hasn't lost his mind. "I don't know what, but there is something that will happen and I have to be at Fenway Park with Terence Mann to find out."

So he drives to Boston, kidnaps Mann and takes him to Fenway, where they see a message on the scoreboard conveyed to them as if by magical powers. Which makes perfect sense. Because every time you go to Fenway, you see something special within its walls, just as fans have for 100 years, and hopefully will for another 100.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com