April 3 - 10, 1 9 9 7
[Fenway Park]

Green monstrosities

Red Sox management might replace Fenway Park with a trendy retro stadium based on Fenway's beloved but eccentric field. It's a terrible idea. The original has done enough damage to the team already.

by Tom Scocca

Short of the pyramids at Giza, it's hard to imagine a building enjoying a more respected obsolescence than Fenway Park does. The Red Sox' home, along with Detroit's Tiger Stadium and the Chicago Cubs' Wrigley Field, is a survivor from the golden age of baseball architecture, before World War I. The question of true seniority among the three is vexed by their histories of fires and renovations; the matter of which one is best may be settled only with knives and bottles. But even as Red Sox management plots the ballpark's eventual demise, fans of baseball, and of baseball architecture, are nearly unanimous in saying that Fenway's dingy corner of Kenmore Square is supremely sacred ground.

Green monstrosities
Field of schemes
Insider baseball

The park is not as handsome as Wrigley, by any means, and it's much less imposing than Tiger Stadium. Its fame largely rests on the strangeness of its layout: almost no foul ground, a peculiarly shaped and angled outfield, and, above all else, the Green Monster, the 37-foot-high left-field wall with a built-in, hand-operated scoreboard. The Monster, though rebuilt three times and currently topped with a trio of giant plastic Coca-Cola bottles, is considered a sort of living historic personage; fans gossip about the untruth of its advertised distance from home plate (revised in 1995 from a baldfaced 315 feet to a little white 310) and wonder at the fact that it has brooded over more or less the same ballpark since 1912 -- give or take steel grandstands (1934), electric lights (1947), or the glassy carbuncle of the 600 Club luxury section (1986).

But while the park has stayed put over the years, the business side of baseball has taken off. And as far as the Red Sox are concerned, the financial demands of the game have passed Fenway by: the park has too few seats, and especially too few luxury sections, to generate enough cash for a sport in which even mid-level players get seven-figure salaries. Sooner or later (and likely sooner) the Sox are going to build a new ballpark, and Fenway will join Philadelphia's Shibe Park and New York's Polo Grounds in the history books.

Except that where the other old parks yielded to progress, it seems that progress is going to yield to Fenway. In its old age, the Green Monster seems to have suddenly gained fecundity. The rage in ballpark design, from Baltimore to San Francisco, is for new and newly planned ballparks that have the old-time look of Fenway: irregular fences, oddly shaped foul territory, and looming (albeit scaled-down) offspring of the Green Monster. Baseball, forever obsessed with the glory of its past, is now trying to rebuild it.

And when Fenway gets replaced, the Red Sox say they aim to do the others one better. According to club spokesperson Kevin Shea, the Sox envision building a replica of Fenway -- Green Monster, hand-operated scoreboard, and all -- only with 15,000 more seats and "state-of-the-art amenities." It's the logical culmination of the postmodern ballpark-design movement: 21st century technology applied to a blueprint from 1912.

Nice as the idea of a Fenway with all the modern advantages may sound, the idea is a terrible one. For as much as Fenway is an icon, it's also a relic, designed for a bygone time and bygone circumstances. From a pure baseball standpoint, Fenway's weird features have been more a liability for the team than an asset: year in and year out, the unbalanced park has encouraged unbalanced teams. Re-creating the quirky playing field in a modern ballpark promises only to clinch the Sox's also-ran status, even as it brings Boston baseball fans, willing or not, into the brave new world of high-revenue, entertainment-driven sports.

Like the other ballparks of its era, Fenway owes its distinctive design not to the inspired whimsy of an architect, but to the shape of a city lot. Back in the golden age of baseball architecture, the sport wasn't important enough to justify knocking down acres of buildings, and there was no need to moat the fields with parking lots. So the parks had to be bent to fit their surroundings, and most of the bending took place in the outfield. At Fenway, as at many other parks, one corner of the outfield was truncated where it met the street, and a big wall made up the difference. (At the Brooklyn Dodgers' fabled Ebbetts Field, right field was even shorter than Fenway's left field, and the wall was 38 feet high.)

The irregularity was acceptable because the parks were built in what's now known as the "dead-ball era," when baseballs had little bounce to them and so didn't travel very far when struck. Hitting one out of the park was so rare that in the 1911 World Series, Frank "Home Run" Baker won his nickname by slugging an awe-inspiring total of two home runs; he solidified his legend by hitting a career-high 12 in the 1913 season. Under those conditions, it didn't make much difference whether the left-field corner was just over 300 feet away, as it was at Fenway, or 375, as it was at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh.

But by the time Fenway was 10 years old, the game had changed. Though Sox fans remember 1919 as Babe Ruth's last year in Boston, it marks another turning point in baseball history: in 1920, as Ruth arrived in New York, the live ball arrived in the American League. And despite longstanding Boston superstition, the live ball -- given the design of Fenway -- has probably had a lot more to do with the Sox' inability to win a World Series than Ruth's departure has.

As players caught on to the change, the home run was transformed from an anomaly to a regular feature of the game. Ballparks were divided into pitchers' parks and hitters' parks -- and Fenway, where batters discovered that even a moderately vigorous pop fly to left could clear the Green Monster, was the latter (as was Wrigley Field, where, it should be noted, the Cubs have yet to win a title).

Cause and effect are endlessly disputed in baseball, but since 1934, when the present steel grandstands were built (and accurate statistics began), Fenway has seen 13 percent more runs scored than has the average ballpark, and 11 percent more home runs. These figures come from Pete Palmer, of the Society for Advanced Baseball Research (SABR), a group dedicated to pinning such slippery matters down. Palmer says this is close to the maximum amount of variation a ballpark can see, not counting Denver's Coors Field, where thin mountain air allows what the SABR folks regard as appalling prodigies of hitting.

Down through the years, says Robert Bluthardt, who chairs SABR's ballparks committee, the increase in offense has given the Red Sox more than their fair share of batting champions. Unfortunately, though, the temptation of the Monster has led the team consistently to favor players with hitting ability over those with fielding ability. From Dick "Dr. Strangeglove" Stuart in the early '60s to Jose Canseco and Wil Cordero in the '90s, the Sox are notorious for hiring position players with the athletic range of oxen. They knock in runs, but as Sox fans know too well, their defensive liabilities have a way of showing up in big games.

At the same time, Fenway has been brutal on pitchers, particularly left-handed ones (according to Bluthardt, Lefty Gomez of the Yankees compared pitching there to "pitching in a phone booth"). In a study Palmer made of how famous pitchers fared in various ballparks, he says he found that the Cleveland Indians' Bob Feller's earned-run average rose from his lifetime 3.25 to 5.46 when he pitched at Fenway, while the Yanks' Whitey Ford was hit so hard -- a 6.16 ERA at Fenway, versus 2.75 overall -- that he quit trying to pitch in Boston at all.

But it hasn't hurt just the Sox' opponents. Palmer's data are short on Red Sox lefthanders because, save for such rare exceptions as Lefty Grove and Bill "Spaceman" Lee, great lefties haven't pitched for Boston. This leaves the Sox with a constant disadvantage against left-handed hitters. And it's not as if the park is kind to righty pitchers, either: Palmer says that by his estimation, Fenway added a quarter of a run to Roger Clemens's ERA through the 1995 season.

So at Fenway, the baseball gospel that good pitching beats good hitting doesn't apply. The Sox end up trying to succeed at two games: high-scoring, slugging Fenway ball, and the game played everywhere else. And because half their games are played at home, they build teams that are better at the former. They win the home-run contests and they pile up runs as the ball bounces around the strange corners of the outfield -- but in the postseason, they find themselves facing teams that can pitch better than them and match them hit for hit. Fenway can make things interesting, but the Sox inevitably come up short.

To some observers, 70-plus years of this is enough. "They shouldn't be playing major-league baseball in it," says veteran Baltimore sportswriter John Steadman. "Fenway Park is just a bad memory, and they ought to get over it."

Part 2

Tom Scocca can be reached at tscocca[a]phx.com.