Everyone remembers their first game at Fenway Park, and there’s a reason.
There are stories of first walking through the tunnel and feeling overwhelmed to see the expanse of grass and the wall appear, as if out of a movie. I’m happy to report that was my experience as well. It was a bit confusing to see how the brick facade and uneven concrete concourse could add up to the Fenway Park I’d seen on TV for so long, but that’s just part of the miracle of architecture.
In my first trip, Tim Wakefield, just past his period as a novelty and now settled in as the steady, useful pitcher he’d be for nearly 20 years, was on the mound to face the Oakland A’s. Mark McGwire was the star of the visiting lineup, playing first base and batting cleanup, while old friend Matt Stairs played right field and a young Jason Giambi DH’d.
I remember it all so vividly, likely because of how late my first visit occurred in my youth. I was 14 years old, already well deep into the obsession of baseball and the Boston Red Sox.
I sat in my seat in sec. 26, a fantastic spot to watch a game at that park, about 30 rows behind the third base dugout. I bought a program with third baseman Tim Naehring on the cover, ate a hot dog with my dad (by far his favorite part of the trip), and conducted a nervous chat with our neighbors as only my early teenage self could.
The only disappointment that day, beyond being spurred by Jim Corsi for an autograph, was that Mike Greenwell was injured and absent from his position in front of the left field wall, replaced by Troy O’Leary, who would go on to have a number of his own great Fenway moments.
I have plenty of fond Fenway memories since that day. In 1997, my 12-year-old cousin unleashed one of the most impressive displays of vulgarity I’ve ever heard, shouted in the direction of Yankees center fielder Bernie Williams. My friends and I started going to games regularly in 1998 and ’99, buying grandstand tickets at the window, explaining that they’re not booing Lou Merloni, and sneaking down behind home plate for the last innings, coming back exhausted the next morning for high school classes. In 2003, I saw Jeff Bagwell take Derek Lowe deep for a rocket of a home run off the Coke bottles in left field, resulting in a park-rattling “GOOOONNNGGG.”
I moved back to Massachusetts in 2009, and was stunned to see how much of the park had changed. The chain-link fence that separated the bleachers from the rest of the park was gone. The right field concourse had transformed into a bright, comfortable picnic area. The trough in the bathrooms were removed. Fenway had a new lease on life. It was immediately obvious that it would survive for another generation or two.
There are many who feel that Fenway Park should be torn down and replaced with a new stadium, bringing the team in line with cities like Baltimore, San Francisco, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, cities with new ballparks that combine comfort with the quirks of history.
In the end, they are a vocal minority. The sellout streak, dubious or not, exists partly because of the success of the Red Sox in the past decade, and partly because of the park itself. A new stadium would be comfortable and perhaps more convenient, but it would no longer be a destination. This ownership group is smart enough to know that.
They were also smart enough to bring the park up to date, keeping it with us for perhaps another 50 years. And with more renovations, who’s to say that will be its lifespan?
Everyone remembers their first trip to Fenway Park, because there’s no place quite like it. So here’s to John Updike’s lyric little bandbox, and to 100 years of baseball. Through wins, losses and rainouts, it’s always felt like home.