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Fenway's more impractical than romantic

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Two years ago the state of Massachusetts commissioned the McCormick Institute -- whose expertise is in public opinion -- to judge the populace's view of local professional teams and their need for new facilities.

Not only did the Institute find that the Red Sox "matter" more than the other three major professional teams combined, but when it came to all the warm, fuzzy, nostalgic, "Miracle on 34th (er, Lansdowne) Street" stuff, that by a huge margin the people who feel strongest about preserving Fenway Park are those who visit it the least.

Fenway is as romantic as the Boylston Street MBTA station -- theoretical, not practical.

"It is great, the best place in many ways," says B.J. Surhoff. "Is there a way to build new locker rooms, or have batting cages or facilities that are close to modern?"


"Well, I hope a new place replicates the atmosphere."

Those who wax romantic about The Swamp Palace don't play or buy tickets there; they either sit in the game's worst press box, where some "architect" constructed something where half the rows cannot see home plate, or watch games on television.

This is a handyman's special built on landfill that makes it a floating lily pad. When it rains three straight days, the water seams up through the outfield and into the runways to the dugouts. If a local official pulls the wrong lever, which happened five years ago, then water from the brown Charles River backs up and fish float in the visitors' dugout. It happened. Poisson de Fenway au Mercury.

The tickets are the most expensive in baseball. The park is so old, even when they do try to clean it, the grunge cannot be cleaned away. The trust that controls the franchise declined to clean the park in the late season in some cash crunch to pay the Mike Lansing contract. In the 1999 playoffs, fans made off with sets of seats, because the bolts went down into wood that the water had ruined. Thus, the seats were attached to nothing but polluted water.

When the Taylor family owned the Red Sox and built Fenway, the seats were designed for people who were born in the 19th century, when a person the size of Donnie Sadler would have been average. For the $45-a-box seat costs today -- and that may be $60 next season -- you get all the comfort of an orange crate. You need Motrin to save your cramped legs. The aisle space is so narrow that if you are in a middle seat -- with beer guzzlers to the left and to the front of you -- you spend the entire game getting up and down or having someone else standing in front of you when Pedro Martinez drops the hammer on Carlos Delgado.

And if you want some Kowloon spare ribs and fried rice and a beer? It takes 20 minutes. The place wasn't built with concessions in mind. The narrow areas behind home plate and down the right-field line used for concessions make trying to get a kosher dog as easy as driving from Fenway to the Baterymarch Building at 4:20 on a Friday afternoon.

As a visiting player Surhoff says one of the great things about Boston is the way people seem to walk to the park. The area outside Fenway, down Yawkey Way, Brookline Avenie and Lansdowne Street, has the sense of the Gainesville Swamp an hour before a big game with the Yankees or Mets, but parking is an horrific problem, unless you don't mind paying the $30 some of the gas station and lot owners charge.

And while those narrow streets are fun to walk, Boston streets were built for horses and people, not cars or trucks. So even at 11 a.m. before a night game, traffic can be tied up just by delivery trucks parked at the service gate on Yawkey Way.

"When I went to Cleveland and Baltimore and saw that they had entire cities underneath the stadium where trucks could pull in and out and the operations for the entire park could be coordinated," owner John Harrington said, "I was astounded. Everything we do has to be accomplished by a truck stopping on Yawkey Way and hauling stuff in off the street through that one entrance. The fact is that we are severely limited as to what we can bring into the park."

The neighborhood itself has gone to seed. Brookline Avenue from the Sears Building toward Fenway is usually a rubble, as are the side streets on the Boylston side. The residentials are essentially slum-lorded. And in a city that ranks only behind San Jose, San Francisco and New York in cost of living and has the smallest square mileage of any major urban area, it is potentially prime real estate if a new stadium were built with a real estate development plan in place.

As for the players, Fenway cannot compete with the new parks, not when the Red Sox are trying to sign free agents. The Red Sox have tried to upgrade and modernize the clubhouses, center-field batting cages and all facilities, but they are limited by the fact that so much of the original building material cannot be replaced, as well as the acreage; most stadiums take up 18-30 acres, while Fenway Park is nine acres cut out of urban angles.

If one goes into the training room, rehab facility, batting cages and family rooms at The Bob, then looks at Fenway (and in the offseason, the rats aren't as noticeable as they are in the center-field cages or outside the media/luxury box elevators in August), the comparisons are laughable. And players have a right to care about things like that.

There are a lot of great things about Fenway, and one of them is the atmosphere when Martinez is on the mound or the Indians are in town on a Friday night. A retired Rocky Mount, N.C., lawyer who now lives in Vero Beach, Fla., went to two Red Sox-Yankee playoff games in October 1999, and said, "There was an edge there that I'd never experienced in any ballpark, and I am a baseball guy who played in the College World Series and loves it on every level. There are periods of silent anticipation that anyone who played respects."

But a lot of that has to do with the audience and the New England baseball tradition. The park is a '53 Fairlane with 457,163 miles. They can't keep patching it. It can't be rebuilt on that swamp. They can't clean it. They'll never be able to easily get you two dogs, two beers and a pretzel.

The local pols don't understand it, but they haven't walked through the Brookline Avenue garbage on a Saturday morning. They don't realize the Three Stooges humor of a city councellor suggesting they play in Braves Field for two years during a Fenway rehabilitation, as Braves Field hasn't existed in Nomar Garciaparra's lifetime; one of the reasons the Braves left Boston during the Truman administration was because it was insufficient.

Fenway Park is not the tradition; it is part of a broader tradition. If you'd spent $45 a seat for your season tickets last year and knew they were going up another 22-33 percent for 2001 just to keep it from collapsing, you'd understand.

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