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
Field of schemes
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
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,
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
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
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."
Tom Scocca can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.