Night Games

Eighty-one days out of each year, Fenway Park becomes a small city of 34,000. Red Sox fans, of course, always hope for 9 or 10 more games that will extend the season a few weeks, but, sadly, the park is too often dormant come October, just as it is late each night during the season. After every game, those thousands go home, and the park is left empty.

Veteran groundskeeper Al Forester sometimes used to pull out a cot and sleep over following a late game. Rodger Auguste, who now heads up the postgame cleaning crew, says his people don't finish their jobs until sometime after daybreak. A few years ago, I stayed for an hour after a game to watch the cleaners at work. There, in the nearly empty stadium, an idea germinated: I decided to spend an entire night at Fenway.

Rob Neyer, a writer friend at ESPN, loved the idea. Consulting the schedule, we chose a night game against the Twins. The first pitch was at 7:05. The game ended at 10:03, after the Red Sox had their futile last ups in the bottom of the ninth. Minnesota 4, Boston 2.

Afterward, the masses trudged toward the exits — 33,467 of them. Two stayed, ready to spend the night. Sunrise wasn't until 5:30 a.m., more than seven hours away. The air was thick with anticipation of adventures unknown, if only for the two of us. Would guards, making their rounds, ask what we were doing? What possible rationale could we have to be there? Was the park haunted? I'd brought a toothbrush, the lightest of jackets, and, just in case, a book. (I knew there was enough light in the grandstand or, if necessary, in one of the men's rooms.) Otherwise, we'd made no preparations at all.

Even before the last stragglers clear out, Fenway's cleaners, a.k.a. the “pickers” and “blowers,” assemble in the upper portion of the left-field stands; we go over to hang with them, basically using them as cover. A crowd-control guy comes over to check on us but leaves satisfied. And that's that. We're in.

The pickers start “picking” in Section 33 and continue counterclockwise, winding up in the bleachers. They gather larger items left behind by fans — cardboard food trays, soft-drink bottles, Cracker Jack boxes — and shove them into plastic garbage bags. The bags are tied shut and tossed to the aisles, then down the ramps to the concourse where other workers pile them onto four-wheeled pushcarts and roll them to a massive trash compactor behind Section 1.

The pickers are followed by the blowers, who use those gasoline-powered leaf blowers to push paper scraps, peanut shells, and other lighter-weight trash down to the bottom rows of box seats to be shoveled up. Despite all this, there is still an astonishing quantity of peanut-shell residue. After wet night games, fans often find a film of it on their seats.

Rob and I walk here and there, back and forth around the empty park as the blowers go from section to section. We stroll out to the bleachers via the concourse under the stands. We visit the red seat high in the blue right-field bleachers marking the spot where a Ted Williams home run came down one day nearly 55 years ago. Then we backtrack all the way around to Section 28 in left field and visit the lone seat that constitutes the first row of Section 28, and the single seat in the back of Section 33. We walk back to right field again and sit in the crammed knee-to-knee seats between sections 1 and 2 in the lower boxes.

Two minutes after midnight — according to the clock on Fenway's electronic message board — the Citgo sign in Kenmore Square goes dark. The air becomes discernibly cooler. Around 12:15 we see our first rat, near the batting cage under the bleachers.

Soon, we find ourselves observing minutiae. At one point, we notice that one of the Jimmy Fund collection boxes fixed to a pillar under Section 5 or thereabouts has no padlock. Inside we find two dollar bills, one folded inside the other, and a few loose coins.

Under the stands on the left-field side, where the ground crew stores its rakes and extra dirt, we examine the 12-foot-high Price-Macemon 2000 Orbital Ice Storage and Dispenser System. It's still cranking out cubes. Thirty or forty spill out, clattering to the concrete as we walk by. It's 1:09 a.m.

Is this really any more interesting than staying the night in a laundromat or bus station? Your average person might not think so, but ballpark fanatics would appreciate our modest adventure. There are people who love the parks almost as much as they love the game. We later boast to fellow fans about our night at Fenway. Their most common reaction? “Wow! I wish I'd done that!”

As we roam the concourses and aisles, Rob and I swap baseball stories and soak up atmosphere in the oldest major league ballpark in existence. We nose around, discussing how the ballpark works — this now-90-year-old facility built in the days when the “equipment truck” was a horse and wagon (run by Pat Daley & Sons, the same company that supplies the service still). At 2:30, another rat scurries by, just 3 feet away as we lean up against the rail in Box 29 to the left of the Red Sox dugout. It runs down the ramp under Section 16. We talk, kill more time. We fidget. This might have been a special adventure, but there is really nothing happening. So we keep moving.

Sometime before 3, we realize we haven't seen any security guards. So we decide to go find some.

The lone guard on duty is a Pinkerton man. He has his book open — In Danger's Path, by W.E.B. Griffin — while a sci-fi movie plays on a small TV set. We chat for 35 minutes about his work and about some of the things that happen at night. Remarkably little, as it turns out. Most of the action is provided on the weekends by drunken denizens of the Lansdowne Street music club scene. “I always laugh because [neighbors] complain about the game,” he tells us, “but pretty much everybody's gone within an hour. The ushers clear it out. But on Thursday through Sunday nights with the bars open, right in this whole general area, they go crazy. They're loud, they're young, and they're screaming.”

The guard never questions our presence, and whatever apprehension we still harbor about our postgame stay evaporates.

All we have left is time. We keep moving — as much as anything, to stay awake. Walking back from yet another visit to the bleachers, we check the Jimmy Fund box again. It's now empty. Apparently, we weren't the only ones who'd noticed that the lock was missing.

At 3:34 a.m., the last blower shuts off. The park is silent. It's only a temporary respite, though. After a half-hour break, the edgy drone of the blowers begins again.

The darkest time comes just before dawn. Rob climbs down to the field and touches the scoreboard. Another rat — or maybe it's the same one, making its own rounds — comes out from under the grandstand, scampers along the warning track, then scuttles into a drain hole. Rob pokes his head into the dugout, takes a seat, and comes back out with a nearly full bag of David sunflower seeds. It's almost breakfast time. We share a few seeds. At the first sign of light, but before the sun is fully up, a flock of gulls alights in the bleachers that the blowers haven't reached yet.

Finally, around 4:45, we settle into my season-ticket seats — Section 17, Box 123, Row AA, seats 3 and 4 — and wait for sunrise. It comes. We leave.

The morning newspapers have been dropped inside the gate. The upstairs cleaning crew is beginning to arrive, and the pickers and blowers are leaving. We part company as Fenway gets ready for another day, another game. The Sox lose the next night, too, by an identical 4-2 score. But there's always another game.

Unless it's October, when the Red Sox break our hearts again. Then comes the longest night of the year.