Boston Deserves Better than Fenway Park. Sorry Not Sorry.
Yes, America’s oldest ballpark is historic. But if we’re going to love everything from 1912, why don’t we also celebrate child labor, ice delivery, and smallpox?
The end of this month will be Opening Day at Fenway Park, a time of big hopes and slight delusions. It’s when we act as though it’s spring, even though the temperature is in the 30s. When we believe that this will once again be the year—and why not? At this point, everyone is in first place. (Also last, but why all the negativity so soon?)
I mean, it could be the year, even though the Red Sox lost All-Star Xander Bogaerts to the San Diego Padres and Trevor Story, Bogaerts’s replacement at shortstop, needed elbow surgery. The Sox did re-sign last-great-player-left Rafael Devers to a long-term deal, and, in baseball, one out of three is reason to strut.
Of course, all of this optimism would be enhanced if fans didn’t have to try to feel it while sitting in America’s crappiest major league ballpark.
Sorry, my bad. Fenway isn’t crappy—not in a fake grass, airport hangar, Tampa’s Tropicana Field kind of way. But are we fine with that as a starting point? What makes it even more difficult is that this year, the Sox home opener is against the Baltimore Orioles, the team, in my opinion, with the best name, color scheme, and smiles. Even if they get crushed, the Orioles still get to return home to Camden Yards, where game-watching comfort reigns and trumpets blare at its mere mention.
Our first-class city deserves better.
Fenway Park does have some pluses. It’s quirky and located right in the city—not minor things—but that’s kind of it. Yes, it’s historic, which also means old, and I appreciate the past. I just prefer to tour it for 20 minutes, not endure it for four hours. Still, somehow that’s what’s expected, even though we’d never do it in any other aspect of our lives. Want a car with hand-crank windows? See a blockbuster on a folding chair? That’s no twice. If we’re going to love everything from 1912, why don’t we just bring back child labor, ice delivery, and smallpox?
Sox fans only get sentimental when a ballpark is involved, because if Fenway were a South End condo building, it would be razed and rebuilt the day the papers were signed.
Sox fans seemingly only get sentimental about history when a ballpark is involved, because if Fenway were a South End condo building, it would be razed and rebuilt the day the papers were signed. But it’s baseball, so we’re willing to shell out a small fortune to sit behind support columns and be angled away from the action that we paid dearly to “see.”
To be fair, Fenway isn’t unlike other parks in certain respects. If you have good seats, it’s a good time, and if you don’t, it’s less so. It’s just hard to get those good seats on a non-hedge-fund salary, and the ones remaining are somewhat lacking, to be kind. For instance, if you’re in the back rows of Section 3, you’re all the way down the first-base line, in the right-field corner, and under an overhang, which is super if it rains, but then there’s probably no game, so that’s a wash. When there is a game, it’s dark and disconnected from the action. Not surprisingly, people can get restless, and then you’re experiencing a totally different event. Let’s just say, not the place to take your kids to their first game.
It’s not as though Sox owners have done nothing to address the issue. They’ve spent upward of $285 million to make improvements. Some aren’t sexy but are useful: better water drainage and airflow. But change has always been going on here—Fenway wasn’t Fenway straight out of the box. “[There] was never a great vision in mind,” says Paul Goldberger, professor of design at the Parsons School of Design and author of Ballpark: Baseball in the American City. It was some of this, then some of that, depending on the owner, he says. The left-field wall didn’t come in until 1934. It didn’t get painted green (and thus nicknamed) until ’47.
Over the past 20 years, the owners have made improvements that have brought more life into the place. There are more TV screens. The concourses are slightly bigger. The bathrooms are better, although many of us miss the community that was the troughs. (Sorry, ladies. You lose again.) And they put more seats in the stadium, including luxe dugout seating along the first-base line, on top of the Green Monster, and on top of the right-field grandstand, which is kind, but it also just means there are now more people crammed into the same amount of space. And with all this spending, the owners still weren’t able to find pretzel warmers that actually keep pretzels warm.
Every ballpark needs upkeep, but Fenway seems to be an ongoing fixer-upper, as those in charge try to make the oldest park in the game as modern as possible. Only so much can be done. The best move, in my opinion, would be to just start over. The Orioles built a new, beautiful stadium in ’92. It can be done.
And it’s not as though the Red Sox don’t have any dough to do this. The team’s current owner, Fenway Sports Group, also owns an English soccer club and a NASCAR racing team. It bought the Pittsburgh Penguins in ’21 for around $900 million. Late last year, it was poking around the Washington Commanders NFL team—not exactly a Groupon kind of purchase. The Denver Broncos, for instance, sold last year for $4.65 billion. There’s nothing preventing ownership from building a new park on the existing site with all the intimacy and none of the poles, says Michael Wyetzner, principal at Michielli + Wyetzner Architects in New York City.
I didn’t do a focus group, but I’m confident a chunk of Sox fans wouldn’t mind seeing the place go. For others, what I’m suggesting is sacrilege. But not really.
In many ways, Fenway is not much different from first-grade art: No parent wants to throw it away, and for a long time, I didn’t either. After all, it’s precious, and once it’s gone, it can never be recaptured. But that kind of thinking will get you a roomful of cotton-ball snowmen. The truth? Once you grab a Hefty and start chucking, you don’t really miss it.
Do I think the Sox owners will say, “You know what? Rent that wrecking ball, like this afternoon”? Not a chance. They see no expiration date on the place. Plus, they’ve already put many millions into upgrades, and it’s not like they can flip the property. Plus plus, there’s no incentive. The ballpark sells out as it is and has turned into its own attraction. At some point over the past 20 to 30 years, it became Fenway. There’s also a huge risk with building something new. You could swing and go upper deck like in Pittsburgh with PNC Park, regarded as one of the best in the game. It could also be a squib hit to right, like in Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington, and New York (twice)—this list could be longer—where the new parks are, at best, generically fine.
Fenway is not just loved. It has moved into the realm of beloved.
Then there’s that history. Fenway is not just loved. It has moved into the realm of beloved because every baseball thing by every generation’s hero in this town has happened there. “You can’t underestimate the value of that,” Wyetzner says. Why would you screw with it?
Here’s the reality, though: We’ve already screwed with it. It’s called the Boston Garden. It was built in 1928, shut down in ’95, demoed three years later, and at the time, it was more iconic than Fenway and the site of more championships. It was also cramped and dirty and had lots of obstructed views, just like…. Not only that, its bad acoustics made it lose out on all the big shows after the Centrum (now DCU Center) opened in ’82. I was 14, and from then until graduation, I had to go from Newton to Worcester to see concerts. Crisis? No. Inconvenient? A touch. The only upside was that a whole generation of kids—and their parents—learned where Worcester was. I cry for the youth of today who will never know that Route 9 goes past Natick.
But then we got the “New Garden.” It certainly wasn’t the same. It didn’t have the personality or endless ramps, but Springsteen would now come to town, and that’s all I ever really wanted. And the parquet floor, where they actually played the game, was moved to the new place, making everything all right.
So if the Sox don’t want to lose all of their history, then don’t. Keep the Green Monster, and use it as an anchor to build around. Those first few games will be understandably difficult. Fans will wander about and think, That’s not where the bathroom was, and try to buck themselves up with, I can handle this. I’m big and strong, unlike Yankee fans who are super babies, and then they’ll say, Fine. Whatever. I’m just calling it Not Fenway.
But then, through those hard tears, they’ll look up and see that wall where Ted Williams played a disinterested left, where Jim Rice tried to decoy runners by not moving on big flies, and where Manny Ramirez allegedly went inside for a tink, and they’ll start to feel hope. Then a few games later, it’ll be, Wow. My legs can extend…yay change.
Actually, my idea is to swing even bigger: Build right on the site, like right on the site. Put the New Fenway on top of the Old Fenway in the most ambitious, innovative, suck-it-New York way ever. Tourists would still be able to visit the Old Fenway without having to go to a game, freeing up tickets for the real fans upstairs. Ownership could rent out the original for birthdays, bachelor parties, and weddings. They could even turn the private boxes into condos—Fenway Place: It’s Ya Homah Now—and bring in enough revenue to finally get those pretzel warmers.
Of course, a double-decker ballpark will never happen, mostly because it’s not based on any sound engineering principles. So we are back to building a new one on the current site. Sure, it means the Sox would be without a home for two years at minimum, which you could see as a deal-breaker, but that’s just Massachusetts cynicism creeping in.
I choose to see it as an opportunity, a chance to get a new park and for the Sox to take their home games on the road. Play a month at Harvard Stadium. A month in Lowell. A month at Nashua High. Two weeks in Cotuit. One week in Pawtucket to show there are no hard feelings. The towns would love it. The fans would love it, and for this opportunity, they’d happily pay those ridiculous prices to see their team for the long-weekend residency in the Berkshires.
Oh, and one more thing: They should play at least three months at Polar Park. It’s just two years old. The Sox will get comfortable playing in, well, comfort. Best of all, it’s in Worcester. Two problems solved.
Enjoy Route 9.
First published in the print version of the March 2023 issue with the headline, “Strike Three, Fenway’s Out.”