Stadiums

In olden times (like, the ’50s) battered old ballparks -- dusty and rather bleak -- sufficed and they were plentiful. Moreover, we were happy to have them. Gripes were rare and rarer still were heated calls for the body politic to belly up and provide newer and grander playpens for the hirelings of the local ball clubs who would come and go.

Few are the patrons still with us who recall the likes of Griffith Stadium, an oddly misshapen joint where the Senators of ancient memory cavorted in Washington. Then there was Philadelphia’s Shibe Park (AKA “Connie Mack Stadium”) which I knew well having spent a fair amount of leave-time there while hanging out at nearby Fort Dix the summer of ’62. The Shibe had all the charm of a subway station on the hard side of town; one that hadn’t been painted or even cleaned in about a half century.

None of the ball yards of legend and lore were equal to their myth. By the time I got to see it, New York’s creaking and obtuse Polo Grounds was still throbbing with memories dating back to the Age of McGraw but fast rusting away and might have been condemned were it not soon to be abandoned. Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, now fabled in song, was painfully small and cramped. Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium was hideously huge and unsuited. St. Louis’ Sportsman’s Park was damp, dirty, and dingy. Tiny Crosley Field in Cincinnati wasn’t much better, although it developed something of a cult following after being replaced by one of those plain and ugly “cookie-cutter” bullrings that became strangely fashionable in the ’60s

There were exceptions. Detroit’s park -- then named for the Briggs Family ownership -- was actually deemed “pretty” (a term never lavished on Fenway Park at the time) as was Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, which had wonderfully symmetric lines and a certain aura more often than not wasted on terrible teams. Chicago’s ballparks always ranked among the best with Boston’s back then ranking not so highly for neither of them was well maintained. Complaints about Fenway were percolating as early as the late ’40s and about a decade later Master Tom Yawkey was clearly getting sick of the place. Only one ballpark was considered “majestic”: Yankee Stadium, then as now being in a class by itself.

The subject has new wings with the opening of the two purportedly state of the art ballparks in New York this spring, capping an era of ballpark construction around the country, which has produced some genuine beauties.

All of which is reviving the old debate about Boston’s stadium situation; or more precisely, the wisdom of the Red Sox current ownership’s policy of endlessly tinkering with tired old Fenway Park. Some find all the recent refinements enchanting and they have certainly been bold, innovative and above all profitable, ownership’s main concern.

But others liken these glorified touch-ups to plastering the old pig with coat upon coat of lipstick, rouge, and false eyelashes and question whether such gimmicks as adding seats to the top of the wall alleviates the fact that the vast majority of all the other seats in the park are too small, too tight, and too dang uncomfortable nor is there any hope of improving them.

To date, the former school of thought has prevailed with sentiment and a falsely formed nostalgia overwhelming reason. But me thinks that may be about to change. When Larry Lucchino, ownership’s chief underboss and the last word on such issues, recently asserted that the many cosmetic upgrades guarantee Fenway’s viability “for the next 40 to 50 years” you could only groan. Unless, that is, you are a thoroughly brainwashed citizen of the Nation who breaks into a chorus of “Sweet Caroline” whenever Lucchino or one of his lackeys say, “Boo”. Fenway Park, as we essentially know it, still serving as the home of the Red Sox at the age of 150? That is preposterous!

Yawkey, the man most responsible for making Fenway what it is -- for better or worse -- would have been infuriated, I strongly suspect. It was way back in the early ’60s that he became restless with the notion of plowing new money into the old playground. He wanted a brand, spanking new, stadium and he wanted state government to provide much of the wherewithal. He became annoyed when, inevitably, the stadium debate got ensnared in the familiar Massachusetts political machinations and when he realized the pols were more concerned with the plight of the Patriots than the needs of the Red Sox his aggravation greatly heightened.

People forget all this and they have further forgotten that Yawkey’s disenchantment had him muttering about selling the team. Then came the little miracle of “the Impossible Dream” season of 1967, which utterly revived the team and redefined everything about it. Soon the diehards were taking seriously John Updike’s casual characterization of the “lyric little bandbox” and its “Euclidean determinations”. The subject has been wrapped in such mush ever since.

But Yawkey never bought into it. Right up to his death he was probing for answers and alternatives. His immediate successors carried on the task with what I believe was sincerity. Throughout the process the doubts about the wisdom of remodeling Fenway as a long-term solution persisted and they were honest doubts.

The new ownership team, under John Henry, has obviously dismissed those doubts quite summarily and it has been mighty good for business to do so. Furthermore, the selling of the 97 year-old ball yard as some sort of imperishable civic treasure has been a handy way to not only rationalize the policy but give it charm. Maintaining and even institutionalizing this attitude becomes imperative, especially if one day they hope to sell their “priceless and timeless treasure” of a franchise. Is that likely? Let’s put it this way. It isn’t likely they’ll be around as long as the Yawkey’s were.

Meanwhile, the devoted citizens of the Nation embrace the heresy that it’s more like High Mass than a mere ballgame that they’re partaking of when they do their pilgrimages to “the shrine”. In this sense, the selling of the Fenway myth has been a masterpiece of salesmanship. It is only those of us who are not profiting who might consider it a tad cynical.

In the long run there’s little doubt the Yankees will be better off in their new palace, no matter how egregiously overpriced or faintly ostentatious you may deem it at the moment. The carping about all that fuss and feathers stuff has provided a field day for the Yankee bashers, who hardly need an excuse. But it’s a momentary thing.

The Yankee ownership will smooth out the kinks, correct the errant sight lines, lessen the traces of vulgarity, modify the silly price structure, pacify hidebound characters who are still in love with the old stadium. These are minor issues. It’s all very doable. And in the end they will still have a $1.5 billion dollar plant, sturdy and implacable as the Rock of Gibraltar that will be just as viable in 50 years. How do you think Fenway Park will then compare?

It’s possible the Red Sox have made a huge mistake on the stadium issue. With the team’s great surge -- heightened by the recent championships -- combining with new ownership’s evident clout, there may have been a window of opportunity for the landing of a gem of a modern ballpark -- perhaps something on the order of a Camden Yards down by the waterfront -- with an agreeable combination of public and private financing and related amenities. It could well have been a sweetheart deal for the Town Team, with so many taxpayers being zealots of the bloody “Nation”.

It’s a window that may have been but briefly open. But given all the impetus the Red Sox have lately enjoyed it might have gotten done quickly had it been sought. Now, with the entire world having taken a 180-degree turn into an historic tailspin, you can forgetaboutit.

Did those so smart, Ivy League boys over at the old ball yard blow it? We’ll know for sure, in about 50 years.

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