Baseball parks have been described as "green cathedrals." Speaking to the lavish lawns of these fields as well as the special place that baseball holds in our culture (or that it once held before the NFL came along and knocked off MLB with a helmet to helmet hit), this description, however melodramatic it may be, seemed most apt when talking about Fenway Park.
Friday, April 20, 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the first Major League contest held at Fenway Park. Fittingly, the New York Yankees have shipped up to Boston for the occasion. This game echoes the Boston-New York matchup that christened the park on April, 20 1912, when the Sox knocked off the New York Highlanders, 7-6 in 11 innings.
While much ink has been spilt and countless keyboard keys tapped over this squat ballpark nestled between Landsowne Street and Yawkey Way , perhaps no one better expressed the way true believers feel about the space than John Updike as he chronicled the final game of Ted Williams in "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu."
Fenway Park, in Boston, is a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark. Everything is painted green and seems in curiously sharp focus, like the inside of an old-fashioned peeping-type Easter egg. It was built in 1912 and rebuilt in 1934, and offers, as do most Boston artifacts, a compromise between Man's Euclidean determinations and Nature's beguiling irregularities. Its right field is one of the deepest in the American League, while its left field is the shortest; the high left-field wall, three hundred and fifteen feet from home plate along the foul line, virtually thrusts its surface at right-handed hitters.
Williams first arrived at Fenway -- built over a landfill after the club's previous home, the Huntington Avenue Grounds, burned down -- for the 1939 season. The 'Splendid Splinter' was the game's finest hitting metronome and the last player to finish a season with a batting average above .400, a feat he accomplished in 1941. En route to his .407 mark for the season, the left-handed Williams raked at a .428 clip at Fenway. If he'd been right-handed and been able to pull balls off that famous wall out in left field, then could that mark have been even higher? Of course, perhaps the wall wasn't quite as an inviting a target during the summer of 1941 as it is today. The "Green Monster" wasn't painted green until 1947.
Fenway was already embroiled in its sixth seasons when Williams was born in San Diego in 1918. The first team to call the bandbox home captured the World Series crown thanks to the pitching of Smoky Joe Wood. In the year of Williams' birth, pitching would again lead to a World Series celebration at Fenway. Facing the Cubs in the Fall Classic that year, the Sox would take a 1-game-to-none lead in the best-of-seven set when a young pitcher named Babe Ruth twirled a complete-game shutout. Ruth would pick up another win as the Sox took the crown in six games.
A year removed from that championship season, the fourth for the team since the new park had been opened, Ruth was infamously traded to that club in New York. The left-handed Ruth would blossom into the finest left-handed hitter of all-time (or, at least, until Williams came along), lifting the Yankees to dynastic heights and sending the Sox into a tailspin.
Fenway was no longer the charmed home of champions. As the years passed and Williams' distant majesty gave way to the "Impossible Dream" of Carl Yaztremski, the championship drought continued. With no World Series banners to obscure the wrinkles and stretch marks, Fenway aged ungracefully. Saul Wisnia, author of Fenway Park, The Centennial: 100 Years of Red Sox Baseball told Molly Line of FoxNews.com that team owner Tom Yawkey considered moving the team out to the suburbs.
PHOTOS: 100 Years Of Fenway Park
As the Red Sox returned to prominence -- but never preeminence -- during 1980s and 1990s, the poor sightlines, cramped seats, and limited concession items became fodder for the nostalgia of fans who had grown up rooting for Williams or Yaz but hoped to see Roger Clemens or Nomar Garciaparra win them a World Series.
"I think walking up to Fenway is thrilling," sportswriter David Halberstam once said, per Deadspin (in the Fenway edition of "Why Your Stadium Sucks"). "The approach to it. The smells. You go to Fenway, and you revert to your childhood. You go to Fenway, and you think: 'Something wonderful is going to happen today.'"
Fenway became a fetish item for fans in New England, just as they came to embrace the underdog mentality born of the epic World Series drought. Nevertheless, the franchise announced plans for a new "Fenway" in 1999. Those plans -- and, eventually, that so-called Curse -- were put on hold in part because a pitcher was doing things at Fenway that harkened back to Wood's performance in the ballpark's infancy.
Pedro Martinez's 1999 season will forever be considered among the most dominant ever put together by a pitcher. The diminutive Dominican right-hander struck out 313 batters over 213.1 innings with an ERA of 2.07 and a record of 23-4. As Martinez mowed down hitters with ease over the next few seasons, a homegrown "Save Fenway" movement battled franchise ownership over the plan to build a new version of the park adjacent to the place where Wood and Clemens had once dominated and where Martinez was currently owning the American League.
The fans outcries, however, would prove rather quiet compared to their celebrations. After 85 seasons without being the last team to celebrate, Martinez, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz and the 2004 Red Sox finally got the job done, sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals in the '04 World Series (after Dave Roberts ignited their epic comeback against the Yankees with "The Steal" at Fenway). Just a few months later, the Sox announced that their would be no "new" Fenway.
The old park has since been given a facelift and fitted with all sorts of mechanisms to separate patrons from their dollars. Despite its modest capacity, Fenway is a cash machine for ownership and remains one of the toughest tickets in baseball. On the field, the Red Sox have added another World Series banner since that breakthrough in 2004. With a full century of history to draw from, Fenway certainly can go moment for moment with any sporting venue in the world.
Writing the foreword for Fenway Park: 100 Years, novelist and citizen of Red Sox Nation Stephen King did his best to sum up the way the fan base feels about its capital.
"There are good Red Sox teams and teams that aren't so good, but our ballpark is always the best. It's unique, and you can't really claim it until you've spent time there yourself, getting used to its agreeable strangeness. When you can talk about Canvas Alley and the Pesky Pole, it's yours. When you've seen your share of weird bounces in the left-field corner and watched the giant flag unfurl over the Green Monster a few times, it's yours."
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