Date: Saturday April 13, 2002
Through the Yards to the Field, All Paths Lead Back to Fenway
The game at Baltimore's Camden Yards was great, but nobody came. There were perhaps 15,000 fans for an inter-division contest on a crisp, sunny Saturday afternoon. The upper deck was mostly empty. For a park which was once baseball's new small gem, that was depressing. There were plenty of Sox fans - perhaps a solid fifth of those sitting near us were wearing Sox caps or jackets. Missing were the Hometown Fans, the massive Saturday game numbers of kids and dads and retired box-scorers and loose teenage girls...the people who show up to care or not care about the game itself, the kind of crowd Fenway can draw for a chilly, early season night game. Perhaps they were at the office or washing their cars or at the Mall or tuning in on radio while doing something more important. But they weren't at the game.
I live in another town a continent away where baseball is bright and friendly. On city jogs, I stride past the green steel and freshly pointed brick of Safeco Field, that proud new peacock of a park just off Elliot Bay - complete with Seattle high-tech retractable roof. Safeco hosts a wonderfully talented team, a steady "G" rating and a swelling and committed legitimate role models. Mine is a feel-good baseball town, more "The Rookie" than "The Natural." The place is still too young and smart for the Buckners and Bucky Dents, the Babe and Roger. History lies ahead for Mariner fans, malleable, unknowing, open to an uncertain destiny. There is yet no mud in this Mudville.
And that's the problem. In Seattle and, at least for one Saturday, in Baltimore -- like so many baseball cities with new money, new fans and new parks -- something is missing.
Fan-starved Camden and bright-shinny-new Safeco got me thinking about Fenway Park. The old joint is unsuited for modern, amenity-driven fans. In a sport now drenched with inning-ending high fidelity pop music and digital video displays, Fenway's narrow, swelling isles and obstructed view seats are painful anachronisms. In the new stadiums seventh inning dessert trays roll through carpeted corporate boxes. At Safeco, even cheap-seat fans can enjoy distractions like microbrews, teriyaki and a kiddie playground. But once you wander out of your seat and into the bowels of Fenway, you enter another world, a bacterium's paradise - dark, wet and unsanitary.
Seattle and Baltimore also got me thinking about the Red Sox. Nearly every year they sport a hyped April Dream Machine that degenerates into an October Heartbreak. But they fill the century-old seats. And year after disappointing year, they still manage to beat at least half the teams they play. Even the team's perennial front office/clubhouse tumult has a certain grimy predictability about it. It builds with the heat of the season and typically breaks out in time for lazy, late summer beach gossip.
By contrast, there are no baseball scandals in Baltimore - nobody cares enough to give them life. Seattle scandal is reserved for grunge bands and software monopolies. It does not come to the ballpark.
Fenway IS a wreck. But it could be Safeco, where nobody throws beer or punches beach balls, where no history haunts the field. It could be Camden, where ushers wear pasted smiles and urge fans to cheer for a cheerless team...and where nobody comes to the ballpark.
And the Sox ARE tragic. Each spring they tease us with unfulfilled talent. They prove unworthy of our prayers, but nearly every season the city still lunges from a baseball pivot between July hope and September futility.
But they could be the Mariners, a team too young for fate. They could be the Orioles, a team too diminished to care.
In Baltimore everybody gets along. They don't expect to win. Wins are cake icing. Mediocrity fails to inspire, just as it fails to outrage.
In Seattle everybody gets along. Last year, when a serious playoff team, the Yankees, came to town and chewed the place up, the previously high-flying Mariners quietly deflated - without recriminations, without firings, without collective anger, without team guilt. The team and the city just put the bats and balls away and casually said to each other, "See ya next year!" It was all terribly detached. And unimaginable in a passionate baseball city like Boston. In Bean Town, fans and sportswriter bicker all season long, by September players and coaches have entered the fray. By the end, everybody has a hand on somebody's throat. That's the way it's done.
And perhaps that's what's missing elsewhere. As the late Bart Giammatti reminded us, "The game will break your heart." For Sox fans, the fall will break your heart. That's the way it's supposed to be: Shoeless Joe disappearing into the late afternoon cornstalks, just when you need him most. You can't buy that ticket in Seattle, where fans breezily root for a trend, not a tradition. And except in New York, where history marches triumphantly onward, cloaked in glory, most baseball winning is just that: a new trend. Like its glorious big brother, Yankee Stadium, Safeco is, for now, a winning house, not the home of the game we keep coming back to to have our hearts broken.
That game is still played in a crummy park backed against the interstate in an old Boston neighborhood called Fenway.
Kevin Wrege (4.6.02: Boston @ Baltimore)