Time to Replace Fenway Dearest

Originally published April 9, 1998, by Mike Barnicle for The Boston Globe

 All week long, legions of workers have been busy putting a fresh face on an old friend in anticipation of an annual event that sends millions of New Englanders into short-term spasms of frenzied optimism. So, yesterday, five 18-wheelers were lined up in an on-deck circle along Yawkey Way, unloading Papa Gino’s kitchen equipment, Dove bars, hot dogs and Coca-Cola because, tomorrow, it all begins again with the return of baseball and the Olde Towne Team.

Tomorrow, the park will be filled with faces that will rarely return until — or unless — the club turns the corner of September as contenders. You could fit a front-running Opening Day crowd’s appreciation, knowledge, and respect for the actual game being played into a Hoodsie cup.

It’s a day when Fenway is home to dabblers, dilettantes, and event groupies who attend to be seen or to simply say they were there. A lot of seats are occupied by “suits” who show up in the second inning and leave after seven.

Unfortunately, the future of Fenway — along with the entire Kenmore Square area — now seems to be in danger of falling into the hands of well-intentioned groups absolutely no different than those who push through the turnstiles on Opening Day: Clueless, self-appointed saviors of a tradition that happens to be sinking into the soil.

No doubt about it, the old ballyard is a wonderful sight and a magnificent destination. It is a marriage of history and geography that occurred in an earlier, easier time.

But it has to be replaced.

Eyesight alone provides a litany of reasons: The park is located on landfill due to the fact the whole Back Bay used to be a swamp. So the foundation, bearing the weight of years of renovation, cannot support additional construction. The cement cracks anew each season. The beams and everything else, inside and out, have to be painted regularly in an effort to keep it from becoming an eyesore. Fenway’s cosmetic bill is almost as much as the tab for Elizabeth Taylor’s mascara.

Anybody who claims Fenway can be rebuilt from the ground up around the existing facility qualifies for a slot in an asylum. While anything is possible, the construction cost would be prohibitive, perhaps $400-$500 million.

Who’d pay? And where would the team play while the site was razed and rehabbed?

Right now, season ticket holders shell out $2,000 to $5,000 to sit in chairs once used in a POW facility. That’s because the place was designed when the average person was no bigger than Mickey Rooney and weighed less than Tara Lapinski. Get some fat guy squeezed in next to you and you’re not a fan, you’re a hostage.

That gets us to the absurd claim that Fenway cannot be touched because it is a baseball mecca, a place people come to for its ambience rather than for the activity on the field. What preposterous nonsense.

The vast majority go to see baseball. To see the Red Sox. To see Vaughn, Garciaparra, Martinez, and players like Junior Griffey, Cal Ripken, and Mark McGuire, now in another league.

Certainly, quaint rustics from White River Junction, Vt., or Auburn, Maine, are willing to drive down once a summer to look at The Wall but the bulk of customers arrive because they are fans, not architects or historians. It’s the game, stupid!

Predictably — given the infectious disease of parochialism that afflicts this area — we are now told that Fenway Park is the equivalent of the Pyramids, kind of a Freedom Trail with a roster that couldn’t outrun Paul Revere or outhit Sam Adams.

But this is a case where old doesn’t mean better. And new doesn’t mean bad.

It might come as a shock to some to realize that Lake Quinsigamond in Worcester is not the Pacific Ocean, that there are other metropolitan areas just as sophisticated as Boston where modern, comfortable ballparks not only have been built but also have helped revitalize the cities around them. Go to Jacobs Field in Cleveland or Camden Yards in Baltimore, attractive evidence for the argument that a town can still improve itself around a leaderless sport too often floundering in the past.