Fenway at 100

The Red Sox honored Fenway Park’s 100th anniversary by recreating as much of the ballpark’s 1912 debut as possible. Conveniently, their first opponent remains their rival today, though they had to morph from the NY Highlanders into the Yankees.

The game itself failed to duplicate Boston’s 100-year old win (Red Sox 7, Highlanders 6), but New York did score precisely the same number of runs in a 6-2 victory. Both teams wore throwback uniforms: gray for the Yankees with a splashy NY on the chest, and serene white shirts, pants, and hats for the Sox. No uniform shirts were besmirched with player names, or even numbers; the teams looked pleasantly casual, and Boston’s bright red bands on their high socks seemed exotically old-fashioned.

The first pitch was at 3:05 pm on a Friday, a time so inhospitable to viewership and advertising that the Sox are either remarkably pure in their homage to history or supremely confident that the money will follow them wherever they lead.

Of course, the money followed. Via TV, I joined those taking time off work on Friday, and the pre-game celebration launched me into observations on how baseball measures time.

The ceremony was simple. The Red Sox invited all living players who’d suited up for Boston to come to Fenway and stroll out of the big left field maintenance door to stand, once again, at their position on the field. The procession was not orchestrated as a parade, or in any order of ascending majesty, save for holding Carl Yastremski for the finale and starting off with Jim Rice.

The 216 players and coaches who appeared qualified solely by the credential of serving time on the team. Perhaps some winced when Jose Canseco was eager to take them up on their offer so he could strut to right field, flexing his biceps the whole way. And the host of players I couldn’t recognize by sight or place by name were there not to give me the little thrill of seeing a hero but the deeper knowledge that baseball is better characterized by the small successes and failures of dozens of journeymen than by Carlton Fisk’s delightful hopping up the first base line, willing the ball fair.

Click to see that hopeful hopping one more time.

But Fisk was there, of course, and a little flood of Fenway memories that I never bothered to inspect came roaring out. I’ve seen more games there than any other park, and I spent some of my most worshipful moments slinking down in the late innings to lurk behind the batter’s on deck circle, rapturously watching Fisk swing with the donut on, tap it off, stretch, and kneel to wait his turn.

Now, let’s not over-love Fenway. I’ve spent some games craning around an iron post, or retreating from the heat and humidity in the second deck by leaning out into the scant breeze accessible from the dimly lit concession area. The seats are skinny and hard, and the sight lines sometimes woeful.

But it was in Fenway Park that I once saw Pedro Martinez pause, pace, mutter, and sink down to a crouch on the mound briefly. He was in a typical pitcher’s jam, and it was the Yankees that got him there to boot. His fastball wasn’t much that night. He was on the ropes. He raked his hand through the dirt a couple times and then he simply willed himself to roar back at them. I remember staring at him, and wishing he could do just that, unlikely as it seemed. I remember staring at him composing himself in the least private place on earth, the pitcher’s mound in the middle innings of a Red Sox-Yankee game, and if there is a collective intelligence that forms in crowds, when he stood back up he drew our need from us and packed it inside that baseball and threw it for a strikeout.

I’ve felt the crowd in Fenway at other times too. Something pulses, connecting us all, and if Fred Lynn manages to convert it into a home run, or Nomar Garciaparra into a single, or Dustin Pedroia into a sac fly, well, you can’t deny you had something to do with it. You sat right there, rooting, with nothing but this moment on your mind.

Today as the former players and coaches began dotting the diamond in their Sox jerseys, we were watching little collisions in the dimension of time. There was more than a moundful of pitchers, a battalion of catchers, and an especially dense crowd at second base, where Bobby Doerr held court as the player with the longest reach back into Fenway’s past: he started his career in 1937.

But one of the clearest statement’s of Fenway’s history came from the much smaller pool collecting in left field. Yes, there’s some recent clutter there, but the Red Sox have a true Shaker elegance in the lineage from 1939 to 1989: Ted Williams (through 1960), Carl Yastremski (61 to 74), and Jim Rice (to 1989). I still prize this piece of trivia: Rice was succeeded by Mike Greenwell, pretty much breaking the spell.

In sports, one aspect of time turns backward. Each spring it’s a new wave of players—I can age, but the starting shortstop need not. But on Fenway’s warm field today, we looked back and saw many of the men who’d taken that field. I realized how long I’d been watching baseball, and how the Red Sox had been the team that drew me back to it, once I moved from Ohio to New England. Suddenly I’m shocked to realize how long it’s been since Dwight Evans (Dewey!) was rocketing the ball back in from right field, or Wade Boggs was eating pregame chicken before manning third. These and other players are now my collection of antiques, unimaginably distant for the modern fan, endlessly comforting those whose baseball investment is measured in decades.

This afternoon we all gaze on the powdery green walls of Fenway, projecting ourselves back in time and trying to grasp what it means for a place to have contained so much. The players summoned today are only a subset. This field has held hundreds more, and just to try to imagine all the games played half hurts, half overjoys.

The Red Sox mingle recent history with their deepest past by having their most recent retirees Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield pilot the wheelchairs Doerr and Johnny Pesky now require. Here I pause to think what ending a sports career must feel like. Yes, you’re invited back; yes, you can wear your World Series ring or tote whatever other memorabilia you’ve acquired. But what looks like a pretty pageant to me this afternoon has to have its wistful side for the men on the field.

No matter how magnificent the athletic accomplishment, the simple fact that you have to live so many years after it’s occurred is a bit harrowing. What does the future look like to, say, Jason Varitek? He may be able to keep a nice glow of money and fame about him, but presumably the new things he has to hope for pale beside the past.

Sports always makes a taunting little jab at death because it celebrates youth and physical power. We watch, and we age, and the players—effortlessly young—enliven us. But in this arc of entertainment, the players are consumed. We cheer, we offer as much devotion as possible, but we replace them one by one.

The field at Fenway is finally filled with chatting, milling ballplayers. And then the members of the current team spring from the dugout and trot to their positions, joining their predecessors in crowds clotting each base and outfield spot. What is today is superimposed, literally, on what is yesterday. The tunnel of time becomes, briefly, a cascade of sparks. Fireworks blazing, burning out, and glowing on in memory.

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