Sunday, August 22, 2010

Friendly Fenway Park

Yes, it’s America’s oldest ballpark. Yes, it has the “Green Monster,” “Pesky’s Pole,” and other nooks and crannies that makes seeing a game at what John Updike called the “lyric little bandbox,” a memorial experience. But the thing that makes Fenway Park a truly great place is the people. And any conversation about the people of Fenway has to start with the ushers.

After attending a game at Fenway with standing room tickets on August 3, I’ve concluded that to be an usher at the historic ballpark you must meet the following criteria:

* Male;
* Retired;
* Irish;
* Catholic; and most importantly
* Good natured

I was attending the game with two minor (very minor) celebrities: “Fred Johnson” and “Disgruntle Guy” of the Fred Johnson Sports Show, an irregularly aired sports talk program on Live365 Internet radio. The good natured part of the ushers’ requirements came in handy as we wandered around the ballpark often in places where we shouldn’t be, asking silly questions and being in the way of others while taking pictures and video of our experience.

"Disgruntle Guy," "Fred Johnson" and Yours Truly

"Fred Johnson" and "Disgruntle Guy"

For example, we first entered the stadium behind home plate halfway into the first section of seats. It was a beautiful view. While showing the usher our tickets he pointed to the top of the first section and told us we could pretty much stand anywhere. Mr. Johnson asked the only question that mattered: “Is there beer up there?” The thin septuagenarian, wearing the official green shirt and khakis Fenway employee uniform, responded in a raspy voice from a bygone era: “Fenway Park without beer? Never gonna happen.”

The standing areas are marked “Standing” on the ground behind the last row of seats in the first section. We moved around a lot. At one point we found an empty space where we had a clear view of the field. I was taking pictures of the game and an usher came over and gave me some advice. The result is the opening picture. He then offered to take pictures of the three of us (the second picture). After that he politely told us we were in a “no standing” area. Mr. Johnson was inadvertently standing on the “No.” for “No Standing.” “I only let you stand there so you could take pictures,” the usher said.

Another usher moved us away twice from a no standing area. As we moved away to another section he said, “You’re making me work too hard.”

It turns out our experience wasn’t unique. The ushers and all other workers are old hands at dealing with tourists, locals, drunks, fanatics and every other kind of person that walks into the stadium. They are trained to be friendly and helpful. They do this for everyone and for everyone the game is an event.

You may have heard that the “Red Sox Nation” is a bit fanatical about their team. I’m here to tell you they are bat-shit crazy (look left). The Sheraton hotel where I stayed for four days looked like the headquarters of a Red Sox convention, with the lobby full of people wearing Red Sox hats, shirts and other “memorabilia.” If you wanted to strike a conversation all you had to do was ask is if they were going to the game today. This scene was played out in hotels all over the city, as fans from all over New England spent days in Boston happily pumping money into the city’s economy. An hour and half before the game the bars and restaurants around the stadium in the Back Bay neighborhood were alive with fans. People were lined up outside the Will Call gates and ticket entrances. The true measure of Red Sox fandom is that Fenway Park, as of August 9, has a streak of 742 consecutive sellouts dating back to May of 2003.

The game itself takes on the flavor of a rock concert or an evangelical church service. Cheers and applause are intensified as their sounds rattle around the metal beams, concrete and brick of the old building. Conversations naturally take on a louder tone. At the concessions beneath or behind the first section of seats it’s the same thing as excited people run in and out of the tunnels to their seats. The Italian sausage sandwich is the food of choice washed down with a Samuel Adams beer.

Fred Johnson Eats an Italian Pork Sausage Sandwich at Fenway Park

And it’s a democratic experience where everyone has access to all areas of the ballpark, unlike their arch rivals at Yankee Stadium where the high roller seats are separated with a chain from the rest of the rabble.

Yes, there was a ballgame that evening and it was good one. Beloved Mike Lowell, playing for the first time since June 22 and who was rumored to be the subject of trades, received a standing ovation for his first at bat and before the crowd had a chance to sit down drove the first pitch over the Green Monster for a two-run homer, driving the place into a state of bedlam.

After several questionable pitches at batters the benches cleared twice for a near brawl. The Red Sox won 3-1.

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