Fans are the heart of a real ballpark

MIKE LITTWIN

April 17, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

BOSTON -- Imagine the new Camden Yards ballpark as Colonial Williamsburg -- a loving restoration, a tribute to what was, an attempt to create a history that breathes. What's missing are grit and dirt and tears and life and death.

In baseball, you can still get real life. You can still get at the essence of the game. You can come to Fenway Park, age 71, for living history.

Sure, they've tried to touch up the old place. They've even got sky boxes stacked awkwardly atop the creaking structure, which is like parking a Maserati in front of the Roman Colosseum. Still, it doesn't ruin Fenway. You can't ruin the place.

There are certain things they can't take away from Fenway. What you have are people packed together, virtually on top of one another, virtually on top of the action, virtually as one with the players, and the ballpark and the people are very much a part of the game.

The Orioles players love what they have at Camden Yards -- a brand-new, amenity-rich, oh-so-comfortable ballpark that tries to suggest Fenway and Wrigley, but isn't quite either. It couldn't be. Not that Camden Yards isn't as beautiful. In a lot of important ways, it's more beautiful. And, if you believe the literature, they don't have rainouts in Camden Yards. Fenway lost a game last night after about 30 minutes of April snow.

But maybe that's part of what makes it so real.

"This is baseball," said Randy Milligan, surveying the scene at Fenway. "The fans are right on top of you, and they're on you the whole game, and you hear everything. There's the Green Monster. The volleyballs in the stands. It's fun to come here. It's not a job when you come to this ballpark. It's fun."

Brady Anderson was here for a while as a young player and didn't realize what he had.

"Every time I come back I appreciate it more," he said. "You just have to look at the place."

You look at the wall in left field that the Orioles copied, in miniature form, for their right-field wall. You look at the asymmetrical outfield -- like the one they have at Camden Yards -- except at Fenway, the design was no architectural whim. They squeezed Fenway into the space they had. The short porch in left that gave us the Green Monster is there because the ballpark runs into Lansdowne Street.

And so you mine poetry from Boston's streets. From time to time, someone talks about building a new place here, but you might as well build a new Old North Church. The money people saved smallish Fenway, with its 33,925 seats, by building those out-of-place sky boxes to help pay the bills. And the fans contribute by routinely selling the place out.

Economics doomed Memorial Stadium. In the name of progress and, yes, money, they put up lights at Wrigley, and it rained six hours the first time they tried to play a night game. Was that a message about progress vs. tradition?

Rick Sutcliffe pitched in that first night game at Wrigley. He also pitched in the first regular-season game at Camden Yards.

"Along with Wrigley, Fenway is one of the two great ballparks," Sutcliffe was saying. "You can just feel baseball here."

Sutcliffe pitched in Wrigley for years and has a love affair with the old place.

"People come to Wrigley, all jammed together, a big meeting place, and it's more than just a ballgame," Sutcliffe said. "It's an event. It's an event they hold 81 times a year. First, you have to find a parking space. Then you go to the souvenir shops. You get something to eat. It's not until the seventh inning when people really get into the game. And they stay the whole game. It's not like L.A., where they leave to beat the traffic. I've left Wrigley early when there were thousands of people in the streets outside who couldn't get a ticket. They just wanted to be there. After the game, people hang around, go to the bars. It really is an event."

The intimacy is what separates these places from the new stadiums. Sutcliffe tells the story of Bert Blyleven burping in a Wrigley dugout and a fan yelling, "Who did that?"

But it isn't simply design and it isn't simply intimacy that make Fenway and Wrigley special.

"I've been to Wrigley in December," Sutcliffe said, "and it's the most miserable place in the world. There's nobody there. There's no ivy on the center-field walls. It's just an old building.

"But in June, there's no place you'd rather be in the world. It's the people that make the difference, not the ballpark. That's what will happen in Baltimore. Everyone knows how great the fans are in Baltimore anyway, but in this new park, the people are going to make an atmosphere that's going to compare to Fenway."

All the new stadium has to do is last, say, another 70 years.

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