When it comes to sports, in America, there is a city that tends to stand above all others, and it’s called Boston. It is due to the success of its sports teams and the intense bond that this city has with them (a bond more important than blood, I wrote once).
The place where Bostonians love spend their days is certainly one: Fenway Park – home of the Boston Red Sox. This is due to the proximity with the downtown of the city (it can be reached in a few minutes of subway or a short and pleasant walk). But also because Red Sox are effectively the sport team most loved by the people of this town, the closest to the soul of its citizens. Last, but not least, it is because at Fenway has been made the history of baseball, so the history of America.
Today I am proud to introduce you to the history of this place, this team, and this town, through the words of Mark Chekares, senior baseball writer at Guy Boston Sports. You can listen him also on his podcast dedicated to the Red Sox, that you can find on Balls Deep Red Sox Podcast or subscribing to on iTunes.
Question: Tell us how you became a fan of the Red Sox. Of course, you’re from Boston area, but what touched you especially about this team?
Answer: I became a fan of the Red Sox initially when I was about three years old and my parents and grandmother took me to my first game at Fenway Park. It was a night game, and we had seats directly behind home plate. I don’t remember much about the game, but the Red Sox won and I remember falling asleep around the seventh inning.
Also, my mother would watch the games every night on Channel TV 38 WSBK Boston with Ned Martin and former Sox catcher Bob Montgomery commentating. I distinctly remember when I was around five years old crying my eyes out watching a game with her because Jim Rice popped out to left field with runners on base. The Red Sox would’ve won the game. I was devastated. Meanwhile, it was a meaningless game in like May or June or something. I guess I was hooked. My passion was solidified during the 1983 season which was Carl Yastrzemski’s last season. I watched pretty much every game and attended his final game.
I think was initially resonated with me about the game was the uniforms. They were so crisp and white. I loved the iconic “B” on the Red Sox’ hat. And once I started playing baseball myself, I was obsessed. And the field was so green.
But it was definitely my parents who got me hooked. My mom would watch and my dad always had to get up early for work, but he would play catch with me after school almost every day, sometimes even in winter. My father worked in Boston, so we were around the park a lot.
Q: About Fenway Park, what made this ballpark not only so loved by Bostonians, but the “America’s most beloved ballpark”?
A: As far as Bostonians go, the park is revered because it’s essentially a historical landmark. It’s been around forever, through several generations. I remember my grandmother, who passed away in the mid-eighties telling me stories of seeing Babe Ruth play at Fenway. For me, every time I went to the park I thought about all the greats that had graced the diamond; Ruth, Williams, Smoky Joe Wood, Jimmy Foxx… it was like a living museum to me. And like most Bostonians, I enjoy the fact that Fenway being nuzzled in a residential neighborhood gives it infinitely more charm than many stadiums that are plunked in the middle of a parking lot on the outskirts of a major metropolitan area.
Interestingly though, as I got older and more independent, Fenway lost a little bit of its luster. By the late ’80s and through the ’90s the Park started to get really shabby. The concession situation was a nightmare. Long lines for food and bathrooms. You’d miss a lot of the game. Handrails were rusted and things were just decaying… literally. Then in 1993, the Baltimore Orioles opened Camden Yards, a retro-style ballpark that was more personal and quirky than the cookie cutter two-sport concrete behemoth stadiums built in the ’60s and ’70s. Camden Yards was gorgeous. Old-school feel with modern amenities. Fenway had the Old-School feel because it was. old. It lacked modern sensibilities under the grandstands.
In about the year 2000, the former Red Sox ownership planned on building a New Fenway Park across the street from Fenway’s current location. There was a lot of pushback from Bostonians. There was a group called “Save Fenway Park” and their bumper stickers could be seen all over New England. Looking back, I actually wanted them to build the New Fenway. I was working for a construction magazine called Engineering News-Record and I covered the project. The new stadium would retain the charm and intimacy of a 35,000 seat ballpark, but it would include better seating, concessions, and fan experiences. Then, in 2002 John Henry’s Ownership Group bought the team and immediately started making Fenway about the fans. They put seats on the Green Monster, the Right Field Roof Boxes, and expanded seating in left field. They improved restrooms and concessions and repainted most of the ballpark. They shut down streets outside of the park and basically expanded Fenway into a street party. People love Fenway because it evokes nostalgia. John Henry kept the nostalgia alive, but also made the stadium functional again so that even more generations will enjoy it. John Henry essentially saved Fenway Park.
Q: How you would like to describe a typical day at the Fenway? For example I know it is played “Sweet Caroline,” but you have more to tell us about it? What made special a day here?
A: I feel as if I should address this right away… I hate “Sweet Caroline.” I mean, I get it… It brings together 40,000 fans and everyone sings and it’s cute. But when the Red Sox are down by five runs and have been playing like shit, the last thing I want to do is to sway back and forth and sing “So Good, So Good, So Good” with a bunch of strangers. I think “SC” panders to the casual fan. I’m more focused on the game.
But generally, a typical day at Fenway is awesome. The city is abuzz with people wearing their Red Sox gear, and as soon as you cross the bridge from the Kenmore T-Stop or enter Lansdowne St. from the back end the waft of grilled meats hits your nostrils and that’s when you know you’ve finally arrived. There are several drinking establishments around the park that are packed to the hilt, often times spilling onto the sidewalks and outside eating areas. People are genuinely happy. Boston being a college town, so many young 20 somethings go there to party or even bring their dates there. My first date with my wife was at Fenway.
Baseball is unique in that. It is the only one of the four major American sports played in the summer. So it’s warm, people are lubed up with beer, and can sit in the sunshine and watch a bunch of guys play a kids game. Nothing better.
Q: About the attacks at the Boston Marathon in 2013, do you think that the Red Sox games helped the city to rise again? The words of David Ortiz still resonates in my mind today.
A: Marathon Monday or Patriot’s Day as it is officially called is a Massachusetts state holiday. Literally millions of people pour into the city to celebrate the Marathon. The Red Sox always play a home game that day, and it starts at 11 AM, the same time the race starts. It is an extremely festive day in the city, and one of my favorite holidays of the year.
I was looking forward to going to the game and afterward heading down to the finish line to see my daughter’s Godmother, who was running the 26.2 miles for the first time, cross the finish line. But I had an infant son in 2013 and decided I would stay home to help my wife with the baby. I watched the game on TV and then ran to the store to grab some diapers or something. I was listening to a local sports talk station in my car, and they were breaking down the game and talking a bit about the race. I ran into the store, grabbed some stuff, got back in my car and all I heard was “bodies everywhere… blood on the sidewalks… people missing limbs.” I was like, what the fuck is going on? I raced back to my house and turned on the news, and that’s when I saw everything: the smoke, the blood, the wounded. Naturally, I felt sick to my stomach and started making phone calls. I didn’t find out until about an hour later that my friend and her family were OK.
A few days later, when the Red Sox returned to action, they were wearing special home uniforms that said “Boston” on them, instead of the usual “Red Sox.” It was a galvanizing moment for the city, region, and country. Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks tweeted out #bostonstrong and the slogan stuck. Davis Ortiz made his famous “This is Our Fucking City” speech, and really pumped everyone up after an act of sheer cowardice killed two young women and a little boy.
Shortly after the Ortiz speech, I got a text from my brother. “They’re going to win the World Series now. Watch.” He was right. He called it. And honestly, that was probably the least talented Red Sox team to win it all. They willed themselves to that victory. They did it for the whole city, not for themselves. They were exactly what the region needed to heal, and those bearded weirdos pulled it off. Seeing them put the World Series trophy at the finish line during the World Series parade still gives me chills. That is why sports are so important.
Q: Let’s talk about 2004 season. How do you recall those playoffs for the Red Sox? And that famous Game 4 at the Fenway that kept Red Sox alive? There was this feeling that this time was different, that the Red Sox could beat the destiny. You know, “Keep the faith” and “Believe in Boston.”
A: Boston is a blue collar, working class town. Plain and simple. There’s very little pretension amongst its citizens. We’re a hard hat and lunch pail type of city. And what outsiders don’t understand is that our recent 18-year sports domination was well earned.
Until 2004, The Red Sox hadn’t won a championship in 86 years and had only been to four. The Patriots were the laughing stock of the NFL for well over 35 years. Their old stadium was worse than a Texas high school’s facility. The Bruins were mired in a 30-year Stanley Cup drought themselves, and the Celtics, the last relevant team in the city hadn’t done anything for 16 years.
But I mean, I watched every Patriots game in the ’80s when they were getting their heads pounded in. I had Celtics season tickets in 1999 when they won nineteen games. 19! The 1986 Red Sox, who were one strike away from winning it all, ripped out my heart to the point I was crying like a fool on the floor. But we just keep watching and rooting, because our people never give up. It’s just not in our DNA to quit. Ask the British.
New York and LA to me have more of a gigantic international metropolitan urban feel to them. LA has Hollywood and cinema; New York has Broadway and theater. Boston has hospitals, colleges, and dudes driving pickup trucks with tool boxes in the back. Boston is more like a neighborhood. Plus LA and NY have two teams in each major sport. Loyalties are divided. Not so in Boston.
2004… Amazing. Full disclosure: I had absolutely zero faith that the Red Sox were going to beat the Yankees that year. No team had ever come back from a 0-3 deficit like that. My wife and I were at game four, but we both had to work the next day, so we left the game shortly after midnight. I was in my car a few blocks away from the park when Ortiz hit the game-winning home run. Then, they won the next night in a similarly dramatic fashion with yet another clutch hit from Ortiz. Then they won game six at the hostile confines of Yankee Stadium. Usually, in these circumstances, I try to be pragmatic. I thought: ”They’re doing it again. They’re fucking with us. They’re taking this series to a game seven. They’ll be ahead by a few runs, but then in the eighth or ninth, they’re going to blow it again” just as they had done the year before when they lost in extra innings on a homer by Aaron Boone. They blew it in ’75, ’78, ’86, and ’03 (just to name a few. There were others, believe me).
But honestly, I felt really confident going into Game 7. I had a feeling that this group wasn’t spooked by the ghosts of dead Yankees. The ’04 Sox won because they played loose. Once they beat the Yankees and took the first two from the Cardinals, I knew that it was over. I watched game four with my dad and some close friends. It was surreal. I went to a local bar after Keith Foulk made the last out to celebrate and strangers were kissing strangers, grown-ass men hugging and crying. It was something. I’ll never forget looking at a buddy of mine just staring at the TV as chaos enveloped around him. He couldn’t believe it. I don’t think he looked away from the TV all night. Work the next day was brutal. I slept a grand total of zero seconds that night. Worth it.
Q: About the rivalry between Boston and NY, what made it so intense according to you?
A: The best player in the history of the game, Babe Ruth, was a dominant pitcher for the Red Sox. The Red Sox’ owner at the time, Harry Frazee was trying to fund some Broadway play and sold him to the Yankees. He went on to be the best player in the history of the sport, and the Yankees went on to win 26 Championships to the Red Sox’ 0.
The rivalry between Boston and New York is a classic case of Big Brother Vs. Little Brother. New York is the big brother who had tortured and beaten the shit out of us for close to ninety years. Plus, geographically it’s really close to Boston, so fans from both teams trickle into the opposing teams’ territory frequently.
Growing up, I definitely had an inferiority complex regarding the Yankees. We were jealous. And any Sox fan who says otherwise is lying. Luckily, Little Brother took his vitamins, started hitting the gym, and finally has beaten up Big Brother for a change. From a players’ perspective, the rivalry is at its best when the players hate each other. There was the A-Rod brawl in ’04 and the Joe Kelly-Tyler Austin melee last year. Those types of brawls get the fans engaged. Aaron Judge playing Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” after winning a playoff game last October was a really dumb thing to do. It pissed off the Red Sox to no end. After they beat the Yankees on their field, they played it in the clubhouse as they sprayed champagne and beer on each other. Psychological warfare at its best.
Q: As far as you can remember, which is been your best day and the best memory at the Fenway?
A: My best general memories of Fenway was going to Opening Day every year with my father. We started the tradition in 1985. Besides a few years when I coached high school baseball, I never missed an Opening Day with my dad. He loved skipping work and pulling me out of school to attend the game. It’s like a regional holiday. He passed away in 2011, but I take my kids now so they’ll have the same fond memories of baseball as I do.
Specifically, the greatest game I ever saw at Fenway was Game 6 of the 2013 World Series when the Red Sox won at home. I have a necklace with my father’s ashes in it. I wore it that day so he’d be with me. The atmosphere around the stadium that day was palpable. Like you could cut it with a knife. The Sox had won in ’04 and ’07, but both victories came on the road. The people were pumped to see a championship at home, and the Sox delivered. Some other great moments were Derek Lowe’s no-hitter in 2002, Manny Ramirez’ walk off home run during the playoffs in ’07, and Game 2 of the World Series this past season. Also, I’ve seen Paul McCartney play Fenway a few times which was unbelievable.
Q: As last question, tell us what made the Boston Red Sox the best team in baseball.
A: What made the Red Sox the best team in baseball last season? Alex Cora, their manager. The Red Sox are a relatively young team, and their former manager John Farrell was allegiant to older, seasoned veterans. He had a tough time communicating with the younger guys and put a lot of pressure on them to win. One player remarked that Farrell would treat a Tuesday night game in May against the Royals feel like Game 7 of the World Series. You can’t keep that tension up for 162 Games. So when Cora took the helm, the team loosened up, had fun, and delivered the hardware in the process.