March 17, 2010

Author hits in-the-park homer with 'Fenway'

LLOYD FERRISS

— By

There's no shortage of books about Red Sox mystique. ''Francona and Boston's Rise to Dominance'' and ''86 Years: the Legend of the Boston Red Sox'' are two of many.

But Michael Ian Borer's ''Faithful to Fenway'' is different. Its focus is the Sox's ancient ballpark that's been the team's home base for 95 years.

Borer is a sociologist as well as a diehard baseball fan. Drawing upon more than 100 interviews with players, team managers and many fans, he concludes that Fenway Park is more than a place where people come to watch baseball. It's a cultural icon for Boston, he writes, if not all of New England.

In a country where landmarks disappear with dismal regularity, the author shows how Boston's famed ballpark -- its left field wall affectionately dubbed the ''Green Monster'' -- provides permanence and stability amid rapid change.

''One of the measures of how well a culture works,'' he writes, ''is how well one generation passes its stories on to the next. Places help people tell their stories. Fenway Park helps Boston tell its story.''

The park was built in 1912. At the time it was one of many great early-20th-century ballparks built to host the emerging sport of baseball. Today, only two of the old structures remain: Wrigley Field in Chicago and Fenway in Boston.

In his book, Borer notes the many faults of the ballpark. Its seats are uncomfortable. Its infield is short in places because the park was shoehorned into an existing neighborhood when it was built. Depending upon where one sits, views of the game may be terrible.

At first glance, the love of Fenway Park is hard to understand, Borer writes. '''It is a place where a family of four can easily spend a week's pay to rub elbows, and knees, with strangers and eat boiled hot dogs wrapped in Wonder Bread.''

In explaining its allure, Borer sites the story of the Sox's 86-year losing streak attributed to the so-called ''curse of the Bambino.'' The Sox won the World Series in 1918 and, when the team sold Babe Ruth to the rival Yankees two years later, the curse allegedly took effect; unbroken until the Sox' World Series win in 2004, repeated in 2007.

Despite the many years without a series win (or perhaps because of it), the Sox have never been short of intensely loyal fans. And Borer's interviews with Fenway fans are highlights of his book.

''I just like seeing it and being near it when I come back here,'' a former Massachusetts resident told him. ''It's Boston; it ain't like anything else. It's home. My parents don't even live in the same house anymore. Luckily the Red Sox still do. Boston just wouldn't be the same without Fenway Park.''

If ''Faithful to Fenway'' has a fault, it is Borer's occasional lapse into sociology jargon. That's understandable in that he's a working sociologist who teaches in South Carolina. His book began as a dissertation, then morphed into a work for general readers.

Some passages need editing, and readers would probably be better served if ''Faithful'' had fewer than 263 pages, the last 40 of which are footnotes.

Still, it's an interesting book delightful for its Fenway history.

As Borer points out, Fenway has been a forum as well as a ballpark. Three days before he was elected to his fourth term as president, Franklin Roosevelt addressed 40,000 supporters at Fenway Park. Archbishop Richard J. Cushing held a Palm Sunday mass there in the 1940s. Barry Goldwater staged a rally there, as did Gene McCarthy in 1968.

The park also is used as a site for a Field of Dreams fundraiser that fuels a city antipoverty agency. Some fans are so in love with the park that they bring pocketfuls of dirt home from Fenway's infield.

One of the park's more unusual uses, the author notes, is its clandestine use as a final resting place for ashes of deceased fans, usually scattered by relatives.

Borer traces Fenway's close calls with the wrecking ball that came to a head in the 1990s. At the time, proposals ranged from radical redevelopment to razing the park and rebuilding it in New Hampshire.

Those controversial arguments were laid to rest in 2002 when former Florida Marlins owner John Henry bought the team and its stadium. The new management, especially Red Sox vice president of planning and development, Janet Marie Smith, appears committed to keeping the park.

Fenway Park has changed a bit since then, according to Borer. There are seats on the Green Monster, and more on the right field roof. Despite those changes, he calls the team's new ownership ''a blessing in disguise.''

Still, a diehard Red Sox fan I spoke with recently, a Westwood, Mass., resident who spends much of his summer at Fenway Park, says there's been plenty of change at the stadium since 2002, not all of it good.

Advertisements plaster Fenway's walls, he says, including the Green Monster. Roof seats and other modifications change the park's appearance, he contends. ''They didn't build a new park,'' he says. ''It's the same footprint. But nothing's the same.''

Be that as it may, America's oldest ballpark survives, even as it heads into its 96th year. Most readers of ''Faithful'' will likely agree with Borer that Fenway Park and other surviving public places help connect one generation to the next.

''The ways that people make sense of the world they live in '' he writes, ''are tied to cultural places like ballparks, museums, taverns, and soda shops.''

The author's point is well- made, his book a must-have item for Red Sox fans who champion their old stadium despite its uncomfortable seats.

Lloyd Ferriss is a writer and photographer who lives in Richmond.

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