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Fenway Park: The mystique lives on in Boston's Back Bay

Cracker Jack

While most New Englanders played the part of sunshine soldiers (the October variety and basked in the success of the Patriots last Sunday, nearly 20,000 Red Sox faithful scattered themselves about sunbathed Fenway Park to watch the Sox defeat Baltimore and close their long, painful 1976 season.

"Will we see the World Series here, Daddy?" a young boy with a gritty face, tousled hair and a Pirates hat (an eight-year-old Bill Mazeroski, maybe) asked his father in the center-field bleachers. "You'll see the World Series on TV," the man replied matter-of-factly. "They're not playing it here this year."

And that's a pity, for Fenway is a delightful anachronism in a baseball world that has been vulgarized in recent years by the construction, in places like Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Kansas City, of monstrous concrete-and-plastic ballparks.

Fenway is a magnetic old arena, with its 33,368 wooden seats wedged around the grass playing surface at a dozen different angles. "Fenway Park," John Updike once wrote, "is a lyric little bandbox of a ball park. Everything is painted green and seems in curiously sharp focus, like the inside of an old-fashioned peeping-type Easter egg." Fenway represents the essence of the game: its powerful, alluring character has drawn millions of New Englanders inside the confines of its red-brick walls summer after summer for the last six decades.

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Although descriptions of Fenway Park vary, nearly all try to capture its quality of excitement. Sports Illustrated once characterized it as "a jewel of a place" and "all you ever wanted in a ball park--and less." Former Boston Globe sportswriter Peter Gammons called it "mad, sensuous Fenway."

On game days, the atmosphere is electric for blocks around the park. The dirty Back Bay sidewalks are dappled with souvenir stands boasting the Sox' bright red and navy colors. The shrill cries of peanut and hot dog vendors fill the air. Amidst this street carnival, the fans dodge the traffic and each other as they converge on Fenway, swarming past the hawkers, the tall red brick facade and through the turnstiles.

Inside, the place has an intoxicating effect. After you emerge from a short concrete tunnel, the lush green turf immediately dazzles the eye. Not only does it provide a beautiful natural stage for the players, but it also has a rich smell that can make fans feel as if they are on the field. With the limited number of seats packed tightly around the field, even a bleacher fan can sense an intimacy with the game.

To the left of the centerfield bleachers stands the awesome left-field fence. Rising 37 feet from the ground and standing just 315 feet from home plate, it can transform routine pop-ups into home runs and rising line drives into mere singles. Mostly out of reverence (as opposed to either love or hate), the huge metal structure is nicknamed "The Green Monster." With it have ridden the bright-eyed hopes of right-handed sluggers, the greatest fears of southpaw pitchers, and a good deal of the suspense which comprises the Fenway mystique.

Although Fenway is a beautiful physical plant, it is nevertheless not its own excuse for being. It was created because of the game, and it is the game that makes Fenway great. Baseball is the national pastime; it captures the hearts of Americans from the period of optimistic hope in April through the scorching dog days of July and August, before climaxing gloriously in early autumn. At Fenway, the golden game of summer is played as it should be played--on grass (not the awful synthetic stuff), in a hard-nosed style, and, despite the presence of the new electronic scoreboard, without a lot of gimmicks or fanfare.

Too good to be true, you say? I'm being too sentimental about the old place? Maybe, but just about everyone who has been there will testify that it's one exciting place. The combination of the Green Monster with the dynamic character of the park makes every game seem like a steamcooker threatening to explode each time it hisses. With every pitcher's delivery, with every crisp crack of the bat, a rally threatens. Indeed, the park's history is dotted with outbreaks of the improbable.

In one 1961 contest, the Red Sox were trailing 12-5 with two out in the bottom of the ninth. The handful of stragglers who had been wise enough (foolish enough?) to remain saw the Sox score eight runs and pull out a miraculous 13-12 victory.

In his last major league appearance in 1959, Ted Williams drilled a line drive into the right-field bullpen for a home run, capping one of the greatest careers either the park or the game had ever seen. The crowd erupted in hysteria; but, then, this was mad, sensuous Fenway.

Perhaps the Fenway magic was captured--or portrayed, rather, since it may be impossible to capture--best in the sixth game of last year's World Series, a contest that Globe columnist Ray Fitzgerald described as "a Beethoven symphony played on a patch of grass in Boston's Back Bay."

The symphony began in the first inning, when Fred Lynn smashed a three-run homer over the right-field bullpen, just past the spot where Williams had hit his final blast. The Reds hit a few forte notes themselves, though, and by the seventh inning they held a 6-3 lead to go with their 3-2 lead in the Series.

In the eighth, the Red Sox staged a desperation comeback. With two on and two out, pinch hitter Bernie Carbo strode to the plate and, well, you know the rest of the story. With two strikes and more than a few tons of pressure on him. Carbo drove a Rawly Eastwick fastball deep into the center-field bleachers, tying the game. The unlikely Fenway crescendo had exploded again.

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