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Love That Dirty Water

A beautifully illustrated tribute to Fenway and the Sawks.

By 4.15.11

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Why Fenway: Exploring the Red Sox Mystique
By John W. Ferguson ;
(
Triumph Books, 132 pages, $19.95)

New Englanders have the rep of being taciturn and unromantic. I've spent sufficient time there to judge that, taken all around, there's at least a little to this, as there is to most stereotypes (they don't just come out of nowhere, after all). But you'd never guess this by the way residents from south of Providence to north of Caribou have taken the Boston Red Sox to their allegedly flinty hearts.

It's said in New England that baseball is not a life and death matter, but the Red Sox are. The First Church of Fenway Park, an open-air temple snug in "the Fens" neighborhood of Boston, is one of the toughest tickets in the known universe. It would probably be as easy to get an audience with the Pope as to get four seats for a weekend series with the Yankees at Fenway (or with the Waukegan Wombats, come to that).

Ever-intimate Fenway has the smallest seating capacity of any big league ball yard at just 37K and change. But this doesn't take away from the remarkable string of consecutive sell-outs at Fenway that goes back to the early Part of W's administration. This loyalty hasn't flagged during the team's bewilderingly slow start this season.

And Sawks fans don't just pack Fenway. They show up in large numbers wherever the Sawks play, and let their sentiments be known fortissimo, giving rise to the expression Red Sox Nation. I'm convinced that if the Sawks played an exhibition game on the back side of Mars, little green guys with six eyes in their foreheads would show up in force and chant, "YOOK!!"

From first-hand experience I can report that baseball is an intense and savvy experience in Fenway as compared to other more laid-back venues. A fair fraction of Dodgers crowds in L.A. show up in the third, talk on cell phones until the seventh, then leave. By contrast, much of a Fenway crowd is on hand for pre-game batting practice. OK, they're not all paying attention to the hitters. There's much visiting, singing, beer drinking, and general skylarking going on. But everyone is in his upright and locked position for first pitch, and they cheer, groan, boo, and/or give unsolicited advice on every pitch right to the end.

Almost no one leaves, even after the game is over. There's plenty of time after nine innings to accompany the Standells on choruses of the Boston song, "Dirty Water." It's a wonder the ushers ever get anyone out of the park. A Fenway crowd is anything but taciturn.

So why should this small ball park, and a team that endured a hiccup stretching from 1918 to 2004 without a World Series victory, have such an emotional hold on New Englanders, a tough audience in so many ways? John W. Ferguson, who describes himself as an editorial photographer, attempts to answer these questions in what is essentially a coffee-table picture book.

About half the 132-page book is text, where Ferguson goes over the essential history of one of baseball's storied franchises, and what is to most minds the most iconic park in baseball (Yankee fans, your objections are noted). There's nothing new in Ferguson's history, and his writing is workmanlike. But those not versed in Sawks lore will learn of the early days of Fenway, which celebrated the beginning of its 99th season last weekend. 

Those who know the stories can cruise the text, while neophytes will learn how early Sawks owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees after the 1919 season for money to put on the musical "No, No, Nanette" on Broadway, an offense that still rankles in New England and is the source of the "Curse of the Bambino," finally exorcised in 2004.

The story continues through Ted Williams days and some forgettable fifties Sawks teams even Teddy Ballgame couldn't animate. There's the sad story of Tony Conigliaro, a local phenom whose promising career was cut short when he was hit in the eye with a fastball. There's the close-but-no-cigar years of '67, '75, and '86 where the Sawks took the Cardinals, Reds, and Mets to seventh games of exciting World Series but finally lost. There's the quintessential Sawks story of drama and heart-break when Bucky @#$%ing Dent (as he is known in New England) put an end to the Sawks' bizarre, up and down 1978 season.

Finally, there was the miracle of 2004. A wild card Sawks team staged the biggest comeback in professional sports history. After falling behind 0-3 to the Yankees (known in New England as The Evil Empire) in the ALCS, the Sawks ran the table, winning four straight against the Yankees for the American League pennant, then four straight against the Cardinals for the world championship that had eluded them since 1918. Undertakers and clergymen across New England reported exhausting work loads in late fall of 2004, sending off old-timers who had finally seen what they had been clinging to life to experience.

But Ferguson's main story in his worthy book is one he needs no words for. It's about a ball park and it's told in photographs. Spectacular photographs of a little green jewel that is a much a part of Boston as the Eiffel Tower is of Paris.

The manifold charms of Fenway are obvious, even to the most casual baseball fan. For aficionados of the Grand Old Game, Fenway is almost a holy site. One of Ferguson's chapter titles is, "I've Died and Gone to Fenway." Baseball people understand this and don't consider it exaggeration or sacrilege.

One of the most appealing aspects of Fenway is how close the fans are to the field. The playing surface is almost devoid of foul territory. The highly-tiered seats, that go almost to the foul lines, put fans within hearing distance of the players (not always an advantage if you bring the kids -- though in fairness they hear as bad or worse on nighttime TV). When lucky ticket holders come out of the tunnel into the stands they are met not only with the green of the grass but the Kelly green of just about everything else in Fenway, including the 37' Green Monster 315 feet from home plate in left field.

No symmetrical cookie-cutter yard, Fenway is nothing if not eccentric. The outfield varies from 309 feet down the right field line to 420 in right-center. The line of the outfield fence follows roughly the path you might run if someone were pursuing you with a Weed-Whacker, requiring outfielders to deal with more odd caroms than you'd get on a pin-ball machine.

Ferguson captures the color and charm of this baseball cathedral along with some fine shots of various Sawks players at work. The several aerial shots of a well-lighted Fenway glowing in the Boston night are by themselves worth the price of the book.

Casual baseball fans will find these photos pleasing. Sawks fans, or just fans of the exact kind of park God had in mind when, on one of His best days, He invented baseball, will experience moments of near ecstasy. I surely did.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.