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THE STATE OF THE GAME
Trash Fenway, Embrace Hypocrisy
By Tom Goldstein
Editor's note: As this issue went to press, the Red Sox were still lobbying Boston city officials and Massachusetts state legislators for a financing package that would enable the team to build a new baseball stadium adjacent to its longtime home, Fenway Park. If successful with their plan, the Red Sox would then demolish the old ballpark so that the land beneath it could be redeveloped as a hotel/restaurant "multiplex," some other type of entertainment venue, or a high density, multi-use building.
So it's official: The Red Sox want a $627-million stadium to replace Fenway Park, and they expect the public to chip in about $300 million toward the cost of the 44,000-seat ballpark. Apparently with a straight face, Sox GM Dan Duquette claims the team needs this extravagant new facility to "survive," and the politicians on Beacon Hill seem eager to give the Red Sox exactly what they want. Even Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, while reluctant to commit public funds, wants to find a way to "see the deal get done." And in the blink of an eye, historic Fenway gets trashed.
I'm just curious, but did anybody bother to ask the fans what they wanted? I know their opinions don't count for much these days. Certainly not to the Red Sox, anyway. After all, if the fans mattered, would the team abandon its longtime home, a place where baseball holds center stage, in favor of a new mallpark where ticket prices skyrocket, upper-deck seats stretch skyward, and baseball becomes a sideshow? Not likely.
Truth be told, the "new" Fenway won't be for the fans. The Red Sox desire a "baseball entertainment complex" that will give them a better chance to recruit new "customers"those newly minted yuppies and corporate snobs with little interest or knowledge of what takes place on the diamond, but the dough necessary to afford the high-buck luxury suites and club seats (and all the costly perks that come with them). When these upscale folks "do the Fen," cost is no object. And that's exactly the point: New "revenue streams" go directly to a team's bottom line, which is why the Indians recently sold for a $300-million profit and why the Orioles previous owner, Eli Jacobs, netted $115 million when he unloaded his team shortly after they began play at Camden Yards.
Oh, I know the Red Sox want you to believe otherwise. They hate to abandon Fenway, darn it, but the place has become "economically obsolete." Renovate? Nah, let's not get creative here. (I'm sure that the Sox gave it ten seconds of thought before dismissing the idea.) You know the mantrathe ballpark simply doesn't produce enough revenue to allow the team to compete. That's all Dan Duquette wants by the way: just a chance to bring the long-suffering people of Boston a World Champion-ship club. Sure it's going to mean sacrificing all that Fenway charm and intimacynot to mention the $300-million public contribution. But how do you put a price tag on exorcising the fabled "Curse of the Bambino"?
Governor Paul Cellucci doesn't. That's why he can offer the absurd argument that the state's proposed $82-million investment in two parking garages for the Red Sox (projected to yield $8 million per year for the team while generating a net annual loss of $3 million to taxpayers) will actually give the state a residual benefit thirty years down the road, when presumably the state will then be free to collect all parking revenues. Thirty years from now, who cares?
Like every team before them that's leveraged a new stadium, the Red Sox have simply dusted off the same phony arguments about ballparks producing all sorts of economic spinoffs and new business opportunities, not to mention a growth in jobs. That's why they want the legislature to approve this deal now, before some pesky office-holder calls for studies and hearings that will expose the team's grossly exaggerated pyramid scheme.
Not to worry. House Speaker Thomas Finneran has been kind enough to offer $100 million worth of infrastructure improvements for a new ballpark, somehow deeming such largesse an "appropriate role for the state." And local politicians don't seem much interested in the cold, hard facts anyway; they just want "assurances" that the public's quarter-billion-plus investment in a new stadium will produce a "satisfactory" return, whatever that means. With such "intense" public scrutiny, it's no wonder that longtime baseball fans have become resigned to Fenway's apparent demise. Why bother protesting if the elected officials are already in bed with the team's owners?
Before the state's political leaders sign Fenway's death warrant, however, they might want to ponder a few sobering facts: In Detroit, where the Tigers abandoned their classic 1912-era ballpark (with the closest upper-deck seats in baseball) for a "jazzy" new mallpark with fabricated outfield "quirks," almost 40 percent of the tickets have gone unsold in their inaugural season. In Arizona, where the Diamondbacks play in a "state-of-the-art" fortress, have a pennant-contending team, and feature baseball's premier left hander in Randy Johnson, attendance declined 18 percent last year during the club's second season.
Of course, none of this would happen in Boston, right? Arizona has no baseball tradition, and the Tigers are pathetic. Maybe so. But with Fenway Park reduced to rubble, the Red Sox won't have anything special to offer, either. All those tourists that the local pundits claim will flock to a "rejuvenated" Fenway neighborhood aren't going to plan a summer vacation around visiting yet another copycat retro park they can find in just about every major league city these days. And without the intimacy, the fabled Green Monster, the historic field, Pesky's Pole, and the colorful vendors that populate Landsdowne Avenue, Boston's just another baseball town.
The irony in all of this is that with so many teams now playing in new ballparks, another bidding war will soon erupt as more free-agent superstars come on the market, forcing salaries to ever-dizzying heights and again putting a revenue squeeze on teams' finances. Until after the 2001 season anyway. That's when baseball's current collective bargaining agreement expires, and some baseball people think the owners are willing to trash the entire 2002 season if that's what it takes to force a salary cap down the players' throats.
So picture this scenario: The Massachusetts legislature greenlights the new Fenway proposal, and the Red Sox begin construction of what is sure to become a $750-800 million boondoggle. The high-tech Boston economy finally begins to soften, and then boomthe 2002 season gets wiped out. No farewell tour for Fenway. Luxury suites fail to sell out, and personal seat license income lags far below projections. And those extra ten thousand distant upper-deck seats? Nobody wants 'em. Suddenly, the Red Sox can't pay for their new stadium, and as the Seattle Mariners faced with Griffey and Rodriguez, the team has to choose between Nomar and Pedro. Can you say "public bailout"?
But what do I know. Why should anybody care about an eighty-eight-year-old ballpark that has probably been the scene of more drama and excitement this century than any other place in New England? So what if Babe Ruth once pitched there and Ted Williams sprayed hits everywhere; it's just baseball. Plop Yaz's "Impossible Dream" 1967 season and Carlton Fisk's epic 1975 World Series homer in a place like Camden Yards or Jacobs Field, and you get the same thrill, right?
Yeah, Fenway's gotta go. World-class cities require shiny new buildings, places with class. Not decrepit old ballparks. You want history? Go to Europe. Looking for relics from baseball's past? Go to Cooperstown. You want hypocrisy? Come to Boston.
This column first appeared in EFQ 17:3, Summer 2000
TOM GOLDSTEIN is publisher of Elysian Fields Quarterly. This commentary
was submitted to the Boston Globe, which declined to publish it.
©2000 Tom Goldstein
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