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Red Sox Nation On The Brink

Notes from a strange Opening Day at Fenway

Baltimore Orioles (10) Vs. Boston Red Sox (9) at Fenway Park (Opening Day 2023) Photo by Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The very first jersey I saw after I walked up the ramp into the seating bowl at yesterday’s Opening Day game against the Baltimore Orioles was . . . a brown and yellow #2 San Diego Padres jersey with “Bogaerts” written on the back.

Granted, between the trip on the Green Line, the walk to the ballpark, and a quick stop at the Bullpen Bar, I saw hundreds of jerseys that weren’t subtweeting the Red Sox front office, but still, that jersey was somewhat representative of the happy that baseball is back but sort of skeptical vibe in the stands yesterday.

This was my first Opening Day experience, so I don’t have anything to measure it against, but the fact is that yesterday didn’t quite feel the way that I imagined Opening Day would. The biggest culprit in that regard was probably the weather. Here’s roughly how every single conversation in the stands began:

“Hey, how’s it going?”

“Hey, I’m fucking cold.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“Yeah, it’s cold.”

“Right. Cold.”

It really wasn’t too bad in the sun-splashed bleachers, but the rest of the ballpark was miserable, and it’s hard to generate the type of giddy excitement I expected in that weather. Chris Sale starting instead of Corey Kluber probably would have helped.

What didn’t help, though, were the empty seats. This wasn’t merely a case of tickets that had been purchased going unused, either: Sections 1-4 in the right field grandstand (easily the worst seats in the ballpark) looked to be less than 50% full, suggesting that many seats were never purchased in the first place. In combining the type of bitterly cold weather that makes you want to sit on your hands with lackluster attendance and poor pitching, the result was that yesterday’s game felt more like, well, just a game, rather than one of the single most anticipated home dates of the year.

I’m not saying it wasn’t a generally happy crowd, though. People were having a good time and there was a lot of curiosity about the new rules and the new faces on the team, Masataka Yoshida in particular. But it was less “Hell yeah, it’s Opening Day!” and more “Well, let’s see what this is all about.”

Regardless of how you feel about it as a baseball move, it’s increasingly clear that the Mookie Betts trade — and the fact that it was immediately followed by the COVID pandemic — had a drastic impact on the Red Sox fanbase in a way that ownership probably didn’t foresee. The casual happy-clappers that filled so much of the ballpark in the early days of the John Henry era are gone. Fenway is no longer a destination for people who are only mildly curious about sports. Meanwhile, others have shifted their passions to the Celtics and Bruins.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While John Henry certainly can’t be happy about it, tickets are significantly more affordable and easier to get. And, as we saw in 2021 postseason, the crowd has regained a bit of the edge it lost in the thick of the Sweet Caroline era. You hear a lot about Opening Day crowds tending to be more corporate and casual than what you get later in the year, but that certainly wasn’t the case yesterday. This was a knowledgeable, savvy baseball crowd. This was a crowd of diehards wearing Mike Napoli jerseys, chanting “Yoshi” every time Yoshida came to the plate, and sarcastically cheering Zach Kelly for finally throwing a strike. If this team can put up a competitive season (and I think they can and will) Fenway will be a fun place to be this year.

But the fact is that the team and fanbase are in a strange and unfamiliar period of transition right now. For the fourth year in a row, the Red Sox are entering the regular season without expectations of competing for a championship. This is the first time anyone could say that since at least Manny Ramirez arrived on the scene, and you could probably even extend that to Pedro’s arrival, if you’re so inclined. For Red Sox fans over 30, it probably feels a lot like the Lou Gorman/Dan Duquette Era. For those even younger, it’s something entirely new.

I’m on record as saying that just about anything in life that’s new is good. But we’ll see about this.