Two weeks ago I went to Fenway for the Red Sox midweek day game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. I paid $10 to get into the ballpark, and, with the place barely half-full, I snuck down to the front row behind the Red Sox dugout. (Don’t tell John Henry about the latter, though he and the project manager overseeing the construction of his whatever-number-vacation-home are surely already aware of the former.)
About halfway through the game, three other fans did the same thing I did, moving up to the completely empty row behind me. They were teenagers — in fact, they were Boston Latin students skipping school, and they spent the rest of the game talking trash to Pirates players, trying desperately get a baseball, and strategizing about how they’d sneak back into school before the bell rang at the end of the day. I felt like I was stuck inside a Billy Crystal anecdote in the Ken Burns Baseball series: city kids, a bit of rebellious mischief, and the apparently timeless allure of baseball all mixing together to give me a jolt of living Americana. It was glorious.
This is what baseball is supposed to be, isn’t it? We want it to be for the kids, for the masses, for it to be democratic. Decades worth of purple prose and nostalgia-drenched cinema have made this point very clear.
But for most of the 21st century, this is decidedly not how Red Sox baseball at Fenway Park has worked. From 2002 through 2019, you practically needed the assistance of a financial planner just to get into the ballpark. Want to go to a Sunday night game against the Yankees? Ok, let’s bump that vacation to next year, and maybe the kids don’t really need braces after all; crooked teeth might give them character, right?
Once you were in the ballpark, the atmosphere could be a little stale, thanks to the scores of tourists who were only there to sing Sweet Caroline and the pharma CEOs who left in the seventh to beat the traffic back home to Weston. It was great for the bank account of John and Linda’s personal architect, but not so great for regular fans who just wanted to see baseball without taking out a second mortgage. And moreover, Fenway lost a little bit of the gritty, passion-fueled edge that made it Fenway in the first place; venture capitalists wooing clients don’t bring the same level of intensity to the second row behind the dugout as Boston Latin kids skipping school.
But for now, at least, that era of Red Sox baseball is over. Tickets are readily and cheaply available. Many of the white collar professionals who used to use the ballpark as a conference room are now working from home. And while the Bruins and Celtics contend for championships over the next few months, there’s open speculation about whether the Red Sox are now only New England’s fourth-favorite team.
A lot of people are concerned about this, and I understand that. I love that Boston has remained steadfastly dedicated to baseball while sports fandom in the rest of the country has devolved into Sunday afternoon at Buffalo Wild Wings, every day all year long. The game is part of our regional identity and I do not want to see it lose eyeballs to other, lesser sports.
But there’s something we gain as a result of the Red Sox’ momentary dip in the public consciousness. Or, perhaps I should say, there’s something we get back. And it’s this:
"Hang on, we got another shoe" pic.twitter.com/itoI4ourUX— Red Sox Stats (@redsoxstats) April 17, 2023
That’s a scene from the Fenway Park bleachers during Monday’s rain delay, and it’s something that you absolutely would not have seen on Jersey Street at any time between 2003 and 2019. The Mookie trade, two last-place finishes, constant roster turnover, and the COVID pandemic have turned back the clock. Fenway isn’t as full as it used to be, but it’s more fun.
Of course there’s a line between rowdiness that’s fun, and rowdiness that makes people feel unsafe or unwelcome. But I was there at Fenway again on Monday, and we aren’t anywhere close to that. You can still take your kids, your elderly parents, and your friends who are fans of the opposing team. You’ll be fine, I promise you.
Fenway isn’t dangerous, but it is a little edgier now. It’s a little bit more of an adventure. This is a wonderful thing, because while a ballpark shouldn’t be an unsafe place, it shouldn’t be a predictable place, either. It should contain a clamorous mix of demographics and incomes; it should feel like the city that surrounds it.
Boston is a young city, a growing city, and a place that’s much more diverse than it used to be. We still have the old Irish enclaves Hollywood loves so much, but we’re also filled with newer, thriving Dominican neighborhoods that Hollywood completely ignores. We have tech CEOs along with artists; we have the Newbury Street ladies-who-lunch crowd along with the college students living on air-dried ramen. All of them should be able to go see the Sox.
For now, at least, it seems like they all can. This likely won’t last forever. In fact, you might not want it to last much longer because, to the extent that it does, then that probably means the Red Sox aren’t competitive. But sometimes you have to take the bad with the good, and in this case, the good is a lower barrier to entry for a lot of people in Boston who weren’t necessarily able to get inside Fenway in recent years. So raise a shoe filled with beer and enjoy this while it lasts. Fenway Park may not have a World Series contender right now, but it may have its soul back.