$26.92: Average ticket price in Major League Baseball, according to the Team Marketing Institute.
$53.38: Average non-premium Red Sox seat, highest in baseball.
MY 6-YEAR-OLD FEET, in patent-leather Easter shoes and lace-trimmed ankle socks, scuffed along unfamiliar Boston sidewalks as I struggled to keep pace with my father. It was a sweltering weekday afternoon in July 1955, but I was decked out in my Sunday best: a ruffled pinafore, white plastic purse, and straw hat with pink satin ribbons. After all, I was going, for the very first time, to the “holy place” — as some in Southie called Fenway Park back then.
Fenway was hallowed ground to my father and grandfather, the place where immortals played, legends unfolded, and a revered American tradition lived on. Every square inch was devoted to the soul of the sport. So it was only appropriate to display the proper reverence and respect, no matter how high the temperature climbed. Although there was no towering steeple, none of the aroma of incense that filled St. Augustine’s on Sundays, climbing the ramp of grandstand section 27 felt to me like ascending into Baseball Heaven.
But since that first visit, I have seen Fenway robbed of its unique character, tradition, and charm — all sacrificed for the sake of profit, frivolity, and fun. Fenway has been transformed into a trendy, pricey “place to be”: equal parts Faneuil Hall, Newbury, and Bourbon Street.
Fenway used to be a populist ballpark — affordable, accessible, and welcoming to all. Ticket prices were well within the blue-collar budget of families like mine. As I recall, reserved grandstand seats cost $2.50. Mine was only 50 cents because it was “Ladies’ Day.” Now, lots of seats like those have been swallowed up by pricey box-seat sections.
Over the years, other expensive real estate has been added to the park as well — swanky clubs, pavilions, and private suites — many bearing the names of deep-pocket corporate sponsors rather than greats of Red Sox past. “Ladies’ Day” discounts have been rescinded, even for those special ladies who added sunglasses to their habits for “Nuns’ Day.”
When I was young, fans went to Fenway for one reason: to watch a baseball game. There was no need to offer all of today’s entertaining extras, no need to create an “enhanced experience” that plays to a growing flock of faux fans. There was no sipping frozen margaritas, no dining on sushi with a chardonnay, and no waiters taking orders on the Budweiser Right Field Roof Deck. There was no need for the carnival-like Yawkey Way — where I remember only a few peanut vendors once stood — for fans to linger among the pushcarts long after the first pitch.
The old Fenway didn’t have to cater to an epicurean crowd, because most fans stayed laser-focused on the field, religiously recording every play on paper scorecards. At the new Fenway, you can easily spot disengaged fans throughout the crowd, fiddling with iPhones or wandering over to the concession stands to linger over the imported beer list.
Granted, Fenway has received a much-needed face lift: expanded concourses, additional restrooms, and other long-overdue facility improvements. But in the eyes (and heart) of this fan, when they painted over the chips and cracks to make way for a “better” Fenway, they also entombed a baseball park that was already the real thing.
As the Red Sox continue to fumble through the first part of the 2012 season, more and more fair-weather fans — for whom the new Fenway was apparently custom-crafted — are moving on to other, less depressing places. For proof, look no further than plummeting ticket resale prices and the seats that empty out before the seventh-inning stretch.
Memo to Red Sox owners: If you refocus Fenway Park on baseball, the real fans will come and the real fans will stay.