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Sports

From the archives | May 29

600 Club debuts with indoor seating at Fenway

New club is nice, but is it baseball?

The new enclosed seats behind home plate have changed the look of Fenway Park.

Bill Brett/Globe Staff

The new enclosed seats behind home plate have changed the look of Fenway Park.

The new 600 Club at Fenway Park opened last night. At least part of it did, a grandstand and a bar. A restaurant is scheduled to open on the Fourth of July, completing the club.

The 600 Club will be a lot of fun for its members and probably make a lot of money for the owners, all of which will help keep the Sox playing at Fenway where they belong, instead of in some vast new park out in the wilds of 495. Fenway is the best, most intimate ballpark in the world, and we should be grateful for just about anything that will ensure its survival.

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Nevertheless, it’s awfully hard to feel quite right about the 600 Club. This isn’t baseball as we’ve known it, folks. This is baseball sucked dry of its sounds and smells -- the slap of a glove, the sniff of grass, the kiss of the sun on your cheek -- and repackaged as a media experience. It’s baseball for the TV generation. Baseball for networkers. Baseball for people who don’t like baseball.

More about that in a moment. First a description.

The 600 Club is visible as a huge new glass wall high above home plate. Behind the glass is a private grandstand of 608 plushly upholstered seats, plus a bar and grill and future restaurant. For $6,250 a season, you can have one of those seats for your very own, and you’ll also get a parking space. And you’ll get the further right to pay lots of additional money for drinks and food.

What all this has to do with baseball is the question. The 600 Club is to baseball what Main Street in Disneyland is to Main Street back home. It’s a well-wrought fake.

To use the kind of language you hear from marketing types, the 600 Club is the latest trend-setting concept in baseball viewing. Or listen to the way the marketing people actually do put it, in the 600 Club’s brochure:

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“Capture the Excitement of Red Sox Baseball in the luxurious setting of the new ‘600 Club.’ Comfortable seating, elegant dining and exclusive membership privileges await this distinguished circle of Red Sox patrons.”

Look closely, because this is a fairly epochal piece of writing. It is certain, for example, that never before in the history of English prose has the phrase “Red Sox Baseball” been linked with the phrases “luxurious setting,” “elegant dining” or “comfortable seating.”

And remember when people who went to ball games were called “fans”? Pretty crude, huh? Much better, certainly, to refer to them as a ‘’distinguished circle of Red Sox patrons.” Joseph Morgan will be conducting the ensemble tonight.

All this language is pompous nonsense, but it’s also something worse. Once upon a time, a baseball park was one of the places where we all met and mingled. A place where the boss and the office boy yelled in unison. No more. Now it’s a place of “exclusive membership privileges.” You have to wonder, when you see that horrible phrase, just who is being excluded.

The other problem with the 600 Club is that it converts baseball from something you experience with all your senses into something you experience only with your eyes. As a club member, you sit in your seat behind the glass wall. The field outside is brightly lighted. Around your seat, the light is dimmer. It is as if you were one of those secret observers who monitor classrooms or experiments from behind a one-way mirror. Silently you observe. You don’t participate.

What of the wonderful noise of baseball? Not to worry. The roar of the crowd, the swell of the organ, the crack of the bat -- all these are piped in to the 600 Club through loudspeakers. TV monitors, visible from every seat, carry the game telecast.

The effect of all this is predictable. The big glass wall in front of you comes to seem not like a window but like a screen. The game seems to be projected on it. You feel you are watching a movie, not engaging in a real- life event. Of course the glass is wonderfully clear, and the loudspeakers state-of-the-art. It is exactly as if you were at a real game.

Why anyone would go to so much trouble to turn life into media is beyond my understanding. But if you accept the premise, it’s only fair to say there’s much to enjoy about the 600 Club. Seen from outside, down in the field, the big glass wall is plain and simple and it fits right in at Fenway Park -- no small feat. Fenway’s keynote cool-green color is picked up nicely as a theme.

The club interiors, green and mauve, are simple and pleasant, though entirely unremarkable. Except perhaps for an ugly bar in the lounge, they have the virtue of not having been overdone. The new upholstered seats are comfortable and, of course, thanks to the glass wall, they won’t be too hot or too cold. Foul balls won’t come through the wall to hit your face -- but then you won’t catch one, either. The glass wall is ingeniously stiffened not with metal but with structural glass fins, so there will be as little as possible to impede your view.

From a technical point of view, the new elevators and ramps give greatly improved access, not only to the new club but to the existing skyboxes. With great care, the whole huge new 600 Club complex has been floated above the existing Fenway home plate boxes without impairing the sightlines from any seat, except for a slight thickening of structural columns.

As for the food, only time will tell. The bar and lounge serve buffet- style, starting well before the game, and currently feature such items as linguine with clam sauce, carved steamship rounds of beef and chicken marsala. If you don’t like this so-called upscale menu, you can order what the club’s managers, rather patronizingly, call “ballpark food” -- that is to say, franks and sodas and ice cream.

When the sit-down, silverware-and-linen-cloth restaurant opens in July, it will be, say the Fenway people, as good as any restaurant in Boston. Club members will have first dibs on reservations, but the restaurant may be open to some extent to the public. Its appearance is still impossible to judge, though the fact that it has no windows (it is tucked under the club’s own grandstand) is certainly no virtue.

The 600 Club has two physical drawbacks. You can’t see parts of right field from some of the seats. It’s impossible to believe these will ever sell at the asking price of $25,000 a year for the minimum block of four memberships. And in the new press box, which sits on top of the club, an unacceptable error has been made. This box, like the club beneath it, is behind glass. But here the glass is divided by a horizontal steel frame which -- from many press seats -- neatly bisects your view of the game.

The architects for the 600 Club are Howard, Needles, Tammen and Bergendoff out of Kansas City. Interiors are by Steffian & Bradley of Boston.

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