Fenway Park’s age and the intimacy borne of a small footprint in the middle of a bustling city neighborhood distinguish the venerable ballpark. Yet those same signature traits also made the venue a very unnatural fit for social distancing protocols made necessary by the effort to try to prepare for a baseball season in the middle of a pandemic.
Yet in a matter of weeks, the Red Sox transformed Fenway Park to meet their needs for the build-up to a scheduled July 24 start to the season. A breakneck effort spanning several departments made the 108-year-old facility suitable for the health and safety requirements of assembling players and staff in the time of COVID-19.
“As great as Fenway Park is, the history, what we’ve done over the years to improve and expand the facilities, it still presents unique challenges given its small footprint and tight quarters,” said Red Sox chief operating officer Jonathan Gilula. “It was just a jigsaw puzzle that you’re trying to make work.”
In mid-June, when MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and MLBPA head Tony Clark met in Phoenix, the Red Sox still hadn’t decided whether to train in Fort Myers, Fla. — with facilities already set up to train large numbers of players in small groups at a number of stations — or to relocate to Fenway Park. A hybrid approach featuring players in both locations was also under discussion.
Against that backdrop, a small group assembled for a walkthrough at Fenway to identify what would have to happen for players to train there. Gilula, assistant general manager Raquel Ferreira, head athletic trainer Brad Pearson, team medical director Larry Ronan, and clubhouse staffers Pookie Jackson and Tom McLaughlin all met at an otherwise empty Fenway Park.
“It was very strange walking into an empty Fenway at a time when there should have been the normal hustle and bustle of a gameday,” said Ferreira, who was walking into Fenway for the first time since leaving for spring training roughly four months earlier. “It was just really, really weird.”
It was obvious that the central hub of player life — the clubhouse — was both too small and insufficiently ventilated. So, too, were adjoining areas such as the strength and conditioning room, the trainer’s room, the batting cage, and the showers. Nearly everything would have to be moved in order for players to use Fenway.
“When you first try to imagine doing this at Fenway, you think, ‘Where in God’s name are we going to put everything?’ ” said Ferreira.
The complexity of that task helps to explain, in part, why using the spring training facilities at JetBlue had appeal as a training option. But after an outbreak of infections occurred in Phillies camp in Clearwater, Fla., and with COVID-19 infections exploding in Florida, MLB shuttered spring training sites for deep cleanings June 19.
“At that point, it became obvious that Fenway from a logistical standpoint was going to be a better location,” said assistant GM Eddie Romero. “I can’t say ideal, because I don’t think there’s any place where you can eliminate risk, but the overall numbers were trending in the right direction in Boston as opposed to other places we were considering.”
Still, that realization didn’t leave much time to reconfigure the park, particularly since it wasn’t until June 23 that MLB owners and players committed to the conditions for a return on July 1.
“Once that happened,” said Ferreira, “it was, ‘Oh, [expletive], this is really happening.’ ”
The group spitballed ideas for reconfiguring the clubhouse — and specifically where players would get dressed. Some thought was given to setting up the players in the concourse, where it would be possible to observe distancing protocols while also maintaining some proximity. The idea of an auxiliary clubhouse was also considered.
But beyond the question of whether such facilities would be consistent with health and safety protocols, there was another concern. In an inevitably stressful situation, the team wanted to ensure that its players wouldn’t walk into dismal, makeshift facilities.
“One of the concerns was, we have a high standard of how we operate here at Fenway,” said Romero. “Given its unique challenges, we wanted to make sure that was one thing we didn’t take away from the players.”
Those concerns were eliminated with a revelation. With no fans in the park, luxury suites could be used.
The suites along the right field line offered several advantages. Doors to an concourse in the back and seats on the balcony in front of the suites created the possibility of free-flowing air. They were spacious and featured private bathrooms and kitchenettes. They could be outfitted with luxury trimmings like leather chairs and TVs. And, of course, they offered great views of the field.
“That’s turned out to be awesome and the players love it,” said Ferreira. “It’s probably going to be hard to get them out of there.”
With players paired up in the suites along the right field line, the team brought in shower trailers on the roof of the first base deck, a decision based on both convenience and health.
“Seeing these shower trailers coming up and down the street and landing in their current home on the first-base deck was something I didn’t necessarily anticipate seeing in my time here,” said Gilula. “Our medical team believes that this is the best solution for our players in this environment.”
With the players using the suites as locker rooms, that left the concourse open for other massive components of the training facility. With a need for multiple mounds, the team installed one under the bleachers, near the bullpen, so that multiple pitchers could throw simultaneously.
The weight room was taken out of the clubhouse area and installed in the concourse, allowing for more free-flowing air. A batting cage was likewise installed in the concourse. The medical training room (accessible now only by appointment) was moved from directly behind the clubhouse to an upstairs area typically used for food — in no small part because the area featured a window that could be opened for better circulation.
Fenway remains a work in progress. Manager Ron Roenicke said Tuesday that the team will soon install additional dugouts in the stands by the home and visitor’s dugouts to accommodate players during games. Beyond that, the Sox must determine how to set up a visitor’s clubhouse and more to prepare for the start of the regular season.
Nonetheless, to date, the team’s training camp has fulfilled its mandate. The alterations to Fenway have allowed the players to prepare for a regular season that is slated to begin in less than two weeks. With that has come some sense of possibility.
In a way, the rearrangement of Fenway represents one small step in the complicated, challenging task of trying to stage a season. Nonetheless, it is one that has been (thus far) successfully taken.
“Ultimately, I think we were able to define a plan that ensured to the best of our abilities the health and safety of our players and staff, which is really the No. 1 priority for us in this endeavor,” said Gilula.
“Just seeing everything come together so quickly was unbelievable . . . When you get to use a concourse space as your batting cage area, your weight room, you realize the possibilities you have,” said Ferreira. “It does give you hope that we can do this if everybody follows proper guidelines.”