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thomas farragher

There are new all-stars at Fenway Park, carrying syringes of vaccine and doses of hope

The latest Fenway faithful want it now. They want it fast

Cataldo Ambulance Service paramedic Carlin Sanders waited in the high-risk observation area at the COVID-19 vaccination site at Fenway Park.
Cataldo Ambulance Service paramedic Carlin Sanders waited in the high-risk observation area at the COVID-19 vaccination site at Fenway Park.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The beer taps are dry. There are no peanuts or pretzels. Or Fenway Franks.

But this much is familiar: There are long lines. There are determined faces. And, as ever, there is an abiding hope at the old ballpark.

“All the kids are concerned, and they’re all trying to get an appointment for me,” Carol Hartling, 86, of Marblehead told me the other day outside a frosty Fenway Park. “You’ve got to do what you can to survive.”

Wait till next year? That age-old New England adage no longer applies.

The latest Fenway faithful want it now. They want it fast.

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And they’re willing to brave the cold winds of February even as a large truck filled with bats and balls — with gloves and helmets — set its GPS coordinates for spring training and the sunshine of Florida.

Inside Fenway Park, there awaited trained nurses, syringes filled with a COVID-19 vaccine, and people like Mae Powers, a 62-year-old registered nurse now working for Cataldo Ambulance Service, who has come out of retirement from her old job at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center to help put down a pandemic.

“People are so very grateful,” she said from her vaccination post not far from Fenway’s third-base grandstand. “I had one woman who came in and she sat down and she was crying. And I said, ‘Are you OK?’

“She was just crying because she couldn’t wait to get the vaccine. And she was so overwhelmed with just being grateful for that.”

The lines snake through the concourse, past the familiar Jimmy Fund mural painted on a cinderblock wall, and up to concession stands that now offer something more rewarding than peanuts or Cracker Jacks.

“My son, who is 14, has autism and I was forwarded an e-mail and a document, saying that one parent of a child with autism is allowed to be vaccinated,” Jack Tuplin, 51, of Raynham told me. “When I logged in the other day there were 280 appointments available. And I sailed right in.”

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Those words are nothing less than consoling music for those who have wrestled with the logistics of conjuring a large and complex medical operation from scratch just a few weeks ago.

The state has been criticized for its inoculation work, an effort that has been ranked decidedly in the lower half of the United States, absorbing complaints about logistical hurdles and cumbersome technology.

Edward Ullman, medical director of the vaccination center and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center’s medical chief, said there was only one way to address those complaints.

“The way to make this work is to take that criticism and listen to it and figure out how to make it better,” he told me as we sat inside the ballpark, where the vaccination effort ran at full speed.

There have been adjustments and lessons learned along the way. For example?

“One of the great things that we’ve found with our over-75 population is that most of them would bring somebody. So, initially, we thought, well, we’ve got to try to keep that to a minimum. And what we realized is: By having somebody come with them, they’re much calmer,” Ullman said.

The brief observation period after shots are administered was used to schedule second appointments. It also provided time for a photographic keepsake.

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A quick selfie. And an exit.

It’s an exit unlike most of those who have rolled up their sleeves had been familiar with. After a walk-off home run. Or after Bruce Springsteen’s last rousing curtain call.

That familiarity with this place, the special spot that Fenway Park has in the hearts and psyches of New Englanders, is hardly lost on those who run this operation, those now offering John Updike’s lyric little bandbox to a different team — to a squad of doctors and nurses and clinicians with needles.

“Fenway’s an iconic venue,’' Peter Nesbit, senior vice president of ballpark operations for the Red Sox, told me as a vast medical operation unfolded around him. “We’re lucky to be able to come here every day for work. And we want to make sure that we’re part of the solution.”

It’s worked out better than expected. No major issues with parking, or long lines, or traffic have materialized.

“We’ve tried to do many various events,” Nesbit said. “Obviously, baseball’s our bread and butter. But in recent history we’ve had a ton of music concerts. We’ve had football games. We’ve had soccer matches. We’ve had ice hockey. Anything you can dream of, we’re willing to do it here. So it was logical that we would get into the mix here on the vaccine process.”

Still, it hasn’t all been hearts and flowers.

Governor Charlie Baker, who has expressed his dissatisfaction with the state’s vaccine efforts, established a 500-person call center to help hasten the appointment process for those who have had trouble navigating the state’s website.

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“Are things better today than they were yesterday? Yes, things are definitely better,” said Aaron Nemzer, site operations manager for CIC Health, one of the region’s largest vaccine logistics coordinators.

“It’s super rewarding,” he said. “We’re helping people to return to that sense of normalcy. I’ve witnessed tears flowing from sons and daughters as that vaccine is being injected into their parent’s arm because it’s a big moment for everyone. It’s great to see.”

Tears. That’s nothing new for Fenway Park. They flow from parents who watch their little kids walk up the ramp to take in Fenway’s emerald lawn for the first time.

They flow from longtime fans, celebrating championships or enduring defeats that will be grist for hot-stove discussions down through the decades.

Cheers. They’ve erupted for Ruth and Williams. For Yastrzemski and Lonborg. For Ortiz and Martinez.

And now, in smaller doses, those cheers are directed at people like Carol Hartling.

She politely excused herself the other day, flashed a victory smile, and walked off with these winning words worthy of a bullpen ace: “I’m going in now.”


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.