Fenway Vs. The Other Green Monster

In an age of big-money ballparks, it's an economic anachronism. But should it be replaced or rebuilt?

Fenway Park. In a sport that worships its history, the name brings back rivers of recollections. This is the park where the young Babe Ruth broke into the Bigs, where Ted Williams defined the art of hitting, and whose intimacy provided the inspiration for Camden Yards and other parks that aim to evoke the past. How fitting, then, that on July 13, the last All Star Game of the century will be played in Fenway. But how ironic that even as they prepare the park for this tribute, the Boston Red Sox are launching a campaign to tear Fenway down.

The Red Sox are proposing a $545 million plan to build a larger Fenway near the current park--the most expensive stadium project in baseball history. And it would set the stage for Red Sox CEO John L. Harrington to sell the team, now owned by a charitable trust established by the late Jean R. Yawkey, widow of Thomas A. Yawkey, who bought the Sox for about $1 million in 1933. With a new stadium, "the Red Sox could sell for more than the record $313 million brought by the Los Angeles Dodgers," predicts Marc S. Ganis, president of Sportscorp Ltd., which places values on sports businesses.

But first, the Sox must defeat Save Fenway Park!, a group of fans, preservationists, and neighborhood activists lobbying to keep Boston baseball on its hallowed ground. Second, the Sox must figure out how to finance the new field despite strict limits on public funding set by Massachusetts House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, a staunch foe of stadium subsidies. Finneran dismisses familiar arguments for using tax money to build stadiums as "the ego-driven bunk of billionaire [owners] and their acolytes."

Even the Save Fenway! folks recognize the limitations of Fenway, which opened in 1912. "It's outdated and has serious structural problems," says Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino. That's putting it mildly. The place is so flood-prone that players use duckboards to keep their feet dry between the dugout and the clubhouse. And fans routinely miss an inning or more just trying to buy a hot dog, due to the severely cramped concession stands.

Moreover, its 33,871 seats--the smallest park in the majors--make Fenway an economic anachronism. Although the Sox compensate by charging the highest ticket prices, Fenway still generates less than six other state-of-the-art parks, such as Jacobs Field in Cleveland. And with six more such parks under construction, failure to fix Fenway "will relegate the Red Sox to being a mediocre team for the next generation," warns Ganis.

PALE IMITATION? The new ballpark the Sox see as the solution would recreate such famous Fenway quirks as the Green Monster wall in shallow left field. Meanwhile, with 44,000 seats, nearly 100 luxury suites, 5,000 club seats, and vastly expanded concessions, the new Fenway would be on a par with baseball's most lucrative stadiums.

But while the new park "might look like Fenway, it wouldn't be Fenway," argues Charles Hagenah, architect for Save Fenway Park! His elaborate renovation plan would create the same 44,000 seats and extra luxury seating. "The goal is to ensure the Red Sox the same amount of revenue," says Hagenah. To do that, he concedes, much of the park "would be brand new." Still, baseball would be played on the exact same field. "Fans would still see this as Fenway Park," says Hagenah.

But the Red Sox say extensive studies show the idea is impractical. One reason is that they would somehow have to continue to play during four years of construction. With many seats unavailable, huge revenues would be lost.

PATRIOT GAMES. So far, the Sox are winning the debate, but they still have to figure out how to pay the bill. While the club is skirting the financing issue, Finneran isn't. "We don't oblige taxpayers to build office towers or gas stations or other private facilities," he argues. "It is only in this odd facet of our economy--pro sports--where the owners expect taxpayers will build their buildings for them."

Finneran says he'll apply the "same principles" to the Red Sox that he did to the New England Patriots. Last year, with Finneran clutching Massachusetts' purse strings, the Pats cut a $375 million deal to move to Hartford. The deal fell through, and now the Pats are back--but they're getting just $70 million from Massachusetts for infrastructure improvements near their Foxboro stadium.

The most the Sox can hope for is public help with $200 million in costs beyond the park, including land acquisition and infrastructure. But the Sox will have to finance the $350 million stadium themselves, which is "more than any team has ever funded," says Ganis. He figures $100 million could be raised through the presale of luxury seats and concessions. But that would still require borrowing $250 million. At today's rates, that would mean an annual payment of around $25 million, says Ganis. If the new stadium generates some $35 million a year in additional revenues for the Sox, the team would clear just $8 million to $10 million a year. "That's far less than Baltimore, Cleveland, or Colorado" has gotten from their new parks, says Ganis, "but it may be the best the Red Sox can hope for in Massachusetts."

Rather than a celebration, then, perhaps the All Star Game should be seen as the beginning of the funeral for Fenway. The park's heritage may be priceless. But in today's game, a new stadium is worth a lot more than even the most nostalgic shrine.

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