Home to a Nation

Dan Wetzel

BOSTON – If there is, indeed, a Red Sox Nation, then it is under attack from the outside.

On the national stage, Boston's famed baseball fans have gone from long-suffering and sympathetic to overbearing and unlikable. They've gotten ripped, especially in the New York media, told they are sell-outs and served as inspiration of a rallying of anti-Sox sentiment – and not just because of that crappy Drew Barrymore movie or ESPN overexposure.

Here in Fenway Park, and the streets, restaurants and bars surrounding it, the Nation is mostly blissfully unconcerned, focused on capturing a World Series – a first step taken with Wednesday's 13-1 shellacking of the Colorado Rockies. Or, as denizens of the region are apt to do, enjoying the opportunity to life lift a middle finger at everyone else, particularly down in Gotham.

"Yankees Suck," they kept chanting in the right field grandstands, just for the pure joy of it of all.

Hey, they are what they are. But are they what they once were?

Every Red Sox fan is aware of the absolute stunning growth of their ilk the past few years, an expansion that made them baseball's most popular team, saw them overrun visiting parks across the country and, in turn, supply their principal owner, John Henry, with the kind of money that enables them to spend and spend and spend on championship caliber clubs – the Sox payroll is close to three times that of the Rockies.

Outsiders say they've become the Yankees, which isn't exactly a bad thing, considering the 26 World Championships and all.

The secret to how this happened, I believe, can be found, among other places, in a concession stand glass door refrigerator under the right field grandstands. It carries a sign and contents that simply would never be found here before Henry took over and remade ancient Fenway.

"Healthy Choices," it reads. Inside are sandwich wraps, low calorie meals and, even, salads. Lots of salads.

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Almost 20 years ago, when I attended high school in nearby Dorchester, I spent one year working a concession stand here at Fenway Park. My commute to work this week, T to Kenmore, up Brookline Ave., left on Yawkey Way, is the same as it was back then. Different jobs, same building.

In the late 1980s Fenway was a dump. Forget the images you saw on TV – although watching old highlights the place still looks dark – Fenway was run down and filled, too often, with fans in search of beer and brawls as much as baseball.

This isn't going to be one of those schmaltzy Brooklyn Dodger memories of "the greenest grass I ever saw." Maybe Doris Kearns Goodwin has a different memory of the place, but I recall one day being 16 years old and pushing a cart full of garbage toward the right field dumpster. Two guys in front of me broke into a fight and toppled in and through my trash.

Fenway was a great place for baseball to be played, but it wasn't the greatest place to watch baseball be played. Oh, the games were exciting because of the dynamics of the park. The Monster was always there, with its screen on top. There was Pesky Pole, the Triangle, the minimal foul territory. And there has and always will be something special about knowing Babe Ruth played here and so on, a connection to history you can't fake.

But the seats were – and still are – small, the bathrooms inadequate and there was always a chance you might sit behind a pole or something.

And there was nowhere to get a salad.

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These days, Fenway Park has an executive chef, Ron Abell.

An executive chef? At Fenway? When I "cooked" here at my under-the-third-base concession stand, our pretzel warmer didn't even spin. You had to rotate by hand the previously frozen pretzels to get close to a 100 watt light bulb.

And that was probably the healthiest food served by the Harry M. Stevens Co. Harry M., the legendary concessionaire, made a fortune realizing in the late 1800s that if you have a monopoly to feed and imbibe tens of thousands of trapped sports fans, you can make a killing no matter how bad the product. (This business plan is currently still employed at airports across America).

He started in Ohio, then took over the Polo Grounds around 1900 and expanded from there. Generations of heart surgeons across America owe their vacation home to the guy.

For the most part, things haven't changed at Fenway. A company called Aramark bought Harry M. Stevens in 1995 and still runs operations today. Wednesday I attended the game with my best friend, Murph (I know, I know everyone in Boston has a best friend named Murph). We stopped by my old stand and the choices were mostly the same – Fenway Franks, beer, double- salted popcorn (to sell more beer), peanuts, and in a testament to modern technology, a pretzel warmer that rotated.

It was good to see it stay old school. They even had a teenaged kid changing the kegs. But it, and spots like it, is no longer the only food choice. There are the salads. And the clam chowder. And the chicken meals. And coffee stands serving fancy drinks. (Back when I worked here they'd punish concession workers by waiting for a blistering hot July afternoon, handing them a tray of black coffee and saying, "go work the bleachers." Two areas of the park – the Monster seats and high above right field – actually have waitress service.

And up in the EMC Club, executive chef Abell and his staff serve up items such as Maine Peekytoe Crabcake with Pickled Radish and Mache, Grilled Wild King Salmon, Celery Root, Morels, Fine Herbs and Spring Pea Cannelloni, Calabro Ricotta, Lemon, Fava.

If you want to know how Red Sox Nation got so big and so unruly and, in turn, so scorned, just follow the smell of well- prepared food.

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In the early 1990s sports teams began surveying their potential customers, trying to increase attendance and revenue in ways that did not correspond with simply winning (which always works). What they found was that many women were reluctant to attend games because not only was there no healthy food, there wasn't even anything they could pretend was healthy – like a turkey wrap with cheese and extra mayo or something.

Women were not just a huge market on their own, they often controlled the entertainment dollar of their husband or and boyfriend. Make the park friendly to women – give them good, clean, non-fried food – and suddenly spending thousands on season tickets seemed like an acceptable household expenditure, plus it might even be a way to get some quality time in. Then they even let their husbands watch the road games on TV.

Gone was luring guys in with Thirsty Thursday promotions. In came executive chefs.

All over the country sports franchises responded by blowing up their stadiums and building new ones focused on delivering that "experience." Revenue, player salaries, media and intensity of fandom all grew exponentially. Sports has never been bigger business.

Architecturally almost nothing sacred was spared. The Montreal Forum, Chicago Stadium, Boston Garden, Tiger Stadium, all got demolished. Even Yankee Stadium is about to go. While the NFL does some select hanging on to history – Solider and Lambeau Fields, to name a couple, have both been renovated rather than removed – for the most part they prefer dynamite too.

The only sport that honors its old stadiums properly is college football, where facilities are in constant renovation. The mere mention of imploding a college football stadium would get you shot in most parts of the SEC.

The Red Sox wanted to do away with Fenway too. They tried to buy land out by the waterfront. They fought with politicians. They threatened to move to the suburbs. The place opened the week the Titanic hit the iceberg – 95 years ago – after all.

But they could never get it done. So owner John Henry, realizing he was stuck with what he purchased, began making the most of it. Previous ownerships let the place rot; he reworked it.

Fenway is now a place you can still recall Bobby Doerr rounding second, point to your seats for your first game with your father – or the concession stand you cooked Fenway Franks at – all while getting Spring Pea Cannelloni. Or salads from a refrigerator.

The result has been astounding. Just about every game is a sellout now, which sure didn't used to be the case. There are fewer fights and more women. The place became so female friendly this year that the Red Sox's cable station, NESN, started broadcasting a dating show – "Sox Appeal" – filmed during games.

I can't even imagine the dating pool from back in the day. A trash heap tough guy contest might have worked, though.

Of course, in came the new reputation of Red Sox Nation. Pink hats. Wally the Mascot. Sweet Caroline in the eighth inning. Trendy, bandwagon fans, massive ticket prices and so many Dane Cookesque celebs you just want to cry, baby, cry. When the Sox finally won the World Series in 2004, the country was treated to excessive media coverage, a horrible movie and interviews with obnoxious college students declaring "they suffered their whole life waiting for this."

It wasn't good. Almost everyone agrees.

But sitting in the stands Wednesday night, roaming the street fair outside, riding the T to the game with my friend, there is a defense of the Nation to all the easy pot shots.

The crowd around us wasn't wealthy, or bandwagon or even interested in Pickled Radish and Mache. They were part of the extremely loyal, lifelong horde that packs this place – and enemy parks too – every night. They were old friends and families, blue collar and white. They were baseball fans. Real ones, the kind that didn't need prompting to stand and scream on Josh Beckett every time he got to two strikes.

Here's what wasn't at Fenway on Wednesday: waving white towels, exploding scoreboards, fireworks and other assorted Disney gimmicks.

The only real issue is Wally the Mascot, a useless fluff of green that dances around. If there was justice the FBI would allow a 48-hour reprieve to Whitey Bulger so he could reassemble the Winter Hill Gang and have Wally wind up in the trunk of an abandoned car at Castle Island. Or the job could go to Rifleman Flemmi. Or Howie Carr. Whatever it takes.

Everyone seemed to hate Wally. But Wally is about it.

If this was the necessary evil to not just keep historic Fenway but allow the team to pay top talent, if all it took were small adjustments that brought in big money, fans, pink hats and "Sox Appeal" then it was the deal of the century.

So, perhaps it's gotten so big. Perhaps things have gone over the top. Maybe Boston fans and talk of "The Nation" are too much to bear right now, but mostly they aren't any different then they used to be, they are just winning now.

Would you prefer Rockies fans, who even during Colorado's September hot streak were coming out to 50,445-seat Coors Fields to the tune of 19,161 and 22,400 and so on?

Is that a better fan?

So grab a salad and non-fat latte and marvel at this old brick stadium in constant upgrade, old sensibilities marrying modern necessities to create a sharp, bright carnival of celebration.

Fewer fights, more wins on Yawkey; good times have never been so good.