BOSTON — Under the shade of the Green Monster’s rusting exoskeleton, Koosie Boggs and her boyfriend Neil dipped a salty soft pretzel into yellow mustard.
The season-ticket holders have been to every Red Sox opening day since 2013. This year is the first time the gates to the ballpark stay closed. It’s also the first time they can say they were the only customers at the Monster Deck, a pop-up bar on the sidewalk designed to give fans an outdoor, virus-friendly option.
“We’re mainly surprised at how dead quiet it is,” Boggs said. “We thought it would be packed so we got here early. I guess for game time … it’ll be interesting to see how they’ll actually show you the game. Yeah, it’s great to be here, but if you’re not actually watching the game, then what’s the point of coming?”
It was three hours before Nathan Eovaldi tossed the first pitch — a 100 mph strike — and the couple would later migrate over to Game On to get closer to a television. Between sips of Samuel Adams Summer and Wachusett Blueberry Ale, the conversation shifted from how the world collapsed, ever since the Red Sox traded Mookie Betts, to Boston movies (Neil thinks “The Town” is better than “The Departed”).
For a moment, everything felt normal. Then Neil remembered just how strange a practically empty Lansdowne Street was. “Obviously, it’s not the same, but it’s just nice to be here considering the last four months,” he said.
By the second inning, Lansdowne Street filled up with fans, but the slow-building crowd still represented a fraction of what would normally be tens of thousands of people. It was a mostly young party, often with people traveling in groups of two or four. A vast majority wore masks when not seated, a sign of Boston’s measured response to the pandemic that’s afflicted more than 115,000 people in the state.
But even as open tables became harder to find, the street had just a half-hearted buzz. When Jackie Bradley Jr. scored the first run of the season on a José Peraza double, only scattered claps and a faint hoot followed. Same for J.D. Martinez’s RBI double minutes later. A “Let’s Go Sox” chant almost but not totally caught on in the bottom of the third inning.
It was almost as if there wasn’t even a game going on. Fans could only watch the game easily at a few bars since that emphasized outdoor seating. Canned crowd noise from Fenway Park’s speakers almost always drowned out whatever celebrations fans could awkwardly muster during the 13-2 Red Sox victory over the Baltimore Orioles.
The three streets surrounding Fenway Park — Lansdowne behind the Green Monster, Jersey adjacent to the third-base line and Boylston on the way — are hubs for fans in search of beer, food and merch. The businesses on those streets hoped MLB’s return would help revitalize the local economy ravaged by COVID-19. Even with a reduced crowd, opening day certainly helped. But kinks remain, damage will continue and empty chairs may sometimes outnumber diehards.
“In Boston, opening day’s almost like a holiday,” Holdens Philogene, a bouncer at Bleacher Bar told Yahoo Sports. “On Lansdowne Street, even bigger. I would equate it like a carnival. You can just see the effects of COVID.”
The Fenway area was especially economically vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the virus struck the U.S. at the worst possible time. The neighborhood’s peak season is between St. Patrick’s Day and October, when the weather’s nice and fans sing “Dirty Water” as they flood out of the 108-year-old stadium after Sox wins.
People typically only flock to Lansdowne Street for ballgames and concerts, all of which have been nonexistent since the city effectively shut down on March 15. Joe Hicks, manager of several Fenway bars including Game On, Bleacher Bar and Lansdowne Pub, estimates between 80 and 90 percent of business comes from Red Sox games, both home and away.
“That’s how the bar survives,” Hicks told Yahoo Sports. “From St. Patrick’s Day to the end of the playoffs at Fenway. That’s how most businesses make their money, then they ride out the winter.”
Due to strict reopening rules, many restaurants on Lansdowne remained closed for about three months, and the Boston Herald reported that some have been doing just 15 to 20 percent of their normal business. Staffs were furloughed and the street became deserted.
But on July 13, Boston entered Phase 3, permitting outdoor gatherings of up to 50 people. Businesses around the park reopened and hoped MLB’s labor strife would eventually pave the way for baseball. Any baseball.
When the shortened, regionally emphasized season became clear, Lansdowne Street organizers worked with the city to officially close off the road on game days. While in practice, no sensible person would ever drive down Lansdowne or Jersey streets on a game day, the agreement allows restaurants to set up makeshift patios on the street, a more inviting proposition since the virus is more likely to spread through particles inside than outside. Still, Mayor Marty J. Walsh warned people on July 23 that going to Fenway for opening day might not be the safest move.
“Lansdowne Street, for decades, has been all about getting as many people into one area as possible,” Hicks said in a July 1 phone interview. “That’s how we’ve done business. So we have to rethink that.”
At Cask ’N Flagon, a famed baseball bar, picnic tables lined the sidewalk on both sides of the road to maximize outdoor seating options. Like at every restaurant, masks were required everywhere except your table and a QR-coded menu limited contact. Cask ’N Flagon general manager Klajdi Palaj told Yahoo Sports that the Lansdowne restaurants worked together to help beautify the patios and establish a safe environment.
Around the corner, on Jersey Street, the Red Sox Official Team Store experienced similar issues as the eateries. Scott Saklad, who’s worked as the store’s general manager for 30 years, said about three-quarters of its business typically comes from Sox home games. At 5 p.m., there were about as many store employees as customers browsing.
“Sales are down dramatically. It’s a tough time for everybody. We’ve just got to put our heads down and get through it, and hopefully we return to normalcy eventually,” Saklad said.
Though it’s clear a lot of planning went into opening Lansdowne Street, the nature of the on-street dining did not lend itself to actually watching the Red Sox.
At one table, a couple propped up an iPhone on a ketchup bottle to stream the game. Patrons at Lansdowne Street Pub’s outside patio craned their necks to get a peek at an indoor monitor. A giant electronic billboard hung over The Deck on Lansdowne, but only showed advertisements, not the game.
The result was a swath of fans geographically as close to the game as you can get, but nearly oblivious to the action. Without access to the game, it became more of a night out on the town than a fan experience.
By 9 p.m., just about every outdoor table was full, but nobody blinked when Eovaldi got Chris Davis to line into an inning-ending double play in the fourth. When Orioles long reliever Cody Carroll walked in Michael Chavis to give Boston a 5-0 lead, hardly anyone noticed.
Even a “Yankees Suck” chant failed when two guys tried to start it with the bases loaded.
The best place to watch the game is Bleacher Bar, a restaurant built into the center-field bleachers. Customers can see into the field at ground level, but players can’t see into the restaurant. There, Bleacher Bar limited its capacity to a third and flipped tables every 45 minutes.
As soon as Phillips Valdez struck out Rio Ruiz to seal Boston’s blowout victory, “Dirty Water” played softly over the PA system. By then, Lansdowne Street had thinned out once again, leaving it calm. A few people sang the chorus, “Oh, Oh, Boston, you’re my home,” and a few danced while taking Snapchat stories.
Under Gate C near Bleacher Bar, Emily Barbella and Haley Yabroudy, two fans who met at Simmons University, posed for a photo. They usually go to opening day, but just being on Lansdowne was enough.
“We just really missed baseball,” Yabroudy chimed through a Red Sox face mask.
“I’m really glad we came,” Barbella added.
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