BOSTON — More than 16,000 fans watched 12 minutes of baseball at storied Fenway Park under sunny skies in the middle of the day on Thursday.
“To me, it was the best crowd we had the whole year,” Boston Red Sox third base coach Carlos Febles said after the walk-off win.
Early in the morning on Aug. 8, after an hour and 49-minute rain delay, the game between the Red Sox and Kansas City Royals that started on Aug. 7 was suspended. It resumed Thursday and, in as many ways as possible, was treated as if no time had passed. There was no anthem, no batting practice, no ceremonial first pitch. Play simply resumed with Red Sox reliever Josh Taylor throwing to Nick Dini, pinch-hitting for Meibrys Viloria who had started the at-bat earlier in the month, in a 2-1 count. The official attendance was reported based on the ticket sales from Aug. 7; the game time and even the official length of the delay make no mention of the 15 days that had elapsed. The umpire crew was different, the lineups, too if you looked closely enough — in the interim Billy Hamilton was DFA’d by the Royals — but officially, this was game No. 116 and that game was in the 10th inning.
Which meant that after Taylor pitched a 1-2-3 top of the frame, the Red Sox needed only to score to send both teams scurrying for their charter planes.
“Don’t get offended if I hit or run for you, it’s a 10th inning, you know,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said he was telling his guys in the dugout. And that ‘anything for a run’ mentality paid off pretty quickly. The Red Sox used a pinch hitter and a pinch-runner in the inning before Brock Holt hit an RBI single to send everyone home before they even had time to get through the long lines that resulted from the $1 hot dog promotion.
Reduced concession prices was one of several tactics the Red Sox used to convince fans to show up at 1 p.m. for what turned out to be almost the minimum amount of baseball possible.
(Regarding concessions: I wanted to know about the beer. Would concessions stands at Fenway Park sell beer on Aug. 22 when the Red Sox and the Royals played a game comprised entirely of extra innings? Typically ballparks stop selling alcohol after the seventh inning — regardless of how long the game ends up going — and if anything the start of play on Thursday was always closer to the potential final out than a normal eighth inning would be. But beer was being sold at Fenway. A memo sent to Aramark employees said that cutoff time was at “manager discretion.”)
The game was explicitly billed as an opportunity for kids and families. Tickets from the Aug. 7 game would be honored, but under the assumption that few of those people would show up for the midday conclusion two weeks later, the Red Sox also opened up general admission tickets — $5, donated to the Jimmy Fund, for adults and free for fans under 18. The ticket windows at the stadium were so slammed an hour before the game that Red Sox employees started handing out free tickets to everyone in line. (Plus you could get two programs for the price of one! A vendor outside the stadium explained that he was giving people the latest copy plus a different iteration from earlier in the season that included an article about the Royals. “It’s just the polite thing to do since they came back,” he said.)
Surrounding the brief interlude of actual baseball playing activity, fans were permitted on the field — before the game on the warning track and after the game running the bases. Red Sox chief operating officer Jonathan Gilula told Yahoo Sports that they were “trying to put together a program to attract people to come to the game without knowing how long the actual game action would be.” And it worked. Sixteen thousand, which Gilula relayed as the team’s calculation, is a low point for Fenway this year, but for less than an inning that wasn’t even on the calendar three weeks ago, it’s a notable success. (It’s also more than the Red Sox have drawn on the road in places like Tampa, Oakland, and Baltimore this year.) With the open seating, fans packed the grandstand as strollers clogged Fenway’s narrow concourses.
“It was a good experience, and a good reason for this game,” Taylor said of playing in front of the particularly kid-filled crowd.
Of course, it is easy to say that if you won the 12-minute contest. The Royals had to fly to Boston between series in Baltimore and Cleveland just to fall to 45-83. And even for the Red Sox — who, let’s be honest, are playing meaningless baseball at this point — the charm of making history in front of plenty of first-timers to Fenway would have worn off if the game had gone much longer.
“You guys know me by now, I’m very optimistic,” Cora said after the game. “For every negative, I try to find a positive. But on the way to the ballpark, it crossed my mind at one point like, the way things have been going, we might play 16 innings now.”
Luckily for travel secretaries on both sides, that didn’t happen. The Red Sox, owners of the longest average game time so far this season, inadvertently solved baseball’s pace of play problem and figured out how to attract young fans to the aging sport — for a single day at least.
Free entry for all isn’t exactly a sustainable model, but dynamic pricing for families — both in terms of tickets and food — is now a proven tactic, even with several other extenuating circumstances. Open seating requires teams to sacrifice the markup on premium sections, but it makes 16,000 feel like a sold-out postseason game. It’s not surprising that discounts drive sales, but if teams want to know how to goose attendance, it’s a place to start.
As for the length of the event?
“We gotta remind them that this is not the pace we play,” Cora said of the kids who were likely attending their first-ever baseball “inning.” “Usually we play four-hour games.”
First of all, I’d like to encourage the reigning World Series champion manager to shoot for three hours going forward. Beyond that, anyone up for sudden-death baseball?
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