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There are few sites in professional sport that are as much aligned with sport heritage, heritage sport tourism, and sporting pilgrimage as Boston’s Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox baseball club. The stadium opened in 1912, sells-out virtually every game, has a quirky, unique design (particularly the large, left field wall known as the “Green Monster“) that has inspired the design of numerous contemporary stadium design features – and even several replicas at the minor league level, attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors on non-game days and in the off-season (making it one of the most visited tourist attractions in Massachusetts), and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its age and design, links to baseball history, connections to New England identity, and role as a “muse” for numerous literary and artistic works. Even some of the areas surrounding the stadium – such as the prominent “Citgo” sign over the outfield wall – are considered part of the heritage infrastructure of Fenway Park. In terms of its role in sport heritage research, Fenway Park makes numerous appearances – most notably in the work of Michael Friedman, who looks at how sport heritage has been created and marketed at Fenway as well as how Fenway has actually borrowed features from retro ballparks like Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore (particularly in the creation of Yawkey Way outside of the ballpark, which is based off of Eutaw Street in Baltimore).
My purpose for going to Fenway Park, aside from the fact that I had never been before, was as part of a long-time promise my brother and I made to our father to one day take him to see a game at the stadium. My father isn’t a Red Sox fan, my brother doesn’t follow baseball at all, and I am a Toronto Blue Jays supporter – a division rival of the Red Sox. However, going to Fenway was, in truth, on all of our sporting “bucket list” in large part because of the stadium’s infamy. As such, we finally fulfilled our promise to take our father to a game, an August 27, 2016 matchup between the defending World Series champion Kansas City Royals and the hometown Red Sox.
Although many sporting venues use sport heritage for a variety of purposes, from establishing a sense of place tangible link between past and present to creating a sense of legitimacy, few sites – if any I have experienced – commodify their heritage in the same way Fenway Park does. From the old timey street carnival on Yawkey Way, to the Fenway-inspired “antiqued” souvenirs, to the colour of the stadium (a kind-of “heritage green”) to the use of an antiquated manual scoreboard, to the Fenway traditions like the singing of “Sweet Caroline” in the eighth inning, the entire experience is very much managed through the lens of sport heritage. Of course, there is a price to be paid for this – our tickets, which at similar vantage points in other stadiums would retail for around $40 – had a $120 face value. The seats were not overly comfortable either, and many concourse areas of the stadium were significantly more “1912” than “2016” in terms of space. There is also very little heritage dissonance or few ideas of Fenway being anything other than “goodly heritage.”
And yet, despite a long-held antipathy for the Red Sox and many of their fans, it was hard not to feel that Fenway is a very special place. Certainly, much of this feeling had to do with who I went to the game with – the experience was made that much more special because it was a family pilgrimage. The heritage of the venue also made it special. It wasn’t just going to a random ballgame at a major league stadium. It was going to Fenway with my brother and father.
Similarly, I was pleased to see numerous – and almost discreetly-placed – heritage markers throughout the stadium, most of which had to do with changes in design and features (such as when stadium lights were added, or when elevators were installed). In many ways, it felt a little like going to a National Historic Site – that there was a realization that the heritage of the stadium is multifaceted, perhaps not necessarily in terms of narratives but in terms of approach. I think this reflected what the National Register of Historic Places designation set out to do – Fenway is not just an old ballpark, it is a symbol and a conduit between past and present.
Finally, it was just fun. I have been to many ballparks throughout the United States and Canada, and few gave the feeling of both gravitas and the sense that every game was an event like going to Fenway Park. Going to a game at Fenway just feels special, and that you are dipping a toe in a river of baseball lore that existed before you and will continue long after you are gone. I can’t say I’ll become a Red Sox fan anytime soon, but I’m already planning my next trip.
On Replicas, Borrowed Heritage, and Minor League Baseball
Minor League Baseball (or MiLB for short) could rightly be considered a American heritage institution. Although it would appear that football is America’s passion, baseball remains a pastime – and, perhaps, no where is this more apparent than at the minor league level.
If you are not familiar with affiliated minor league baseball, this may offer a short primer. Basically, each major league (or MLB) team has a large system of developmental teams at different levels – from Rookie and “A” leagues (essentially, recently drafted teenagers who are a long ways from making a major league roster – if at all) through to Triple A leagues (the proverbial “one step away” from the big leagues). However, as this list shows, MiLB has a presence in virtually every part of the US. Where I live in South Carolina, there are a half dozen MiLB teams of various levels and affiliations within a three hour drive of my front door – and, I would suspect, this is a typical proximity for many people in the US.
The thing about attending an MiLB game is, strangely, going to a game is only partially about watching the game itself. Sure, you hope the home team wins and “if they lose it’s a shame,” and die-hard fans of the team want to see “tomorrow’s superstars today” etc., but it really is more about having a beer, hot dog, and ice cream, having the kids chase foul balls, and seeing some of the truly inventive promotions for which MiLB is famous. Tickets are normally very inexpensive (even Triple A tickets are often no more than $15) and stadiums are normally small, so almost all tickets are close to the action (depending on the league, location and calibre of play, many MiLB stadiums seat fewer than 5,000 spectators).
This past Saturday, my family and I went to see a Greenville Drive baseball game. We go to probably about a half-dozen games in Greenville each year, and sometimes sprinkle in some visits to other regional teams – such as the Asheville Tourists – throughout the summer. As per usual, our visit included a trip to the in-stadium kids play park for our son, a line-up for a balloon animal (the promotion that night was the team mascot’s birthday – so there was balloon animal makers, face painting, cupcakes, etc), the obligatory beer for dad and ice cream for mom and son – and, we even watched a little bit of baseball! But, these elements are traditional – if not expected – at MiLB games, so not seeing much of the game was, in fact, part of the event.
One of the additional selling features of Greenville games are that they are affiliated with the Boston Red Sox – one of the oldest (and perhaps most heritage-laden) franchises in American sport – and, as such, much of the game “experience” attempts to replicate (albeit on a small, and more self-conscious scale) what a game would be like in Boston. For example, in Greenville they sing the Neil Diamond song “Sweet Caroline” – just as they do in Boston. The stadium itself, Fluor Field, is even a quasi-replica of Boston’s Fenway Park – right down to the “Green Monster” in left field, the “Pesky Pole” in right field, and the manual (rather than electronic) scoreboard. More than just being a retro baseball stadium – of which there are many in the US – going to a Greenville Drive game is meant to be “like” going to Fenway, along with all the traditions, rituals, and heritage markers.
Recently, an article of mine was published that discussed the idea of borrowed heritage, specifically arguing that some sport locations have to “borrow” heritage markers from elsewhere until such time that they can develop their own stable, recognizable, and (perhaps) commodifiable heritage. Thing is, Greenville has a long and recognizable baseball heritage. The city and region were one of the hotbeds of baseball’s textile leagues (known as the “Mill Leagues” where textile mill teams played one another, often on Sunday afternoons). In fact, the home of one of the most well known players in baseball history – “Shoeless Joe Jackson” – is right across the street from Fluor Field and is now a privately operated museum (though, unaffiliated with the Drive baseball team). There are a few photos of mill league teams and players, as well as ol’ Shoeless himself, at Fluor Field, but much of this heritage is largely ignored. Ultimately, it would seem that the baseball heritage imported from Boston is more salient – and marketable – than the homegrown variety.
PS – There are some really interesting chapters/articles about Fenway Park’s relationship to heritage, tourism, and sport management here and here.