The Emperor Has No Clothes, part 5

From the moment John Harrington assumed control of the Red Sox in 1992, the club’s future in Fenway Park has never been far from his mind. In fact, his concern was apparent as early as 1987, when he and then-partner Haywood Sullivan commissioned a study to determine how long the old ballyard could last.

The consultants concluded that $9 million of repairs would keep Fenway structurally sound at least through 2007. The repairs were made. In 1993 Harrington assured the Globe that "Fenway might be antiquated in a lot of ways, but it's not obsolete. It performs the function on the field and it's still a ballpark that's recognized and loved."

But the 1992 season made clear that structural soundness wasn’t enough – Fenway also had to remain economically viable. That year one divisional rival, the Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series and attracted more than 4,000,000 fans to their futuristic SkyDome. Another, the Baltimore Orioles, redefined state of the art ballpark design with Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and a third, the Cleveland Indians, was already constructing a similar facility. Each of these new parks brought their teams millions of additional dollars with which to sign players.

Ironically, Camden Yards and the Indians’ Jacobs Field heralded a change in stadium design toward smaller, old-fashioned, asymmetrical parks like Fenway. The big difference: the new parks added dozens of luxury boxes which rented for upwards of $50,000/year, and contained acres of concessions under the stands.

With this trend apparent, Harrington discussed his vision of a new park with the Globe. "It should be a ballpark," he said. "It should be an oldfashioned ballpark, not a stadium. Not a dome. This city deserves a Camden Yards. And at some point, the city will have one because economically, it has to happen. How you do it, how you finance it is an entirely separate issue, and the toughest issue of all."

The first stadium proposal to reach Harrington’s desk looked nothing like Fenway. In 1993, with the Patriots again threatening to leave, Governor Weld proposed a $700 million megaplex, to house a football stadium and convention center. Although the plan didn’t mention the Red Sox, Harrington expressed some interest in adding a baseball-only park to the plan.

Paul Barrett of the Boston Redevelopment Authority saw another role for the megaplex.

"Everybody loves Fenway Park, and I think everybody would love to see it stay there," Barrett said. "What could happen is the Red Sox could go to an indoor dome facility for two years and allow the charm of Fenway to be rebuilt on site."

This was the most sensible proposal yet. A key obstacle to the renovation of Fenway was what to with the Sox during construction. New England winters limited the amount of work which could be done in the off-season, while the lack of an adequate temporary home prevented the Sox from reconstructing the park during the spring and summer. The Yankees had played two seasons at Shea Stadium while their own park was being rebuilt; perhaps the Red Sox could do something similar.

By early 1994, though, Harrington had concluded that Fenway could not be preserved. He explained, "Fenway Park as we know it is no longer economically feasible. We need 10,000 more seats. It's as simple as that. And there is no way we can put 10,000 more seats in this ballpark. There are traffic and parking problems already without adding 10,000 more seats and the traffic problems that would come with them.

“When people ask about the future of Fenway Park, I say I just don't think we can expand it. I don't think it would be worth it to increase capacity and still end up with a 1912 ballpark. It wouldn't be worth it to knock the existing facility down and rebuild it unless there were a substantial change in the parking facilities and access.”

But even if the Sox couldn’t afford to stay in Fenway, Harrington didn’t know how they could afford to leave. State and local officials made clear that unlike Baltimore, Boston wouldn’t give the local club a blank check for a new ballpark. In fact, Boston wouldn’t pay anything for a new park, only for related costs like land and roads. Harrington had to come up with the money.

In 1995 the Sox proposed a $150 million ballpark on the Fort Point channel in South Boston, conditioned on the city providing free land. The city declined. The Sox rejected a suggestion that they swap the land under Fenway Park for the land the new park would occupy, saying they needed the proceeds from the sale of Fenway to fund the new field.

The next spring Harrington hinted that the quest for an appropriate, affordable site might drive the Sox to the suburbs. "Our first preference would be downtown Boston. Our second would be somewhere else in the city. But if it is the best thing to do, we will go to the suburbs. We are keeping all of our options open."

To Harrington, Fenway had become a white elephant which could no longer generate the revenues needed to field a contender. "We have to compete with Cleveland, we have to compete with the Orioles. They have a big break compared to us with their new stadiums that can generate a lot more income than we do. " Ultimately, he concluded, “it will not be feasible to be playing in Fenway Park 10 years from now.”

At least not Fenway Park as now configured – but in 1997 the Sox floated a tantalizing proposal to expand Fenway beyond its current site. By demolishing the vacant former Girls Latin school, closing a couple of streets and possibly even extending the park over the Mass Pike, the Sox might be able to add the seats and amenities they needed over the course of several off-seasons, without disrupting play.

Mayor Menino quickly embraced this option, but Harrington ultimately concluded it would cost too much. He explained, “Anyone who has ever tried to rebuild or renovate a home knows it's a lot less expensive, substantially less expensive, to build a new house than to renovate it or refurbish it.”

But Harrington had already made a major mistake. He didn’t realize that by writing Fenway’s obituary without a firm plan for replacing it, he was giving Fenway’s supporters all the time they would need to organize opposition to a move.

Those supporters wasted little time. On January 21, 1998, a grassroots coalition of volunteers formed Save Fenway Park! (SVP). SVP’s devoted membership included preservationists and architects -- men and women who not only offered informed criticism of Harrington’s plans, but developed their own credible alternative for keeping the Sox in a remodeled Fenway.

The terms of the stadium debate had been changed forever. Before the Sox could even reveal their plans for New Fenway, SVP was already touting architect Charles Hagenah’s proposal to renovate Old Fenway. Local residents, elected officials, and taxpayers around Massachusetts were listening.

On May 15, Harrington unveiled his model of New Fenway. Pleasing to the eye if not the wallet. New Fenway looked a lot like Old Fenway, and would be built a stone’s throw away. But New Fenway’s price tag would be at least $545,000,000, including $350 million for the park, $50 million for the land, $80 million for two parking garages and $50 million for traffic and other infrastructure improvements. The Sox offered to finance the stadium if the state and city contributed the remaining $195 million.

SVP responded less than two weeks later, announcing that its plan would cost $125 million less. The Sox would save $60 million in construction costs; the taxpayers would save another $65 million. Althouth the Sox and their architects dismissed the SVP design as inadequate and unrealistic, House Speaker Thomas Finneran emerged from an SVP briefing to say he was “encouraged” that Fenway could be renovated.

The battle for Fenway’s future is far from over. John Harrington can’t raise the private money needed to build New Fenway until all the public money is in place, but he won’t get the public money until the legislature is convinced that SVP’s cheaper alternative won’t work. Stay tuned...

Copyright © 1999 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the August 1999 issue of Boston Baseball.

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