Olde Towne magic: Boston's shrine has sense of place

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It was my first trip to Fenway, though it seemed familiar, like a relative I'd heard so much about but never met. Fenway was a television star, the one ballpark that wasn't merely background to the game but nearly a third protagonist. Curt Gowdy never failed to tell us about the "nooks and crannies." It was Massachusetts state law that all broadcasters would have to read a disclaimer upon a team establishing a lead of at least three runs: "You never have enough runs at Fenway."

The great wall in left field, the Green Monster, loomed over the game like the Colussus of Rhodes, a true ancient wonder. Left-handed pitchers and visiting left fielders were awed and maybe even a bit frightened by it. It changed the scale of the game on television, making it appear as if the ballplayers were playing inside a handball court.

This I had to see up close, so I took a taxi to Fenway early that day and headed straight for the wall, the last bits of snow melting on the warning track. What I remember most were the dimples. I had this idea of the Monster as formidable and unyielding, a one-sided fortress. What I found was what appeared to be sheet metal or tin pocked by hundreds of line drives and flyballs over the years. It was not unlike the surface of a golf ball supersized. Imagine that. The Monster gives a little.

All these years later the wall still captivates me as if I'm seeing it for that first time. Take the Road Hole at St. Andrews, the hedges in Athens, the water at Sawgrass, the ivy at Wrigley or anything else you can think of, and no field boundary in sports is more iconic and more influential to the outcome of a sporting contest than the wall.

Fenway still would be a gem of a place without it, but thank goodness they had to shoehorn the place in front of Lansdowne Street when they built it, causing the need for a high wall to offset the short distance from home plate. People wondered back in 1912 if hitters would be able to clear its height, and now we have 250-pound strongmen launching balls clear over Lansdowne onto the roof of a parking garage and threatening traffic on the Mass Pike. The game has changed but Fenway, and its Monster, are constant.

Fenway is my favorite sports venue because it has a unique personality that is organic, a natural triumph of architecture and sense of place. It is not tricked up or forced. The years have given it even greater import as a connection to the game's history. Fenway and Wrigley are the last places standing where you can watch a big league game in the same ballpark where people saw Babe Ruth play. (Yankee Stadium is very different in its remodeled reincarnation, and will be wiped away entirely after this season.)

Current Red Sox ownership has preserved and in some cases even enhanced the uniqueness of Fenway. Janet Marie Smith, one of the underrated influences in the growth of the modern game, designed seating atop the Green Monster and right-field roof, along with other architectural elements, with an artist's touch and a historian's sensitivity. She succeeded in modernizing the ballpark in the cloak of 1912; the changes look as if they always were there. (Smith also imbued Camden Yards, the preeminent modern prototype, with its authenticity.)

Sports at their best inspire and bring communities together. There must be a larger social element to the sports equation, not just the element of competition. And the best sports venues enhance that sense of community, of shared experience, when they create intimacy and are connected emotionally and physically to their surroundings. You can't have a great ballpark, for instance, in a "sports complex" off an interstate. Fenway would not be Fenway in say, Foxboro.

Baseball is so much bigger now than it was back in 1985. Fenway, for instance, was one-third empty for the second and third games of that season, in which the Red Sox were playing the Yankees. Now the Red Sox essentially play 81 playoff games every season. Game days, even against Tampa Bay in April, are events. If you want to impress a client or a date Fenway works better than a five-star restaurant, and can be even more expensive.

But the little ballpark holds up well to the extraordinary commerce in and around it. Its authenticity becomes more powerful with every season. It's cool for me to know the place where Ruth played, where Teddy Ballgame smashed one far up the right-field stands (See? See that red seat?), where Carlton Fisk waved his home run fair, where I walked a snowy warning track as a baseball writer starting out ... it's the same place where my sons saw their first major-league game -- it was only the second game in history that included a triple play and cycle -- and a no-hitter by Clay Buchholz.

Fenway is extraordinary when it is full, the old place feeling like it just might burst from the weight of the people and excitement. But my favorite time at Fenway, as it was back in 1985, still is when the ballpark is empty, especially late in the summer when the late-day sun is low in the sky. Fenway glows golden with a reminder that the days of warmth, and of the baseball season, grow more precious with their scarcity. Ballplayers loosen up with a practiced casualness. The thwack of bat upon ball crackles with such clarity in an empty ballpark. Fenway is full of possibilities.

2.Wrigley FieldThe best reason in sports to call in sick: watching an afternoon game at Wrigley.

3.Rose Bowl, Pasadena. Sunset over the San Gabriels is spectacular.

4.Holman Stadium, Vero Beach, Fla. Palm trees growing out of the stands, dugouts without roofs, a grass berm ringing the outfield, and visions of Sandy Koufax uncoiling his curveball.

5.Camden Yards, Baltimore. The best of modern conveniences in a place that looks as if it's been there forever.