The End of an Era
Wherein I Wax Nostalgic over the Fenway Park Sellout Streak
It’s April 10, 2013, and the Red Sox are not playing in front of a full house for the first time in nearly a decade. I’m not at the game tonight, but I will admit I seriously considered it when I saw a tweet at 4:30 this afternoon that said only 33,000 tickets had been sold. Not that my one ticket was going to make the difference, but it was more to be a part of something historic (albeit in a somewhat strange way. Did any diehard Orioles fans buy tickets to the first game that Cal Ripken Jr. sat out, so they could say they were there when his historic streak was snapped? No? I’m the only one who would find this cool? Well, whatever the reason, I decided against it, mainly because there wasn’t enough time to go home and get my camera, scorecard book, Charlie Card, and more comfortable shoes. But I did consider it.)
Now I know there were some games at the end of the miserable 2012 season that weren’t fully attended, and that the criteria for a sellout was met because the tickets had been sold though not used. And I know that standing room patrons are counted in attendance, so there can be seats that aren’t sold as long as there are more SROs than empty seats. But in everything I’ve read, this is how all teams figure it, and the purpose of this post is not to debate or mock the way it’s calculated. Because I also know that throughout the streak there were plenty of games that were rained out at night and made up the next afternoon – which would have counted as a sellout even if no one showed for the makeup – but even though there was very little time for people to rearrange schedules, they were still legitimately full the next day. No matter how you look at it, 794 is a LOT of games, far and away blowing by the previous record of 455 set by the Cleveland Indians in the early years of Jacobs Field. (And let’s not forget that the ownership group has added many seats to the park over the past 10 years, so that the 34,000 that would have counted as a sellout when the streak began would be several thousand shy today.)
The last time Fenway Park wasn’t sold out for a game was May 14, 2003. I was actually at that game the night before the streak started. (The official attendance that night was 32,485, just under the nighttime total capacity of 34,898 at the time.) The Red Sox were going on 85 years without a Championship, bleacher seats cost $20 (field boxes were $70), and the Green Monster seats were new and still seemed strange. A decade later, I can say I was at the last game of the streak, the 2013 home opener. In between, we’ve celebrated two World Series wins and the 100th anniversary of the ballpark. Bleacher seats are $28 (field boxes are up to $135), and I have a Red Sox Nation card that lets me go up on the Green Monster before every game. In that time, I’ve been to 261 (!) games at Fenway Park, with more highs and lows (and rain delays) than I can count. I’ve seen walk-off victories, record-setting performances, fights in the stands, a uniform number being retired, bench-clearing brawls, nailbiting wins, heartbreaking losses, late nights, early mornings, cowboys, and idiots. I’ve even had the chance to take batting practice on the field and run the bases. I’ve been there through sweltering heat, biting cold, soaking rain, a little snow, and a hurricane.
This is supposed to be the part of the post where I recap my favorite and least favorite game during the streak, but there’s no way I can choose. (It’s actually a fun challenge, because my all-time favorite game was in 1999 and several of the runners-up are playoff games, which are not counted in the 794.) So what I am going to do is pick one regular season game per year in that span. Here goes:
2003 – Even just in this one year it’s hard to narrow down. It was such a crazy season with many dramatic come-from-behind wins, and my personal record was an impressive 20-9. I’m going to go with September 25, the final home game of the year and the day the Red Sox clinched the Wild Card. This led to a wild celebration, including players handing champagne bottles into the stands, and we stayed for over an hour after the game ended until security finally kicked everyone out. Then we hung out on the street corner, and we were there when Kevin Millar and a bunch of other players ran down the street to celebrate with fans in a nearby bar. (I didn’t follow after them because I didn’t think it was really the players; I figured when I heard someone yell “There goes Millah” that they were just talking about a fan in a #15 jersey. I have very few regrets in my life, but the fact that I was right there and didn’t follow them down the street remains one of them.)
2004 – The postseason is not included in this list, so I can’t mention my all-time low, the one playoff game I was able to attend that year, the humiliating 19-8 loss in Game 3 of the ALCS. (I guess I have a knack for attending games the day before something historic happens!) On a brighter note, my favorite regular season game was May 30, when Curt Schilling took a perfect game into the sixth, catching prospect Andy Dominique got his first major league hit, and Dave McCarty’s walk-off home run won it in the twelfth.
2005 – Easy choice! April 11, the home opener. Ring ceremony. Banner raising. And absolutely no way to get a ticket. But I went in to Boston anyway, determined just to listen and watch whatever I could see of the Jumbo-Tron from the sidewalk across the street. And then, just before the ceremony started, I saw the day-of-game ticket line, which stretched the length of the street, start to move. Figuring I had no chance, I got in the line anyway, and I improbably managed to get the exact last ticket available. That kept my Opening Day streak alive, and I was able to hear the ceremony from the street and then watch an exciting win over the Yankees.
2006 – Big Papi was in his prime, and with the Red Sox out of postseason contention due to injuries, the season became all about his heroics. I was there the nights he tied and broke the franchise home run record, but my favorite game was July 31. There were plenty of times when I’ve called for a game-winning homer, but this time I knew it was going to happen. They were down by 2 in the ninth, and as soon as the second baserunner reached ahead of him I knew we had won. Papi did exactly what we all knew he would do, blasting the walk-off homer. The crowd was all fired up, and we chanted “M-V-P” all the way back to Kenmore Square. (2006 also had another low, when I went to two of the games in a crushing 5-game sweep by the Yankees. Both games went well past midnight, with Friday’s having the added infamy of being the longest nine-inning game in the history of baseball at an excruciating 4 hours and 45 minutes.)
2007 – Again, I’d love to pick a postseason game (the one Manny won with the walk-off home run where he stood at the plate with his arms in the air, after I had camped on the street all day to get a day-of-game ticket) but going on regular season alone, my favorite was April 22. That was the night the Red Sox hit back-to-back-to-back-to-back home runs to beat the Yankees. And that wasn’t even the strangest part of the night. At one point a bunch of dollar bills floated from the upper deck into our section, and people were jumping up and down trying to catch them.
2008 – One of my favorites of the year was April 29, when I got to watch the game from a private suite. Not only did the dessert cart come through in the fifth inning with cheesecake and cocktails in edible chocolate shot glasses, but the game itself was a riveting pitchers’ duel which ended in a 1-0 walk-off victory.
2009 – Big Papi, my favorite player and the emotional leader of the team, was in an epic slump, still homerless deep into the month of May. So when he launched one toward the center field cameras on May 20, the whole ballpark willed the ball over the fence. Mixed with happiness and relief, we serenaded him with a heartfelt ovation, not stopping until he came out for a curtain call. The guy in the seat in front of me wound up with the home run ball, and he spent the rest of the game letting people in our section pose for pictures with it. Center field was definitely the place to be that night – Jacoby Ellsbury tied the AL record for putouts by an outfielder when he caught 12 fly ball outs.
2010 – With the Red Sox missing the playoffs, the final game of the season should have been depressing, but instead, October 3 brought an entertaining win over the Yankees that included a steal of home. After the game, everyone – not just kids – was allowed to run the bases, which was quite the thrill. Then I had an invitation to a special preview showing of the film “Four Days in October,” a chronicle of the 2004 ALCS, at which I got to meet Curt Schilling.
2011 – In a year in which it felt like every game I went to had bad weather, including one with four separate rain delays and one which didn’t end until 2:45 am due to rain delays and extra innings, it’s only fitting that my favorite game(s) took place on August 27, during Hurricane Irene. With the brunt of the storm due to hit New England on Sunday, they moved Sunday’s game, which I had a ticket for, to Saturday at 5 pm. But it rained all weekend, and Saturday’s regularly-scheduled afternoon game was still in a rain delay in the 8th inning when 5:00 rolled around. So they opened the gates anyway and let the Game 2 people in early. (They also let anyone still there from Game 1 stay for the second game.) Bundled up in a jacket and poncho, I found a seat in the second row behind the on-deck circle, and I watched up close as the Red Sox somehow were able to complete both games in steady rain, winning them both.
2012 – The Red Sox celebrated Fenway Park’s 100th anniversary with ceremonies throughout the season, and in a year in which they finished in last place with the worst record of my lifetime, the ceremonies were often better than the games. That was the case for the the 100th anniversary game itself, as well as the days of the tribute to the 2004 team and the All-Fenway team, all of which I was in attendance for, and all of which ended in losses on the field. So my favorite game is easy to pick – May 15. There was a touching ceremony before the game to honor Tim Wakefield after his retirement following the last season, including a surprise visit from his longtime personal catcher Doug Mirabelli, and they finished the day with a good, clean shutout win.
2013 – The home opener on April 8 was the 794th and final game of the sellout streak. Along with 37,007 others, I saw a fun 3-1 win on a sunny afternoon that wound up being my warmest Opening Day ever.
Now that the impressive streak is over, it should be easier to get tickets without having to spend hours stuck in the virtual waiting room online or camped out on the street. I was going to lots of games before the streak started, and I’m going to continue to go now that it’s done, it’s just going to be easier. Now the Red Sox can offer promotions and discounts again, like the 2-for-1 hot dog deal in April of this year. Plus if it rains and I’m in the bleachers, it should be easy to find an open seat under cover. And finally, it should make guessing the attendance at the end of the eighth more fun again – I used to be pretty good at it when the choices were 29,122, 30,486, 31,971, and 33,205… but once the choices became 37,119, 37,254, 37,362, and 37,488, it wasn’t much of a game anymore.