Old-timers fete oldest of ballparks on 100th b-day
BOSTON – For one more afternoon, Yaz had the Fenway fans cheering, Pedro had them celebrating and Johnny Pesky brought tears to their eyes.
Scenes from Fenway Park's first 100 years played out on the major leagues' oldest ballfield again on Friday, when the Boston Red Sox celebrated its centennial by welcoming more than 200 former players and coaches back onto its landmark lawn.
In a ceremony before their game against the New York Yankees, 100 years to the day before they opened the building against that very rival, the Red Sox held a birthday party for the only ballpark in the majors ever to last this long. The team invited every living player and coach in franchise history, and more than 200 took them up on the offer.
"It was awesome being able to see all the guys that have played throughout the years," said Adrian Gonzalez, who spent part of the day getting to know Mo Vaughn, one of his predecessors as a Red Sox first baseman. "For me to be able to say thank you for all the guys who paved the way, it was pretty special."
Walking onto the field to the theme from "Field of Dreams" and the cheers of the ballpark's 719th consecutive sellout crowd, players from Don Aase to Bob Zupcic gathered at their positions and then watched as Caroline Kennedy took part in a ceremonial first pitch from the first-base box seats — 100 years after her great-grandfather did the same.
The Red Sox won the opener on April 20, 1912, 7-6 in 11 innings over the New York Highlanders (who would soon change their name to the Yankees). Boston went on to win the '12 World Series and three more in that decade, but then embarked on an 86-year title drought in which the ballpark became the franchise's biggest star.
"This ballpark has created as many memories for people in this area and around the world as any venue in the world," Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine said before the game. "The park here has at least a life of its own. A magic to it. It's the baseball land of Oz. People dream about this place."
Doomed for the wrecking ball before the current owners bought the team in 2002, Fenway now has seats above the Green Monster and an HD video screen — not to mention lights above the upper decks and black and Latin players in the field — all unimaginable when it opened the same week the Titanic sank.
"For whatever age you are, you can go back and think about the players that you watched as a kid," said Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who as a player made his home at Wrigley Field and the original Yankee Stadium. "It's the same place. It's the same feel. Yeah, they've added a few things here and there and a few seats here and there. But it's still the same feel."
The Red Sox are planning a season-long birthday party for the ballpark, with a special logo and historic plaques, books and bricks and even a musical composition by Oscar-winner John Williams. The ceremonies began on Monday, much as they did 100 years earlier, with the Harvard baseball team on the field, and on Thursday more than 53,000 fans filed through the gates for an open house.
For the actual anniversary on Friday, the Red Sox brought out the bunting and the Green Monster-sized U.S. flag and hundreds of players from the franchise's not-always glorious history.
Jim Rice began the procession of former ballplayers, coming out of a gate under the stands and taking his familiar place in left field. What followed was a steady procession of graying ballplayers in starched white or yellowing jerseys, giving the fans one more chance to cheer for stars Carlton Fisk and Carl Yastrzemski or fan favorites like Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd, Bill "Spaceman" Lee, Bill Buckner, Luis Tiant and Nomar Garciaparra.
Pumpsie Green, who became the franchise's first black ballplayer more than a decade after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier, received a warm cheer. The crowd did not seem to know whether to applaud or boo for Jose Canseco, whose two seasons in Boston were characterized by forgettable play and hints he would drop about a book he planned to write.
After taking their positions, the players all gathered around the oldest of the old-timers, Johnny Pesky and Bobby Doerr, who were pushed out to second base in wheelchairs by recently retired Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield.
Pesky, 92, was in tears.
Among the bigger cheers was the chant of "Tito!" that greeted Terry Francona, the manager of the '04 and '07 champions who was let go after the team's unprecedented collapse last September. Francona, who was angered by a newspaper article revealing details about personal troubles during the 2011 season, said he would not attend but then relented.
They were all joined on the field by the current players, who were wearing replica uniforms matching the 1912 style, including all white caps. The Yankees also wore throwbacks; it's believed to be the first time in franchise history they have deigned to do so.
"I loved them. Cool," said Yankees designated hitter Alex Rodriguez, who hit his 631st career homer to move into fifth on baseball's all-time list and lead New York to a 6-2 victory on Friday. "We can't keep 'em, though."
Williams, the composer, led members of the Boston Pops in the debut of his "Fanfare for Fenway"; Pops conductor Keith Lockhart took over for "The Star Spangled-Banner." There was an Air Force flyover with planes from World War II, when Fenway was already middle-aged.
The ceremonial first pitch was handled by Kennedy — that's Caroline, not Kevin — whose father was President John F. Kennedy and great-grandfather was Boston Mayor John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald when Fenway opened. (She was also the inspiration of the Neil Diamond song "Sweet Caroline," which is warbled by Fenway fans every eighth inning.)
Current mayor Tom Menino also threw a ceremonial first pitch, along with Thomas Fitzgerald, a grandson of the Boston mayor.
The ceremony ended with a grape juice toast led from atop the Boston dugout by Kevin Millar and Pedro Martinez, perhaps the two biggest personalities of the 2004 champions. Millar said they were given a script but, to no one's surprise, they quickly abandoned it.
Martinez left for the New York Mets after the '04 season, a little more than a month after the cathartic parade in which an estimated 3 million to 4 million fans came out to celebrate the first World Series championship in 86 years. Like Garciaparra, Francona, Fisk, Vaughn and even Buckner, who was long blamed for the team's 1986 World Series collapse, Martinez left on poor terms but, now, is warmly welcomed back.
"I felt like I'm still in that parade," Martinez said. "Every time when I come back to Boston, it's always like a parade for me."
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