Inside Fenway Park: An Icon At 100 debuts tonight on PBS at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific/9 p.m. Central and Mountain in most markets. You should check local listings.
For Red Sox fans, nothing that’s happened in the past six months or so has made much sense at all. The odds-on World Series favorites were cruising toward a 100-win season when the wheels fell off last September. The team went 7-20 that month, with the final humiliation coming on the last day of the season, when the Sox fell to the lowly Orioles in the bottom of the ninth, even as the Tampa Bay Rays were staging an epic comeback against the Yankees. Falling short of the playoffs, the team went into the off-season in disarray. Manager Terry Francona, who’d led the team to two championships, was out the door, along with wunderkind GM Theo Epstein, who left his hometown team for the Chicago Cubs. The Boston newspapers were filled with stories of backstabbing and bad behavior, including the dreaded consumption of beer and fried chicken in the clubhouse during games. (Babe Ruth surely rolled over in his grave.) Of course, the Red Sox have gone through their share of tumultuous times before, but no matter how uncertain the current status of the team may be, there’s always one constant that can be relied upon: Fenway Park.
Produced by National Geographic Television, Inside Fenway Park: An Icon at 100 isn’t a huge departure from what we’ve come to expect from a baseball documentary on PBS. It’s got the vintage photos, rare old clips, talking head interviews, and penchant for the sentimental that characterized the exhaustive Ken Burns history of the game. But as directed by Robert Caputo, Inside Fenway Park does offer more immediacy than Burns’ Baseball, primarily by letting us in on all aspects of the ballpark’s operations on the day of a regular season Yankees/Red Sox match-up in 2011.
Narrated by (who else?) Matt Damon, the hour-long documentary is salted with tidbits from Fenway history familiar to diehards, but perhaps not to the more casual baseball fans who may be tuning in. The park opened on April 20, 1912, the same week that the Titanic sank (a coincidence that could be viewed as an omen of things to come for the team that called Fenway home). At first, times were good; the Red Sox won the World Series that year and three more times throughout the decade. After the sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees, however, the team’s fortunes declined. (Fortunately, the doc goes light on the “Curse of the Bambino” shtick that was the bane of every Red Sox fan in the years leading up to the 2004 championship.)
Inside Fenway Park is less concerned with the ups and downs of the Red Sox franchise than the quirks and inner workings of its home ballpark. The most famous of its unique features is, of course, the Green Monster, the 37-foot left field wall that beckons so invitingly to right-handed hitters. But in its early days, the park was equally well-known for Duffy’s Cliff, a mound in the outfield that allowed spectators to actually sit on the field during gameplay. It was in the mid-60s, when attendance declined and ballparks across the country were being replaced by concrete multi-use monstrosities, that the future of decaying Fenway first came into doubt. By the ‘90s, it seemed all but assured that the venerable but creaky ballpark would be replaced by a modern facility with all the amenities, but the new ownership that took power in 2002 has spent the past decade renovating Fenway beyond the expectations of most observers (most notably with the addition of seating atop the Green Monster).
The documentary takes a reverent attitude, bordering on fawning, toward all things Fenway, which may grate on fans of other teams (most notably those damn Yankees). The only truly critical section of the film concerns the Boston team’s shameful history of race relations under the longtime Yawkey administration, which didn’t integrate the team until 1959, long after the rest of the league had broken the color barrier. You’d never know from Inside Fenway Park that not every fan is enamored with the narrow aisles and oft-baffling sightlines of “America’s most beloved ballpark.” You’d think they could have found at least one person to badmouth Fenway, just for the sake of balance.
Still, for diehards and newbies alike, the film is well worth a look, mainly for its insider's view of a day at the ballpark. From the meticulous work of the grounds crew to the travails of the hot dog vendor to the locker room attendant who spends his afternoon rubbing special mud into the baseballs for later use, the National Geographic cameras don’t miss a beat.
- The game featured in the film took place on August 31, 2011, and was won by the Red Sox, 9-5. It was pretty much the last bright spot of the season for us Soxoholics.
- Among the fun tidbits of information gleaned from the doc: There is a hierarchy of bat boys, and the low man on the totem pole is forced to dress in the opposing team’s uniform, even if it’s the Yankees.
- I was already ready for baseball season to start, and watching this did nothing to curb my anticipation. Let’s play ball!
- OK, that’s it. Cue “Dirty Water.”