Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Real Monster of Fenway



The Real Monster of Fenway

    Fenway Park in Boston is not so much a ballpark as an heirloom, a relic of ages past, like the Roman Colosseum.
    It is a holdover from the days when they fitted ball fields into the configuration of the city at large, not vice versa. No one would dream of condemning buildings or streets for a mere game in those days. In 1912, Lansdowne Street was considered too important a thoroughfare to be grassed over just so men could play boys' games.
    So, they cut the ballpark in wedges and gave it, like a lot of Boston, the characteristic of some place George Washington might have slept. The left-field fence had to be cut so close to the infield, a mere 314 feet from home plate, that the third baseman and the left fielder seemed to be playing the same position.
    They have a decent respect for the past in Boston. No one has yet come up with the suggestion they tear down Faneuil Hall to make used-brick fireplaces in Petaluma, and no one would think of erecting a round, domed, glass and chrome palace where Fenway Park once stood.
    You step back into 1912 when you enter Fenway. Historians love it. Pitchers hate it. They don't see the left-field wall as an artifact, they see it as a "Green Monster."
    It didn't matter much in the early days of the grand old game, the beanbag era. But when the home run came in, it ruined the Red Sox.
    When Tom Yawkey, the millionaire lumberman, bought the club in the '30s, he took one look at that wall and went out and bought every right-handed power slugger he could bid on. He bought Jimmie Foxx from Philadelphia, Joe Vosmik from St. Louis, Joe Cronin from Washington, Junior Stephens from St. Louis and Rudy York from Detroit.
    The Red Sox went right-hand crazy. There were times when the lineup had nine right-handed hitters in it, seldom fewer than eight.
    This was terrific when they were at home, catastrophic when they were on the road.
    But a strange pattern developed. Some of the greatest hitters in Fenway Park history proved not to be right-handed sluggers but lefties. Look it up. Begin with, of all people, Babe Ruth.
    Ruth was a pitcher with the Red Sox in 1918 but he led the league in home runs with 11. The Red Sox got only 15 home runs as a team that year, which meant that the rest of the lineup came up with four on its own.
    The next year, as a pitcher and part-time outfielder, Ruth came up with 29 home runs — out of the team's 33 — which was more than four teams in the league got using full-time outfielders.
    After Ruth, there were Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Doc Cramer, Johnny Pesky, Reggie Smith, Fred Lynn, Wade Boggs — left-handers all, whose power alleys were 380 feet away.
    I bring this up because I talked the other day to a man who may be the single most devastating player in the game — certainly he's no worse than second or third — Boston's James Edward Rice.
    Jim Rice may be the best-looking specimen in the game today. Six-two, 215, not an ounce of fat on him, flat belly, iron wrists, he looks like 50 home runs just standing there. He was a 10-letter man in high school. He could doubtless have been a touring golf pro. Whatever could be done with a ball and a stick, Jim Rice could do.
    He and Fenway Park seemed as made for each other as John Wayne and a horse. He is the only player in baseball history ever to have three 35-home run and 200-hit seasons in a row. He has hit 340 home runs. He is one of a few modern players whose lifetime average is above .300.
    He has exemplary habits and plays out of that slight truculence all great competitors have. If you were to start a league tomorrow, chances are good you would pick Jim Rice as the first player. Tommy John, the pitcher, once said of him: "The monster in Fenway is not left field, it's the left fielder."
    So, it is maybe hard to picture Rice as a tragic victim of fate. I mean, you would say on the basis of those statistics that he hasn't had a career, he's had a parade.
    He had everything going for him — that short fence, a place to play where baseball is not only a tradition, it's a vocation, like holy orders.
    And yet, listen to Jim Rice as he stands in the middle of the Red Sox clubhouse, buttoning his shirt angrily:
    "The fence? Listen! I'm not a home-run hitter. What? Never mind the 340 home runs. Who would you say is a home-run hitter? Dave Kingman? Reggie Jackson? Those guys go up there thinking home runs. I'm not a pull hitter. My power is to the centerfield alleys."
    He points to a teammate. "How many balls would you say I pull over the fence?" he challenges, then answers his own question. "Very few. The only time I think about the fence is when I have to play it. Since they changed it. . . . What? You didn't know they remade the fence? Where you been! It's got this padding on it now it didn't use to have, and you had to learn to play it all over again."
    The fence, in short, is not an ally, it's an enemy. Maybe, the enemy.
    You wonder how many right-handed hitters gradually found out over the years that the fence, like an unfaithful wife, was cheating them out of the best years of their lives.
    Consider this: A smart pitcher, checking the trigonometry, would see all that space in right field. You could graze buffalo in right-center. At the plate, he's got a free-swinging right-hander.
    The only way that pitch is going to be anywhere but on the outside corner and low and twisting is if the pitcher makes a terrible mistake.
    Some years ago, this reporter at a World Series in Fenway saw Johnny Bench taking 360-degree swings in the batting cage. "No, John," the reporter advised, pointing to the right-field moorlands. "You hit the ball that way in this ballpark. You'll never see a pitch you can even mail to left field."
    Jim Rice has shifted his emphasis this year. After seasons in which he has hit 46 home runs once, 39 home runs on three other occasions and 55 home runs in the last two seasons, he has hit nine this season.
    But he is batting .336 and is fourth in the league and has eight game-winning hits.
    He is batting as if he were in one of those round symmetrical ballparks where he may belong. Only trouble is, the pitchers aren't pitching as if they were in one of those round, symmetrical ballparks, so Jim Rice doesn't get those round, symmetrical pitches.
    The secret of Fenway Park may be that the wall makes it a hitters' paradise, all right — for left-handed hitters. For right-handers it may be the worst wall this side of Berlin.

*Reprinted with permission by the Los Angeles Times

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