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Shi: Baseball seeks vengeance in a hallowed ground

Boston’s Fenway Park is deceptively small. You can spend four years watching the Red Sox on NESN (or, if they’re playing the Yankees, ESPN), and you’d get the decided impression that Fenway is a typical baseball stadium. Perhaps a low-capacity one, but still built on the gargantuan scale of such behemoths as Dodger Stadium or the Oakland Coliseum — spacious arenas built in a spacious country.

Fenway may have a reputation as a tiny park, but the diamond still measures 90 feet a side, the mound is still 60 feet and 6 inches from home plate and dead center is a respectable 400 feet deep. Miles away on the television screen, outfielders are reduced to ants against the overwhelming backdrop of the Green Monster. Held up by now-antiquated columns, Fenway’s upper deck seems like it could hold 50,000.

The truth is, though, that Fenway is every bit a bandbox as people say — or perhaps even more than that. Entering the stadium Sunday night, I was surprised by just how small the place was. The 37-foot Green Monster seems colossal from a more removed perspective, but even then it’s only about two or three stories high. The upper decks only hold about 3,000 fans, mostly club seating. Everything that is ultimately an accessory to the stadium and to the field is, naturally, built larger than life — the two massive video boards, the staggering floodlight array and the glittering advertisements for Coca-Cola, Budweiser, Cumberland Farms and John Hancock. (Who says that advertising doesn’t work?)

Especially when the lights are shining — and they may be the brightest in baseball — Fenway looks less like a ballpark and more like an oversized children’s toy. Perhaps size is inversely correlated to atmosphere; Boston easily had the loudest baseball crowd I’ve ever heard. Fenway didn’t look real and I allowed myself to get lost in that lack of realness. For a while, I almost forgot that I was at a baseball game. I got caught up in the spirit of community and camaraderie: One that we think baseball once had and has since lost, but in reality persists throughout the years and to this very day.

***

I would hesitate to say, though, that the atmosphere that night was entirely due to the park. I had picked tickets specifically to catch the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry matchup, but I couldn’t have predicted that Alex Rodriguez, at the center of possibly the most tired storyline in baseball history, could have suddenly revitalized his capacity for generating hatred.

He had not been terribly booed in the first two games of the series, but on Sunday night — after Rodriguez’ role in covering up the Biogenesis operation finally came to light — Boston’s anger came out in full force. Rodriguez was booed all night, and the Boston fans were almost as loud as Cleveland’s on the day LeBron James first returned in a Heat jersey — and in an open-air stadium to boot. Perhaps that’s hypocritical, seeing as Boston rode the bat of noted juicer Manny Ramirez to its first title in 86 years, but it’s a rivalry game and the Manny era is ancient history by now.

I was impressed by Boston’s capacity for hate. Sox fans may tell you that it’s difficult to really hate the Yankees right now because the Sox are in first and the Yankees have crashed to fourth, but that is pure New England understatement; for a proud team like the Yankees, apathy is the best hate there is. Hatred for the Yankees burns brightly regardless of how well (or badly) the Yankees are doing, and if hate for the Yankees ever seems to diminish it is because Sox fans are too busy hating on their own team, which is typically the case.

But Sunday night was Yankees night, and when Ryan Dempster drilled Rodriguez in the back, the cheers of the Fenway faithful reached a climax. The only two things that could have made them louder were a World Series championship and an on-field brawl. I realize that in 20 years or so people may well look back on the Boston cheers as asinine, but everybody was caught up in the heat of the moment. Boston has always loathed Alex Rodriguez, but mainly because he is very good at baseball; Rodriguez is arrogant, but justifiably so. This night, however, Rodriguez was shown to be not only arrogant and a cheater but also a cover-up artist. The last great player of the steroids era was, more than ever, an acceptable target.

I won’t judge Dempster. Yankees manager Joe Girardi smartly argued after the game that ‘roider Nelson Cruz wasn’t hit; Ryan Braun wasn’t hit; Everth Cabrera wasn’t hit; less recently, Barry Bonds wasn’t hit; Jason Giambi wasn’t hit; Mark McGwire wasn’t hit. Indeed, the players union has traditionally stood behind its steroid users until it had no other choice. But Dempster drilling Rodriguez was the culmination of a collective realization among baseball players that the use of steroids was not, in fact, a victimless crime.

Today’s players base their complaints not so much on abstract concepts such as “the sanctity of the game” but on their pocketbooks: specifically, the assertion that a dollar that goes to a cheater is a dollar that otherwise would have gone to a clean player. This new argument bears more force than most; growing up a child of the steroids era, I have never seen an outcry as fierce as the one that has assailed Rodriguez and Braun this season.

Once upon a time a rising tide may well have lifted all the boats. It’s commonly accepted that steroids and the long ball helped make baseball relevant again after the 1994 strike. But today’s baseball is a different creature entirely. Mike Trout was in middle school when Barry Bonds’ reputation was ruined by BALCO. Trout is also one of the most vocal critics of steroids in baseball. You don’t think that BALCO had something to do with that?

Maybe Dempster’s assault on Rodriguez was barbaric, but in some strange way it did seem justified. More than anyone else, Rodriguez has been able to dodge punishment for steroid use. His riches remain intact, unlike Canseco’s; his reputation has not been dragged through the mud by Congress itself, unlike McGwire’s; he has never been suspended, unlike Braun; he has a World Series ring, unlike Bonds.

Dempster made Rodriguez a spectacle, an object of humiliation for 37,000 gleeful fans and millions more on television. Rodriguez answered by smashing a home run to deep center and showboating on his way to home plate, as was his right.

Sunday night may well have been the beginning of the end of steroids in baseball. If so, it was only appropriate that baseball’s return to its quasi-mythical roots occurred in a dreamlike, high-spirited rivalry atmosphere like the one at Fenway Park last night. When setting and moment coincide as perfectly as they do — well, that is the stuff that dreams are made of.

When Winston Shi decided that he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to watch a Yankees-Red Sox matchup in one of baseball’s most hallowed backdrops, little did he know that he’d witness the full, uncensored rage of Red Sox fans firsthand. Tell him that it’s okay to stop shaking and recommend some trauma counselors at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Winston Shi

Winston Shi is an opinions columnist and senior staff writer for The Stanford Daily and was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also sits on The Daily's Editorial Board. Previously, he worked at The Daily as a staff writer for the sports section. He is a junior from Thousand Oaks, California and majors in history. In his free time, he likes to read, travel and write about himself in the third person. Contact him at wshi94@stanford.edu.
  • Z

    Excellent article Shi! We here at home all cheered loud and long, even my mom!