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Wednesday, May 12, 2004

The Fenway Project: Behind the Monster

Eric peeks behind every baseball fan’s favorite wall.

On June 28, 2002, more than 700 SABR members converged on Fenway Park to attend an interleague game between the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves. Sixty-four of them were participants in The Fenway Project, an ambitious project conceived by Bill Nowlin, the founder of Rounder Records and a Red Sox season ticket holder. The Fenway Project sought to chronicle a single nine-inning game from as many different vantage points as possible – the stands, the bleachers, the press box, the clubhouses, and various other locales within Fenway Park. Now two years later, their reminiscences have been published in book form as The Fenway Project: Sixty-Four of the Game’s Most Ardent and Knowledgeable Fans Chronicle one Night on the Field, in the Stands, and Behind the Scenes at America’s Oldest Ballpark. The following is an excerpt from that book.


Written and photographed by Eric Enders

Eighty-one times a year, sometimes more, Rich Maloney and Chris Elias spend four hours together in a dark, long, narrow room, perhaps five feet wide by 40 feet deep, with a sloping ceiling just high enough to walk under. It is, to be sure, an unusual place to report for work, but Rich and Chris have two of the best jobs in baseball. They are the men who work behind Fenway Park’s hand-operated scoreboard.

 

Both in their early thirties, they have been doing this together for twelve years – not long enough to witness the ecstasy of Fisk or the heartbreak of Buckner, but long enough to give them perhaps the most unique perspective on America’s oldest ballpark. Not only do they handle the scoreboard, but they also supervise the informal wall of honor that their "office" has become. The back wall of the room – the mass of concrete that separates them from Lansdowne Street – is strewn with many of the names that also dot baseball record books. For years, it has been a tradition for players to come back to this secret room behind the big green wall and sign their names on the concrete.

 

Of course, all the names are signed in chalk, so they don’t last more than a few years. Still, this is the one place where the ghosts of Fenway – or at least of recent Fenway – are most plainly visible. "There’s some stuff up there from ’92, ’93," Rich says when asked about the wall’s oldest signatures. "They’re mostly chalk, but some guys have done it with rocks, even markers."

 

There is Derek Lowe, who signed the wall on April 27, 2002, the day he pitched a no-hitter here. "Larry Walker’s in here, Jeff Bagwell’s in here," Rich says, pointing to names scrawled in white. "Tim Wakefield, Jeromy Burnitz, Mike Piazza. Chuck Knoblauch’s up top there. And you can barely see Luis González. He’s a really good guy. Darren Holmes, he signed it back in ’91 or ’92 when he was with Milwaukee. See where it says ‘Temple of Doom’ underneath there? That’s Holmes, Crim, and Bosio. Milwaukee thought they had the best bullpen in baseball that year, so they called themselves the Temple of Doom." And immortalized themselves in chalk on a slab of concrete.

 

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"This is kind of like a shrine," Rich says of the signature wall – but if so, it may be the only shrine where one of the major icons was willfully destroyed. On July 13, 1999, Tony Gwynn visited Fenway Park for the first and only time, and signed the wall to commemorate the occasion. Soon afterward, the Red Sox front office needed to put a electronic control box on the wall, and they placed the box – you guessed it – right over Gwynn’s signature. "Tony Gwynn was probably one of the nicest guys, too," Rich says. "He came here for the ’99 All-Star Game because he’d always wanted to see Fenway, and he came back here to hang out with us, telling stories and stuff. They were looking around for him because they were getting ready to take the National League team photo, and they couldn’t find Tony Gwynn. He was back here with us."

 

Of course, not everyone was as polite as Gwynn. "See David Wells there? Right above his name he wrote ‘Fenway Sucks,’" Rich says, pointing to a large white smudge on the wall where a partial letter ‘F’ is still visible. "ESPN the Magazine did an article about us, and they took a shot of that. The guys at the Red Sox got a little bit perturbed, so we wiped it off."

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Working outside of the public eye behind the big green wall, Rich and Chris are able to do many things other Red Sox employees cannot – like, say, kicking up their shoes and turning up Stevie Ray Vaughan on the radio while the national anthem plays outside. This is their time to relax: Once the action begins, they cannot afford to miss anything. With the game about to start, the two prepare for work, with Chris sitting at the end of the scoreboard nearest to center field, and Rich occupying the end nearest the foul line. "I always sit here," Rich says, pointing to a metal folding chair beside a tiny opening in the wall. This opening, about an inch tall and ten inches wide, is what allows a viewer to watch the game from inside the wall, as if peering out from behind Venetian blinds. There are several of these little slits along the bottom of the Green Monster. Rich’s job during the game is to sit here and change the runs, hits, errors, and inning-by-inning score as needed, hanging the big, green, aluminum numerals from hooks. "You know the Fisk home run in ’75? This is where the camera was," he says, pointing to another opening in the wall, this one the size of a man’s head. "This is the slot they were looking through. If the game’s on national TV, or on the local Fox affiliate, they’ll put a camera in here."

 

Of course, the most famous moment in Fenway’s long history involves this particular hole in the wall – and a rat. According to legend, NBC cameraman Lou Gerard was stationed inside the Green Monster during the 1975 World Series when he saw "a rat the size of a cat" coming toward him as Carlton Fisk strode to the plate. Not wanting to provoke the rat, Gerard kept his camera trained on Fisk after the swing, rather than turning it quickly to follow the flight of the ball as he normally would have. As a result, the memorable image of Fisk waving his home run fair was preserved for posterity – something that never would have happened if not for the fearsome rodent. "I wasn’t here at the time, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was true," Rich says. "We’re actually below ground level – Lansdowne Street is about three or four feet above the ground in this room. We’ve never really had any rat problems, but we’ve seen some evidence they’ve left behind."

 

Talking with these men, I am reminded of the only other time I’ve been inside a hand-operated scoreboard. It was in Cuba, where the rural Western province of Pinar del Rio has a manual scoreboard in its 12,000-seat ballpark. There the board is operated by two elderly men named Rolando Castillo and Julio Hernández. Like Rich and Chris, they operate the board with the familiarity of an old married couple; they’ve been working together for 35 years. But unlike Rich and Chris, who work on the ground floor, the Cubans do their jobs from high up inside the tall scoreboard, peering out on the world like Quasimodo in his bell tower. Like the Bostonians, Castillo and Hernández peer out at the game through holes in the scoreboard, and they too have a radio going at all times. But in Cuba, instead of the classic rock tunes heard inside the Green Monster, the radio is blaring the broadcast of the game – just in case Castillo and Hernández miss anything. There are other differences too. Instead of hanging signs on hooks, at each turn of events the Cubans crank a heavy steel handle that rotates the proper numeral into place. All four scoreboard operators I have met – two in Boston and two in Cuba – are painfully aware of how rare and precious their jobs are. In both Cuban and American baseball, most ballparks have long since begun operating their scoreboards with electricity instead of human beings. "It is a curse upon us," the Cubans say of the electronic scoreboard.

 

Back at Fenway, the crowd suddenly roars to life, drowning out our conversation, and a loud metallic bang over our heads announces that Shea Hillenbrand has hit a double off the wall. We scurry to the little openings in time to see Chipper Jones throwing the ball back to the infield. Jones is playing his first game as a left fielder at Fenway, which means he will likely soon join Rich and Chris’s circle of close personal friends – the guys with whom they converse through the small openings in the wall. "It’s kind of like a club," Rich says. "A lot of the left fielders come back here and shoot the breeze with us. Albert Belle was great. My personal favorite was Mike Greenwell, though. He spent more time back here than anyone, and he was a genuinely good guy. Anytime there was a pitching change, he’d come back here and talk NASCAR with us."

 

A pitch to Jason Varitek is called a strike. It doesn’t matter, for balls and strikes are tallied electronically from the control room upstairs in the press box. Down here in the trenches (literally), Rich and Chris control only the manually operated parts of the scoreboard: runs, hits, errors, the inning-by-inning score, and the American League out-of-town scores. On a table sits an old telephone, "the big phone," they call it, on which the front office calls down the out-of-town scores to be posted between innings. "If we’re in a pennant race or something, they might call the Yankee scores down in the middle of an inning," Chris says, "but otherwise it’s in between innings." The phone is set on the loudest possible ring, for the metal wall makes the crowd noise seem even more intense in here than outside.

 

The scoreboard we are sitting behind reflects not only the scores, but also pitching changes in each out-of-town game. On the wall behind Chris are hooks on which hang dozens of heavy rectangular metal plates. The plates are white on dark green, hand painted (by whom, nobody knows), and contain the uniform numbers of every pitcher in the league – even the retired 42, which is still worn by Mariano Rivera. Chris asks me if I want to be in charge of changing the numbers for a while. He doesn’t have to ask twice.

 

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Like most people with unspeakably cool jobs, Rich and Chris more or less stumbled into their positions. "I didn’t even know this job existed," Rich says. "I was in college, and I wrote a letter to the Red Sox PR department, got called in for an interview, and this was the job I got." Asked whether scoreboard operators are generously compensated, Chris offers a coy response. "It’s a labor of love," he says. "You get some pocket change, but it’s really not about the dough." Indeed, this is merely a second job for these men, both of whom perform more mundane tasks during the daytime. Rich works for a printing company, and Chris is a concert promoter, selling luxury boxes for performances at the Fleet Center and other venues. And while they both love their unique moonlighting job, they admit that being sequestered in a tiny dark space for hours at a time with only one other person is not always their idea of a good time. "At first I would have done it for free," Rich says. "But eventually it becomes a job. You know, some Tuesday or Wednesday night games during the summer, playing a crap team, you’d rather be somewhere else. But you take the good with the bad."

 

Included in "the bad" is losing many of the simple pleasures most fans take for granted – like, say, the ability to go use the restroom whenever you need to. "You know, it’s funny, I haven’t watched a Red Sox game from the stands in 12 years," Chris says. "But I have been to a couple of World Series games in New York. And it’s fun, you know, because you forget what it’s like after a while." For more than a decade, these two men have been watching baseball games only through an inch-high hole in a metal wall. It is, both literally and figuratively, a narrow view of the game. But it’s a view nobody else has, and for that they are grateful.

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Eric Enders Posted: May 12, 2004 at 11:24 PM | 14 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. Outdoor Miner Posted: May 13, 2004 at 02:17 AM (#626510)
Cool piece. I've been to Fenway twice, the last time in '92, and I was in total awe of the Monster--including how incredibly mundane it looks from behind on Lansdowne Street. Bostonians, how does it look from that angle with seats up there? Does it ruin the experience at all?
   2. Toolsy McClutch Posted: May 13, 2004 at 12:48 PM (#626824)
I got mine!
   3. Murray Posted: May 13, 2004 at 02:02 PM (#626858)
In the last year I lived in Boston, the Sox held an open house and let fans wander around the warning track to touch the Wall (they always called it "the Wall," not "the Monster" when I lived there in the mid-90s). No charge, either, which was generous.


I'm really enjoying my copy of "The Fenway Project."
   4. Mister High Standards Posted: May 13, 2004 at 03:06 PM (#626896)
EE, I think you did a heck of a job in the book.

The rest of the essay's were mediocre at best, some down right poor. Yours was very good on the other hand.
   5. Dread Pirate Dave Roberts Posted: May 13, 2004 at 04:15 PM (#626964)
"A lot of the left fielders come back here and shoot the breeze with us. Albert Belle was great. My personal favorite was Mike Greenwell, though. He spent more time back here than anyone, and he was a genuinely good guy."

I'm so sick of players like Mike Greenwell and Albert Belle chastising the scoreboard operators instead of playing....

Excellent essay, Eric! I wonder if and how the inside has been affected with the contruction of the monster seats.
   6. villageidiom Posted: May 13, 2004 at 04:35 PM (#626993)
Excellent work, Eric.

Murray, I think I was at that open house, too. They'd started doing it after the '94 strike, to make up with the fans. I'd wished they would have let us in the scoreboard, but alas they did not. I got some great pictures anyway.

MSSC, I don't think the inside has been affected at all. One thing bugs me, though... They've since added room for NL scores, but only on the outside. They haven't expanded the inside. Consequently, the scoreboard operators come out in between innings with the numbers and a ladder to update the NL scores. It destroys the whole mystique.

FWIW, my weekend seats are just to the right of Chipper Jones' neck in that last picture.
   7. User unknown in local recipient table (Craig B) Posted: May 13, 2004 at 09:40 PM (#627932)
When I got my copy of The Fenway Project two days ago, the first article I flipped to was EE's. Fine job, sir - as always.

That last shot of Fenway from the scoreboard, with Chipper in the foreground - wonderful. I wish they'd been able to incorporate the pictures in the book.

By the way, I never knew until now that Bill Nowlin was the founder of Rounder Records. That is so cool.
   8. Bernal Diaz has an angel on his shoulder Posted: May 14, 2004 at 03:26 AM (#628258)
Eric, I don't think I have read something written by you that I did not enjoy. Don't forget about us when you are rich and famous.
   9. Phil Coorey Posted: May 15, 2004 at 02:26 PM (#629892)
I'm looking forward to reading the book, it should arrive via Amazon in like a month!

This seems as good a place as any for me to rant and rave about how much I loved not only Fenway but all my baseball experiences on my recent trip to the USA. From the coldest night of my life ( Opening Night at Baltimore) to the great little clean sweep at Yankee Stadium every day was a treat.

But Fenway is different! There is something about it I will never be able to descibe which will always make me go back hopefully every year.

Just one year in my life I would give anything to live near Fenway and go to all 81 games one year. The fans are awesome each with great stories and memories.

Thanks
   10. John (You Can Call Me Grandma) Murphy Posted: May 17, 2004 at 04:08 AM (#631440)
When I got my copy of The Fenway Project two days ago, the first article I flipped to was EE's. Fine job, sir - as always.

Same here. It also happened to be the most interesting.

The Fenway Project, an ambitious project conceived by Bill Nowlin, the founder of Rounder Records and a Red Sox season ticket holder.

I didn't know that. If you see him EE, tell him thanks for the Jimmie Rodgers and Leadbelly albums.
   11. Catfish326 Posted: May 17, 2004 at 04:25 PM (#631714)
Interesting and fun article. I love Fenway Park, but the cost of attending games there is out of control. The highest in the Majors. Parking is expensive too. Also, the fans are overly hostile to Yankees fans (I've seen much more cordial treatment to Sox fans in the Bronx). So, residing in Maine, I've resorted to other options. Games in Canada are always great. Different culture and better food. The cost is also much more affordable. But, the best option in Southern Maine is a game at Hadlock Field in Portland, Maine, to see the Portland Seadogs--the Red Sox AA club. Tickets are cheap and the atmosphere is great. They reconstructed the stadium, so it's like a mini-Fenway Park, without all the negative stuff to go with it. Hadlock Field has its own Green Monster, and the fence distances are the same as Fenway's! For my family (of four) to go to a game at Hadlock we drop about $30 for everything (including food)! A family day at Fenway requires two Visas, a Mastercard, and a second mortgage on my home. And, the seats won't be nearly as good either. So, I'll take my mini-Fenway at Hadlcok Field over the over-priced, angry-fans Fenway any day.
   12. Harold can be a fun sponge Posted: May 21, 2004 at 11:11 PM (#639912)
When I got my copy of The Fenway Project two days ago, the first article I flipped to was EE's.

Same here -- though it was purely coincidental, as that just happened to be the first page that opened up.

Great job on the essay, I really enjoyed it. I like the pictures, too. I didn't read the on-line version here because I figured it'd be the same as in the book, but it was quite a pleasant surprise to find the pictures here.

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