Growing up a native Bay Stater and ardent Red Sox fan, Fenway Park has always held a nostalgic mystique for me. My earliest sports memories involve wading through the crowds on Yawkey Way, clutching my father’s hand, the smell of roasted peanuts and cheap cigar smoke hanging in the air like a fog. We’d press into the arched brick façade, squeeze through the old mechanical turnstiles with a satisfying clunk, before the days of laser tag scanner beeps. Once inside, we’d buy a couple hot dogs for a buck fifty apiece, coating them with a few shiny foil packets of Gulden’s Mustard.
From cramped wooden slatted seats we’d watch Sox greats like Wade Boggs slap the ball around, while Jim Rice patrolled the iconic left field wall in the twilight of his career. My father would school me on the finer points of the game while I groveled for a Hood “Sports Bar” ice cream from the barkers climbing up the steps. Afterwards, we’d camp out on Van Ness Street near the player exit, hoping to land a few autographs before the freshly showered big leaguers sped off in shiny new sports cars. The same spot where I once snagged Mark McGwire’s signature during his 49 home run rookie campaign in 1987.
Despite the cliché, the ballpark felt more authentic then. There were still a handful of the old, “golden era” parks around the league at that time (Yankee, Tiger, Comiskey, Wrigley, etc.), and Fenway hadn’t yet become the self-celebratory theme park it has evolved into today. It was grimy and rusty, signs were faded (not just painted to look faded), the amenities were spartan, and the crowd was rough and haggard. The very bricks themselves seemed to ooze the yeasty aroma of eons of cheap, stale beer, popcorn and sweat. While today the skeleton remains the same, the park has undergone a considerable facelift in the past decade as part of the “family friendly” marketing strategy the Red Sox have employed. A strategy that has paid off with a decade long sell-out streak, and grandstands overflowing with pink baseball caps and Vineyard Vines polo shirts.
Unsatisfied with mere sellouts, as part of the indefatigable chase for revenue (a necessary evil within the arms race of modern baseball), the Red Sox management has opened up the gates to the park for any kind of cross promotional event imaginable, all in an effort to extract every possible nickel from the “lyric little bandbox”. Everything from Rolling Stones concerts to NHL games have been played here of late, and a 4-H pony show can’t be too far away.
In similar fashion, the University of Notre Dame has shown recent exuberance for extracting every last drop of revenue from the withering historic pulp of their football program. The tackily branded “Shamrock Series” contests have featured “neutral site” games in locations of puzzling geographic nexus for the opponents. The contracts, however, are lopsided to favor the Irish who get to claim to an outsized portion of the ensuing gate and TV windfalls. In the past decade, Irish fans have been treated to what might otherwise be interesting matchups, were it not for the peculiar locations. In lieu of simple home and home arrangements, fans have been treated to games like Notre Dame vs Washington State in San Antonio, Notre Dame vs Miami (FL) in Chicago, and Notre Dame vs Arizona State in Dallas; to name a few. Clearly, for the revenue obsessed top brass at both Notre Dame and the Boston Red Sox, an Irish football game in Fenway Park was a match made in revenue whoring heaven. Ka-Ching….
Throw in a flunky opponent, the floundering Boston College program would do quite nicely, and you had all the components for a late November college football cash grab. Too add even further humiliation to the Eagles, despite their campus being only 3.9 miles away from Fenway Park, *Boston* College had agreed to be the VISITING team for this little boondoggle. As if that weren’t insult enough, given the tight confines of the Fenway Park visitor locker room, the Eagles would actually have to dress in Chestnut Hill and then bus over to the stadium like a high school JV squad. Fredo indeed.
Yet it was precisely here, at this eccentric event, on a cold November night, that I found myself. As a lifelong fan of both the Irish and the Red Sox, there was a certain magnetic pull towards this contest that trumped my revenue mongering protestations towards it. And, as an ardent sojourner of the sport, I felt a certain obligation to investigate first hand these oddball collaborations that seem to be gaining popularity throughout the college ranks. Next year, for instance, Tennessee will play Virginia Tech on the infield of Bristol Motor Speedway, and Cal will be opening their season versus Hawaii in Sydney, Australia.
But like all things Boston and Fighting Irish related, my intrigue came with a hefty price. I’d forked over $175 per person for the pleasure, which may be the highest face value, regular season, college football ticket in history. On the secondary market, tickets were starting at nearly $1,000 each and ranged considerably higher from there. I can only imagine the field day the legendary Boston scalping racket had for this event. With a stated capacity of only 38,686, less than half a typical Irish home game, the limited confines of Fenway Park would make this the least attended, and, hence, most exclusive Irish “home” game in decades.
My father had agreed to tag along for the spectacle, making his annual pilgrimage on the PigskinPursuit. We meet up on Newbury Street, the heavily trafficked, outdoor, upscale shopping district of Boston after I drop my car in a parking garage for thirty five bucks. With a hankering for a long overdue, classic American cheeseburger, we huddle into Shake Shack for a few quick burgers and beers before making the hike up to Fenway. When Dad inquires about our seats, I show him our tickets for the event, gingerly pulling them out of my zippered coat pocket like a winning lottery ticket. His eyes grow wide when he sees the face value printed on the front, audibly gasping, nearly choking on a mouthful of cheeseburger. In between bites he yammers something about footing the bill for a large portion of my college education, and how I can surely pony up for a few football tickets for the old man. Add this to the list of baby boomer generation entitlements I’ll have to foot the bill for, I suppose….
While Boston itself is a decidedly mediocre college football town, overshadowed by the fanatical professional options in town, the streets are surprisingly alive on a brisk Saturday night. We begin our stadium journey down Boylston Street, the sidewalks flush with Irish fans, a shuffling mass of green sweatshirts. Boston College fans are far scarcer. With the Eagles 3-7 record, most of them smartly opted for the NBC broadcast at home. As we cross over the Mass Pike and turn onto Landsdowne Street, the spine of the Green Monster, the party is in full swing. Revelers pile out of the dingy bars on both sides of the street, and lines are stacked thirty heads deep outside waiting to get in. The entire street is cordoned off by police, its width swarmed with fans in a giant, roiling din. The aroma of browning onions wafts from sausage carts, the vendors rolling a few plump links across a hot grill, while the sound of souvenir barkers fills the air with thick Boston brogues. It’s not your typical college football tailgate, but close enough.
We enter through Gate C on Landsdowne Street, taking our seats in section 38 near the deepest part of centerfield, known in Red Sox lore as the “triangle”. The football field is laid out parallel to the first base line in Fenway Park, extending into the deep part of right field, the end zones nearly touching the padded walls of the relief pitching bullpens. The sight lines are a bit odd, as one would expect in a ballpark, and a broad swath of outfield grass separates the stands from the sidelines. For as small a park as Fenway is, the game action feels “distant”.
As the pregame clock winds down, and a few of the glitzy Notre Dame promotional videos finish playing on the video screen in centerfield, the Irish storm the field. They emerge, almost single file, from the first base (home) dugout while a cascade of green fireworks erupts into the night sky high above the home plate press box. Sporting bright, Kelly green, “Green Monster” inspired uniforms, the Under Armour creations are nearly solid green from head to toe, accented only with the infamous gold helmets. While in years past some of these “Shamrock Series” uniforms have been nauseating abominations (thankfully Adidas has since been kicked to the curb), this particular vintage looks quite sharp under the phosphorescent glow of the Fenway lights.
Although the uniforms might look sharp, despite the heritage of the billing and venue, on the hallowed fescue of Fenway Park the game proves to be one of the sloppiest fiascos I’ve ever witnessed. With a lofty #4 ranking entering the contest and college football playoff hopes on the horizon, the Irish do their best to Charlie Brown themselves out of the playoff picture on primetime national television. They turn the ball over an infuriating five times, three of those turnovers occurring inside the Boston College three yard line. The ball slips in and out of hands like a Harlem Globetrotters circus stunt, and the plucky Eagles refuse to go quietly into the frosty New England night.
Sophomore Irish quarterback Deshone Kizer leads the turmoil. He wastes no time firing his first interception of the night, a bullet into the chest of the BC defender in the Boston College endzone on the opening drive of the contest. The meltdown caps off an otherwise impressive 60 yard march for the Irish. Kizer would add another pair of pickoffs during the game (one more of them of the soul crushing variety at the three yard line) to finish with three interceptions on the evening. Not to be outdone, Irish running back C.J. Prosise fumbles twice (one of which is luckily recovered by center Nick Martin) and, for fear of being left out, freshman backup tailback Josh Adams gets in on the action with a fumble of his own. Even the sure hands of speedster wide receiver Will Fuller are greased, as he drops a few cupcake catches after darting behind the BC secondary. By the end of the night, the Irish would rack up 447 yards of total offense, but only manage two meager touchdowns to show for the effort.
Self-flagellating notwithstanding, Notre Dame manages to slink away with a narrow 19-16 win, but not until after a dramatic dive onto the on-side kick to end the game. Although still technically a win, the Irish are sure to find themselves a few notches lower in the polls after this particularly lackluster effort.
In the end, I’m torn about the Irish experience at Fenway Park. On one hand, there’s an undeniable nostalgia for witnessing the intersection of two of the cornerstones of my youth sports passion – Notre Dame Football and Red Sox baseball. And, of course, sharing an evening at Fenway Park with my father conjures enough maudlin, Kevin Costneresque sentiments to make the night a memorable one. But there is still something unshakably artificial and contrived about all of it. A lingering, glossy, commercialism that divulges the thinly veiled financial motive. The entire production feels heavily produced and cunningly marketed to feel authentic, but in a Disneyfied way that feels artificial, plastic.
But I suppose it could be worse. They could have played another game at Yankee Stadium…
Special thanks to my father for making the haul to Boston, it’s always special to spend an evening at Fenway Park with your Dad, and I look forward to another annual trip together next year!