Red Sox ballpark turns back to baseball after busy winter

BOSTON (AP) — The hockey rink has been removed. The goalposts are gone. The obstacle course and driving range tees also were taken away to get Fenway Park ready for baseball again.

Even without Red Sox playoffs, the major league’s oldest ballpark is coming off one of the busiest winters in its 110-year history. The debut of college football’s Fenway Bowl and the NHL’s Winter Classic were the most visible events, but fans have been spinning the turnstiles all offseason.

“Baseball is obviously the core part of our business, but we’ve got this amazing venue that is world-renowned,” said Mark Lev, president of Fenway Sports Management, which includes booking the ballpark in its portfolio.

“The ability to take advantage of that, to attract other world-class events is definitely what we want to do,” he said. “We want to make Fenway a multi-use, versatile, year-round entertainment venue.”

The Red Sox opened Fenway in 1912 — the same week the Titanic sank — and almost from the start they put it to use for other events. It hosted boxing, soccer and hockey in its first decade, and the forerunners of the NFL’s Washington Commanders and New England Patriots both called the ballpark home at one point.

“It was really a community resource,” Lev said in a recent interview from one of Fenway’s newest function rooms overlooking the field.

But the schedule got much busier after the baseball team’s current owners took over in 2002.

Bruce Springsteen played Updike’s “lyric, little ballpark” in 2003; the concert count is now 100. European soccer friendlies followed, along with ski jumping, “Crashed Ice” ice skating racing, movie nights and Shakespeare in the park.

Fenway has hosted the Winter Classic twice, and the Fenway Bowl made its debut in December after twice being canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the football field set up, local high schools also got a chance to play on the historic sod. When the hockey rink moved in for the Jan. 2 NHL game, a slate of college and high school matchups was scheduled.

Also stopping by the park this offseason were Top Golf and the Spartan Race. In all, the offseason events brought more than 120,000 fans into the ballpark this winter — and that’s not even counting the tours that run year-round.

“I think this year was our busiest offseason ever,” Lev said.

The additional events bring in some revenue — though it’s not going to overtake the money earned from the baseball season, Lev said — and also help the Fenway brand. The 2008 Irish hurling matches were broadcast internationally, and events such as skiing bring the ballpark to a different crowd than the baseball fans who see it as the venerable home of the Red Sox.

“It’s just great exposure for the ballpark,” he said. “It allows us to attract new audiences that might not otherwise come to Fenway to enjoy Fenway, have the Fenway Park experience, which hopefully will bring them back for other events.”

The other events also bring in tourists to the city, and customers for the souvenir stands and restaurants in the neighborhood. “So it checks a lot of boxes for us,” Lev said.

On a recent weekday, workers were taking apart the hockey rink where the Bruins had played the Pittsburgh Penguins, while the ballpark’s lights were being lowered to the field by cranes for a scheduled LED upgrade. Jackhammers echoed through the empty seating bowl.

Cases of beer, water and Pepsi were strewn about the function room, along with equipment left over from the Winter Classic. The Green Monster in left field had been painted over, awaiting the ads that will be shown during the coming baseball season.

Janet Marie Smith, the architect who spearheaded the Fenway renovations that have made the ancillary events possible, said using the ballpark for more than the 81-game home Red Sox schedule “just seems like the natural and responsible thing to do.”

“When you occupy a place — physically, in the middle of a robust city, and spiritually, in the hearts and minds of the citizens of that community — that to shutter your building just is crazy,” Smith said, adding the philosophy dates back to the late 1980s with the creation of Baltimore’s Camden Yards, which sparked a new era of ballpark construction.

“It was a feeling that there was a civic responsibility,” she said. “That if you were in the middle of a town, particularly a downtown, that you owed it to the people who lived and worked there to be a part of that year-round community.”

Make no mistake, Lev said: At Fenway, baseball is still king.

Nothing is booked for October, to make sure the ballpark is available for potential Red Sox playoff games. And the offseason events end in mid-January, to give groundskeeper Dave Mellor — “our most valuable player,” Lev said — time to get the diamond in shape for the ballclub’s March 30 opening day.

“Before we do anything, he’s part of every conversation to make sure that we’re not doing anything that’s going to compromise the field,” Lev said.

“We need to make sure we leave time for the groundskeeper to do his thing,” he said. “Baseball is the priority, and maintaining the pristine field conditions is always paramount to any decision we make on any event that we have at the ballpark.”

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