Faithful to Fenway by Michael Borer

R.J. Grubb

"What I found was not only that Fenway Park was a place that people believed in but also that important places help make believing possible."

Faithful to Fenway

Publisher: NYU Press
Subtitle: Believing in Boston, Baseball, and Americas Most Beloved Ballpark
Author: Michael Borer
Price: $18.95
Length: 288
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 0814799779
US publication date: 2008-01
"I've tried them all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball." -- Annie Savoy, Bull Durham

Michael Ian Borer's narrative, Faithful to Fenway: Believing in Boston, Baseball, and America's Most Beloved Ballpark acts like a balm against baseball's scandalous winter when steroids seemed to stain every top home-run hitter and power pitcher. Now with baseball season underway, Borer lets fans read about a patch of grass and a Green Monster that housed history for so many golden summers.

At 96-years-old, Fenway Park is the storied home of the defending world champions Boston Red Sox and baseball's oldest and most intimate ballpark. Every seat is quickly sold out despite Fenway sporting the most expensive major league tickets. Given how the recent success of the Sox has been so swift, sweeping and even bloody in certain chapters, scores of writers have banked on the team's popularity.

Yet Borer's narrative doesn't hype player celebrity or purport to be a juicy tell-all. Instead Faithful to Fenway is a homespun narrative that rhapsodizes about ancient Fenway Park with a succession of amusing local folklore that highlights the rise of urban ballparks, the dynamic culture of cities, and the dramatic turnaround of the Red Sox organization as well as the passion of its baseball-crazed fans. It's also a book about believing.

The book's design focuses on how public places help people "make sense of their world." The time is ripe to reconsider our ballparks. In Chicago, Cub fans are rallying against real estate tycoon Sam Zell, who has put the home team and immortal Wrigley Field up for sale. Meanwhile Yankee Stadium just kicked off its swan song season and The House that Ruth Built will soon be razed. Yet life is good in Boston. Here, extravagant preparations are being made for Opening Day at Fenway, an unofficial state holiday in Massachusetts. So how do ballparks influence a community? Plenty. Let Borer count the ways.

Borer is an assistant professor of sociology and urban studies at Furman University in South Carolina. In 2001, he got the idea to study Fenway when he was a student at Boston University. Unlike most Red Sox authors, Borer grew up a Mets fan. His tone, as a result, is more academic than idolator. Drawing upon a wide swath of sociological and historical research as well as interviews with Sox owners, players and fans, Borer documents how Fenway operates as a source of civic pride and community building.

His focus rests on the most fan-crazed team in the most baseball-obsessed region in America, better known as Red Sox Nation. Writing from an urban culturalist perspective, he labels Fenway Park a "third place" – a term that signifies a social place apart from work or home. Unlike hangouts like bars or coffee shops, Fenway serves as a "big" third place where people construct a self-image mixed with sentiment, symbolism, rituals and myths. These fans, as Borer shows, possess joyous memories about Fenway.

While Borer's intent is to feature Fenway and its die-hard fans, the book seeks to use the park as a key to unlock the curious logic of our urban culture as a whole. As he says repeatedly: "I am interested in how people use places to make sense of the urban world they live in." In Boston's case, it's simple: Bostonians consider Fenway hallowed ground. Although a mix of concrete and steel girders, Fenway is so sacred for fans that, according to Borer, some have slyly distributed the ashes of loved ones on its playing field. Most on-the-fly interviews with fans quoted in Borer's book sound as if people are channeling Annie Savoy from Bull Durham.

Given the insatiable appeal of the Sox, it's no surprise Borer concludes ballparks possess an urban value that is both priceless and sacred. Indeed Faithful to Fenway is soaked in religious tones. As Borer writes: "I spent a lot of time at Fenway trying to figure out what, why, and how a ballpark became and remains the most cherished shrine of a city and a community of believers. What I found was not only that Fenway Park was a place that people believed in but also that important places help make believing possible."

Believing operates as the book's leitmotif. Borer begins the book by recalling how "Keep the Faith" was the slogan of the Sox's miracle 2004 season. You probably know the back story. The Red Sox, a team "cursed" for trading Babe Ruth, hadn't won a World Series since 1918. As runners-up, the team symbolized both the loveable loser and never-ending misery. Sox fans endured painful near misses that would be handed down to younger generations as if on par with family tragedies.

Finally, in 2004, salvation arrived when a team of self-described "idiots" staged an improbable come-from-behind victory during a do-or-die, best-of-seven playoff series against their hated rival, the New York Yankees. These intense games featured pitcher Curt Schilling holding his bloody right ankle together with sutures and David "Big Papi" Ortiz delivering walk-off hits in extra innings. The Sox won four games in a row and the come-from-behind victory remains a feat that no team, in the history of playoff baseball, has matched.

Riding high, the team swept the St. Louis Cardinals for the world championship and ended the "Curse." Borer uses the 2004 season to illustrate how the Sox transformed the cultural identity of Bostonians from a group suffering from an inferiority complex to a group swelling with pride and triumph. Curiously, Borer omits analysis of last year's championship season. You'd suspect Sox fans' psyche probably now suffer from a superiority complex. Borer doesn't say and the book feels dated.

Before the team's winning ways, Fenway's charms substituted for team success. Borer talks about the mythology surrounding the The Green Monster – the famous high left field wall – as well as the park's unique nooks and oddball features. The pace slows in the section where Borer laundry lists the recent Fenway renovations made by the current Sox ownership. Borer doesn’t tell you more than many readers will already know given the local media’s year-round news coverage of the team.

Borer’s better argument is when he takes on the tensions inherent in the debate to maintain Fenway or tear down the aging structure and start fresh. In the end, Borer betrays a bit of nostalgia for the ballpark and reveals how Fenway almost fell to an ignominious end. Proposals had Fenway becoming either a multi-purpose cookie cutter park or revenue maximizing stadium. As Borer knows, time will tell what the future of Fenway holds. But, for now, the hometown team returns to Boston and Fenway, our veritable Church of Baseball, beckons the faithful.


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