Fenway Park gets annual tuneup

Fenway Park gets annual tuneup

BOSTON -- Just five years from its 100th birthday, Fenway Park somehow continues to feel and look younger instead of older. The Red Sox on Wednesday unveiled their latest batch of ballpark improvements, nearly all of which will be ready for the start of the 2007 season.

The Red Sox have made upgrades to the park in each of the six winters since the new ownership group took over, a makeover that has taken an overall financial commitment of more than $100 million.

This year's changes are more cosmetic in nature, but significant nonetheless.

There will be a new third-base deck behind the grandstands which will open up a significant amount of space for fans on that side of the action to navigate their way around the park. Previously, there was a cramped concourse behind those grandstands, with hardly any mobility possible.

"The commitment has manifested itself every year," said Red Sox president/CEO Larry Lucchino. "We are now well over $100 million dollars in the investment we've made toward Fenway Park during the period of time that we've been here. We're still not finished."

Ever since Fenway opened in 1912, there has been a men's room behind the third-base grandstands. But 2007 will mark the first time there has been a ladies' room on that side of the stands. The third-base deck will also create the opportunity for additional concession stands.

On that same third-base side, an indoor batting cage is in the process of being built for the visiting team. Two years ago, the Red Sox had a batting cage built underneath the home dugout.

In an intriguing twist, fans who dine at Game On -- an eatery adjacent to the ballpark -- will be able to watch through a glass window as the visiting team take batting practice in that new batting cage.

During off hours, the batting cage will be rented out to patrons.

Before the addition of those two cages, both home and visiting players would have to walk across the playing surface and go underneath the center-field bleachers if they wished to take extra batting practice.

And because the batting cage will no longer be needed in the garage under the center field bleachers, the Red Sox will naturally put that 4,000-square-foot space to good use.

The Red Sox are currently speaking to restaurateurs with the plan of opening up a bar and grill in that spot.

Janet Marie Smith, vice president of planning and development for the Red Sox, estimates that the new eatery -- destined to be a hot spot on a year-round basis -- will open by the All-Star break.

"The Bleacher Bar and Grill, we call it," said Smith. "We can contribute to the activity along Lansdowne Street in a positive way, like we did with Game On. It would be open for lunch and dinner, open year-round, would cater to families."

"As you walk around today, you'll see that there are people out on Lansdowne Street with their cell phones taking pictures of Fenway. There are very few places you can see Fenway if you are just a casual fan of the park and are here just to walk around. We thought this bleacher bar would be a wonderful chance for people on a winter day like today to have a bowl of soup and come in and see the playing field. It's part of our effort to try and make Fenway work for our fans and for the Fenway neighborhood 12 months a year."

With visions of a huge splash in 2012 -- the 100-year anniversary of fabled Fenway -- the Red Sox will continue to keep improving the experience for their fans.

By moving the NESN headquarters to a nearby suburb and opening the third-base deck, the Red Sox will be able to have a more expansive standing-room section of seats, something that has significance to a team that has sold out 307 consecutive home games.

So much of the work that has been done over the last few years has been orchestrated by Smith, the same woman who worked under Lucchino when Camden Yards was built.

"The first improvement we made to Fenway Park was in November 2001 when I approached Janet Marie Smith and asked her to come and join us in this endeavor go acquire the team," said Lucchino. "Just so everyone will remember, of the six groups trying to acquire the Red Sox in that fall, only one of the six groups was committed to the preservation and improvement and expansion of Fenway Park, and that was us, so I thought it was critical to get Janet to join us at that time and to join us in that endeavor."

One of Smith's visions at the time was that Fenway's capacity could go from 36,299 to 39,928. Thanks to the Monster Seats, the Right Field roof deck and various other additions, the Red Sox are moving close to that goal.

Lucchino and Smith estimated that the capacity for 2007 will be 38,808.

Some of the improvements for 2007 won't be noticed by the casual fan. For example, 26 private suites are undergoing extensive renovation. There will also be renovations to benefit ballpark employees, such as constructing new locker rooms for "day of game staff".

And plenty of the changes are mundane things that simply have to be done for a building the age of Fenway Park.

"There will be code improvements," said Smith. "There will be sprinklers throughout the ballpark, new power lines. Larry mentioned earlier the $100 million that ownership has invested in Fenway Park. A third of that has gone strictly to improving the structure and the code, so we can ensure that the longevity of Fenway is met as a part of this renovation."

Fenway isn't going anywhere any time soon.

"We're very pleased and proud that Fenway is now on the national historic register, but we also respect that the fact that that means three different levels of review from three different levels of government," said Smith.

"I think, often times, owners are reluctant to put their buildings on the historic register for fear of that kind of scrutiny. I think, in our case, we have not only welcomed it, but have found that those agencies have been a real source of guidance for us and we've often gone to them to ask for advice before we commit pen to paper in order to make sure we are adhering to the proper guidelines."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.