BOSTON — Fenway Park will be all decked out for its 101st season. Fans will flood the streets and fill the seats at the neighborhood stadium. Red Sox players will try to give them a good show.
Boston’s passionate and demanding rooters could have little patience for a continued early-season slide for the second straight year.
“I think we have the greatest fans in the world,” new manager Bobby Valentine said. “We’ll find out.”
The Red Sox were 1-5 on their season-opening road trip to Detroit and Toronto. On Friday, with colorful bunting adorning the park, they begin a tough nine-game homestand — four against Tampa Bay, two against Texas and three against the New York Yankees.
Last year’s start was even worse, an 0-6 flop overshadowed by a 7-20 September collapse that left them out of the playoffs — and the Rays in them — with a loss on the final day.
And they did surge from last year’s early troubles to take sole possession of first place in the AL East by May 27 with a 29-22 record.
So there’s plenty of hope for fans who will sit in the stadium where the Red Sox beat the New York Highlanders (later to become the Yankees) in the first regular-season game there on April 20, 1912.
The Yankees will be the opponent there on the 100th anniversary of that game to open a three-game series. Fenway has undergone numerous upgrades since John Henry bought the team in February 2002 — seats above the Green Monster, upgraded concourses, a new scoreboard — after years in which there was a major push for a new park elsewhere.
In early March, the ballpark was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Janet Marie Smith spearheaded the renovations as the Red Sox vice president for planning and development and now has a similar position with the Baltimore Orioles.
She loved working on Fenway with its “old charm layered by the changes of the years,” she said at this year’s annual dinner of the Boston chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America. “Fenway Park has no veneer. It is the real thing. It is not trendy or fashionable. It is just a place to watch baseball. I loved the energy of the park, its intimacy and the proximity of fans to the field, and to each other. I knew when I saw Fenway Park for the first time, well, THIS was a ballpark!”
But what kind of ballclub plays there?
The rotation is a question mark, although Jon Lester was solid in his two starts. Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz were shelled in their first outings, Daniel Bard is making the transition from setup man and Felix Doubront is in it for the first time.
The bullpen is a jumble with Jonathan Papelbon now in Philadelphia and his replacement, Andrew Bailey, likely sidelined until midseason after thumb surgery.
Beckett, who allowed five homers in his first start, will face David Price of the Rays. on Friday
“That first start’s always a crapshoot,” Beckett said. “You’ve got a lot of anxiety leading up to that. You want to do well. A lot of times, you expend too much energy on things that don’t help you be successful.”
The hitters are struggling, too, with a .236 batting average and two homers in six games before Thursday’s off day.
“We’ve been here before and we know we can get out of it,” first baseman Adrian Gonzalez said. “And we will. But nobody wanted this.”
Now they must play the Rays, who swept a three-game series against the Yankees before losing two of three in Detroit.
“We’re very pleased to be 4-2 after playing two of the best teams in the American League, but it isn’t going to get any easier,” Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. “Everyone is going to be excited in Boston and they need some wins so we need to keep playing at this level.”
Valentine was hired after the Red Sox and manager Terry Francona parted ways. There were reports that starting pitchers drank beer and ate fried chicken in the clubhouse on days they were not scheduled to pitch.
Valentine has banned alcohol in the clubhouse and is a more hands-on manager than Francona, who led the Red Sox to World Series titles in 2004 and 2007, their first since 1918. But in Francona’s last three seasons, they failed to win a postseason series and missed the playoffs in the last two.
Now the new skipper brings energy that belies his 61 years to a ballpark that’s still vibrant after 100.
“You have stretches where you play six games and things don’t go your way,” Valentine said. “Then you have stretches where you play six games and everything goes your way. Six games is a ridiculously small sample size.”