BOSTON — More than 200 former Red Sox players and coaches returned to the major league’s oldest ballpark Friday to help the team celebrate Fenway Park’s 100th birthday.
Walking onto the field to the theme from “Field of Dreams” and the cheers of the ballpark’s 719th consecutive sellout crowd, players from Don Aase to Bob Zupcic gathered at their positions and then watched as Caroline Kennedy took part in a ceremonial first pitch 100 years after her great-grandfather did the same.
The Red Sox won the opener on April 20, 1912, 7-6 in 11 innings over the New York Highlanders (who would soon change their name to the Yankees). Boston went on to win the ‘12 World Series and three more in that decade, but then embarked on an 86-year title drought in which the ballpark became the franchise’s biggest star.
“This ballpark has created as many memories for people in this area and around the world as any venue in the world,” Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine said before the ceremony. “The park here has at least a life of its own. A magic to it. It’s the baseball land of Oz. People dream about this place.”
Doomed for the wrecking ball before the current owners bought the team in 2002, Fenway now has seats above the Green Monster and an HD video screen — not to mention lights above the upper decks and black and Latin players in the field — all unimaginable when it opened the same week the Titanic sank.
“For whatever age you are, you can go back and think about the players that you watched as a kid,” said Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who as a player made his home at Wrigley Field and the original Yankee Stadium.
“It’s the same place. It’s the same feel. Yeah, they’ve added a few things here and there and a few seats here and there. But it’s still the same feel.”
It’s the first ballpark to survive to 100, and the Red Sox are throwing it a season-long party to celebrate.
A day after more than 53,000 fans filed through the gates for an open house, the Red Sox brought out the bunting and the Green Monster-sized U.S. flag to honor the anniversary. All living Red Sox players and coaches were invited back, giving the fans one more chance to cheer for Hall of Famers such as Carlton Fisk and Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice and Dennis Eckersley.
Favorites like Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd, Bill “Spaceman” Lee, Bill Buckner, Luis Tiant, Nomar Garciaparra and Mo Vaughn were also there, with many of the biggest cheers going to players from the 2004 World Series team that ended the franchise’s decades-long wait for a championship. Pumpsie Green, who became the franchise’s first black ballplayer more than a decade after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, received a warm cheer.
The crowd did not seem to know whether to applaud or boo for Jose Canseco, whose two seasons in Boston were characterized by forgettable play and hints he would drop about a book he planned to write.
After taking their positions, they all circled around the oldest of the old-timers, Johnny Pesky and Bobby Doerr, who were pushed out to second base in wheelchairs by recently retired Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield.
Pesky, 92, was in tears.
Among the bigger cheers was the chant of “Tito!” that greeted Terry Francona, the manager of the ‘04 and ‘07 champions who was let go after the team’s unprecedented collapse last September. Francona, who was angered by a newspaper article revealing details about personal troubles during the 2011 season, said he would not attend before relenting.
They were joined on the field by the current players, who were wearing replica uniforms matching the 1912 style, including all white caps. The Yankees also wore throwbacks; it’s believed to be the first time in franchise history they have deigned to do so.
Oscar-winning composer John Williams conducted members of the Boston Pops in the debut of his new composition, “Fanfare for Fenway”; Pops conductor Keith Lockhart took over for “The Star Spangled-Banner.” There was an Air Force flyover with planes from World War II, when Fenway was already middle-aged.
The ceremonial first pitch was handled by Kennedy — that’s Caroline, not Kevin — whose father was President John F. Kennedy and great-grandfather was Boston Mayor John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald when Fenway opened. (She was also the inspiration of the Neil Diamond song “Sweet Caroline,” which is warbled by Fenway fans every eighth inning.)
Current mayor Tom Menino also threw a ceremonial first pitch, along with Thomas Fitzgerald, a grandson of the Boston mayor.
The ceremony ended with Kevin Millar and Pedro Martinez, perhaps the two biggest personalities of the 2004 champions, leading a grape juice toast from the top of the Boston dugout. Millar said they were given a script but, to no one’s surprise, they quickly abandoned it.
Martinez left for the New York Mets after the ‘04 season, a little more than a month after the cathartic parade in which an estimated 3 million to 4 million fans came out to celebrate the first World Series championship in 86 years. Like Garciaparra, Francona, Fisk, Vaughn and even Buckner, who was long blamed for the team’s 1986 World Series collapse, Martinez did not leave on good terms but was warmly welcomed back.
“I felt like I’m still in that parade,” Martinez said. “Every time when I come back to Boston, it’s always like a parade for me.”