Credit: Courtesy of the Boston Public Library


A classic 100 years in the making

I’ll be honest; it doesn’t take me much more than hearing the words “Play Ball!” to get my heart racing, but after that I start thinking about beer and chicken in the clubhouse and I get pretty cynical…particularly when it comes to baseball specials. Admittedly, some of the HBO documentaries engaged and engrossed me and the Ken Burns treatises keep me staring for hours, but I am telling you right now from the moment you hear Curt Gowdy’s mellifluous voice describing a homer as you watch Ted Williams circle the bases in the opening seconds of the new National Geographic Special, INSIDE FENWAY PARK: AN ICON AT 100, your heart will be racing with the excitement of a postseason classic.

Imagine, being taken on a historical, behind-the-scenes tour of a building that you love and have visited hundreds of times and being introduced to sights and sounds you have never seen before and it is then that you begin to appreciate the beauty of this special. But I have already erred because I referred to Fenway as a “building.” It is so much more than that and this one inside look shows you why it is indeed “the Crown Jewel of America’s Ballparks.”

Now I can tell you, that while it may help to have visited Fenway, it is not a prerequisite to appreciating this soulful homage. It is beautifully shot, often from the eyes of the vendors, groundskeepers, batboys, locker room attendants and, of course, the ballplayers who are inhabitants of America’s oldest park. Listening to them describe their relationship with ballpark only enhances the words of writer/director Robert Caputo so joyfully narrated by Matt Damon.

You will be fascinated as you visit with David Mellor, director of grounds, as he explains the  “three microclimates within the ballpark.” And facilities supervisor Donnie Gardiner, who says he’s “married to Fenway,” has worked at the stadium for 23 years, but hasn’t watched a single game. He literally takes you to the bowels of the ballpark. But that’s just a small part of your visit. You will see the batting cage under the stands, and the niche where the organ is played. Yes, “Sweet Caroline” is along for the ride.

We learn about the blemishes caused by balls hitting the Green Monster and yes, we venture inside the wall and see the life of those who operate the manual scoreboard. We venture to the Monster seats and hear Boston Mayor Tom Mennino explain how wrong he was on predicting their success. We go back in time to see the history of the park being built, opening as the Titanic sank, and falling into disrepair as the fans deserted. Sox historian Glenn Stout adds color and anecdotes to enhance the early days and ESPN senior writer Howard Bryant and the great Bill Nowlin explain not just how owner Tom Yawkey restored Fenway to glory, but how his racist policies nearly destroyed the franchise. Larry Lucchino and Tom Werner, of the current ownership, along with Janet Marie Smith are illuminating in their commitment to retaining and restoring Fenway and bringing it to the level of excellence that has never been seen in its glorious hundred years.

But if there is a star, a “human” star, that makes this special truly extraordinary, it is the great former Boston columnist and current “Morning Joe” regular Mike Barnicle. Barnicle puts a voice to the feelings that pervade the ballpark. He puts into words, that we can grasp, and that speaks to the generations of families who have visited the park on Lansdowne Street.

At one point, he says, “I think I do know about the ball park and why it has such a hold on people,” says Mike Barnicle. “If you think about it and the times that we live in, many people don’t even know their next door neighbor. People have several different jobs during the course of their working lifetimes. The bricks outside the ballpark along Yawkey Way — they’ve been there for a hundred years. It’s still the same. So you have a feeling of permanence here that you might not have elsewhere in your life.”

Watch this. If you’re busy set your DVR, your VCR, or simply break your plans. This is a grand slam.

INSIDE FENWAY PARK: AN ICON AT 100 airs Monday, March 26, 2012, 10:00-11:00 p.m. and Tuesday, March 27, 2012, 8:00-9:00 p.m. on PBS.