Fenway Park. The name alone conjures up images of history, nostalgia, and mixed feelings of both euphoria and pain — and that's just for Red Sox fans.
"The Fenway of Florida." That phrase might bring up thoughts of Tropicana Field, not for its historic significance but for the decade of Red Sox fans outnumbering Rays fans three-to-one in the latter's home park in St. Petersburg; however, that would be wrong. That title belongs to McKechnie Field in Bradenton, a park almost as old as Fenway, and just as historic.
So, when I heard that the Red Sox were not only building a new park to make a move out of downtown Fort Myers' City of Palms Park but making an almost-exact replica of Fenway, that both excited and worried me. Yes, I would be able to experience Fenway Park without having to travel to Boston, but would the team (and, for that matter, the fans) do the homage justice, or would it become a cheesy clone, akin to Anaheim's Disneyland versus Disneyland Paris? And would it be enough to take the title of the "Fenway of Florida" from historical McKechnie?
The Red Sox' history in Florida is long and storied, with their first appearance in what is now the Grapefruit League at that very same McKechnie Field in 1928. From there, they jumped from park to park, while finally deciding to settle in Fort Myers for the long-term in 1993.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
There is no shortage of locations to buy food. I counted about 10, but there could be more I might have missed. Everything from the staples (hot dogs provided by Kayem...of course) to the "specialities" that seem to appear everywhere anymore. Even the pizza is made on-premises and looks really good, and I'm a pizza snob; I went for the (Kayem) Kielbasa instead, so I can't tell you if the pizza is as good as it looks, but I would definitely try it.
One of the cool things, though, is the fact there's a tented food area along the first-base concourse called the "Taste of Fenway South", filled with local purveyors of seafood, beef, and a full-service bar to wash it all down. But even cooler is the price. Instead of trying to recoup the cost of the Fenway South complex in one felt-swoop, nothing on the menu is over $6, with the exceptions of cheesesteaks and alcohol. And speaking of alcohol, they even have malted beverages (you know, the hard lemonades and beer/alcohol hybrids...if that's your kind of thing, that is).
Obviously, the park was purpose-built to be a replica of Fenway, and it makes no qualms about it: the Green Monster 2.0 (I'll explain in a moment), Pesky's Pole, and even the same types of seats - distinct for both the grandstand and Monster seating - greet you when you walk up into field level. Also available throughout various parts of the park are monuments to history. By the Gate C ticket office (gates are marked by seemingly benign red poles outside, see picture above), for example, there are statues of the retired numbers, all inscribed with a bio of the player depicted. There's a statue of, arguably, the greatest Red Sox player, Ted Williams, outside the team store and near the home plate entrance. Along the concourse wall, there are logos of the World Series' they won, the Red Sox logos through the ages, and pictures of the retired number players. All-in-all, this place may be only weeks old (as of March 11, 2012), but it oozes history.
Now, for the Monster 2.0 and why I'm calling it as such. As you probably gathered from the pictures, it's not the same as Boston's. You know all those times you were thinking, "I wonder what it would be like to watch the game from INSIDE the Monster?" Well, now you can! There is a seating section (officially called Sections M1-M6, the "Monster Seating", whereas on top the Monster is "Monster Deck Seating") that affords you not only table-top seats, but a vantage point even Boston isn't privy to. And don't worry; there is a high-tension net covering that section, so balls will still play off it and not go through.
My absolute biggest peeve with the park, though, is the fact that, while it looks like you can with the close proximity of the Monster 2.0 to the right field lawn, it is impossible to walk around the park - unless you were like me and unintentionally went down an unmarked staircase from the "Monster Seating" to the groundskeeper's area behind the batters' eye. Nothing annoys me more than not being able to walk around a ballpark, and with the new wave of Florida parks bucking the old-school trend of no outfield seating, you'd think they would have built some sort of accommodation for this; as of this posting, Bright House Field, Charlotte Sports Park, and the upcoming renovations to McKechnie Field - all built since 2003 - are the only ones that allow circular motion thus far.
In a word: non-existent.
At least not yet. In the interest of continuing the purpose-built, easily accessible, far from neighborhoods park that has obsessed Florida since Steinbrenner Field in Tampa was built in 1996, JetBlue Park was built two miles east of Interstate 75 and north of Southwest Florida International Airport in a former swamp. Development is just starting to appear around the Fenway South complex, but right now, if you want anything resembling something to do, it's back to the west, and unless you like chains, you're better off going way west to U.S. Route 41 (Tamiami Trail) and going north into downtown Fort Myers.
They're Red Sox fans. Nothing more really needs to be said. Yes, the mere mention of them can conjure up images of loud-mouth, know-it-all, bandwagon fans that don't even know who the starting 3rd-baseman is, but in reality, the majority of Red Sox Nation knows the game inside and out, and the people who go to spring training are no different.
In all actuality, this is kind of generous. As I describe in the "Neighborhood" category, the complex is isolated to allow for the easiest ingress and egress possible. And with three lanes each-way available on Daniels Parkway, one would assume traffic would move with relative ease for both stadium-goers and people trying to make their way home.
On the contrary, it took me over 30 minutes to travel the 1.6 miles from I-75 to the park, only to be greeted with a $9 parking bill when beyond-ample parking was available. In the park's defense, I'm sure the Lee County Sheriff's Department probably hasn't gotten the routine down yet of properly managing this much traffic, but the $9 fee for the privilege of going to a meaningless game in March, especially when I give you the sticker-shock of the tickets in the next category, is just downright wrong.
What helps this category immensely is the massive concourse with plenty of space and ample bathrooms, all of which were clean and immaculate. Yes, they were good enough to make this category not drop to a 1 or even 0. Both Lee County and the Red Sox need to do something about both of these, or the next time I go, I won't be so nice. It was just that disappointing in an otherwise-perfect night.
Again, this is a high score, and I think a lot has to do with the fact that - this year anyway - checking out Florida's newest "baby ballpark" in its first year is worth a premium. So I don't seem like a complete downer, let me break down both the pros and cons in the return.
The biggest pro you can get tickets for as low as $5 in the right-field berm, a place I prefer in any park as I can lay in the grass, kick off my shoes, and just enjoy everything around me. Besides that, there are seven different locations you can be for $15 or less, including access to the Monster 2.0. Plus, as I said in the "Food" section, almost everything is $6 and under.
However, here come the cons, and they're a doozy. Besides the $9 to park, four of those seven sections I mentioned above are standing-room only, with only two having assigned seating: the Reserved Bleachers, above the lawn in right, and the Left Field Deck, a mainly standing-only section with some seats just over the 200-section along the 3rd-base line. Seats anywhere else start at $25 and go up to $46 for the seats immediately behind home plate. Yes, they may be cheaper than Fenway, but way more expensive to comparable seats in most other parks in Florida.
It's the first year, so paying "whatever it takes" to see it boosts the score here, but after the sheen is gone and there are newer gems in the Grapefruit League, the pricing needs to come down to keep a high score in this category.
I've mentioned the majority of the "Extras" above, but they're good enough to mention twice. The first thing you notice when you come into JetBlue Park, besides, the post-modern design of the canopy with its jagged edges and separate pieces, is the history in the form of the retired numbers and Ted Williams' statue in a stark juxtaposition to the aforementioned design. It shouldn't work so well, but it works fantastically.
The "Taste of Fenway South" tent area is also a great feature, offering not only shade during the day, but a great place to party and meet people pre-game. This is in addition to the numerous luxury suites that are becoming mandatory in any new parks, even the small ones.
The things I love the most, though, are the replicas of the seats found in Fenway. It brings the whole project full-circle when something as seemingly-benign as a seat can evoke memories from the project it was intended to be an homage to.
JetBlue Park is probably the most-hyped spring training facility in a long time, and by having such lofty goals it's deservedly so. It was so hyped, in fact, there was a Cubs fan willing to capitalize on it even before the name was official. But is it really deserving of the hype surrounding it? I'm not too sure.
Sure, the park is immaculately-detailed, full of history, and a great facsimile of Fenway Park, but I think that's the problem. I had a great time and really enjoyed myself, but the connection to the original almost felt forced with me. It should have been allowed to happen naturally and not created as the singular goal of bringing Fenway to Florida. Yes, the Monster and dimensions would need to be there to allow it to happen organically, but the pricing is nearly-prohibitive, the traffic is a nightmare, and the neighborhood just isn't there.
This is a great park, there's no denying that. But, despite their best efforts, this is not, and probably won't ever be, Fenway; frankly, it shouldn't be and should strive to be a great park on its own merits. Besides, Florida already has one Fenway and has for over 80 years - another one is not needed.
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8951 Daniels Pkwy
Fort Myers, FL 33912
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