Thursday, July 02, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: It's time for Red Sox to take tarps off seats

Torch the tarps. Burn 'em today.

Those cursed things are ruining what was once a great ballpark experience.

If you attended the Salem Red Sox game Monday night -- and more than 5,000 of you did -- you probably left Salem Memorial Ballpark with a few lousy memories. Insufferable lines at the ticket booths. Ridiculous waits for concessions. Confusion on what food and drink items were on special, and where you could find them.

The perfect storm of great weather and reduced-price tickets brought out a crowd that the Red Sox were unprepared to handle on almost every level. It was a disaster. Clearly, a significant list of problems needs to be addressed before the team returns home July 10.

But nothing's worse than the tarps. They must go before anything else.

If you're unfamiliar with the tarps, some quick background: The Red Sox -- in a move that was myopic at best and greedy and arrogant at worst -- decided before the season that they wanted to increase the "intimacy" of the ballpark. They wanted to add "life," they said. "Vitality," they said. "Energy," they said.

Or maybe they just wanted to sell more box seats and fewer general admission.

Honestly, the motivation doesn't really matter. In any case, they draped two huge, blue tarps over upper-deck sections in left and right fields, reducing the stadium's seating capacity by 1,000.

This was a foolish idea from the beginning, kind of like turning in a first-class airline ticket for a spot in coach. But until mid-summer hits, the side effects aren't so noticeable. The kids are still in school then. The weather's not as nice. The crowds are smaller than they eventually become. And because attendance was up from the same stretch last year, perhaps the Sox thought they'd come up with something brilliant.

They hadn't.

But don't take my word for it. Let's quote 7-year-old Elisabeth Taylor, daughter of outdoors editor Mark Taylor, as she was leaving the park in the early innings Monday.

"You know what I didn't like about our seats?" she said, unprompted. "We didn't have seats."

A lot of people didn't. There may have been scattered seats available, but not enough together to accommodate parties of two or more. And if you had seats, you left them at your own risk. Someone was bound to gobble them up while you grabbed a soda and popcorn.

So the seatless people either did what the Taylor family did -- leave -- or stood somewhere on the concourse. Some sat on the stairways between the rows of seats. They were no doubt gazing longingly to their left and right, mentally undressing those precious seats beneath the tarps.

Oh, it was intimate, all right. If you're into sweaty, greasy intimacy with strangers.

Let's be clear here: The Roanoke Valley is not Boston, where folks are used to traffic and crowds and a constant rat race. Salem Memorial Ballpark is not Fenway, the smallest stadium in the Majors. And frankly, many of us kind of like it that way. The notion that we would all prefer things to be like they are in wonderful, progressive Boston is insulting. We country rubes enjoy a little space, thanks.

Besides, no matter where you live, comfort trumps intimacy every time in minor league baseball. Parking is better. Families feel more welcome. The game itself is less important than the experience, especially considering the teams on the field value player development over winning.

So attendance is up this year. Congrats to the Sox. But here's a prediction: In the long run, scarcity of seats won't drive ticket values up in this town. It will drive fans away.

The good news? There's an easy method to prevent this from happening again. Simply remove the tarps, admit your mistake and let the people breathe.

Every business is entitled to a bad night every now and then. Monday qualifies as one of the worst for Salem baseball in a long time. From running out of hot dog buns to making hungry fans miss multiple innings of the game just to grab a snack, it was a mess. But as the players like to say, it's a long season. Missteps are OK if they're isolated, unforeseen blunders that serve as learning experiences for management and staff.

What's not OK is for the club to mock fans with empty seats cloaked in vinyl.

So torch those wretched tarps. Today. The summer Saturday nights are coming. Fans will start arriving in bigger numbers, as they usually do.

The least the Sox could do is let them sit down.

Weather Journal

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