TORONTO -- Monday, the venue represents the best of the old and the promise of the future.
It's Opening Day at Fenway Park.
"You can't help being somewhat flattered when the Red Sox approach you. You've got 81 [games] in front of those fans and 81 in that ballpark where legends are played and championships are won, and where the strongest fan base in the country is. It's awesome," said outfielder Jonny Gomes.
"I'm not wanting to get my head in the clouds when I stand on that line on Opening Day, where history has been made. You're there at Yankee Stadium, but it's not old Yankee Stadium. At Fenway, you're literally standing on the same field, the same dirt, the same spot. It's not like they moved the plate and threw it over there. You're standing on the same field as some of the greats."
But once Clay Buchholz throws that first pitch, reality will set in. In order to rediscover the kind of success the Red Sox' season-opening road trip hinted at, the tenants of Fenway will have to find a way to win there … a lot more than a season ago.
Last season marked the first time the Red Sox finished losing more games at Fenway than they won (34-57) since 1997. It was their worst home record since '94, landing with one fewer win than they totaled on the road.
At home in '12, the Sox were outscored 423-419 at home, a far cry from their most recent postseason teams. In '07 (472-352), '08 (461-337) and '09 (481-351) they crossed the Fenway plate at a much higher rate than their opponents.
So, what to do?
THE NAPOLI EFFECT
The Red Sox landed with a collection of new players who would seemingly fit the Fenway profile. Shane Victorino is a center fielder who can cover the expanse of Fenway's right field. Gomes is as much of a pull-hitter as you'll find, seemingly built for the short left field. And then there is Mike Napoli.
It is worth another reminder: Among players who have accumulated at least 89 plate appearances at Fenway, Napoli possesses the fourth-best Fenway Park OPS of all-time (1.138). Only Frank Robinson, Johnny Grubb and Ted Williams are better.
But the success can't just be chalked up to the fact that Napoli is a home run hitter (hitting one every 18 at-bats), or that 52 of his career 146 homers have been to pulled to left field. The right-handed slugger simply seems to feel comfortable at Fenway, where just one of his seven home runs has been directed to over the heart of the left-field wall.
This season, he already has been tested in hitting cleanup on a regular basis for the first time in his career. And now comes the challenge of calling Fenway home.
"Wherever I hit in the lineup, I would always try to hit a homer in certain situations or in certain counts. That's just how I do it. I'm not going to change up my game," he said. "Same thing goes for hitting in ballparks. I'm not going to try and change my game hitting in Fenway rather than hitting in Detroit. I'm just going to go with what my strength is. It just works out that way."
"It can be because the wall is right there, but you never know what sparks a hitter," said Red Sox hitting coach Greg Colbrunn. "You never know if he sees the ball great there, or is it the ballpark itself. The background. How he feels in the box. There's a lot of different factors that can play into it, so hopefully he sees the ball really well and the wall is just part of his game."
TAKING ADVANTAGE OF THE OPPOSITION
It's all well and good if the offense hits the ball in the right place. But it won't make any difference unless the Red Sox pitchers pitch better than they did at home in '12. Last season, the Sox hurlers totaled the seventh-worst home ERA (4.75) of any group in the majors.
Run-prevention is equally as important as the pros and cons of a left-field wall.
"I don't think slugging percentage at home is the difference-maker," said Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. "Last year we lost 93 games, so obviously we didn't play that well at home, but we didn't play that well on the road, either."
So, besides the obvious quest for better overall performance, Red Sox pitchers can subtlety take advantage of those who might be less knowledgable when it comes to the ins and outs of hitting at Fenway.
In short, it's important to thrive on hitters' greed.
"Teams approaches change when they comes to Fenway, and I feel like we can exploit that," said Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks. "Even [Albert] Pujols says when he comes to Fenway he tries to pull the ball, so of course we're going to go soft away on guys so they pull off balls. That's why I get a lot of ground balls at home, because a lot of guys pull off balls and hit little ground balls to me. … Guys come to Fenway, hit a few out and feel pretty good about themselves, but a lot of them leave feeling really bad about themselves."
"You see opposing players do it a lot," Pedroia said. "They get out and try to hook balls and end up grounding out to third and short a lot, swinging and missing, out in front of offspeed."
DON'T BE SOMEONE YOU'RE NOT
The Red Sox have multiple parks that serve as training grounds for playing at Fenway. The home field for the Single-A team in Greenville, S.C., has a 30-foot-high left field wall, simulating the one found in Boston. Portland's Hadlock Field has similar dimensions as well. And, of course, there's JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, where a 42-foot-high left-field wall can be found.
So, how do the Red Sox try to leverage this sort of familiarity? One way is instructing their minor leaguers in Greenville that they can't aim at the left-field wall during batting practice, steering the youngsters away from temptation.
"They talked about that because definitely in A-ball it's easy to get pull-happy," Middlebrooks recalled. "When you're 18, 19, 20 years old it's hard to hit a ball hard to right. It's just hard to do and comes with experience. Yeah, they exaggerated that a little bit."
It's an advantage those coming up through the Red Sox system have when they finally arrive in Boston. Still, nothing offers the truest test like actually playing on the main stage, as Pedroia found out when finally called up in '06.
"When you first get there you shouldn't try to change anything. When I first got called up you see the wall out there and you try to hook balls and it causes you to create some bad habits," he said. "Like if you go to Yankee Stadium and you try and hit fly balls to right it's not going to be good for you.
"I tried to hit home runs over the Monster on every swing and I hit .150. When you just try and hit and not worry about the dimensions, the ballpark can help you."
Now, the new guys will be tested.
Somebody like Cody Ross saw, hit and conquered when it came to playing at Fenway Park regularly for the first time, totaling a .921 OPS at Fenway. But it isn't always that easy. It's a fact that hasn't escaped Victorino, who is fully aware something as subtle as the left fielder playing more shallow than normal might take away some opposite-field line drives he has been known for.
"I would always tease guys who come into Philly, because the field is so small and they're wanting to always hit home runs," the outfielder said. "For me, you can't change the way you swing no matter what ballpark you're in. I don't think it's that easy of a game that you can say, 'OK, I'm going to Fenway today so I'm going to hit the ball off the Green Monster.' It happens, because I see guys do it. My mindset is I don't want to change no matter what the dimensions are."
"The guys they've brought in have had success, so it will be interesting to see playing in it for 81 games as opposed to nine games a year, how they do," Colbrunn said. "Hopefully their approach stays the same, but we'll see how it goes."