Field of dreams at Fenway

BOSTON -- The lovefest began at 2:15 p.m. and ended about 45 minutes later, an emotional tribute and salute to the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park, the oldest operating ballpark in the country.

There were a total of 212 former players, arriving on the field from various parts of the ballpark, sauntering to the position they played when they were in Boston.

The celebration also featured the Boston Pops Orchestra; a toast of sparkling grape juice that made it into the Guinness Book of Records; a first-pitch ceremony with roots going back to the park's first game, on April 20, 1912; and the ritual "play ball" exhortation from Johnny Pesky, Bobby Doerr, Carlton Fisk and Jim Rice, instead of the usual youngster.

And when Keith Lockhart and his Boston Pops finished up the National Anthem, with a large American flag covering the scoreboard from left field all the way to left-center as military personnel stood and saluted in front of it, a flyover by the Air Force's Heritage Flight team put the exclamation point on a day of joyful pregame festivities.

It was a special time at Fenway, and Mother Nature cooperated as well, offering up a bright blue sky and 76-degree temperatures.

Among the loudest ovations was the one received by former manager Terry "Tito" Francona, who was let go as manager of the team after eight years and two World Series titles following a 7-20 September collapse last season.

Francona initially had decided he wasn't ready "for hugs" from the Red Sox after the way he was sent out of Boston, with whispers from someone in the organization about personal and medication issues. But he changed his mind this week, and waved to the fans as he entered the field from the tunnel underneath the center-field bleachers. A short time later, he was serenaded with a chant of "Ti-to, Ti-to, Ti-to."

Carlton Fisk, Carl Yastrzemski, Pedro Martinez, Kevin Millar, Nomar Garciaparra and Mo Vaughn all received loud bursts of cheers, as did the venerable Pesky and Doerr when they were pushed in wheelchairs out to second base by Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield, respectively. Lou Merloni heard his trademark "Looooou" chant.

Rice was the first former player to enter the field, from the tunnel underneath the left-field grandstand to his position in left field. Dwight Evans was next, emerging from under the center-field bleachers and strolling to right field. They were followed by first baseman Bill Buckner from canvas alley, third baseman Frank Malzone from left field, second baseman Jerry Remy from center, shortstop Rico Petrocelli from canvas alley, center fielder Reggie Smith from left field, pitcher Jim Lonborg from center and Fisk from the Sox dugout.

And they kept filing in, a steady parade after a while from just center field, some of them big names from the various generations, such as Luis Tiant, Bruce Hurst, Ramon Santiago, Dave Henderson, Gene Stephens and Jose Canseco, and some who just passed through, such as Wilton Veras and Calvin Pickering.

The fans stood and cheered every single player, whose picture and Boston playing dates were shown on a screen to the left of the main video board, which was showing them as they entered the field. They all had one thing in common: each was wearing a Red Sox jersey, some bright white and others yellowish, depending upon the era in which they had played. Hugs were shared by players of the different generations.

The current Red Sox players, meanwhile, dressed in 1912-style white uniforms with no numbers on the back or "B" on the cap, sat in the dugout.

Once all the former players were on the field, Oscar-winning composer John Williams, his back to home plate, conducted the Boston Pops in the debut of his new composition "Fanfare for Fenway," with the orchestra seated in a semi-circle behind home plate.

As the piece was being played, all of the players walked in toward second base, where Pesky, the former star shortstop, sat on the left side of second base and Doerr, a Hall of Fame second baseman, sat a few feet away on the right side of the bag.

A short time later, Fisk, Rice and Yaz lined up to catch ceremonial first pitches from Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Thomas Fitzgerald and Caroline Kennedy, the great-grandchildren of John Fitzgerald, the man who threw out the ceremonial first pitch in 1912.

Then it was time for Millar and Martinez, two of the "idiots" who helped snap Boston's 86-year championship drought in 2004, who stood on the Sox dugout and led 32,904 fans in a toast to the ballpark -- a toast that set a new world record for the largest-ever, according to Guinness.

"To the last 100 years," said Millar, as fans picked up cans of sparkling Welch's grape juice and poured it into cups that had been left in the cup holders for them.

"To the next 100 years," said Martinez.

Afterward, Millar and Martinez both expressed appreciation for the ballpark and for having played in Boston.

"Fenway was very unique in every aspect. It had a different feel from anywhere," said Martinez.

"I've been around all the leagues and nothing can compare to Fenway, not even Yankee Stadium, not for the closeness [of the fans]. If you mess up, they'll let you know. You can hear it. Same if you do something good for Boston. You'll hear it. You can feel them breathing. Fenway is the only stadium that can give you that. It's a unique place and should remain that way," he said.

"Boston is like a second home," added Millar. "It's got a family feel. That memory of the 3.7, 3.8 million people of the [championship] parade will last forever. And to see Johnny Pesky and Bobby Doerr, that got to me, a real tear-jerker. Johnny Pesky was always in uniform. He was great. The stories [Pesky told] about Ted Williams. To see him again was awesome."

And when Pesky, Doerr, Rice and Fisk yelled, "Play ball!" it was time to get back to the present and more mundane matters -- playing the New York Yankees, dressed in their 1912 throwback New York Highlanders uniforms.

But for 45 magical minutes, nostalgia reigned in venerable Fenway Park on a beautiful, sun-splashed afternoon.

Steven Krasner is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.