The Game and the Backdrop
Late October brings one thousand remembrances that creep in through the tasks. It is a time of analytical repose juxtaposed by all the hurry of putting gardens and fields to sleep, of sealing drafts and catching mice, of collecting sawing chopping splitting and stacking. There are apples to bring in, sauces to simmer, cookbooks to pour over in hopes of finding one more reason to keep the oven going. Coats to be dug out. Mittens slated for darning and knitting needles and patterns fetched from hiding and put to work.
Oh, Fenway. Storied pleasure ground of fathers and sons, fanatics and franks, curses and delight, you are the unofficial last gem in our city’s emerald necklace. Green and lit, mown and chalked, you are our beloved theater, the treasure chest of tricks, our Neil Diamond music box.
As many readers will know by now, my main connection to Fenway is through gardening. I have spent hundreds of blissed out hours just across the street, sowing and harvesting and deadheading our overgrown Fenway Victory Garden. In the summer people in jerseys walk by, some relaxing in spare time before a night game, others in a rush to catch the first pitch. Fellow plant-lovers from elsewhere marvel at the size and craftsmanship of the plots and strike up conversations, asking about the workings and history of the place before describing their own gardens.
Despite all of the time that I’ve spent across the street I’ve only been inside of the park once. It was 2011 and one of my coworkers at the Arboretum complimented my tattered old Brewers hat. John told me that the Brew Crew was playing that evening in Fenway; a rare event, as Milwaukee is in the National League and Boston the American. He recommended that I attend, so I did.
It was lovely. After eating burgers at a local shop Matt and I strolled over. The crowd pulsing around the gates was filled with kids, their hands tucked into leather, their shirts ironed with the names of tobacco and peanut chewing superstars: Pedroia, Ortiz, Ellesbury, Lester. We rang through the turnstiles and suddenly I found myself back in one of our most revered temples of Americana.
It had been years since I was in a baseball stadium, all sticky and dank and old and wonderful. I grew up going to games at County Stadium in Milwaukee and being back in all that ketchupy, nostalgic grime immediately brought me back to girlhood. I loved County Stadium: the metal green seats that you had to unfold, the syrupy sun, the popcorn, the occasional company of wonderful uncles, aunts, and cousins. I was there in 1992 the moment that (the “Rockin’”) Robin Yount swung out his 3,000th hit. (We went to game after game that summer, waiting to see the fated ball smashed.)
Fenway brought back that whole lost history, though I could feel that it was a place even sweeter and nastier than County Stadium, given that it had been in existence since 1912 and my hometown park was younger than my parents when it was torn to the ground in 2000. My affection for Fenway, already stoked by the fact that Matt went to high school right across the street, giving it a prominent and especially impressive place in the mythology of his life, was immediate. Furthermore, I had been coached into loving it by my godfather, my Uncle Dave, a true obsessive who would fight to the death for any Wisconsin sports team. Earlier that afternoon I’d called him, offering to take some pictures to add to his nearly complete photographic collection of stadiums, most of which he’d snapped himself. He eagerly told me the dimensions that would match the rest of his pictures before describing the tangible magic at Fenway Park; how gaunt pitchers and meaty sluggers haunted the place. I’d rarely heard my uncle speak with unfettered respect about another baseball team, and his sacred, almost hushed reverence for Fenway gave me tingles.
The game we saw was great if not entirely memorable. The Sox won and the Brewers lost, though they played well and I and my fellow Wisconsonian exiles cheered their efforts. What I really remember is the warmth of the evening and the lovely darkness of the back rows behind us. There were retro powder blue Brewers uniforms being worn by several spectators, hot dogs in our hands, popcorn and carbonation everywhere. Most importantly I sang along, for the first time, with thousands of devotees to one of the best pop songs of all time, “Sweet Caroline.” For over a decade the song has been an essential part of Fenway’s baseball games, filling the 8th inning stretch with beery, blissful choruses of SO GOOD! SO GOOD! SO GOOD! SO GOOD! Tingles turned to sentimental goosebumps. A ballpark had me. It walked me, lambasted me, hit me over the walls like a grand slam. I was breathless (and not just from the frankfurters).
On the 20th of April, the Saturday afternoon following the Marathon Bombings, we were showing our garden off to a friend. As we started strolling away, heading somewhere to something, we heard Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” flowing from the stadium sound system, down to the field and players, over marathon runners, the police commissioner, heroes and ball girls and umps.
The music spilled and washed down Lansdowne Street. It poured down Ipswitch and came to us, first in the center of the gardens, then drawing us to the corner, watching the scenes that lay on the jumbotron. There were people standing and swaying; photographs of those that died; faces of cops in riot gear and flags. Later we would see that those honored in the pregame ceremony included Team Hoyt, the father and son who have run in 70 marathons, many of them in Boston, Rick lead by his father who pushed his son’s wheelchair through each set of 26.2 miles. Big Papi thrilled the crowd as well, igniting everyone with a speech that made Boston burn with the start of catharsis.
That Red Sox game helped to lay a foundation of healing for this city. It echoed the spirit of another Boston sports team, the Bruins, whose red-nosed vocalist, Rene Rancourt, had stopped singing a few measures into the National Anthem to let the crowd fully take over the song. This was three days after the marathon. While those two sporting events were only a part of everything that has helped to rebuild our psyche, led in song and blessed by the sheer humanity that fed them, they were two of the most empowering.
Something in the Way
As you may remember, several months later I was again in my garden, having biked over after a day of work, when I started hearing whoops, whistles, and screams from Fenway. Occasionally I caught a lovely, choir boy kind of harmony, but mostly I heard nondescript guitars and muffled drums. I knew that anyone playing Fenway Park, especially to a crowd so ecstatically responsive, had to have been important. However, I figured it was a band much loved by masses that didn’t include myself and went about my summery puttering.
As the evening wore on and began darkening to night I gathered my things, packed them into my panniers and garden box, and rummaged for the key to lock the gate. Suddenly I heard the crowd lose it, and a voice rise up from the madness. I felt as I was saturated stage light. The voice sang, “Baby I’m amazed at the way you love me all the time…”
My heart stopped fully in my chest and and by the time I willed it back into beating I still wasn’t sure that I was hearing THE KNIGHT Paul McCartney. I wondered, for some reason, if it was Elton John, visiting Boston and covering the Beatles. The chance that it could have been Sir Paul seemed so wildly improbable that I tried dismissing it from my mind, though with every characteristic growl, piano pound, and each galaxy-famous scream my heart again acted up, this time by leaping to my throat, and my stomach joined in and filled with wings, and as I walked closer I realized, dear God, all those people sitting in lawn chairs across the street, smiling and holding hands and acting like the teeming Fenway neighborhood was just the grassy setting of a music festival, all those people were listening to Paul McCartney! Live!! And only a few hundred yards from the stage where he belted out phrases and octaves that called into question any passing of time.
I was, dare I say, amazed, and wound up walking to a place where I could prop my bike, sit down, and fully enjoy the sensations of being so close to someone so pivotal. He sang songs I hadn’t heard since I was a child and felt the sweet, unfettered joy of listening that I had experienced as a girl, listening to the music with gleeful abandon, loving it without any desire to dissect the mastery.
People danced with each other on the sidewalk, sang along to every word, applauded and gasped deliriously as songs began and ended. The sound on Van Ness was impeccable. A sorry soul who left before the encore gushed that “it sounds better out here than in there!!!” My face hurt from smiling.
A word that rhymes with Bob Schmidt
My last notable experience at Fenway is the briefest and most recent. I was at a talk by John Bunker on the deliciously historic Roxbury Russet a week ago, the first night of the World Series. The talk was presented at Roxbury Crossing and was preceded by a walk around an orchard planted with the neighborhood’s pomological namesake. By the time I got through the schmoozing and giving John a quick goodbye hug there were only a few minutes to go until the singing of the National Anthem. I walked up the hill where the small orchard lay to unlock my bike. As I approached my Jamis I could see more and more of the skyline and discovered the halo of Fenway. The ballpark’s lights, joined by a chorus of helicopter headlights and spotlights and the bit parts of hundreds of cop cars, news vans, satellite dishes and flat-out glowing people, turned a huge part of the cityscape to a mountain of ethereal white. I perched on tiptoes to gaze and listen to the activity. The rotations of flight above me, the hum of activities and warm-ups below, the whir of propellers.
Coasting down to the T station I hemmed and hawed over what to do. I could head straight home to watch the game on TV or pedal to Fenway first, standing in the midst of the bright-eyed hive. I wanted to spend some time in the heat of all that electricity in the cold night, to be so close to the bearded boys carrying the banner of Boston.
I made my decision and biked toward the light. As I neared the stadium, riding through the willows and penthouses of the Fens, it was eerily quiet. Memories of April surged through me, and I was suddenly terrified that there was a disaster ahead of me so shattering that it was silent. I’m a sucker for paranoia. I journeyed on, and when I broke through the park I found the green occupied by lovers in July parked with city vehicles and ambulances. Everything was okay–it was simply prepared for catastrophe.
I biked close enough to see my favorite player, Dustin Pedroia (the destroya), striding to the plate. Grinning, surrounded by pedicabs and frat boys and Boston cops, I sidled up to the stadium and was able to watch the monitor inside the gate. I felt as if I was breathing not air, but rather the screams and two-fingered whistles of the men, women, and children in the stands. It was the bottom of the first and I had arrived just in time to witness the most controversial moment of the game–an out which, after many long minutes driven with energy and nettled in taunts–was reversed, returning Pedroia to second base. The rescinded call opened the window for Mike Napoli to get three people home with a glorious double, and ultimately kicked off a run of scores that lead the Sox to win 8-1.
So, there you have it. I, Jenny Hauf, have become obsessed with a facet of baseball; so obsessed that I’ve blogged about it. I am not ashamed. I do, however, promise to get back to my usual topics of urban ecology soon. For the time being I have a Game 6 to watch. Have fun and go Saaaaauuuuuuxx!