June 4, 2010
To celebrate Leo’s graduation from high school, we recently went to a baseball game together. Most of our father-son bonding, such as it is, takes place on sailboats, so this made a welcome change. It was less fraught. There was no course to steer, no heavy weather in the ballpark that afternoon. Our sole responsibility was to cheer on the home team led by pitcher Tim Wakefield, whose career with the Red Sox I have followed with admiration since his arrival in 1995.
Wakefield is that relative rarity in the major leagues, a knuckleball pitcher. The ball leaves his fingertips seemingly effortlessly, dancing towards home plate at no more than a mere 65 miles per hour. The unpredictability of its flight confounds the batter, who swings haplessly into the void for a strike—or onto the ball for a home run. Both happened that afternoon more than once. Indeed, Wakefield was knocked about quite a bit, especially in the fourth inning in which he gave up four runs. He departed after six innings, not too dispirited, I hope. In spite of some heavy hitting, the Red Sox eventually lost the game by a run.
We had not been to Fenway Park for some time. The four corporate tickets that an extremely generous friend and baseball aficionado gave Leo for his birthday each year were victims of cost-cutting measures in the recession. We loved those outings to marvel at the creatures from a higher sphere from unaffordable box seats on the third base line. Who wouldn’t adore Fenway Park, the architectural epitome of gritty glamour? After 98 years of absorbing the dreams, triumphs and agonies of thousands of fans and players, it resonates with stored emotions. Fenway Park is no less a condenser of human affect than the field of Gettysburg. To gaze over that diamond of perfect green grass and raked dirt is to glimpse in the mind’s eye Babe Ruth on the mound, Roger Williams at the plate, Carlton Fisk in the bottom of the twelfth in game 6 of the 1975 World Series waiving the ball fair.
Fenway Park has a place in the personal mythologies of thousands, my own included. I owe being in America to the Boston Red Sox. When Harvard was courting and prodding me in the summer of 1991 with a view to recruiting me, one of the cleverest moves—after the meetings were over and the dinners were eaten—was to take me to a Red Sox game. Being from England, I had never been to a ball game before. I walked up the ramp from beneath the grandstand to see the green heart of the ball park for the first time, angelic forms in vivid white stretching and throwing balls to one another viewed by choirs of fans from the surrounding tiers. My conversion was instantaneous, Pauline. My host was a lawyer who explained what was happening as the game unfolded with such clarity and precision that I began to catch on. Later I came to learn just why baseball is the game of philosophers. Yes, I know it’s a cynical business, exploiting the gullibility of its fans to rake in profits, a small proportion of which go on the absurd monetary rewards received by a minority of players. I’m taken in, and know it, but somehow I don’t mind. In this respect, as in others, it’s the American microcosm.
Leo and I were truly initiated when one year, when Leo was still very young, my graduate research fellows gave us both baseball gloves at the end of the academic year. Thanks to them, Leo didn’t suffer the psychic deprivation of not playing catch with his father. Then he played Little League in our town for several springs, with more enthusiasm than ability, until the enthusiasm waned on realizing that the skills would likely never develop. I faithfully attended many of his games, from T-ball through his stint on Lexington’s Little League version of the Oakland Athletics.
The A’s played the Red Sox in that first game I saw at Fenway Park in June, 1991; the A’s played the Red Sox in the game I saw with Leo just recently. But it’s the Red Sox that matter. Like all other devotees (even part-timers, like me) I remember the moment on October 27, 2004 for which we had all been waiting for 86 years, when Foulke flipped the ball to Menkiewitz at first base, and it was all over. I was in my hotel room in Houston, at a philosophy conference. That evening, if only for a while, the game of philosophers eclipsed philosophy.