I Love That Dirty Water

Boston Vigil by @PetesWire

Boston Vigil by @PetesWire

I became more human on Marathon Monday morning in Boston.

I rode the T to Fenway, and waited on Yawkey Way, right next to Mr. Yawkey’s plaque, for a Jesuit friend of mine to show up to the game, as he had the tickets. Tyler Hansborough and several of his Indiana Pacers teammates, in town for a game against the Celtics the following night, stood right next to me as they waited for a team official to get them their tickets.  That’s one of the many things that makes Fenway different than newer stadiums: there are few special entrances.  Everyone goes through the same gates, no matter where your seats are.

As a lifelong Yankee fan, I have a confession to make: I have an honest affection for Fenway Park.  I’ve been there a handful of times, and in each time I make my way through the turnstile I feel like I’m stepping into the past.  It was opened in 1912, and while there have been several additions in its history (a hand-operated scoreboard in 1934, an upper deck in 1946, lights in 1947, more seating throughout the last decade), it retains its early 20th century feel.  For a Major League stadium, the place is small, seating less than 40,000.  Foul territory is the smallest allowable by Major League Baseball rules, so fans are on top of the action.  The concourses are tiny and jammed, and the same can be said about the seats.  There is an absence of neon in the bowels of the place, and, as far as I can tell, the “Ice Cream of the Future” is not for sale.  Thankfully, though, you can still get a dog and a beer.

 On Patriots’ Day, first pitch is slated for 11am, the better to manage the large marathon crowds.  I’d been looking forward to the novelty of starting a big league game so early in the day.  Fenway didn’t disappoint.  Last Monday was a great day for baseball.  It was a good game on one of the first real spring days of the year.  Fans were treated to a pitchers’ duel, as the Rays’ Jeremy Hellickson and the Sox’ Ryan Dempster each went seven innings.  The packed house serenaded itself with Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” in the middle of the 8th inning, as always.  The Sox went into the top half of the ninth inning clutching a narrow 2-1 lead.  The Rays, though, tied the game in the top of the ninth on a RBI single by Ben Zobrist.

In the bottom half of the ninth, Rays pitcher Joel Peralta issued a one-out walk to Sox’ second baseman, and former MVP, Dustin Pedroia.  The next batter, Mike Napoli, banged a double off the Green Monster (one of the coolest and most unique features of any of MLB’s ballparks).  Pedroia, with full knowledge of how the old ballpark plays, was in an all-out sprint as soon as the ball was put into play.  When he scored the winning run, The Standells blared from the public address system.  I admit that I was swept up in the atmosphere, even managing a smile and a few claps as Napoli’s teammates mobbed him in the infield.

Baker Sox Pic

Box Score Photo by Author

Just as in Fenway Park, marathon runners and those who lined the route were also engaged in an aesthetic sporting experience.  When the Red Sox celebration ended and they made their way into their clubhouse to prepare for a trip to Cleveland, Sox fans spilled out into the streets to catch the end of the marathon.

***

Not long after the Fenway exodus, the unthinkable happened; two homemade bombs exploded near the finish line.  My Jesuit brother and I were about a block away at that point, and we heard the blasts but had no idea what happened.  Soon, the streets – filled with people smiling and enjoying the day – were overflowing with people screaming as they ran from Copley Square.  Sirens blared as fire trucks and police cars sped toward the scene.  Parents pulled their kids by the arm, and people cried into their cell phones.  There was an unsettling look of bewilderment and fear on peoples’ faces.

***

That night, the Bruins postponed their hockey game with the Ottawa Senators, and the Celtics canceled Tuesday’s game against Hansborough’s Pacers, perhaps thinking that it would be disrespectful to hold something so trivial as a sporting event the following day.  Or perhaps that it would simply be too hard for the city of Boston to provide adequate security so quickly.  It was the right thing to do, of course.

All the same, I was angry that fans were denied the opportunity to engage in the joy that sports can provide.  Because during the intense moments of sporting events – whether I’m playing in them, coaching them, watching them – I am wrapped up in the aesthetic experience that sports can produce.  Sir Ken Robinson defines an aesthetic experience as “one in which your senses are operating at their peak; when you’re present in the current moment, when you’re resonating with the excitement of this ‘thing’ you are experiencing, when you are fully alive.”  When Pedroia read the ball off Napoli’s bat and ran with abandon from first to home, who could argue that he was not engaged in an aesthetic experience?  And who could argue that the Rays were not engaged in the same?  Those of us in the Fenway seats were most certainly engaged in that aesthetic experience, as well.

I’ve heard plenty of professional athletes and coaches say lately that they want to provide a distraction from the physical, emotional, and psychological pain that the bombing has inflicted.  Even as other games were played this week, Boston was still on everyone’s mind.  There were tributes across Major League Baseball the day after the bombing, including at Yankee Stadium.  The faces in the crowd looked much more relaxed than the faces I saw near Copley Square on Monday.  I suppose, at first glance, that makes sense.  There is some form of escapism with which entertainment – television, movies, concerts, literature – provides us.  But people were still thinking about Boston and the hurt we were enduring here.  It was inescapable.

Sports are more than anaesthesia, though.  In fact, they are the opposite.  Sports can give us a window into what it means to be a human being.  They can expand our knowledge of the limits of our bodies, our emotions, and our minds.  Sports can truly engage the entirety of our humanity.  As Father Michael Himes said earlier this academic year, “[I]f you wish to be like God, be more human. And the way to be more human is to help others to be more human, to give yourself away.”  I think rather than take us outside of ourselves, sports have the potential to show us really who we are.  They help us give ourselves away to something more important than ourselves.  They connect us with other human beings, and, every now and again, when they truly connect us with our own humanity, they connect us with God.

***

After the arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev late Friday night people want to see pictures of the marathon finish line, of the messages and flowers people have left here.  People want to construct analogies that neatly-tie the beginning of this whole thing to the end.  It is as if the end of the manhunt somehow equals the end of a road race.  Understandably, people who one week ago didn’t know where Watertown was now want to hear about the lockdown, and how the past week has impacted the lives of Bostonians.

On Saturday, I went back to Fenway for another day game.  In truth, I really wanted to be there to see how the city would respond.

NY + Boston

NY + Boston

There was increased security to navigate in order to make our way through those old gates.  It took longer than usual to get in, and people were bumped up against that Yawkey Plaque in a way that they were not on Monday.  The pre-game honorees were inspiring.  Along with the girl in the row in front of me, I had tears in my eyes when the Marathon Volunteers came out.  We sang the national anthem aloud, just like Bruins fans did on Tuesday night.  Word on the street is that that will be a new Boston tradition.  And on his first day back from the disabled list, David Ortiz was sincere if not exactly eloquent in his address to the fans, and he put smiles on people’s faces.

As for the actual baseball, Saturday was another pitchers’ duel.  The infield play by Stephen Drew and Pedroia was exceptional.  The Sox won in late innings again.  We had hotdogs and beer, purchased from the same lady from whom we bought them on Monday (and they we just as good). Oh, Neil Diamond was there, too.

But the seats, the concourses, the dogs, the baseball… it was the the same Fenway it’s been for 101 years.  Those steady realities were not only comforting, they were illustrative of the human aesthetic experience.  Saturday’s game at Fenway was not an escape at all.  It was an immersion into what it means to be a human being.

Terrorism may disrupt our lives – distract us from the goodness of humanity – but the human spirit is too powerful to be overcome by fear.  Bombs, gunshots, car chases and terror cannot rob us of what means to be human.  Events that we rightly call “games” – things often described as trivial – are also windows into something far from trivial: the human spirit.  

That very spirit has been on prominent display quite often lately in Beantown.  It truly has been something to behold.

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