Columnist Jim Cahillane: Appreciating the poetry of baseball

  • Boston Red Sox players line up along the first base line as four F-16s, from the Air National Guard's 134th Fighter Squadron in Burlington, Vermont, fly over during ceremonies prior to the Boston Red Sox home opener against the Tampa Bay Rays at Fenway Park in Boston on April 5.  AP FILE PHOTO

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The conjuncture of National Poetry Month and the Red Sox home opener in a frosty Fenway has stopped me in my tracks. My Senior Citizen passions of being a Red Sox fan, columnist and periodic poet vie for attention.

Frankly, the pay and the pain for all three vocations are psychological.

The writer writes whatever moves him. The poet comes to life when the muse arrives unbidden but insistent that her votary place pencil to paper before she leaves. Every Red Sox loyalist lives in the gamesmanship of the moment, while also a prisoner of history. As William Faulkner noted, “The past though is never dead. It’s not even past.”

My life is full of intersections between poetry and baseball. In 1941, Jim Callahan’s service station sponsored a softball team. I was only 8 and don’t recall being at the games, but I want to believe I was there.

Some 50 years later a friend dropped off an old Daily Hampshire Gazette photograph of dad’s team. It was a gift from the baseball gods because it filled in a gap in my knowledge of how I first learned to love baseball. In my 2010 memoir, “On History’s Front Steps,” Dad’s team of pump jockeys leaped to life:

Customers plus boys from the neighborhood: Uncle Sam’s

Melting pot. Team-molded by uniforms to serve this brief

Day, soon to be thrown away because Japan attacked Pearl

Harbor, Europe fell and Great Britain stood alone as FDR

Radioed news in Fireside Chats that became white-hot calls

For a civilian draft: A lottery to pick millions of teammates

Fielding an All American Phenom, swinging for the fences.

Younger viewers of Red Sox baseball on television may not notice that Fenway Park has changed. The Green Monster in left field is the one constant. Faithful television fans like myself make comparisons all the time. In TV clips of famous past games, today’s painted lady of a wall was naked in the best sense of the word.

That word is advertising.

The commercialization of televised games is all but embarrassing in what is available to advertisers. An on-screen team lineup card once wasn’t a marketing opportunity. Today it’s “brought to you by Toyota.”

When TV advertising was in its infancy, Toyota and other automakers had agreements, for example, that their ads would not appear in the same inning that Ford ran a comparison ad against Chevy, Dodge and Toyota. That’s out the window. Now, every game element we see on screen has its paying sponsor except, so far, the brush the umpire uses to clean dirt off home plate.

All well and good, as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg explained to Senator Hatch when asked how Facebook made money: “We run ads.” Modern baseball teams are no different. The current owners of the Red Sox have become masters at milking Fenway’s cash cow.

Following a 1990s trip to the old ballpark, I wrote an appreciation titled “Fenway Back in the Day”: Monster wall shone pristine green in the early afternoon sun. All in readiness for players to enter stage left.

That pristine Green Monster lasted from 1947 to 1999. Today it has seats on the top and commercials ad nauseam: Foxwoods, Covidien, Jim Beam, Granite City Electric ... What goes around comes around, because before 1947’s green paint job the wall was a total billboard.

The good news is that if money can’t buy love, it has bought Boston pitchers, hitters, fielders and managers who know the game and love to win.

New England has a nickname: Red Sox Nation. Its membership is often a fickle one in that its knowledgeable fans respect the game and have high expectations. When ownership does dumb things like hiring milksop managers or players that give up on fly balls or don’t run full speed to first base, fans will boo loudly — then leave. But not this year!

Bad times rattle in mind forever. A Boston Globe headline screaming “DEAD SOX” refuses to go. A $100 million mistake like Carl Crawford who lazily let a fly ball drop in left field on the last play of a forgotten 2012 season sticks in the craw.

Dejected, I wrote a sad poem that ended:

Some monster, somewhere, probably in the Bronx is

Green, O, green with glee at The Hub’s consternation.

I’ve re-enlisted in the Nation thanks to many televised games and announcers like Jerry Remy, Dave O’Brien and Guerin Austin.

Remy is a survivor of good and bad baseball seasons and a family tragedy. His cancer is in remission and he’s back doing what he’s loved doing since 1989 — color commentator for the Sox. Remy is amazing in that as a former player he can anticipate pitches and explains what’s going right or wrong on the field — without fear or favor.

His cohort O’Brien is an experienced play-by-play announcer and a foil for Remy’s stories during game breaks and rain delays. Graceful Austin is a solid on-field interviewer and reporter. Back in the NESN studio, Tom Caron smoothly delivers pre-and post-game analysis.

So, everything is in place. Leading off is Mookie Betts, poetry in motion at bat and in right field. Andrew Benintendi of the Ted Williams-like perfect swing patrols left field. The bullpens in right field were called “Williamsburg” because Ted’s home runs landed there. JBJ stands for Jackie Bradley Jr. who covers center field like a blanket. The Red Sox have one of the youngest and best outfields in baseball.

Add an all-star pitching staff led by Chris Sale, plus heavy hitters like Hanley Ramirez and J.D. Martinez, and this Red Sox team is off to its best start in 100 years.

A World Series win replicating 1918’s would be poetic justice.

I believe that watching these shiny Sox over the Tweety-Trumpy news out of Washington, along with the world’s trouble spots, will be my safe-at-home way to spend this summer and fall.

When our life on earth answers its final call

May Heaven’s welcome shout be: Play ball!

Jim Cahillane has published four books of poetry, including some that are online at www.baseballbard.com/authors/james-f-cahillane/, and belongs to the Florence Poets Society. He lives — where else — in Williamsburg, writes a monthly column and can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.