Fenway's Ritual Earth
How can you tell when it's spring in Boston? If you're a boy (or girl) growing up near Boston and you're a sports fan, it's when the Boys of Summer first "take the field" at Fenway Park. The calendar may say spring starts in March but it's not until April – and opening day – that some of us really feel it.
Growing up near Boston in the 1960's we often played catch and pretended to be the stars of the day, making diving catches and hitting the ball "out of the park". I was 13 when the Red Sox "Impossible Dream" team made the World Series in 1967, I thrilled to catcher Carlton Fisk, waving his home run fair against the Cincinnati Reds in '75, and I wailed, along with so many others, as the easiest of grounders sailed through the legs of an aging Bill Buckner in 1986. Each year the Red Sox came close to winning the World Series. Each year they failed. But, the following April always brought hope. Maybe this would be the year.
Paddy Swanson was not a baseball fan in 1996 so imagine my surprise when our director approached me at work and asked if I would call the Red Sox and request a donation. "Tickets?" I asked. "No, dirt," he answered. It was springtime and we were in the midst of planning a "Celtic" Midsummer Revels at the DeCordova Museum & Sculpture Park Amphitheatre in the rural suburb of Lincoln. The performance centered on "The Travelling People", commonly known as Gypsies, and Paddy was in need of some "ritual earth" to dress the outdoor stage. The red clay on the pitcher's mound or the infield "dirt" would be my targets. Was I game? Was I!
Actually, it was easy. I called the Red Sox front office and surprisingly they said "Sure!" I made an appointment to visit the park on an off day. I was to see the then head groundskeeper, Joe Mooney, a man known as much for his no-nonsense approach to things as he was for his incredible landscaping skills. I arrived at the park and was ushered into the bowels of the building, car and all. Mooney was expecting me, I was told. Someone pointed to the shortstop hole (between second and third) and there he was, hunched over, bending low, his hands sifting the infield soil. I was let through a gate and slowly walked toward him, thrilled to be on the fabled field for the very first time.
Without looking up, even for a second, he said, "See this dirt? It's the best dirt in baseball!" "Yes, Mr. Mooney, and I'm here for a bag of it". It was a beautiful spring day. The sun was shining and all was right with the world. One of his workers was nearby and he instructed the lad to fetch me a bag of infield soil. The young man trotted out to the left field corner towards a door leading back into Fenway's underbelly. "I may need two," I said, not knowing how much Paddy actually wanted. "No problem. Just tell the kid" he said, and shooed me away with his hand. And that was my cue.
There I was, chasing an imaginary fly ball and making a diving catch in left field, where Ted Williams and "Yaz" patrolled, and where Carlton Fisk's homer sailed over the Green Monster. Eventually I caught up to the boy, loaded up the car, and brought back two bags of "ritual earth" for our mid-June show.
So here it is, mid-April and the 2016 Red Sox home opener is just behind us. How will they fare this year? Well, it's spring which means there's always hope.
Revels singing "The Star Spangled Banner" at Fenway Park. Check out the ritual earth they're standing on!