The critics called him the greatest Irish poet since Yeats, but few of them knew that Seamus Heaney, the Nobel Laureate who died in Dublin on August 30 at age 74, was also a fan of the Boston Red Sox. And he probably is rooting for them to win the World Series.
I know it only because I took him to a Red Sox game in 1982 when he was teaching at Harvard and I was a fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. We lived in nearby student residences, and I made it a point to meet him.
Somehow we hit it off, maybe because I told him my mother's father was from Ireland, or that I had been a pitcher in the Cleveland Indians minor league system, or I'd been to Ireland with Vice President Mondale as his press secretary, or that I'd written a biography of Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who was among other things, an aspiring poet whose work he had read.
Well, it's not exactly accurate to say that Heaney was a Red Sox fan because he had a hard time understanding baseball, despite my efforts to explain it to him, but he liked the experience of going to Fenway Park. I assured him baseball wasn't like cricket, and that each team only had nine players instead of eleven, and that the visiting team always batted first etc., etc.
I won't try to mimic his Irish brogue, but he obviously enjoyed the ambiance, if that's the right word, of the Boston fans and the raucous atmosphere, which he compared to that of an Irish soccer crowd. And he loved the hot dogs and beer too.
I forget which team the Red Sox were playing that night, or whether they won, and even though I had clearly failed to explain baseball to him, we had a great time and kept in touch when we both left Harvard.
In fact, he came to Washington several times for readings, and stayed at the Phoenix Park Hotel on Capitol Hill, and we would have dinner at the hotel's Dubliner Restaurant and Pub. In about 1996, he gave me a copy of his just-published book, The Redress of Poetry, which was a compilation of ten lectures he had given from 1989 and 1994 as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University.
He inscribed the book "to Al, 'This is how poems help us live ... (p. 57).'"
When I read what he'd suggested, it was a poem referring to his involvement in a project where he was commissioned to translate the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in Ovid's "Metamorpheus," as Orpheus reflected on the death of his beloved Eurydice:
"The sun passed through the house,
Of Pisces, three times then, and Orpheus
Withdrew and turned away from loving women -
Perhaps because there only could be one
Eurydice, or because the shock of loss
Had changed his very nature. Nonetheless,
Many women loved him and, denied
Or not, adored."
I loved Heaney's gorgeous use of language, but his poems were about as clear to me as my efforts to explain baseball must have been to him, But I am honored to have been among his many friends.