April 27, 2013

Portlander to recite 'Casey at the Bat' at Fenway

By Steve Solloway ssolloway@pressherald.com
Columnist

Wearing his baseball uniform and carrying his Louisville Slugger, Mort Soule will walk onto the biggest stage of his life Sunday at Fenway Park and strike out. He will swing and miss in front of nearly 30,000 Boston Red Sox fans. His family and dearest friends will also be watching.

Mort Soule
click image to enlarge

Mort Soule of Portland stands near home plate in Fenway Park before practicing his reading of 'Casey At The Bat' in preparation for Sunday's State of Maine Day at Fenway Park.

Josh Reynolds for the Portland Press Herald

Mort Soule
click image to enlarge

Mort Soule of Portland show's his copy of 'Casey At The Bat' edited down to three minutes in preparation for Sunday's reading.

Josh Reynolds for the Portland Press Herald

And those are the least of his concerns.

Sunday will be Maine Day at Fenway, a yearly event for the ballclub to recognize the northern reaches of Red Sox Nation. This year, Soule, a longtime Portland resident, was asked to bring the mightiest hitter in American poetry to life. For three minutes, Soule will be the Casey of Ernest Thayer's famed poetic ballad, "Casey at the Bat."

Those three minutes are Soule's problem. It takes nearly six minutes, with his cadence, to recite all 52 lines of the poem. He knows. He's done it about 300 times, to applause.

"Cut it to three minutes? I had to eliminate 25 lines. That's like leaving out every other line to the Lord's Prayer or the pledge to the flag," said Soule, a hint of exasperation in his voice.

When he's introduced Sunday before the Red Sox game with the Houston Astros, he wants the Fenway crowd to know that he will recite "an abridged version."

"I've got it down to 3 minutes and 20 seconds. I don't think they'll notice the extra 20 seconds, do you?"

Probably not. He'll know he's exceeded his time if the organist starts playing.

For much of his adult life, Soule, who's 67, has been a Latin teacher in Portland-area schools and a head baseball coach. He was a star athlete at Bowdoin College, and you can still see him in his black letterman's sweater with the large B on his chest when his alma mater has a big game. It doesn't fit too snugly.

Soule's high school coach, the legendary Freddie Harlow, committed "Casey at the Bat" to memory. Years later, when Soule was fighting insomnia, he recalls, perhaps with tongue in cheek, he put the poem at his bedside.

Memorizing it was more effective than counting sheep, especially when he got to the line describing a discouraged crowd. The words twist the tongue: "So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat."

The poem's lessons appealed to the teacher and the ballplayer in Soule. Being challenged, as the Mudville team was that day, is an integral part of life. Mudville was down by two runs with two outs in its last at-bat. Runners were at second and third when Casey majestically walked to the plate.

He didn't lift his bat as two strikes sailed into the catcher's mitt. The crowd yelled its displeasure at the umpire. When the Mighty Casey finally did swing, he missed. Strike three. There was no joy in Mudville.

The poem brings joy to Soule every time he recites it. For him, this is not art imitating life. During one full season as a starter at Bowdoin, Soule struck out exactly one time, a school record. On the last pitch of that strikeout, his bat never left his shoulder .

"It was a ball," said Soule. "The umpire was wrong. My vision is 20-10."

Yes, Soule lives his life with a certain flair.

Thayer's poem was first published in 1888 by the San Francisco Examiner. On a trip to that city, Soule put on his Mudville uniform and showed up at the newspaper's offices, telling the security guard at the front desk that he wanted to visit the sports department. Soule was turned away.

"I was dejected, but the guard told me to try the city library (to learn more about Thayer and his poem)." Soule did.

In 2005, while visiting his daughter at New York University, Soule wanted to go onto the stage at Washington Square in lower Manhattan, where a very young Bob Dylan had once sung and where Vietnam War protesters had voiced their cause.

Soule recited "Casey at the Bat." He was uncharacteristically subdued. Maybe it was the urban environment so far from Mudville. "You would have had to walk right by me," he said, "to hear 'Kill the umpire.'"

A couple of months ago, Soule was invited to recite Casey by the Boston developer Don Chiofaro, his former roommate at Phillips Exeter Academy. Red Sox owner Larry Lucchino, General Manager Ben Cherington and Manager John Farrell were in the audience that day at One International Place, Chiofaro's office complex.

Soule was a hit and got the opportunity of his lifetime. He's done Casey three times on the Fourth of July at Hadlock Field in Portland and been thrilled. Fenway Park is a step up.

Friday morning, Soule drove to Fenway to rehearse, wearing his uniform from Greely High School, where he's now the junior varsity coach, assisting his son, Derek Soule, the varsity head coach.

He will rehearse again Sunday morning, hours before the game. By the time he's done rehearsing, he expects the groundskeepers should be able to recite "Casey at the Bat" themselves.

Is he nervous? Maybe a little. But this won't be his first time standing on the grass at Fenway. His championship Little League team was invited to take fielding practice there in 1957.

There was joy in Mudville that day. 

Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

ssolloway@pressherald.com

Twitter: SteveSolloway

 

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