Red seat conversions: A lesson from Fenway

My dad came to visit this summer and we spent an afternoon at Fenway Park in Boston, the home of the Boston Red Sox. The team was on a road trip and so we decided to take the official tour of the ballpark. Not being natives of Red Sox Nation, we were unaware of, but learned on the tour, the story behind the lone red seat in the right field bleacher section.

Our guide, a young woman who clearly loved baseball and the home team, explained that the red seat, surrounded by rows of green, marked the spot where the longest home run ever hit at Fenway landed. It was smacked by Ted Williams on June 9, 1946 during the second inning of a game against the Detroit Tigers. The homer measured 502 feet from the plate.

The location, then a spot on an old-fashioned bleacher, was not empty at the time, our guide continued, but was occupied by Joseph A. Boucher, who got bonked in the head by the baseball. He was wearing a straw hat, for the day was sunny, and may have been snoozing when Williams came to bat. Balls are rarely hit to that section of the stands, so it was greatly surprising to have a ball come in that direction, let alone that far.

With screams all around him, Boucher may have awakened in time to start searching for the ball, which would have been difficult to spot because of the sun. Or he may have continued to snooze. The story is not clear on this point according to our guide. Nonetheless, the ball punched a hole in Boucher’s hat, cracked his noggin, and bounced several rows higher. Boucher went for medical aid, but returned in the later innings to watch the rest of the game.

And now, remarked our guide in the vein of radio commentator Paul Harvey, here’s the rest of the story. Reporters found out that Boucher, a construction engineer, was in town on business from Albany, N.Y. So the inevitable question came up, our guide informed us. Was this guy a Yankees fan?

Well, it turned out he was, but because his business required frequent trips to Boston, he often took in Red Sox games. However, our guide told us, Boucher then announced that he finally had some sense knocked into him, and from that day forward became a devoted fan, exclusively, of the Red Sox. As a result of his red seat conversion, many of his family became diehard fans too.

The political news this summer has covered another conversion story, involving former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. The issue has attracted the attention of Catholic newspapers as well, as evidenced by an article in the Aug. 19 edition of the National Catholic Register entitled “Questions remain for Iowa Straw Poll victor Romney.”

The article noted that Romney’s professed conversion to the pro-life cause has come under fire in the midst of the national campaign for president. Is Romney really pro-life? Has he come far enough in the right direction and has he adequately renounced his prior “pro-choice” position?

In the Register article, a strategist from another candidate’s campaign questioned Romney’s sincerity, accusing him of political opportunism. National and state leaders of the pro-life movement, though reluctant at this early stage to endorse anyone, told the Register that their approach is to “take a person at their word until they prove otherwise” and that “the pro-life movement always welcomes converts.”

I side with the latter opinions. Leaving aside the political contest, which is not the proper subject of the reflections here, I’m prompted to put my glove (or straw hat) into the game with respect to the issue of conversion. I was a witness to the recent tumult in the public policy arena of our state, immersing all the branches of Massachusetts government, and involving same-sex marriage, cloning, and emergency contraception among other intensely debated issues. My own affirmative measure of another’s conversion claim is bound to that experience.

Let me make four observations. First, Romney hired close advisors who supported, and who made it a point to solicit the input of individuals and organizations advocating traditional positions on the various social issues in question. This marked a healthy openness to truth.

Second, Romney listened to, and in many instances directly relied upon, the input from supporters of traditional values. The seeds of change were sowed in the learning process.

Third, the governor had to maneuver in an environment hostile to traditional values. Final decisions in the executive branch, as a result, did not always come down favorably.

Two examples are pertinent. In the battle over a new statute requiring hospitals to provide emergency contraception, the Romney administration issued a veto that the Legislature overrode. The administration then eventually backed off its legal position that an earlier conscience protection statute shielded Catholic hospitals from the mandate. Newspaper reports indicated the active role played by the state attorney general, a supporter of the mandate. In Massachusetts, the attorney general’s office acts independently from the governor, and wields enormous power in determining the legal positions of the executive branch. Then-Attorney General Tom Reilly advised the administration that he opposed and would not defend its legal position, thus compromising the governor’s ability to protect Catholic hospitals.

In addition, after the state Supreme Judicial Court issued its ruling on giving marriage licenses to same-sex couples, the administration was confronted again with opposition from the attorney general, who refused to represent the governor in a bid to delay the ruling. The attorney general’s office also had a hand in the directions issued to town clerks advising them on how to implement the court ruling after it took effect. Instead of defying the process, as some wanted Romney to do, and thus deepening the constitutional crisis precipitated by the courts, he went another route. He got behind an initiative petition on marriage. He then used his office as a bully pulpit by going directly to the people.

Fourth, and finally, the former governor’s newly embraced public positions are not perfectly aligned to mine in every respect. For example, Romney opposes Roe v. Wade but would support limited exceptions to a ban on abortion. He opposes cloning and the funding of embryonic stem- cell research, but would allow for embryos created by in vitro fertilization to be donated for research. The question for me, however, in assessing any conversion claim, is not whether a convert has arrived, and immediately so, to full agreement, but whether the journey he or she has embarked upon is going in the right direction. If there is a continued openness to learning, and positive changes are happening, then encouragement, not denunciation, is the call.

Red Sox fans in 1946 should have rejoiced at the news of a newly converted, former Yankees fan, notwithstanding the inexplicable (to Red Sox fans) allegiance that Joseph A. Boucher once gave to the Bronx Bombers. Red seat conversions can happen early or late, in the most unlikely of circumstances and to the most unlikely of persons. Based on this reality and on past experience, I’m taking Mitt Romney at his word and say welcome.

Daniel Avila is the Associate Director for Public Policy of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.