Magic at the Ballpark

Matt Tavares ’97 draws on Red Sox dreams to create his acclaimed children’s book.

Story and photos by Phyllis Graber Jensen

The Western Wall in Jerusalem is the holiest prayer site for Jews, beckoning the faithful to touch its scarred surface; so, too, does Fenway Park’s left-field wall draw Red Sox fans taking a tour on a summer’s day. Small groups of pilgrims walk the warning track, agape, and when they reach the 37-foot Green Monster, their hands reach up to touch the shrine, enchanting in its aging simplicity.

Matt Tavares ’97 beamed like any other visitor. “I’ve never been anywhere that feels more magical than Fenway Park,” he says.

Certainly, this Massachusetts native isn’t the only one who spent great chunks of his childhood hoping he would one day patrol left field for the Sox. How many others, from Bridgeport to Van Buren, wished the same? But unlike others, who shed a child’s dreams for life’s often more mundane matters, Tavares kept his fantasy alive.

Last spring, he published his Bates senior thesis as Zachary’s Ball, a 32-page children’s book filled with black and white pencil drawings and simple text: a boy who goes to Fenway Park with his dad, catches a foul ball and becomes a big-league player for his favorite team.

I looked at the catcher, crouched down behind the plate, waiting for my pitch. He gave me some sort of sign, but I didn’t know what it meant, so I just reached back and threw the ball as hard as I could. The hitter swung as hard as he could, but the ball whizzed past him. Strike three. The Sox win!

A gaze away from Boston’s Kenmore Square, Fenway Park is a hothouse of dreams, and few who enter its gates are immune from stargazing. From the fans fantasizing every year that this is the year, to young boys imagining themselves on the mound like their hero Pedro Martinez, or young girls dreaming of initiating a double play at short stop, Red Sox reveries are endless.

“I wanted to create a story that portrayed baseball in a simple, timeless way Ð a child going to an old-time ballpark with his fielder’s mitt, hoping to catch a foul ball, or maybe even see his hero hit a home run,” Tavares says of his first book, already in its second printing for Candlewick Press and recently ranked number nine on The Boston Sunday Globe’s best-seller list of local fiction.

On a recent visit to Fenway Park for a photography session, Tavares inhaled the sweetness of his surroundings. Here he was, emerging from the dugout; donning his dream team’s jersey, adjusting the visor of his own weathered Sox hat, cradling a ball in his outfielder’s glove, the artist opened a door to his private fantasies. Dwarfed by the immensity of the American League’s famous green scoreboard, the gangly, six-foot Tavares leaped – over and over again – to snatch an imagined center field drive tossed above his head to create a photographic moment.

Matt’s mother Jane Tavares remembers how her boy loved to play baseball and attend games at Fenway Park. “But he needed to draw every day.” After dinner, Matt and his father, Manny, an architectural consultant, sat side by side at the family room coffee table, drawing together. “He’s an artist with a mind and a soul,” says his mother.

Matt’s father, a Cambridge, Mass., native grew up playing his favorite sport, baseball, eight to 10 hours a day. Organizing neighborhood games fell to kids on those days. “It was our job,” remembers the lifelong Boston fan, who attended his first major league game at the age of 8. What he remembers most about that first Fenway Park visit is the bright intensity of the playing field, confronted after a long, noisy, and crowded advance through the dank bowels of the park. That childhood feeling resonates for him in Zachary’s Ball when he sees his son’s drawing showing Zachary and his father “coming out of the tunnel and seeing how green the park is.” No matter that the image is in black and white; it conveys the feeling.

Has he ever caught a ball at Fenway? “Not yet,” says Manny Tavares. But Matt has – a batting practice home run ball in the spring of his sophomore year at Bates – and the experience set him thinking of doing a book “about the magical moment of catching a ball” at Fenway. The moment created an epiphany of sorts, germinating the seed that would become his best-seller.

By the time his junior year began, Tavares began to use three or four drawings in a series to tell a tale with pictures. “I always loved having a story read to me,” he remembers, citing Dr. Suess’ Yertle the Turtle and Ira Sleeps Over by Bernard Waber as particular favorites. Then one day during a drawing class critique, Gretchen Klausmeyer ’96 told Tavares that his work reminded her of illustrator Chris Van Allsburg. She brought The Widow’s Broom to class to show him. Matt remembered other Van Allsburg classics from his childhood: The Polar Express, Jumanji, and The Garden of Abdul Gasazi.

“All his books share the characteristics of being magical and mysterious in feeling,” he said. Like the Italian baroque painter Carravagio, who made dramatic use of light and dark areas, Van Allsburg appealed to Tavares because “he uses light to heighten dramatic moments.” Artists like Carravagio, says Tavares, would receive commissions from the pope to draw biblical scenes. “They would find one moment and make it magical.” Tavares wanted to do that with his baseball idea.

Tavares played varsity baseball for Winchester High School through his junior year, when he switched his focus to art. He didn’t cut the traditional figure of an artist, though, since he had played sports and didn’t sport green hair. Tavares was the kind of student, says his mother, who discovered art contests on high school bulletin boards and entered his work. That’s how he discovered the 1991 Reebok-sponsored “Human Rights and Me” competition. Tavares won the $2,000 first prize for his drawing of a young man and old woman separated by prison bars. “I didn’t specify who was behind bars,” he said. “But I think most people assumed it was the young man.” He picked up the award, in the company of such celebrity recipients as former President Jimmy Carter, with his black and white drawing projected behind him.

The fine arts senior thesis at Bates is “the big dress rehearsal for being an artist,” Tavares says. New York artist Robert Feintuch, faculty adviser for the annual senior thesis exhibition at Bates, agrees. As art assumes the central focus of their senior year, majors receive invaluable feedback from faculty and peers. The culmination of these efforts – a professional museum presentation in a beautiful gallery – attracts the highest attendance of any Bates Museum of Art show every year.

There’s no denying how talented Tavares is, says Feintuch. “He was very emotionally connected to his material.” But what sets the 24-year-old artist apart from other gifted peers is his self-discipline and intensity. “The fact that his work could be published didn’t mean that it would be published. He is exceptional in his persistence.

“He put an enormous amount of work into the project. But it’s in Matt’s temperament to do that anyway.” A coachable artist during his senior year, Tavares responded to thesis suggestions with endless revisions. “I got a lot of help from Don Lent and Joe Nicoletti, too,” Tavares said. “They were both involved in whatever I was working on, even when I wasn’t taking one of their classes.”

As the project took shape, the questions that loom for most students around the middle of the senior year – “What in the world will I do when I graduate?” – now had answers.

Tavares graduated in May 1997, and nine months later, Candlewick accepted his book for publication. But much more work lay ahead.

His thesis, originally called Sebastian’s Ball, became Zachary’s Ball when his editor suggested a more typically American name. (Tavares chose the new name in memory of a friend who died three years ago.) The Red Sox granted permission to use their official uniforms, and slight changes in the storyline were made. Tavares then decided to execute 13 all-new drawings and rework two others, all with a darker 9B drawing pencil. Each drawing, based on backyard photographs set up with cousin Ryan Hickey and his sister Sarah, took about 25 hours to complete.

Now living in Arlington, where he draws on a drafting table in the front room of his first-floor apartment, Tavares is working on two new books: the story of a dream shared by three children, each with a different perspective, and another baseball story. He also sings and plays bass for a Boston-based band, Teamwe, whose first full-length album The Better Part of A Year was recorded on random days over a 12-month period. In between, he’s painting like mad, taking an art class to satisfy his need to work with other artists, and visiting elementary schools with a slide presentation about his bookmaking process.

Cluttered with books and computers, the second-floor library of the Hardy School in Arlington, Mass., is quiet for a few minutes between classes, as Tavares readies his slide carousel and prepares for the sixth and final show of the day. Suddenly, the room fills with fifth graders, anxious to meet the young author. “How do you think you should start writing a story?” Tavares asks the children. “With an idea,” answers one. “Where do you start on the page?” another boy asks with a little awe in his voice. Matt projects the basis of one of his drawings: photographs of his cousin Ryan, sprawled across a lawn with mitt extended. The boy’s body is in his backyard; his – and Matt’s – mind are in Fenway Park.

The presentation over, students gather round Tavares. He responds to the children with characteristic kindness; clearly, there is a gentle bond between them. Some 10- and 11-year-old girls want to know if he is married; others shyly request advice for aspiring authors and illustrators. Even the school librarian, smiling from ear to ear, hovers over him. Today there are no more books for him to autograph: the first edition, 10,000 copies in all, has sold out by the middle of June.

During his recent visit to Fenway Park, Matt chatted happily with a few admirers who spotted him with book in hand. He signed a book for the front-office staff.

I wrote my name on the baseball as soon as I got home that day. That night I took my ball to bed with me, and each night from then on, I dreamed about baseball.

As his all-too-brief Fenway visit concluded, Tavares lowered himself into a coveted third-base box seat, pondering the quiet, empty infield in the distance. “I could stay here forever,” he said.