Wednesday, March 26, 2014

May 9, 2009: Phillies vs. Atlanta Braves

Two months after moving back to the east coast, I got another sports writing gig, this time in the historical town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. This new job permitted me the freedom to write about the Phillies, and it was a Philly-focused column I penned in April 2009 that earned me my first Pennsylvania press award, but I can’t take credit. Harry Kalas basically wrote the piece for me.
My dad and I went to our first meaningful Phillies game together in nearly five years that May. Our first live look at the World Series champions in action fared worse than we hoped. The Atlanta Braves jumped all over starting pitcher Joe Blanton en route to a 6-2 victory. The only Philly runs came on two solo shots, one by Chase Utley and the other by new Phillies acquisition, Raul Ibanez, who took over for the departed Pat Burrell in left field.

Those home runs gave us two chances to hear Kalas’ “outta here” call ringing through the loudspeakers at Citizens Bank Park. My dad and I smiled each time, though our hearts hung heavy. It was just one of many ways the Philly organization honored a team icon who left us all so suddenly the month before.

My dad and I caught a glimpse of Kalas during the World Series parade in October 2008, but we had no way of knowing he was less than six months from his death. Even as his health deteriorated, a fact kept hidden from the public, nothing could keep Kalas from the broadcast booth, which was eventually where his heart gave out just prior to a Phillies road game against the Washington Nationals on April 13.

Later that afternoon, I was informed of Kalas’ death by my friend Bill Gribble, my first college roommate and fellow Phillies fan who also attended the parade with my dad and I. We both struggled to put our grief into words as we expressed how much this man meant to us. We felt like we had lost a family member.

It seemed like fate intervened when the high school sporting event I was scheduled to cover that evening was canceled, and I wrote the aforementioned column instead. It’s not like I could get my mind to focus on anything else anyway.

After moving to Gettysburg, I tried to make it back to Wilmington at least one Sunday per month to watch the Phillies with my dad, but watching them would never be the same. We knew that our love for the Phils stemmed just as much from how Harry called the team’s games than the team itself.

Kalas had long been considered an honorary Phillie, and the players dedicated the rest of the 2009 season to him, wearing an ‘HK’ patch on the front of their uniforms. Shane Victorino also came up with the idea to hang a pale blue suit jacket of Kalas’ in the dugout, along with his trademark white shoes.

My dad and I enjoyed the good fortune of meeting Kalas once in May 2006. He was invited to the Wilmington Flower Market as a guest of WDEL 1150 AM, the radio station that broadcasted Phillies games in Delaware. Kalas was there to sign autographs of his picture for any fans in attendance, an opportunity the announcer rarely turned down.

At the most, I would say there 40 of us there to see Kalas, probably because his appearance wasn’t well advertised. I preferred the intimate feel, even though I would have gladly stood in line for six hours to see him.

Before sitting down to sign autographs, Kalas took the mic and spoke to us about how much he appreciated our support of the Phightin’ Phils, particularly during a recent winning streak that pulled them to within a game of first place. As his velvety voice rang out all over Rockford Park, I couldn’t believe I was this close to it, and I was about to get a lot closer.

The anticipation burned like fire in the pit of our stomachs as my dad and I waited in line with our photos. When it was my turn, I scurried up to the table and showing a nervous grin, I placed my photo in front of Kalas. I hadn’t met very many famous people in my life, so I wasn’t sure what to say. I finally blurted out something to the effect of, “I’ve been listening to you call games since I was a little kid.” He had probably already heard that from the 10 people before me, but he smiled warmly and said, “Thank you,” as he handed back my freshly-signed photo.

In the end, my words to him were appropriate. Part of the thrill of watching Phillies games growing up was tuning in 10 minutes before first pitch to hear Kalas welcome the fans to the telecast. I remember Harry and Whitey's pre-game acting as the soundtrack to my 11th birthday as my mother lit the candles on the cake. Though my Phillies fandom was still in its infancy at that point, Harry's unofficial presence at my party just felt right. It’s the wish of anyone who puts him or herself out there for the public’s consumption that their product keeps people coming back. Kalas was the best in his field at that.

As we left Rockford Park, my dad and I kept glancing down at Kalas’ autograph to make sure we hadn’t dreamt the whole thing. We were blown away that we got to hear that classic voice in person, and it was actually speaking to us. I’m embarrassed to admit that my dad and I lost our autographed photos after only a few weeks, but they were merely secondary to the experience of meeting one of our idols. It’s a meeting I treasure over any Phillies player. That is what he meant to the fans and to the art of broadcasting.

We won’t see another like Kalas again, but I’m so glad that my dad and I got to meet him, and I’m glad that he was alive to both see and call their second world championship. The Phillies made it back to the Fall Classic in October 2009, but lost in six games to the New York Yankees. I think the greatest moment of another Series win would’ve been when the players hoisted that trophy over their heads and said in perfect unison, “This one’s for Harry.”

Monday, March 17, 2014

April 30, 2011: Phillies vs. New York Mets

In 2011, I became more of an involved Phillies fan than ever before.

I wrote about them on an almost-daily basis for a startup sports website that unfortunately never got off the ground. Colleen received a major promotion at work that allowed me the financial freedom to attend six Phillies games that season, including trips to Pittsburgh and Washington (my first time ever seeing them on the road).

By now, I had a small group of people on my Phillies game invite list, but I still planned a game with my dad before anyone else.

I entered Citizens Bank Park that Saturday afternoon with more confidence about a Phillies win than at any previous game since 1993, and for once, I wasn’t looking for a Phillies blowout. The reason? His name was Roy “Doc” Halladay.

The Phillies struck fear in the hearts and minds of every other batting lineup in the National League prior to the season when they magically brought back Cliff Lee after losing him in 2009 – second sweetest Christmas gift ever behind the signed Cal Ripken ball Colleen gave me. The deck was now stacked in the Phillies’ favor with a rotation that included Lee, Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt.

But Halladay was an ace among aces. Not only did he run away with the Cy Young Award in 2010, his first year with Philadelphia, he tossed a perfect game in May and threw just the second postseason no-hitter in major league history that October against the Cincinnati Reds. He displayed a full arsenal of pitches that he could throw with absolute precision in any count. I had never seen a pitcher who looked in complete control every time he toed the rubber. Halladay was one of those rare hurlers who became even more unhittable with runners on base.

The New York Mets lineup looked befuddled against Doc over the first three innings. He retired nine of the first 10 men he faced on just 23 pitches, 21 of which were strikes. The Mets got to Halladay in the fourth, leading off with three straight singles to take a 1-0 lead, but he stopped the bleeding there. He bounced back quickly, collecting five of his eight strikeouts in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings.

The Philly offense finally rewarded Halladay’s strong outing in the bottom of the seventh with a pair of runs. Home plate became a harder destination to reach for the Phillies by 2011 – 4.4 runs per game, compared with 5.1 in 2009 – but scoring wasn’t as pressing of an issue when their starters were going seven or eight innings every night.

Even guys like Halladay tire toward the end of a game, and Doc made things interesting in the ninth before tying down the 2-1 victory. He threw six straight balls to start the inning, and Carlos Beltran nearly took him deep on a fly ball for the first out. After Halladay struck Jason Bay out, the game ended on an unlikely flash of the leather by well-below-average first baseman Ryan Howard. He made a diving stop on a sizzling ground ball by Ike Davis, and then flipped to his pitcher for the 27th out. Similar to 1993, it seemed like no matter how they got it done, the Phillies were going to win.

It was Halladay’s second complete game of the young season, and he also owned five of the team’s 18 wins in April. My dad and I agreed Halladay’s gem was one of the best games we had ever seen together.

Prior to 2011, my dad and I were convinced we were bad luck for the Phillies. Of the nine games we went to between 1994 and 2010, our boys had won just three of them, and one of those was with backup players. The Phillies lost the three additional games I went to with friends over the same period.

Now that the Phightins boasted one of the best pitching rotations in baseball history, my luck suddenly changed. They won all six games that I saw from the stands in 2011, and three of those wins were the team’s only victory in that particular series. The icing on the cake came in September at Citizens Bank Park. I was there with my friend, Bill Paulino*, to witness the Phillies clinch their fifth straight NL East title. They would go on to post the best regular-season record (102-60) in team history.

That magical rotation made it all possible. Halladay, Lee and Hamels all finished in the top 6 in Cy Young voting after the season. More importantly, they helped me truly discover the beautiful art of pitching and to appreciate the 2-1 pitchers duels like my dad.


*Bill and I became friends through our love of the Phillies. How we met was stuff of legends. It was May 29, 2010, and we were gathered with mutual friends at a sports bar in New Castle, Delaware. We were there to watch the Philadelphia Flyers play in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals, but we wound up watching Halladay throw a perfect game against the Florida Marlins.

Monday, March 3, 2014

August 18, 2002: Harry Kalas Hall of Fame celebration

Major League Baseball offers its fans numerous opportunities during the regular season to honor the most cherished members of their team’s extended family, be they former players, coaches or front office executives. Dad and I made sure we were present for Phillies’ most anticipated of these occasions during the 2002 campaign, and for many in attendance, the celebration recognized not so much a person, but a voice.

The calming baritone to which I refer belonged to none other than Phillies play-by-play announcer Harry Kalas. Despite hailing from the Midwest, Kalas was as Philadelphia as cheesesteaks. He endeared himself to the fans and the players with his easy-going personality and blue-collar devotion to his craft. In the days before he gave up drinking, he could be frequently found at the local watering hole until the wee hours, belting out classic oldies for his listeners, but he always somehow turned up to the broadcast booth on time with a clear head.

And that voice. It carried you to a special place that made baseball an inviting and comforting diversion from life’s daily grind. Kalas also stirred up the adrenalin in just the right doses on every exciting play. Whenever he raised his voice to an enthusiastic yell, particularly on his trademark “outta here” home run calls, he showed his genuine love for the game and his job. I owe my appreciation of baseball to my father, but Kalas played a definite role as well, as he did for multiple generations of Phillies fans.

Now in his 32nd season with the organization, Kalas received baseball’s highest honor for broadcasters, the Ford C. Frick Award. It’s akin to a Hall of Fame induction for players, and a plaque signifying Kalas’ award is displayed in Cooperstown.

The Phillies commemorated this special recognition with Harry Kalas Day, resulting in Veterans Stadium’s only sellout in another disappointing season. Kalas, donning in a white suit jacket and purple lei around his neck, was honored with a touching pre-game ceremony on the field. Hosts Glenn Wilson and Darren Daulton led the crowd through several of Kalas’ most memorable calls, including Mike Schmidt’s 500th home run and the last out of the division-clinching game in 1993. Kalas’ family and several members of the ‘80 and ‘93 Phillies teams joined him on the field, and he received a lap around the edge of the field while perched in the back of a red convertible. At the end of the ceremony, we finally got to hear Harry the K himself when he took the microphone to thank the fans for their support over the last 31 years. Kalas’ words carried a special weight for my dad, who had been watching and listening every one of those years.

One of the most touching moments of the ceremony for me occurred when Scott Rolen, who was traded to the visiting St. Louis Cardinals just three weeks earlier, emerged from the visitors dugout, gave Kalas a hug, and then opened the car door for him just prior to the lap. It’s a shame that Kalas and Rolen’s soundtrack to this moment was a chorus of boos from a majority of the crowd. Rolen’s difficulties with Philadelphia manager Larry Bowa were well documented, and some fans never forgave Rolen for his unceremonious departure, but for this one magical event they should have taken the high road.

Rolen wasn’t the only Cardinal under fire.

J.D. Drew became public enemy No. 1 in 1997 when he rejected the Phillies drafting him second overall because they refused the $10 million signing price that Drew’s evil agent, Scott Boras, demanded. The Cardinals gave into Drew and Boras when they drafted him the following year. During Drew’s first visit to Veterans Stadium in 1999, the fans famously showed their displeasure by throwing countless objects, including D-cell batteries, at him.

When Drew came to the plate in the top of the sixth inning to the usual round of boos, some fans sitting near my dad and I in the upper deck took things too far. I guess they counted on Drew to possess X-Ray vision because they stuck up their middle fingers while screaming obscenities. Other fans seated several rows below began shouting up at them to knock it off in deference to the children trying to enjoy the game. That only encouraged the offenders to scream louder, which prompted security to remove them from the area.

My dad and I and the people immediately around us could only shake our heads and laugh. One guy in the row behind us perfectly summed up the situation. Channeling his inner Rodney King, he pleaded innocently, “Can’t we all just get a Bud Light?” I couldn’t believe fans were still getting this worked up over Drew, but at least they provided me with better entertainment than the Phillies, who lost the game 5-1.

Every fan who attended the game received a special item: a bobblehead of Kalas and his former partner in crime, color commentator and Phillies Hall of Fame centerfielder Richie “Whitey” Ashburn. The two of them worked together in the booth for 26 years until Ashburn’s untimely passing in 1997. Their chemistry and humor on the air remains wonderfully unique.

And what would Ashburn’s response to that day’s celebration be?
As His Whiteness would say, “Great job, Harry. Now, let’s order a pizza!”

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

August 16, 2001: Baltimore Orioles vs. Kansas City Royals

I would be heading back to college for my sophomore year at the Penn State Hazleton campus in a few days, and I packed as much fun as I possibly could in the last week of what had been a dismal summer.

My dad, a regular drinker and smoker all his adult life, suffered a mild heart attack in January 2001. An angiogram revealed an 80-percent blockage in his arteries, requiring quadruple bypass surgery that June. The technology of the time required surgeons to remove my dad’s heart from his body while keeping him alive with machines. This fact terrified me, despite the minimal chance of death. My dad was only 46 years old, but this surgery made his mortality more real than it had ever been.

Dad made it through the procedure fine and was home from the hospital five days later. He wasn’t cleared to drive or return to work until August, though he began driving again after only two weeks (a rule that apparently all male patients break, according to my dad’s doctor).

My stressful home life made it difficult to enjoy the Phillies’ promising season. Amazingly, they were best team in baseball through the first two months – off to their hottest start since 1993 – and they remained in first place at the All-Star Break. Young and speedy shortstop Jimmy Rollins became an instant fan favorite and motored his way to Rookie of the Year honors. Philly ended the season just two games out of first in a down year for the NL East, and it secured its first winning record since ’93.

You may be wondering why, as a last-day-of-summer treat I chose to see a team floundering 20 games under .500 over a team battling for a division title. The reasoning was simple; it was my last chance to see Cal Ripken, Jr. before he retired. That summer’s All-Star Game pushed me in that direction as well. All eyes were on future Hall of Famers Ripken and Tony Gwynn. Ripken homered in his first at-bat and was named the game’s MVP.

It would have been nice for my dad and I to see Ripken on the field that day, but he took to his DH position well, going 3-for-4.

This game also sticks out in my memory for an unpleasant reason. During one inning when the Orioles defense was on the field, some fans sitting near my dad and I began hurling verbal taunts at Brady Anderson, who was the closest player in view. They singled out the offensive struggles of the former All-Star, whose batting average tolled the Mendoza Line for most of the season.

For a reason I can’t fathom, I found their taunts amusing and joined in with them. I suppose I had yet to grasp that all major league players’ skills decline once they reach a certain age, and for Anderson, it was 37. Very few get to bow out as gracefully as Ripken, and Anderson did not deserve such harsh treatment, especially from his own fans.

By the time I got to college, I rarely received my father’s stern tone, but I heard it loud and clear when he told me to stop yelling at Anderson. I complied immediately, and though I didn’t reflect on my behavior until years later, I knew I had done something wrong. I had broken the code of respect that my dad always followed when he attended games. I not only violated the code but set a poor example of conduct for any younger fans sitting around us. I learned my lesson, and that was the first and last time I heckled a player on the team for which I was rooting.

The Kansas City Royals broke a scoreless tie with three runs in the sixth inning and three more in the seventh. Though my dad was mostly recovered from his surgery, watching a baseball game under the hot, summer sun was quite taxing. We left after the seventh, which would become a recurring practice over the next several years. The decision is easier to make when your team is losing.

2001 was a scary year for me and for the country after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, but life continued in New York and Washington, D.C., and I still had my father. We were lucky to build countless more memories together, with some of the best taking place in view of a baseball diamond.

Note: This game coincidentally featured some of the Phillies’ past and their future. Paul Byrd, who started the 2001 season with Philadelphia, won the game for the Royals. Future Phillies left fielder Raul Ibanez backed Byrd’s strong start with a three-run shot.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

April 30, 2000 & July 26, 2005: McGwire vs. Sosa

Some hometown fans go to baseball games to get a glimpse of superstars playing for the opposing team. I never considered myself among them until Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa came along.

The home run had not been in such high demand since Babe Ruth popularized it in the 1920s. Eighty years later, seemingly untouchable offensive records were falling left and right by these slugging freaks of nature, and I rooted for them every time they stared down their helpless enemy 60 feet and 6 inches away.

In recent years, I have grown to appreciate the delicate art of pitching, but it still does not compare to the thrill of a baseball leaving the yard. A player whips his large, wooden stick through the strike zone and connects with a ball that flies 400 feet to its destination. The crowd bellows a collective, “Woah…,” upon contact, and then hurls a cacophony of cheers into the atmosphere after the ball clears the fence. Four seconds of pure elation.

I hoped for that feeling 20 times over as my dad and I ventured to our second Phillies game in 20 days. We arrived nearly two hours before first pitch, and I went down to the 200 level ready to see some batting practice blasts, for which McGwire had become legendary. I stood and watched behind home plate for a good half hour as Cardinal after Cardinal took his hacks, but Big Mac never appeared. As we would see during the game – and by McGwire’s eventual confession 10 years later – it’s not like he needed the practice.

To be clear, I wanted the Phillies to win this game. I envisioned a meaningless Big Mac homer in a 10-1 blowout, but McGwire ended up being a much bigger factor in this one.

Curt Schilling started the year on the Disabled List, so this was his season debut. He looked in mid-season form, striking out eight and holding the dangerous St. Louis lineup at bay until the sixth, when McGwire batted with one out and one on, and the score 2-1 in the Cardinals’ favor. With one mighty swing, Big Mac hit the 530th long ball of his career, giving St. Louis a lead it would not relinquish.

I had missed McGwire’s record-breaking 62nd home run of the 1998 season by seconds on TV, and I missed seeing this one live, as I was stuck in line at the concession stand. Given what I know now, I don’t mind failing to experience these moments in baseball history. Mickey Morandini’s grand slam seven years earlier remains a much better story.

The only thing that mattered was the Phillies were now down by three runs. My dad certainly didn’t feel good about seeing McGwire’s homer, and we both left the Vet shaking our heads. A month into the season, our team was in dead last with a record of 7-17.

I saw Sosa live once as well, five years later, in the twilight of his career with the Baltimore Orioles. By this time, reports of rampant steroid use in baseball were well known. That March, Sosa and O’s teammate Rafael Palmeiro had both testified before congress (along with Schilling) that they had never taken performance-enhancing drugs. Palmeiro famously emphasized his point with a defiant index finger.

I was actually in my seat when Sosa went deep in this game. Though the Orioles were fading fast from contention in the AL East, the general mood at Camden Yards was high thanks to the four white banners hanging up on the B&O Warehouse, reading the number ‘3,000’.

I obviously didn’t know it then, but I picked a crazy time to go to an O’s game. It fell a week after Palmeiro reached the 3,000 hit milestone and a week before he was suspended for 10 games for a positive steroids test.

The news hit me pretty hard, not only because Palmeiro was my favorite Oriole, but his suspension peeled the first layer off an onion of deceit. Major League Baseball is just as at fault for allowing the steroid culture to thrive with no threat of punishment, but I can’t ignore that these players made the choice to poison their bodies to give them an unfair advantage. They accepted endless adoration, smiling through their lies the whole way through it. When they were finally caught, they made the innocent who played alongside them guilty by association.

There are arguments on both sides of the great debate on whether or not stars from the Steroid Era deserve election into the Hall of Fame. All I can say is, I’m glad I’m not a member of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. My gut reaction is that steroid abusers have no place in the Hall, but I’m sure there are members in now who cheated in some form or another. Amphetamine use in baseball predates the Steroid Era by several decades, and there are players like Ty Cobb, a well-known racist man with a violent temper that he unleashed on other players.

On the other side, Pete Rose is denied eligibility at all for betting on baseball. As far as the sport is concerned, he’s considered more of a villain than McGwire. I have always stated that baseball will eventually lift the ban on Rose, but probably not until right after he dies.
It’s unfortunate that the fans of my generation were brought up on a fixed game, but we learned that the stars we held up so high in our youth turned out to be flawed human beings, just like our parents.

My dad and I never really talked about the steroid scandal, apart from the obligatory "that's a shame" lament whenever a new juicer was revealed. We were both on the same page concerning the guilty players’ fates. The unsuccessful teams the Phillies rolled out during the height of the scandal gave us the excuse we needed to believe that they were all innocent.

Luckily, in a few years, the game would clean itself up to give the Phils a fighting chance. And boy, did they ever take advantage.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

April 10, 2000: Phillies vs. New York Mets

My support of the Phillies renewed, I eagerly counted down the days to the 2000 season.

I even bought a magazine that previewed the new season in the form of one-page breakdowns for all 30 major league teams, and I read it cover to cover. I was aware that despite my great knowledge of baseball, I still didn’t know it well enough to converse about it at length with my peers at school. My window on that potential boost to my popularity was nearly closed, with high school graduation just two months away, but my recent acceptance to Penn State University earned me a new and much bigger group to impress.

My dad still came first as far as attending games was concerned, and we crossed off another wish list item when we acquired tickets for the Phillies home opener, my first game at the Vet in nearly five years. We didn’t know quite what we were in for.

In my eyes, the Phillies’ biggest rivals were the Atlanta Braves, but that probably stemmed from my own hatred of the perennial division winners, and their fans’ insufferable and racially offensive Tomahawk Chop. I know now that the Mets are the main foe by simple proximity. Philadelphia, Boston and basically the entire state of New Jersey constantly deal with living in New York City’s shadow.

We entered a fog of tension that engulfed all of Veterans Stadium. Thousands of Met fans made the trip down the New Jersey Turnpike, and Philly fans expressed extreme displeasure of their presence in a variety of ways. My dad and I could hear the noisy taunts all around us, and more than once, we saw security guards leading the worst offenders out of sight.

The guards couldn’t respond fast enough to two different groups of Phillies and Mets idiots (they don’t deserve the label of fan) who leapt onto the field between the sixth and seventh innings to pummel each other into the Astroturf, an effective weapon against any enemy as I learned the previous December. It was impossible to believe in that moment that my dad and I shared anything in common with those mindless barbarians.

This was the first time I felt ashamed to be a Philadelphia fan, and given our general reputation, I knew it wouldn’t be the last. I admit that I get a little too critical and worked up at times, but I feel fortunate that on the whole, my dad raised me to be a respectful fan. If given the opportunity, we would have both personally apologized to the Phillies for the selfish acts of those brawlers, who not only behaved without regard to the people around them, but also disrupted the game.

The contest on the field was pretty wild as well, though it only got physical once when Phillies bench player Kevin Sefcik collided with the Mets’ Mike Piazza at home plate. A total of 16 runs crossed the plate in the game, all before the sixth inning.

New York scored four times off Paul Byrd in the first (the exact opposite of what occurred at the previous Phillies game I attended, also against the Mets), but Philly batted around in the bottom of the second, taking a 5-4 lead. The Phillies rebounded a second time in the fifth after the Mets retook the lead with three runs in the top half. Philly had already knotted the game at 7 when catcher Mike Lieberthal stepped to the plate with two outs and a man on. As he had done so many times the year before, Lieby launched a two-run shot to put his team in front to stay. It was his first bomb of the season, and the only one in the game.

I still wrestle with deciding between Bobby Abreu and Lieberthal as my favorite player from this era. Lieberthal was the new Darren Daulton, and he had proven as much in 1999 with an All-Star performance. He played a career-high 145 games behind the dish (earning his only Gold Glove award) and hit .300 with 31 home runs and 96 RBI. He would never achieve that kind of production again, but he remained a presence in the lineup and behind the plate for several more years, and contrary to Abreu, he was well liked by the fans.

The Phillies’ win jump-started a week full of excitement for me. I attended my senior prom, as well as a Boys and Girls Club scholarship award presentation. That organization, which my dad helped me join to avoid the dangerous streets of our neighborhood, played a pivotal role in my development as a youth, even on the baseball diamond with two years of T-ball.

The Phillies, meanwhile, beat the Mets again the following night to reach .500 (4-4) for the only time during the 2000 season. I eventually allowed my social life and preparations for college to occupy my time, as it was clear the Phillies were going down, not up. Their two newest recruits failed to deliver. In fact, Mike Jackson didn’t throw a single pitch in 2000 due to a bad shoulder. In the lineup and the starting rotation as a whole, only Abreu, Doug Glanville, Robert Person and Randy Wolf avoided serious injury or trade in 2000, and the Phillies languished in last place for all but 10 games.

Realizing their fate, the Phils traded away their last tie to the 1993 team, Curt Schilling*, at the end of July. He was finally rewarded for his great talent by winning the World Series, once with the Arizona Diamondbacks and twice with the Boston Red Sox. He joined ’93 teammates Mariano Duncan (’96 Yankees) and Daulton and Jim Eisenreich (both ’97 Florida Marlins) as the only players to get a ring after leaving the Phillies. Given how much joy and excitement they brought their fan base, they all deserved a taste of ultimate glory.

*Mickey Morandini also played for the Phillies in 2000, but he spent the previous two seasons with the Chicago Cubs. After being traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in early August, Morandini retired at the end of the season. I saw the writing on the wall in this game. During the eighth inning, I ventured down to the 200 level of Veterans Stadium to get a closer look at the action. I arrived just in time to see Morandini get picked off first base. The look of panic on his face as the first baseman's glove swiped across his diving hand seemed to say, "Oh man. I think I'm getting too old for this."

Monday, January 27, 2014

December 10, 1999: Phillies Holiday Fair

In 1998, baseball and I took a little break.

Life was happening very quickly for my family. Thanks to my dad’s new job, he and my mom brought in enough money to move us to a house out in the suburbs away from my sports-obsessed friends and within walking distance of my high school. We then purchased our first computer, as well as access to the Internet – I hear the dial-up bells ringing – through America Online, the service provider that nearly everyone was using. We also took two extended vacations that year to Williamsburg and Rehoboth Beach, and by year’s end, I had my driver’s license.

With so much of my time spent going different places, browsing chat rooms and trying to meet girls - the latter two activities occasionally coinciding - baseball took a back seat. I could not be bothered by the Phillies or Orioles, both of whom fielded sub-.500 teams.

The only baseball event that held my attention throughout the entire season was the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Their successful pursuit of breaking Roger Maris’ single-season home run record had us all scrambling for the box scores every morning to see if they hit another one. Future discoveries placed a big stain on this whole period of slugging prowess in the game, but ignorance is bliss. McGwire and Sosa were thrilling to watch, and they single-handedly brought back the millions of fans who had denounced the game following the strike.

When I finally allowed myself to take a deep breath from all of life’s recent changes, I decided to become a Phillies fan again. Given the team’s recent success, it’s easy to forget that the Phils fielded an exciting group of the players at the turn of the millennium. The ’99 squad featured young players like Scott Rolen, Bobby Abreu, Doug Glanville and Mike Lieberthal, who excelled in multiple aspects of the game. The big difference between these players from the ones in 1993 was I got to watch them play every day.

Though it had been around for two years, Comcast Sports Net was brand new to me. This wonderful channel broadcasted every game that wasn’t on WPHL 17, so virtually every night of the week during the spring and summer was Phillies night at our house. There was no sneaking off to my room anymore. Despite the fact that I was 16 years old, I still enjoyed my parents’ company.

Any Phillies fan brought up in the 1980s or 90s learned a lot about baby-stepping their expectations. I adopted my father’s mantra of “I’ll just be happy if the Phillies finish the season over .500.” The ’99 team had the potential for a winning record, but as was becoming the case, the Phils fell apart in the second half.

My dad and I didn’t make it to a game in 1999, but we did the next best thing. On a frigid, December morning, we traveled to Veterans Stadium, and not to see the directionless Philadelphia Eagles (on their way to a 5-11 season in Andy Reid’s first year at the helm). The Phillies held their annual holiday fair, giving fans a chance to meet players and get a behind-the-scenes look of the ballpark.

We went on a tour of the cavernous Vet’s underbelly, including the player’s clubhouse. Our guides also set us loose on the field, where we tested out the comfort of the dugouts. Luckily, it was the offseason, so the bottom of our shoes we spared the wrath of discarded chewing tobacco.

My head wasn’t so lucky.

As we walked on the unforgiving Astroturf, my dad suggested I get up close and personal by laying down on it. I really wanted to test out the turf’s resistance, and figured the best tool was the back of my noggin. The turf easily won that battle, and the resulting bruise filled me with equal doses of humility and a new respect for the players for gutting out 81 games on that surface.

We got to meet one of those players in the press room. My biggest reason for attending this fair was that my favorite Phillie, Bobby Abreu, would be there fielding questions. He played the game with such ease, and he almost always had a smile on his face. Many fans accused him of laziness, but few players in the game displayed his mix of speed and power, and every time you looked up, he was on base.

Phillies color commentator Chris “Wheels” Wheeler hosted the Q&A, and I probably failed miserably at hiding the shock on my face when he chose me to ask Abreu the first question. After I quickly collected my thoughts, all I could think to ask was how his shoulder was feeling, referring to a recent surgery. Abreu simply flashed his recognizable smile and said, “It’s good.” His short response immediately made me wish I had asked him something more profound, but I soon got a reprieve to show Abreu how much appreciated his talent. When another fan had the audacity to ask him what he felt he could improve on, I looked right at Abreu and said, “Nothing.” He glanced back to me briefly and let out an obligatory chuckle.

I wasn’t just blowing smoke. Abreu put up numbers in 1999 that he never topped, including hits, batting average, triples, on-base percentage and slugging.

Recently-signed free agents Andy Ashby (starting pitcher) and Mike Jackson (closer) also answered questions about the upcoming season. The Phillies were coming off their highest winning percentage in four years, and the addition of two proven veterans to an already formidable roster was expected to help them turn the corner in 2000.

I yammered away like a child on Christmas morning as my dad and I left the fair. Baseball has an uncanny ability to dig down into the deepest part of me and transport me back to that moment of passing through the turnstiles at Veterans Stadium for the first time. My dad facilitated most of those moments from childhood through my early 20s, and the holiday fair still ranks near the top of that list.

After a short break, my love for the Phillies was stronger than ever, and I was ready to show them in person again.