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.

Monday, January 20, 2014

August 24, 1997: Baltimore Orioles vs. Minnesota Twins

When I was 13, my parents helped me carve out my own little baseball world by giving me a 13-inch television for Christmas. During the remaining two years that my family lived in our third-story apartment in Little Italy, the TV sat haphazardly in the middle of my bedroom, sinking deeper and deeper into its foundation – the box it came in. However questionable the setup, that TV was freedom, an increasingly vital thing as I entered high school and adolescence. I could play my video games without distraction, and I could watch all the mature programming on HBO that would have sent my parents scrambling for the remote.

The TV also allowed me to watch baseball by myself and gain a deeper understanding. The father-son dynamic was still an important part of my passion for the game, but my dad didn’t follow the sport outside of the Phillies, and the team’s performance in 1996 further encouraged me to branch out. That’s when I remembered that Baltimore Orioles games were broadcast on Channel 2 (long before the launch of the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, a.k.a. MASN). It also helped that Phillies players Todd Zeile and Pete Incaviglia were traded to Baltimore in late August.

The onset of Interleague Play was still a year away, so my only knowledge of the American League came from my baseball card collection. My dad harbored an intense dislike for the Junior Circuit ever since it instituted the Designated Hitter in 1973. To this day, he roots for the National League in both the All-Star Game and the World Series.

After a few days of watching the O’s, I didn’t mind seeing a little extra offense, and that 1996 Baltimore lineup was something special. The Orioles bashed their way to their first playoff appearance since they beat the Phillies in the 1983 World Series. I was quickly in awe of this team that featured eight players with more than 20 home runs*, four with 100 runs scored and four with 100 RBI. The O’s set an all-time record for home runs hit by a team in a single season with 257 (the 1997 Seattle Mariners promptly surpassed that total with 264, a mark that still stands).

This squad was bursting with All-Star names like Roberto Alomar, Bobby Bonilla, Eddie Murray, Rafael Palmeiro and the Iron Man himself, Cal Ripken, Jr. All eyes in the baseball world were on Ripken the year before when he broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak, and he was arguably the most respected player in the game. His presence alone made this an easy group to like. Though I maintained throughout this period that the Phillies were still my favorite team, by the end of the ’96 season I was a full-fledged Orioles fan.

My dad never took the traitorous plunge with me, but he supported it. And so the following season, we made plans to see a game at Camden Yards, which was only an hour south of us. We caught the O’s at their absolute best. They didn’t come close to matching their prodigious offensive numbers from the previous year, but the starting and relief pitching dominated, and the Orioles pulled off a rare feat, staying in first place every day of the 1997 season.

My major league ballpark experience had been limited to a facility two decades behind the times. The moment I laid eyes on Oriole Park at Camden Yards in all its retro-classic splendor, I knew this was what a baseball stadium was supposed to look like. The red brick on the outside glowed in the sunlight. The park was only five years old and felt like it had just opened upon our arrival. Nestled between the stadium and the B&O Warehouse, Eutaw Street popped with excitement. The sounds of the game from shouting vendors to laughing children fit so much better here than Veterans Stadium.

And the beautiful field. Watching the players go through their pre-game warm-ups as nature intended, with natural grass sparkling beneath them, it made me wonder, “Who in God’s name ever thought Astroturf was a good idea for this sport?”

A few days before, I informed my dad that we needed to arrive at the stadium earlier than we ever had for a game because I was determined to get autographs from all the Orioles players for whom I had baseball cards. I came armed with all of the cards and a pen. Alas, Ripken was the only player who came over to sign the fans’ various paraphernalia. What my dad and I thought was an early arrival was still too late as it turned out. Ripken had already been there for a while by the time I forced my way to the front of the pack. I desperately held out my hand with the card and pen amongst dozens of other hands. Ripken headed back to the dugout a minute or two later. Though my mission went unfulfilled, it was exhilarating standing that close to a legend.

The legend was growing literally every day. Nearly two years after beating Gehrig’s streak, Ripken had still not missed a game. My dad and I saw game No. 2,443 – Ripken would end the streak himself the following year at 2,632 – and it also happened to be the Iron Man’s 37th birthday.

For the first and only time in my life, I bought a program and kept score of the game from the stands. I had kept score from home several times and I decided to emulate the more technically-minded fans I occasionally witnessed at games. Plus, the Phillies and Orioles amazingly won every game I scored to this point (a streak that held for another two years), so I wanted to see if the good luck would transfer live. I quickly discovered, however, that grabbing the program and pen and carefully placing it on my seat every time I jumped up to cheer, an often occurrence in this game, was more hassle than it was worth.

The O’s jumped out to an early lead against the Minnesota Twins with some help from the birthday boy. Ripken was a dead duck at home plate on a fielder’s choice, but he somehow avoided the tag. The Orioles also clubbed three home runs, one of which came off the mighty bat of Palmeiro, prompting the loudest cheer of the day from me.

Truth be told, “Raffy” was my favorite Oriole. Ripken brought the longevity and the clout, but Palmeiro brought the swag. He seemed to come through with a big hit every time he stepped to the plate, and I loved his long, effortless swing. This was, of course, years before the legitimacy of Palmeiro’s power surge in the latter half of his career came into serious question. He was a slugger to idolize at a time when the Phillies had none.

The Orioles beat the Twins 5-1 to maintain their chokehold on the AL East. It would be the last time in 10 years that a team not named the New York Yankees won the division.

I look back on my two years as an O’s fan with almost as much nostalgia as I do for the ’93 Phillies. I shamelessly confess to my front-running ways as an unwise teenager. Besides, now that my wife and I make our home in Baltimore, and our children will probably grow up rooting for the Orioles, I can easily forgive myself.

Note: This would not be my last time getting up close and personal with Ripken. I happened upon him at a fundraising awards banquet in Baltimore in November 2012. I didn’t know beforehand that he would be there, so I obviously had nothing for him to sign, but it meant more to me to shake his hand and tell me how great of player he was.
The following month, I ate my cake, too. For Christmas, my wonderful wife got me a baseball signed by Ripken after the Orioles won the World Series in 1983. It was his only title during his two decades with the O’s. It’s a shame it had to come against my Phillies, but considering I was only a year old at the time, I didn’t have much to say about it.

 *Orioles center fielder and leadoff hitter Brady Anderson thrilled fans and analysts alike in 1996 by hitting 50 home runs, 26 more than he managed in any other season in his career. His single-season mark remained an Orioles record until Chris Davis broke it in 2013 with 53 bombs.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

May 21, 1995: Phillies vs. New York Mets

I would be willing to wager my entire collection of autographed baseballs that there is nothing cooler a 12-year-old kid could wear to a major league game than a Little League uniform.

You look just a little more important than the other kids in their normal threads. Other parents think it’s utterly adorable. It also brings a smile to the faces of the players on the field to see a child following – albeit distantly and unlikely – in their footsteps.

That cool kid was me on this sunny day in May. I got up bright and early to don my Orioles uniform (wonderful foreshadowing, as I would soon become a fan of the American League team 75 miles to the south) for the purpose of team photos. I loved my Little League team. I got along extremely well with my teammates, which was a refreshing change from the daily torment I received at school. I was also proud to be the third baseman, a position I picked as an homage to the best Phillies player of all time, Mike Schmidt.

To the relief of my dad and I, the photo session went much quicker than expected. That meant we didn’t have to cancel our plans to go to that afternoon’s Phillies game with his co-worker, Greg, who had two extra tickets. That’s always the best way to go to a ballgame. It’s typically unexpected and it’s like finding treasure. I also chose the game over attending the birthday party of my best friend at the time, Brian, but being just as big of a Phillies fan, he understood.

Unfortunately, the actual experience failed to live up to the promise. As is the case with any big city, traffic was atrocious, and the photo session robbed us of the extra time we needed to factor into our trip. We had to settle for cheering to the car radio as the Phillies scored four first-inning runs against the Mets. I was doing most of the cheering, while Greg and my dad lamented about our predicament. It’s much easier to see the silver lining in most situations when you’re a kid.

Parking was another issue since we obviously arrived at Veterans Stadium after all the other fans. By the time we finally got to our seats, the game was in the sixth inning.

The Phillies made our ordeal worth it by letting the Mets back into the contest. The 4-0 whittled to 4-3, and the bullpens on both sides were left to duke it out.

Darren Daulton started some two-out magic in the eighth with a double. Charlie Hayes followed with a catchable line drive to right, but the ball bounced off the webbing of Chris Jones’ glove, allowing Daulton to score. The Phillies won by that 5-3 score, and it came as no surprise to us.

Though the pitching staff had changed dramatically in two years, the Phillies still retained most of their starting lineup from 1993, and they returned to form over the first two months of 1995, jumping out to a 35-18 start. But injuries and a general lack of team chemistry eventually took their toll, and the Phils took a nose dive out of contention in July.

Sadly, those four innings in 1995 would be my last live look at Dutch, The Dude, Dave Hollins and Jim Eisenreich in a Phillies uniform. All things in professional sports seem to go full circle, and the basement from which Philadelphia furiously emerged would become their residence once again in 1996 and 1997.

My bandwagon allegiance to the superstar Dallas Cowboys of the National Football League around this time proved that I had yet to learn the value of loyalty, and so it’s no wonder I turned my attention away from the Phillies. My dad and I curtailed our viewing of them on television, and we stopped going to their games. In a way, I was saying goodbye to my childhood. This incarnation of the Phillies was at its end, and the Little League costume hung in the closet, never to be worn again.

It was the end of an era for sure, but my baseball tutelage was just getting started.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

May 18, 1994: Phillies vs. Montreal Expos

Larry Anderson, left, giving us a
shallow thought on Phillies Photo Day.
The following year, my dad and I raised our commitment to the Phillies another level.

It was on a gloomy day in May 1994 that my dad gave me a get-out-of-school-free card to attend a game for the first and only time. I welcomed any break that came my way because sixth grade was the first of three years that I endured taunting and bullying from my peers on an almost daily basis.

The Phillies, fresh off a National League title and their first World Series appearance in 10 years, were going through hardship as well, and that day’s overcast skies and occasional chilly drizzle amplified their struggles. As the year unfolded, it became increasingly clear that the 1993 season was a flash in the pan. Nearly every player had his career year, and then fell back down to earth. This reality hit the starting rotation particularly hard. Terry Mulholland was traded to the New York Yankees in the offseason, while Curt Schilling, Tommy Greene and Ben Rivera all battled injuries.

Danny Jackson was the only starting pitcher on the top of his game in 1994, and he happened to be on the hill this day. He came into it 5-0 with an ERA well under 3 and was named an All Star that July.

We were also hoping Jackson’s dominance would bring an end to the “Curse of the Blue Hats.” Prior to the season, the Phillies unveiled their new blue hats (to be worn during day games), giving more prominence to the team’s forgotten third color. It turned out it was forgotten for a reason because to this point in the season, the boys in red, white and blue were still looking for their first win in the new hats.

My dad and I got to the game early, and I came armed with a baseball. My good luck with securing autographs the year before at Wilmington Blue Rocks games encouraged me to try at the major league level. I gathered with dozens of other fans in the front row along the first-base line. Greene and veteran relief pitcher Larry Andersen were kind enough to grace fans with their John Hancock. Andersen, who was in his final season in the majors, took the ball from my offering hand and signed it just before he and Greene left the field.

For mostly nostalgic reasons, I regret that I misplaced that ball years ago. Andersen was a big part of that ’93 squad as the setup man for Mitch Williams, and he is still beloved in Philadelphia thanks to his insightful color commentary on the radio during games. I even crossed paths with him again in recent years. He is an amiable person with a wonderfully odd sense of humor. Back in the late ‘90s when he was part of the television broadcast team with Chris Wheeler and the legendary Harry Kalas, my dad and I exchanged anticipatory grins whenever HK would ask Andersen, “LA…do you have a shallow thought for the day?”*

Andersen’s autograph would end up being the highlight of our day. The Montreal Expos scored two runs off Jackson, who was clearly not immune to the curse, in the top of the first inning, and that would be all they needed in an eventual 6-1 win.

Any slim chance Philly had of returning to the playoffs was reduced to zero, along with every other team, that August when the Major League Baseball Players Association went on strike. For the first time in 90 years, baseball had no World Series. My one solace was that due to the strike, the Phillies were the reigning National League champions for two years.

Oh yeah, and those damn blue hats were gone for good.

At the time, I was too young to understand the greed of the players in refusing to accept a salary cap from the owners. I simply felt disheartened that I was cheated out of two months of watching the sport and team I had grown to love.

The owners finally gave in the following March, and baseball resumed. Since then, salaries have grown to ridiculous proportions, and a league-wide drug scandal has rocked the integrity of the game to its core. It almost makes me wish I grew up in another era of the game, but I’m glad that the rowdy “bunch of throwbacks” that first caught my eye in the early ‘90s showed me baseball in what I still believe to be its purest form.

Even if their caps were cursed.
*When I saw Andersen at the 2013 Phillies Fan Photo Day, I politely asked for a shallow thought for old time’s sake. Without missing a beat, he replied, “We all know the speed of light, but what’s the speed of dark?”

Thursday, January 2, 2014

July 29, 1993: Phillies vs. St. Louis Cardinals

Life’s priorities are not always clear.

My dad had the day off from work, and it at least appeared to me that this free day was taken for the sole purpose of going to a ballgame with me. This was a rare afternoon contest during the work week. It would have been easier to just go to night game, or a day game on the weekend, but this was a special season, and I suppose the Phillies had earned more of a commitment from us.

Perhaps it was a fortunate coincidence, but 1993 was also the year I began keeping a journal. The Phillies are mentioned several times in my sporadic entries, and the one dated July 29 unearthed an interesting and telling fact about this game: my dad said we were going, but we had to talk my sister, Lindsay, out of it first.

When we were children, my sister and I constantly competed for my father’s attention, particularly since he was the more involved and less strict parent. Unfortunately for Lindsay, I was the firstborn and the only son, which meant I won that battle more often. In this instance, my dad probably succeeded in letting my sister down easy because she wasn’t into baseball.

We made a full day of it. We took the Septa Local from the Wilmington train station and arrived a few hours before the game to do some sight seeing. It was always fun riding the train to the big city (I received a big jolt of childhood nostalgia when my dad and I used the same and long-forgotten method of transportation for the World Series parade in 2008), and Philadelphia was still the biggest I had ever seen to that point. I will never consider myself a Philadelphian, but I grew up close enough to know and love cheesesteaks, soft pretzels and Tastycake products. I don’t bother with racing up the steps of the Art Museum because my name begs the belting out of Rocky’s classic line from people I’m meeting for the first time.

The Philly magic once again worked like a charm, as the hosts took a 4-0 lead over the visiting St. Louis Cardinals late in the game. The scrappy Redbirds would not go quietly, however, as they scored two in the seventh and two more in the eighth off emerging ace Curt Schilling to put a victory very much in doubt.

After the game started, I was personally disappointed to see Todd Pratt’s name in the lineup instead of starting catcher Darren “Dutch” Daulton, who was my favorite player for good reason. Daulton wasn’t your typical catcher. He hit in the middle of the lineup, instead of the bottom, and he was one of the best run producers in the league for the second straight year. It was a thrill for me to see his name on the same lists as sluggers like Barry Bonds and David Justice. Surely, a win was guaranteed with him on the field.

I got my wish in the bottom of the eighth. Daulton came in to pinch hit with the bases loaded. He seemed born for these kinds of pressure situations, and while his bat remained silent, he still drove in the go-ahead run by working a walk.

Lenny “The Dude” Dykstra followed. He was in the midst of a career year that would see him finish second to Bonds in the MVP voting, and he padded Philly’s lead with an infield single.

These kinds of rallies were almost second nature to the team by late July. The Phillies hung on for the 6-4 win, completing their sweep of the Cardinals.

My dad and I had to leave at the end of the eighth due to some important family business. The Phillies were moving up in the world, and so were we.

For most of my childhood, my family lived in my grandmother’s house on the east side of Wilmington near the Christina River because we could not afford a place of our own. Locals know the east side as one of the most impoverished and dangerous sections of the city. By 1993, it was common to hear gunshots after going to bed, but my parents were finally making enough money to get us out of there.

My dad and I left the Phillies game to meet my mom and sister in Wilmington to look at an apartment. Though it wasn’t the right one for us, we soon found the right one in Little Italy and moved there in December. It was in that neighborhood that I found friends who loved baseball and the Phillies as much as I did.

A new chapter was beginning, but another, less obvious one was ending. 1993 was the big year for baseball in my family. The Phillies’ monster season coincided with the return of minor league baseball to Wilmington after 41 years. The Wilmington Blue Rocks, a Single A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals, offered a destination of family fun in my hometown. The four of us went to several games in that first season and continued to do so over through the remainder of the decade.

When it came to major league baseball, however, those games returned to their previous incarnation as a strictly father-son activity. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but baseball games, as with any other spectator event, are simply more enjoyable when you’re watching with other baseball fans.

As I will illustrate further down the road, the few times we included other people into our special ritual yielded unsatisfying results. A major league game is an impressive sight to anyone, but those non-fans who don’t have the diaper dash and dizzy bat race to keep them entertained between innings will quickly lose interest.

And they won't be willing to skip work for an afternoon game.