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.

No comments:

Post a Comment