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."