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Thursday, August 19, 2004

A Little Boy's First Baseball Game

I had looked forward to this for a while, taking my preschool-aged son to his first baseball game. There's just something about a baseball game, something about going with your grandfather, dad or son, that makes baseball such a special game.

I had gone to so many baseball games with my long-since-deceased father and watched some wonderful games and teams with him. I only wished that he could have been here for this event, to experience with my son what he had experienced with me decades ago. He wouldn't have been disappointed.

For several days leading up to the game, my son asked me, "Are we going to Citizens Bank Park to see the Phillies?" He knows a little about the Phillies, namely that they are the team from Philadelphia and that we've been disappointed with their performance. That this big guy named Jim Thome plays for them and that they have a big green mascot called the Phanatic who is funny. I told him that we were, and that he should expect to see more people in one place than he has seen anywhere else in his life.

We got to the park about one hour and fifteen minutes before the game. While we were walking in, we had the obligatory talk about what he should do if he got separated from me, which I assured him wouldn't happen. That talk, of course, only assured that he would grab onto my belt loops or pockets amidst the huge crowd as we walked around the park.

They gave us a pretty nice artist's rendition of Jim Thome's 400th career home run as we entered the park (courtesy of Citizens Bank, which must sign up hundreds for their credit cards at each home game), and then we made our way past numerous concessions offering Philadelphia cheese steaks (pressed, grilled meat of unknown origin, probably funded clandestinely by the American Cardiology Association). We bought a program, which contained a certificate that we could fill in indicating that my son was attending his first game. Our destination was the two-story store behind home place. The store was packed, and, as I had promised a day earlier, I bought my son a Phillies' cap, which matched quite nicely the Phillies' t-shirt that he was wearing. Needless to say, with his big expressive eyes and this Phillies' garb, he drew a lot of smiles from fans. Especially the older ones.

We then made our way to the photography area on the first-base side of home plate, where we donned Phillies' jerseys and had our pictures' taken (they superimpose you on a background that is a home-plate view of the park). The pictures came out great, and I now can memorialize this special day on a keychain that I will carry with me for a while (as some sort of omen, my previous keychain, which I had for about 20 years, broke earlier in the week).

Then we made our way to the Phanatic's Phun Zone, a maze-like obstacle course that health clubs, fast-food restaurants and playgrounds have, where preschoolers and toddlers can run around, climb and get some of their energy out. After ten minutes there, it was time to eat. It was 25 minutes until the start of the ballgame.

Finally, we bought hot dogs and cold drinks from the Phanatic's Phood Zone (or something like that; the letter "f" doesn't really exist in Phillies' vocabulary if somehow you can replace it with a "ph"), and we made our way to our seats in left centerfield. There wasn't any shade, but we made out okay because it was overcast for a good part of the game, and at times there was a cool breeze. We were a little far away from the action for a little boy to see a game well, and we didn't have a view of the great leftfield scoreboard, but it was a weekday, and we were at a baseball game, and that was all that mattered.

We watched the soon-to-be very great Carlos Beltran show off his arm, his bat and his speed, and we saw Jim Thome and Lou Collier of the Phillies hit home runs. Thome's was a Thome the Strongman special, while Collier's was a high fly to left that barely cleared the fence and probably would have been a long out in most Major League parks. The home team was off to a comfortable lead, and seemed to be shaking off the doldrums that the team was experiencing (going into the game, they were 1-8 for the homestand). We repaired to the Phanatic's Phood Zone again after 3 innings for some soft ice cream served up in miniature Phillies' batting helmets. The ice cream helped cool us off, and helped take the mildly flushed look out of my son's cheeks. I sat there, keeping one eye on the ballgame and the other on my son, eating his chocolate ice cream, getting a little messy. There was no place I would rather have been, especially at that moment.

And then we saw one of the oddest plays in baseball, something that doesn't happen that often. With the bases loaded and the Phillies up 7-2 in the bottom of the fifth with no one out, reserve catcher Todd Pratt hit a hard grounder to Astros' third baseman Morgan Ensberg. Ensberg was guarding the line, so he stepped on the bag and threw the ball to second baseman Jeff Kent, who pivoted well off second and threw a strike to first baseman Mike Lamb for a triple play. I have watched baseball for years and years and have never seen one, in person or on television. At four and a half, my son didn't understand the significance of the play, but it left the hometown crowd stunned. Neither of us may ever see a triple play again.

After that, it was time for us to leave. We had talked about batting and hitting and home runs and players, but five innings on a hot, humid day with a little boy who loved every minute of being there was a great start to what should be many years of total fun. We took one more lap around the stadium, and I bought my son a pennant (which he called for a short while a "penne") commemorating the stadium and the team, and then we headed out of the right-field gate to our parking lot. (We left when the Phillies were up 7-2; they lost 12-10, as the triple play turned the tide in the game. The law firm of Biggio, Berkman and Bruntlett hit a solo, two-run and three-run homer, respectively, in the seventh inning, and the Astros actually won the game).

On our way out, my son talked about how much fun he had, how he wanted to go back, how he wanted to put the pennant up in his room. I beamed on the outside and probably a little more brightly on the inside. I was glad that the day was everything he hoped it would be, for it was everything I had hoped it would be. And a little more.

When my father was dying, we would talk about baseball and the games we went to. He harkened back to the first game he took me to, when I was about my son's age, at the old Connie Mack Stadium, and remembered fondly how I had fun pronouncing the name of a back-up catcher, John Boccabella. Most young adults, struggling to find their way in the world, don't necessarily love it when their parents remind them of how cute they were when they were little. But my father and I were close, and baseball was one of the components of the cement that made our bond so tight. He was a vigorous man, full of energy, and not always the most sentimental, so it touched me to hear about the details of that day. He hadn't mentioned it before his final weeks, and during our years together we had talked a lot about baseball.

And while I wished that I could have brought him back for this very day, to walk through the turnstiles with us, insist upon buying the programs, keeping score and eating peanuts, I know he would have been thrilled to know that I was passing on something that was so dear to him. We might not have had any names as mellifluous as Boccabella to pronounce, but we did have a back-up catcher just the same who gave us something to remember for a lifetime.

When we got home, my son couldn't wait to tell my wife all about our day. He didn't leave out a detail, telling her how quickly the ice cream melted, how nice the man was sitting next to him, how many people were there ("there must have been a hundred", he said; there were more like 40,000), how cool the Phillie Phanatic was on the field, how men walked around selling lemonade, how he didn't see Jim Thome's home run (he saw Lou Collier's) and all the neat things they sold in the store at the park. Together, my son and my wife carefully put up the Phillies' pennant over his bed. Like the entire time at Citizens Bank Park, it was fun to watch.

Tonight was my wife's turn to put my son to bed. After he brushed his teeth, he came up to me and gave me a hug and a kiss.

Then he said, in his husky, little-boy voice, with a big, wide-eyed smile on his face, "Dad, today was the best day of my entire life."

I can't wait to go back.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would write something similar about my pre-schholer's first game, but you have perfectly captured the essence of the things that make baseball so special. Can you imagine trying to take him to an Eagles game?

By the way, Pratt and Boccabella have very similar carreer stats:

Pratt: 12 yrs., 528 games, .253 35 HR 175 RBI
Boccabella: 12 yrs., 551 games .267/26/148


11:51 AM  
Anonymous Tom G said...

I don't have children, but this story reminds me of trips to the park with my father. And, when I was a young lad, I am told, I had a devil of a time saying, "Luzinski".

11:35 AM  
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