SportsProf

(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.

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Sunday, October 02, 2005

Baseball and Generations of a Family

The Phillies' run toward the NL wildcard has been at worst an interesting distraction for what's now a football city and at best another dalliance with the bigtime (with a chance for more) for long-suffering Phillies' fans. The Phillies are by no means a great baseball team. Their starting pitching is iffy at best, two of their power hitters seemingly put up great numbers when the game isn't on the line, their leadoff hitter doesn't walk, their highest-paid player has been out most of the year and their manager has all but exhausted an outstanding bullpen. That said, their SS (and leadoff hitter) has now a 36-game hitting streak, and for those of you who were wondering, the number of hitting streaks that long is about the same as the number of perfect games, which puts Jimmy Rollins in rare company. The right side of their infield is among the best in the NL, and Chase Utley and Ryan Howard should give Phillies' fans plenty to cheer about in the years to come.

As I write this, the Phillies are battling to hold off the Nationals and hoping that the Cubs can overtake the Astros, forcing a one-game playoff to determine who will be the NL wild-card winner. Phillies' fans haven't had this much excitement in 12 years. It has been fun to watch, especially the grit of SP Jon Lieber and the clutch play of Utley and Howard (who should be the NL Rookie of the Year, if for no other reason that he's hit and hit again in the clutch during the Phillies' run and has put up outstanding numbers to boot).

For me, the excitement takes on all the more meaning because of the bridge to generations that I have become. My father passed away about 20 years ago, and while raised a New York Giants (baseball, for those of you too young to remember that the SF Giants began in NY), converted to the Phillies in the mid-1970's when a youthful infusion that included Mike Schmidt and Larry Bowa helped pull the Phillies from the mediocrity to which they had become accustomed. He took me to games at Connie Mack Stadium and then, up until his death, we went to games at Vet Stadium. He taught me how to keep score, how to look at how the players shifted in the field depending on who was hitting, how the middle infielders communicated as to who would cover second base, and how important it was for batters to be selective in the strike zone. One day I remarked that a certain starter was en route to a complete game, and he said, "I don't think so, son, it's the fifth innning and he's already thrown 100 pitches." This was in the late 1970's, when stats like that weren't made available to the average fan or announced on the radio. A pitcher himself in college, he knew the game rather well.

When he died, the game lost some meaning for me. The Phillies didn't help matters, as Ruly Carpenter sold the team to a consortium led by then President Bill Giles, whose acumen for baseball hardly matched Carpenter's. All you need to know about Giles was that he thought that the Phillies suffered competitively because they were a "small market" team, even though the fans knew that Philadelphia is one of the top 6 media markets in the country. Put simply, Giles and his Philadelphia brahmins never wanted to pony up the cash necessasry to field a competitive team -- at least until a few years ago. No dad, bad teams, then the strike of 1994, and, well, it just wasn't the same.

The reverse in attitude toward spending that culminated in the signing of Jim Thome, along with the building of Citizens Bank Park (and, by the way, I would have gone to a cow pasture to watch a winner, and CBP won't hold much allure if the Phillies turn into the Phillies of the mid-1990's), and the growth of my kids rekindled my interest in the team. That the Phillies didn't bury young players as was sometimes their wont also helped, as it's just plain fun to watch the grit of Utley and the mammoth power of Howard. Most importantly, the interest of an eight year-old red-headed little girl helped too.

When we went to a game at the end of August, my daughter paid rapt attention to all of the goings on at the ballpark, liked the fact that David Bell got his uniform dirty, saw Chase Utley leg out a triple and rooted for Bobby Abreu, because a schoolmate of hers once met (or so she thought). She liked the pageantry of the ballpark, the excitement of the crowd, the fact that she was at an event.

Since that time, she's watched games with me, seen clutch hits break open ball games and watched guys like Bell, Utley and Howard get key clutch hits during the past several weeks. She's asked about how we could meet a Phillie and talk with him, and I told her that was unlikely. Then she asked if she could get autographs, and in her best third-grade handwriting she wrote letters to Bell, Utley and Abreu, enclosing either baseball cards or magazine photos and self-addressed, stamped envelopes, and asked them for their autographs. Now she's sitting and waiting, hoping that one of these busy players answers her letter. I don't know what the odds are, but I hope that ballplayers realize how they can make a little kid's day by answering a simple letter with a signed card. If she gets a response, her smile is guaranteed to light up an evening sky on a foggy night when there is no moon.

Meanwhile, the Cubs just pulled ahead of the Astros, and the Phillies are holding on. If these results hold, there will be a one-game playoff tomorrow, and we'll all be watching it with rapt attention. Somewhere out there, I know my dad is watching over us, and he'd be proud to know that his granddaughter is rubbing her Phillies-red rabbit's foot and pulling for the home team.

The baton has been successfully passed, I think, and now we're talking about lining up some good seats for next year.

Except, right now, we don't have to wait until next year.

At least not yet.

And that's a wonderful feeling for a Phillies fan, especially one who has shared the game and will continue to share the game among his family's generations.

Pass the Crackerjacks!

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