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Sunday, May 07, 2006

There's Something About a Baseball Game (With Barry Bonds, Too)

The Phillies promoted "six packs" this year, and we're not talking about either encouraging imbibing among an already boisterous fan base or showing off former Phils' first baseman John Kruk's abdomen. Rather, they enticed fans to buy tix to six games, with the kicker being that you were guaranteed seats to a game against either the Yankees or Red Sox. Given that the kids are old enough to go and enjoy games now and that, well, either despite or because of what the home team does it's fun to go to the ballpark -- it just feels so right -- I jumped in, opened up the wallet, and picked six games. (By the way, in the mid-1980's a friend and I shared a 16-game plan -- 2 tix apiece for 16 games -- and paid 1/2 of what I paid for 4 tix to each of the 6 games I picked. That said, the inflation rate for baseball tickets is actually pretty low, at least in Philadelphia).

Last night was our first game, with the red-hot Phillies, on a six-game winning streak, hosting the San Francisco Giants. I chose this game for a variety of reasons, including that it was the first Saturday night not in April (where Mid-Atlantic weather can be suited more for NFL mud-fest playoff games of the 1950's than a baseball game), that my late father was a Giants' fan, and that, well, yes, Barry Bonds plays for the Giants. (For what it's worth, I don't watch NASCAR races so you can't argue that I watch them for the crashes, but I did want to see Bonds out of curiosity. That said, given his physical problems, there was no guarantee that he'd play last night. Then again, the hometown field's reputation as a bandbox is such that before the series started the Giants announced that Bonds would start every game of a three-game series).

It was a beautiful day yesterday in Southeastern Pennsylvania, so much so that the weather at 5 p.m., at least in the suburbs, belied the weather forecast. The sun was bright, there was no wind, and the car thermometer registered at about 80 degrees. There was some discussion among the four of us about what to wear, but we stuck to the forecast, wore long pants and took sweatshirts with us. The afternoon sun baked the car a bit on the way down I-95, and we expected a very pleasant night at the ballpark.

The ride down I-95 was smooth, and the road was in reasonably good shape, which was a good thing since at various times the local TV news stations, perhaps out of boredom when the nightly homicide and fire count is low, once dubbed it "The Highway from Hell." Driving down that road is an industrial anthropologist's (or should we say archaelogist's) dream, as the faded hulks of the industrial northeast sit there as monuments to a day when the big cities actually made something. It's hard to explain to young elementary school kids what the economy used to be like (or, for that matter, what an economy is), but I find myself sounding like my father when the family used to drive down north Broad Street into Center City Philadelphia when I was a kid.

"Philadelphia used to be the men's clothing capital of the world," my father would say, as he would tick off names like Botany 500, Chips 'N Twigs, H. Freeman, Hickey Freeman, Stanley Blacker and many others. What I saw, of course, were the remnants of the place that in the late 1890's was called "The Workshop to the World" because of all the goods that were produced in Philadelphia -- locomotives, ships, hats, cigars, clothing -- you name it. It wasn't a pretty sight then, and after decades more of corporate flight it's not a glorious site now, either. I, unfortunately, can't begin to explain what businesses once populated, or currently populate, the I-95 corridor north of Philadelphia.

Before I digress into a discussion meant for another part of the blogosphere, I'll return to baseball, because it's the one thing that generations can share that remains, albeit in an updated form, when so much of your ancestors' city does not remain. We exited I-95 at Packer Avenue, wound our way through the Food Distribution Center, and parked in a $10 dollar lot east of Citizens Bank Park and behind the preferred parking lot for fans with parking passes. The kids were excited -- they brought their baseball gloves, and my son was wearing the Phillies hat that I bought him when I took him to his first game two years ago at the age of four.

It was a good walk into the stadium, and what we noticed was that the winds were whipping up a storm. The hot sun and balmy day that spoiled us in the suburbs turned into a very cool night in South Philadelphia. It was as if the Baseball Gods were out there in full force on their Mount Olympus, hurling all the weather they could at Barry Bonds. The forceful winds, mostly blowing in that night, were taunting Barry Bonds (although they haven't adopted my ode to him, which you can check out here). "Try challenging the Babe's record in this," they were shouting." On the same day as his godfather Willie Mays' 75th birthday, the Baseball Gods ironically turned Citizens Bank Park into the old Candlestick Park where Mays played for the second half of the career -- a place where many home runs went to die. "You want to hit more home runs, just try it here. Had Willie played anywhere but in Candlestick Park, he would have hit 800 home runs -- all 5'11", 175 pounds of him!" If the winds had voices, that's what they were saying.

(In the early 1980's I went to a Phillies-Giants game at Veterans Stadium in August with my father. The temperature was 90+ degrees with 85% humidity and we roasted like we normally did; a week later I was in San Francisco, went to Candlestick Park for a game between the same two teams, and the temperature at game time was in the low 60's with 20 mph winds coming in off San Francisco Bay. I attended the game in Philadelphia in shorts and a t-shirt and drank a 32-ounce coke to stay hydrated; in San Francisco, I wore a down vest, took a blanket, and drank hot chocolate to try to fend off a damp cold that is hard to explain unless you had ever been there).

The first order of business was to put on our sweatshirts while walking into the stadium. Upon entering, the kids were given these huge posters, called "Ryan Howard growth charts." Howard, the Phillies' first baseman, is about 6'5" and the charts are about that long. Despite the thrill of a giveaway for the kids, the parents had to lug the charts (okay, so they were rolled up in plastic) around in search of food at the many concession stands. Ultimately, we spent about $10 per person on a combination of hot dogs, sausage, chicken tenders, bottled waters and CrackerJacks, and in the middle of the game I bought a hot chocolate for the kids to share.

Our seats were excellent ones, on the first level, slightly on the first-base side, about 3 rows before the concourse). The game was a sellout, and Phillies' fans were there in full force, wearing everything from Bobby Abreu, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins jerseys to Jim Thome jerseys and, yes, I did see one fan wearing a Robert Person jersey (there were no sightings of either Jose DeJesus, Steve Jeltz or Charles Hudson apparel in the ballpark). We bought a program, ate our food, and then my six year-old son and I took a walk around the concession stands.

Citizens Bank Park, like many new parks, has a lot to offer. There's a playground maze (free), a place to get your photos taken in Phillies' jerseys (most certainly not free), a Build-A-Bear shop where kids can make a Phillie Phanatic stuffed animal, a place to do an imitation broadcast (when we walked by, Jon Lieber was being interviewed, and my son, with his cap and slightly messy face from dinner, walked about as close to the podium as decorum would permit, Lieber flashed a smile), places selling baseball cards, beer, water ice, you name it. We purchased packs of big, 6" x 8" cards of the Phillies' players for $5 apiece for each child (they've started their card collections already) and then sat down to watch the ball game.

Neither starting pitcher got off to an impressive start. Phillies' starter Ryan Madson pitched as though the plate were 2" inside and got into all sorts of trouble. (It didn't help that short-fused umpire Greg Gibson was working the plate, but he called it tight for both sides). Giants' starter Jamey Wright fared better, but amidst the strong winds game up a first-inning rocket to my daughter's favorite player, Chase Utley, who had hit two homers the night before and would go on to double in another run later in the game. In the first, after Randy Winn had walked, Giants' manager Felipe Alou decided to test the Phillies' rookie catcher, Carlos Ruiz, who was playing in his first Major League game. With #3 hitter Pedro Feliz (who makes every ground ball hit to him at third look like an episode of "The Lost World") batting, he sent Winn. Ruiz threw a perfect peg to Chase Utley, who tagged the rightfielder out.

The Philadelphia fans gave him a rousing ovation -- "Welcome to the Major Leagues, Mr. Ruiz." Later, in the second inning and his first at-bat, Ruiz hit a long, high fly to right that got held up in the wind and that Winn caught in the middle of the warning track. The Baseball Gods smiled upon Carlos Ruiz, who worked well behind the plate, last night, but when they spun his fate they just decided that the tough winds would apply not only to the big names, but to the new ones two. It was a long out and recorded without emotion in the play-by-play as a fly ball to right.

The Giants got more hits than the Phillies' last night, but the Phillies bunched theirs better and came out with a 4-1 win, their seventh straight. Their bullpen continues to be the best in baseball, and they are 10-0 when leading after 6 innings of play. Utley's homer in the first gave the Phils a 1-0 lead, and then they scored 2 in the third thanks to some Wright wildness and timely hitting. Other than focusing on staying warm, the fans spent most of their attention on Barry Bonds.

And they were loud.

When the Giants' left fielder stepped into the on-deck circle in the first inning, the boos and jeers cascaded from all corners of the stadium, from Harry the K's eatery in leftfield to Ashburn Alley in dead center, from both baselines, from McFadden's behind home plate, the luxury boxes and even the Wachovia Center about a half-mile away, where the ghosts of horrified Flyers' fans from the disappointment of the 2005-2006 NHL season were still primed with energy, looking for some villain to demonize (except that this one had helped demonize himself). The kids behind me yelled "Cheater" and most fans booed lustily. While hot dog wrappers swirled around the field from time to time, from behind home plate it didn't look like Bonds received an EverReady shower while playing left, just a bath of invective that the Boobirds of Happiness keep on the shelves of their emotional closets. Later, the fans chanted "Bar-ry, Chee-ter" and even later, "Bar-ry Sucks" (we had left the park to defrost by the time those chants happened). I spoke with my kids before the game about whether we should cheer or boo, and I decided that I wasn't going to do either, but later when there were a good number of fans (at least, well, they were noticeable) cheering him, I did admit that if booing was preferable to cheering, as I couldn't fathom why Bonds was worth cheering for, especially outside his home field). The kids booed, politely (if that's an adverb that can be applied to booing), as they were giggling as they did it.

(My frustration, of course, is having to explain to young elementary schoolers why steroids are bad for you and why using them was cheating; thankfully I didn't have to explain to these kids why what President Clinton did with Monica Lewinsky was inappropriate. When my daughter asked "How can we cheer someone who used steroids and cheated?" she was right on the money. )

Bonds' night was uneventful. He walked, hit into a nifty 6-5-3 double play (that is, the Phillies' defense was deft) off the Bonds' shift, hit a lazy fly to left and, late in the game, hit a wind-blown single to left (he left the clubhouse without talking to reporters). A batter later, a ground ball hit by CF Steve Finley hit Bonds' in the basepaths -- Bonds was automatically out. Meanwhile, the Phillies' bullpen trio of Cormier, Rhodes and Gordon shut down the Giants, showing that if the hometown nine can get the starters to give 6 good innings, this team's offense is enough to keep them in any game.

For us the game really wasn't about Barry Bonds, and I'm not sure that my six year-old will even remember seeing him play. It was about getting there early to watch some batting practice, seeing Chase Utley's home run, eating CrackerJacks, starting to teach my eight year-old daughter how to keep score, yelling "Charge!" after hearing the bugle from the stadium's synthesizer, filling out All-Star ballots, eating hot dogs, watching a fan try to catch a foul ball with his plate of nachos (the ball went to someone else, and the nachos, well, they lost) and sharing observations about this wonderful game. It was about showing a budding softball player and a budding t-ball player about how the hitters stride when they hit, how the professionals approach the game. All in all, it was a night of good fun.

There was a special moment where my eyes met with my wife's, with both of us glancing at the kids, sitting there, paying rapt attention, left hands in their baseball gloves, at the ready. I didn't have a camera with me, but I'll remember that image for the rest of my life. Moments like that, well, that's why we go to the games.

Just what is so magical about this game? Is it the pageantry, the images, the sight lines, the drama? Is it because you don't have to be super tall, super fast, or super big to play it? Is it because of the rituals, that the game is played in warm weather, that the statistics actually mean something in a way that they don't in the other major sports?

Or is it just that year after year, kids take their gloves, get messy faces and talk to their parents and grandparents about the players they say and how good they were? My kids have started to ask me about who the best players I saw play for the Phillies, and without hesitation I'll say Mike Schmidt and Pete Rose the way my father mentioned Richie Ashburn and Robin Roberts.

Heck, it's probably all of those things and more.

And that's part of baseball's greatness.

That you can't totally explain it.

But it's wonderful just the same.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's the difference between Barry juiced on 'roids and Rose juiced on greenies? Or was Rose OK because he played a couple of seasons for the Phillies?

And Rose committed tax fraud to boot.

Both are insufferable jerks off the field, and when he was able to, Bonds hustled too, without being a show-off about it.

I am no fan of either Rose or Bonds. Just saying that we should be consistent with our treatment of these guys.

Will Barry be H.O.F. material if his usage is absolutely proven? What's your take on Rose/Bonds H.O.F. eligibility?

9:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well written! There is something special about going to the ballpark. The first game my kids attended was a game between the braves and the yanks, interleague play, with the pitching matchup of Greg Maddux and Dwight Gooden! The game was 2 hours and 11 minutes, 2-0. I don't know if my son really remembers it, but we talk about it enough that he thinks he does.

I like to think that he'll be able to tell his kids that he saw a great pitching matchup his first time out in the 'old' Yankee stadium!

6:51 PM  

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