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, September 03, 2006

Great Baseball Vignette

Yesterday was an awful day in Southeastern Pennsylvania, as we were feeling the effects of Hurricane Ernesto. Fortunately, there wasn't any flooding, just a steady, soaking rain that began Friday night and continued throughout yesterday afternoon. And, no, The Cat in the Hat didn't show up to entertain us, we just had a few play dates for the kids, baked cookies, and watched our local baseball team fend for itself in the intrigue that has become the National League's wild card race.

We had tickets to last night's contest, a regularly scheduled affair between the Braves and the Phillies, under cover on the first level, months ago, figuring that we'd see a decent game between the perenially power in the NL East and our hometown Phillies. What made matters more interesting was that a game that was rained out on July 22 was scheduled for yesterday afternoon, which made yesterday a "day-night" doubleheader. Why was that interesting? The weather, of course. Going into Friday, the reports on Ernesto's path were dire enough to lead the average fan to wonder whether they would play any baseball in Philadelphia before Sunday.

The first game, scheduled to begin at 1:05 p.m., didn't start until about 2:35 p.m., thanks to Ernesto. In addition, that game began in a rainstorm, which thankfully abated as the game went on. Thanks to a few homers from Chase Utley, the Phillies held a 3-2 lead going into the top of the ninth. Unfortunately for the Phillies, their closer, Tom Gordon, still isn't available after complaining of shoulder soreness in early August. That has meant that Phillies' skipper Charlie Manuel has had to resort to a bullpen by committee that consists of the ever-seemingly-washed up Arthur Rhodes, middle reliever Geoff Geary, a good thrower of strikes but a pitcher without a great out pitch, and swingman Ryan Madson, who has not improved upon his breakout year in 2004 and seemingly has regressed. To make a long story short, for the second game in a row (the other being Thursday night's against the Nationals in DC), the Phillies' bullpen blew a lead. This time it was Rhodes who gave up a monster shot to the red-hot first baseman Adam LaRoche to give the Braves a 4-3 win. Ouch and double ouch!

Going into Thursday night, the Phillies were 60-0 in games they led after eight innings. Now they are 60-2. Every team in the wild-card race has serious flaws, most of them having to do with pitching. Put that flawed pitching under a magnifying glass, and, well, you wonder why the team is in the wild-card race to begin with, and then you remind yourself that outside the Mets most NL teams just aren't that good. Having watched the Phillies lose that game, we were wondering whether it was in fact worth it to drive down I-95 to Citizens Bank Park, especially at the tail end of a hurricane.

It wasn't a hard decision, really, as we had paid good money for the tickets, we had been inside all day, we were going to sit under cover, and the weather looked like it was clearing. So the kids put on their Phillies' shirts and hats, we took rain gear, we took our family scorebook (where we're keeping score of the games we attend), the kids grabbed their gloves, and off we went. We made great time in getting to CBP, in part because the afternoon game wasn't that well attended (the weather and the fact that it wasn't a regularly scheduled game but a makeup game on a holiday weekend probably had a lot to do with that). I got the kids' a cheesteak (which they split), and then my daughter, who is 9, asked if we could go down to the dugout area to try to get autographs.

She had prepared for this day by making sure that my wife brought a Sharpie (the pen which writes on every surface) with her to the game. So, after my 6 year-old son and she finished eating, we walked over a few sections and down the stairs all the way to right behind the dugout. My daughter was hoping a player would sign her hat; my son was hoping someone would sign his glove.

I told the kids that last night was probably not the optimal time to expect players to sign. After all, it was a lousy day weather-wise, the players had gotten to the park very early for the first game, and they probably weren't in great moods because of the way they lost the first game. In addition, there wasn't much time allotted between games -- because of the rain delay in the first game -- so they had to compress their pre-game warm-ups. In fact, there was no batting practice before the second game. In short, I didn't expect it to be a target-rich environment.

Now it's hard to get pre-game autographs at most parks to begin with. The dugouts are formidable barriers, and their roofs are long enough that it's not so simple as to hand things to players (whose backs are usually to the stands anyway). There is an element of "toss and catch" involved -- the player has to indicate a willingness to sign, and then you toss your item and a Sharpie to him. Many players don't sign -- because they believe that there isn't time to sign eveyrone's stuff, and, therefore, they don't want to risk alienating anyone so they don't sign. At least that's a theory I heard espoused.

The kids stood right behind the home-plate end of the dugout, near the side where Charlie Manuel stands and watches games. Closer to the other end, rookie OF Chris Roberson was patiently signing balls and gloves for fans. Many Phillies were far away, on the outfield grass behind first base, doing some sprints and stretching. At about 5 of 7 I told the kids it was getting a little bleak (we had been there for all of about 7 minutes) and that in a few minutes the security people would ask us to leave because the game was to start at 7:05. My kids were good-natured about the whole affair -- they went into the quest with low expectations.

Then something pretty neat happened.

Right after we got to the dugout, Jeff Conine and Jose Hernandez, both of whom the Phillies acquired for the wild-card chase, emerged from the dugout to have a catch (Conine started the second game in right; Hernandez started in third -- both would have great nights). As their catch ended, Jeff Conine started to head toward the part of the dugout where the steps near Charlie Manuel's usual perch are. The kids, in their Phillies' finest, looked at him with a modest degree of hope. He saw them, I could have sworn he winked, smiled, pointed to my son, and then gestured with the ball to my daughter, and then he proceeded to roll the ball atop the dugout roof right to my nine-year old daughter. His eyes caught mine, I said, "Thank you very much", and he nodded his head in acknowledgment, both of us, even for a brief instant, sharing the moment that it was special for young kids to receive a baseball from a big leaguer. The kids shouted "Thank you" as well, and they were just amazed that the Phillies' rightfielder tossed them a ball and made their night.

It was very cool.

An older couple -- there with their adult daughter -- saw the whole thing and nodded at me with warm smiles, sharing the moment of how special it can be to go to a ballpark. I relish every trip to the ballpark with my family, as I had years ago when my father and I went to Veterans Stadium on Sundays to watch outstanding teams play before 45,000 people. Jeff Conine made this night particularly special for my kids, and we won't forget the night for a long while. Atop that, the Phillies won 16-4, rapping out 20 hits, and Jeff Conine had a wonderful night.

We've put the ball in a lucite case in our family room -- my son was quick to point out that it's an official ball -- and one day we hope to get Jeff Conine's autograph on it. Whether we get that signature or not, we have something better -- a moment together, and a moment involving a big-leaguer who seems to know just how special the big-league experience really is.

Another great reason to go to the ballpark!

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