23 November, 2011

Reflections on Baseball

I have been a baseball fan for as long as I can remember, and indeed, longer than that. Sadly, I've never thanked my parents for allowing and encouraging me to develop a passion for the game. That's partly why I'm writing this.

Before moving to Alaska, we lived in Seattle, and I attended a number of games at the old Kingdome. Of course, being an infant, I don't remember much of them. Living in Alaska, though, I had few opportunities to attend Major League games, but there were a few, particularly this one in 1995. That win over New York kickstarted the Mariners' "Refuse to Lose" season which culminated in the team's first playoffs.

I also had the opportunity to see a number of Minor League, NCAA and Spring Training games, which are certainly enjoyable, but hardly the same. There is always the ABL Goldpanners, former home of notables such as Dave Kingman, Tom Seaver and Michael Young, which is one of the highlights of summer in Fairbanks. In fact, after one of these games, I got a one-on-one pitching lesson from knuckleballer Danny Boone! Spending evening hours, under the broken lights of Growden Park with Dad, Des, Connor, Lou, Paul, Joe, and the other regulars, is a great joy. Unfortunately, it is no substitution for Major League ball. Sure, the beer and hot dogs are cheaper, the parking lot is manageble and there is no scoreboard commanding the fans to "MAKE... NOISE... MAKE... NOISE..." but it lacks something hard to define.

Living in Alaska, therefore, I needed to adopt a MLB team. The Mariners were the obvious choice, being the closest geographically, let alone the experiences described above. For a variety of reasons, though, I chose the Philadelphia Phillies, the losingest team in the history of professional sports. Seriously. These guys made the Washington Generals look good. What the hell was I thinking?

I've never lived in Philadelphia, and, in fact, have probably been there fewer than twenty times. But that doesn't matter. There is a family connection to the area. My Dad grew up watching the Whiz Kids win and the Wheeze Kids lose, and was an adoring fan of All-Star hero Johnny Callison. My grandfather owned a farm in Quakertown, PA, some 45 miles from South Philly, and, when we'd visit, Dad took me to several games at the Vet.

Trouble was, there was no joy in Mudville. The Phillies, as I mentioned before are the losingest team in the history of professional sports. Read that again. Not the National League, not even baseball. Sports. This tradition culminated in the Phillies' 10,000th loss on my wedding day in 2007. They are not usually a rewarding team to watch. There was a bright spot in 1993. The Macho Row Phillies, led by Lenny Dykstra, Darren Daulton and John Kruk, powered their way to the World Series, but the Macho ran short. I remember watching Joe Carter round the bases, fist in the air, and crying.

That never stopped me, however. When the Phillies were on Saturday Night Baseball, I tuned in. When they played the Cubs, I watched on WGN. When they played the Barves, I watched on TBS. Rarely, I listened on ESPN radio, and of course, I checked box scores in the newspaper religiously. That was it, though. There was no way to get closer to the team I loved.

Then, in 2007, MLB.com launched GameDay Audio, and brought Harry Kalas into my living room. This was truly revolutionary, but there were still some shortcomings. For one, there was no portability--I had to sit in front of the computer. It cost $20 or so a year, which was well worth it, but with the time difference, most games were during the day, when I'm often not near a computer. The next year, however, MLB solved this problem by releasing the At-Bat app for the iPhone. I had held off on a smartphone, but that was the deciding factor.

So now I could listen to every game. Harry the K, Jim Jackson, Tom McCarthy, Chris Wheeler, Scott Franzke and Sarge Matthews delivered with a twenty-second time delay, live baseball. This had the effect of fanning the flames of my passion for baseball. Thus it was in late October of 2008, that I came to find myself in section 432 of Citizen's Bank Park, for the last two games of the World Series.

The following is from a post on The Good Phight in October of 2010, and it tells this tale better than I otherwise know how:
 I hadn’t been to a Phillies home game in eleven years, because of the time and cost required to travel 4,500 miles, but within seconds of the end of the NLCS, I started planning a trip.
My airfare was $1,650. Alaska Airlines from Fairbanks to Chicago, then American Airlines on to Philadelphia. My hotel cost $240 per night.
I watched the Flyers crush the Devils. And then I walked to the Bank to see game three. Unfortunately, I had been unable to get a ticket, but I managed to squeeze into McFadden’s, and watched the game therein. It was awesome.
After the game, drunk with beer and excitement, I went back to my hotel, and, of course, couldn’t sleep. Tomorrow, I had a ticket. Tomorrow would be wonderful. Would it? I was terrified.
I took a cab down to the ballpark about five hours before the game—the gates weren’t opened for another hour at least. My first entrance into Citizen’s Bank Park was like a saint entering heaven. I felt at home, immediately. I hadn’t been to a Phillies game since the Vet, but this was the same, and yet so much better. I bought a Build-a-Bear Phanatic for my wife, a couple beers, a hot dog, and a scorecard, and found my seat. My $680 seat, in section 332.
The game, of course, was tremendous. Blanton’s homerun was epic. Afterwards, I didn’t want to leave.
The next day, it rained. I had a ticket, of course. I had traveled across the country to be here, I wasn’t going to let some drizzle stop me. I sat, again in section 332, in a $800 seat, through five and a half wonderful and miserable innings, before Selig finally called the game. I knew they weren’t going to award the Series on a rainout—I didn’t want them to. But I did want them to keep playing.
I had to fly home the next morning. As soon as the game was called, I began to try to change my trip. There were no flights available for the next week. There were no hotel rooms. I was crushed. Selig stole three innings of the World Series from me. So I sat there in the rain, for quite some time. I was on Fox, briefly, as the camera looked in on the sad lonely man sitting by himself in the rain.
Of course, I watched it. I had to. I loathe Fox and Joe Buck with the intense passion of three million burning Suns (McCarver gets one and a half Suns). And when Brad Lidge came on to finish off the Rays, I muted Buck and listened to Harry the K, streaming WPHT online, about 20 seconds delayed, but who the hell cared. I remember that final call as clearly as I remember anything else. I felt like I was still there.
It was expensive. My wife hated (but understood) that I was going. My co-workers laughed at me.
But I was there.
I was actually in 432, not 332.

Since then, I have discovered The Good Phight, a sabremetric Phillies' blog, and began lurking more and more. Finally, in the spring of 2010, I joined and began contributing to that wonderful community. There is Whole Camels, the enigmatic Blog Lord who uses dark majicks to maintain the website. There is Wet Luzinski, the Poet Laureate of the Phillies. There is Taco Pal, who will take you to the Logicdome. There is JReed, Schmenkman and phatj. There is Dannijd, whose pessimism knows no bounds. There is Lequan Glover, who can't spell pessimism. And so many more, and by welcoming me, they've allowed me one step closer to the team I love. And for that I thank them.

As I said at the beginning, though, I am so incredibly grateful to my parents, for many things, of course, but especially for my love of baseball. So, Mom, Dad, thanks.

Now, next year, hurry up and get here!

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