Posted by: Ryan | May 24, 2010

Game Three: Safe at Home

Date: May 23, 2010
Location
: Reading, PA
Score
: Richmond Flying Squirrels 6, Reading Phillies 0 (Box score)
Hat worn
: Blue Phillies cap with retro logo
If I were coming to bat today, my theme song would be:
American Girl, by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
photos from the game

A friend who used to smoke told me he quit once he realized that there is only one perfect cigarette in each pack of 20. You don’t know which cigarette is going to be the perfect one, he said, so with 19 of the smokes, you are just trying to recreate the perfection you found with that solitary cigarette.

Seeing the Reading Phillies play at home is like smoking that perfect cigarette. While I was elated by the experience, I realized with some sadness that I will now attempt to recreate this afternoon with every other ballgame I see this summer.

If the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs vibe is Rock Concert, the feeling at the Reading Phillies’ ballpark is State Fair.

If the Iron Pigs were trying – forcibly, and repeatedly – to sell me something, Reading was letting me in on a delicious secret.

I last saw a Reading Phillies game in 1994, when my parents were home on furlough from a missionary term in Kenya. Yesterday, attending a game again with my father, I felt that not only had things changed little in the intervening 16 years, but, if anything, the experience was better than I had remembered.

You enter the stadium from below, like at Fenway Park, and pass through a warren-like concrete midway, walking past funnel cake stands and vendors hawking Yuengling Lager, before you approach the elderly gentleman checking tickets at the base of your ramp. Once he’s seen your ticket, he beckons you like St. Peter – Well done, thou good and faithful servant – to ascend the ramp and experience The Reveal: sky, red infield dirt, players in brilliant white uniforms stretching on emerald grass, big band music on the PA.

Big band music! Players signing autographs for kids in a tunnel between the clubhouse and dugout! Don from Doylestown singing the National Anthem, slightly off-key, with no melisma, no pretense! Dingy blue and yellow and red plastic seats that don’t fold up but are sited perfectly for the one true attraction here: the game of baseball!

On one level, it wasn’t a good game: the home team got pounded, and their top pitching prospect – French Canadian Phillipe Aumont, who came to the Phils’ organization from Seattle in the Cliff Lee trade – gave every indication that while he’s six-foot-seven and has the stuff to be a major league starter, he may be a head case. Aumont kept glancing to the right-field corner, to the home team’s bullpen, whenever he got in trouble. At one point, he looked into the Phils’ dugout, as if to say, Come get me, please. Let me go back to my apartment in a sketchy part of Reading, let me call my mother in Gaspé and speak to her in French for an hour about how hard this all is, about how much I miss home. Let her talk me again out of quitting baseball for hockey, and let her protect me from my father who insists that I should stop thinking and just throw the damn ball over the plate, Sacre bleu!

It wasn’t a good game, except that the Phillies’ catcher threw out the first runner who attempted to steal – as I saw him do in Manchester three weeks ago – and when the Richmond leadoff hitter later *did* steal second base, the crowd murmured in surprise: Someone ran on him? Don’t they know?

It wasn’t a good game, except that I had time to explain to my father that I believe there are three facets of being a professional baseball player: physical gifts, the ability to concentrate, and the knowledge and experience you accrue as you work your way to the Bigs. Only if you have put those three things together can you make it. The game is so hard that it punishes anything less than excellence in these three areas.

It wasn’t a good game, except that once Aumont had finally been taken out of the game, in the fifth, he was replaced by a guy who looked like an infielder, with his socks hiked up below his knees. He was at least six inches shorter than Aumont, but he threw just as hard, threw strikes, and worked two quick innings. He might as well have had Overachiever written above the number 12 on his back instead of his name, and no matter what I said before about the Three Areas of Excellence, I hope he does make the Bigs, at least for a cup of coffee.

photo of superheroes at ReadingIt wasn’t a good game, except that the PA played a horn-based jingle when Reading runners got on base. It sounded like something you’d hear at a drive-in movie between features – scratched and spliced, used since 1967 – and ended with “Let’s Go Phils!” Everyone in the crowd knew this jingle: the mothers walking up the concrete steps to their seats, tiny plastic blue helmets full of chocolate ice cream in either hand; the two large brothers in their thirties, each wearing a Jayson Werth jersey, one home white, the other road gray; the stunning woman dressed as Batgirl (it was Superheroes Day), who later dressed as the Tooth Fairy in a pink skirt and wiped clean the bases with a giant toothbrush as a little girl from the crowd helped her with a kid-sized toothbrush, going from home to first and then around the horn.

It wasn’t much of a game, except that the crowd got to vote on who should sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame, and the crowd overwhelmingly chose the Singing Usher – a guy in his 50s – who sang with gusto, and again without pretense, in his khaki shorts and black polo shirt. He wished everyone a Good Day when he was done, waved at the crowd, then headed back to check tickets and cheer on the overachiever and ache, silently, for the Tooth Fairy.

On the way back to the car, buzzing with the joy of it all, I stopped by a glass case near the entrance to look at photos of Larry Bowa, Bob Boone, Mike Schmidt, and Greg Luzinski, all heroes of mine from those great Philadelphia clubs of the 1970s, all Reading alumni. I gazed at a newspaper from 1951, the year of the first game in this park, when the club was part of the Cleveland Indians farm system (the affiliation with the Phillies didn’t happen until 1967).

My father and I looked at the trophies presented to the “Mayors of Baseballtown,” neighborhood folks who took special pride in the ballpark and the ballclub, who curated this experience for their generation and handed it on, a gift not to be taken lightly, not to be messed with. Like the free parking on the street a two-minute walk from the entrance gate, like the PA system tuned to a respectful level, like the way the players and fans know that these Sunday afternoon games will live on after them. Once the players have grown potbellies and have acquired auto dealerships, once the eight-year-old Tooth Fairy helpers become those mothers ascending the stands with their plastic helmets full of ice cream, this ballpark will still be here.

I bought a T-shirt on my way out, one that says “Reading” with a star over the “i,” appropriately vague and mysterious, a code for those in the know. I put it on last night when I got back to my father’s house. It smelled of dank concrete and funnel cakes, stale Yuengling and Neat’s Foot Oil and hamburger grease.

I don’t think I’ll ever wash it.

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