I am a baseball fan.
Specifically, I am a Philadelphia Phillies fan, if you want to get technical about it. I didn’t really have much choice in the matter. Some of my earliest memories involve being crammed into my Grandmother’s modest sitting room in her mobile home in PA, watching afternoon games. These were the Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton years. Nana loved the games as much as she loved her grandson, god love her, and my earliest experiences with the game came from her. Dad, a teacher who appreciated brain over brawn ten days out of ten, showed a passing, almost vestigial interest from my early memories. Mom took it a step further and took the stance of not glorifying athletes. So growth was stunted in Baseball, but it grew. Baseball did not really become something that Dad would revive a passion for until I was thirteen (unsurprisingly when I got a better understanding of it myself). At that early age though, I couldn’t understand Dad’s complex relationship with baseball and more importantly with his father (already long passed on by the time I was born) and baseball. Perhaps Dad didn’t either. All I knew was that Mike Schmidt was another name for God (when Mom wasn’t listening), and that I was incredulous of Pete Rose’s release from the team in ’83. I was five. So these kind of things were lost on me then.
It’s funny looking back at it. My buddies at NonTraditionalPocketPasser.com are much more steeped in Baseball history. They attack the sport of baseball with a razor-sharp acuteness that I cannot aspire to. Entire lunch breaks have been lost to discussions on baseball statistics and chronology of the sport. They can even push this knowledge out into other sports: football, basketball and a few others. They are at their core, sports guys. It’s not everything they are, but their inner sports guy dwarfs my own.
However, I still classify myself as a baseball fan. And probably equal in love to the game at my buddies. I’m just not really over-analyzing it. I see stats on a page and my brain shuts off. I care about batting average and ERA at the end of the day; these were the two stats I needed to know about to win at Sports Talk Baseball or World Series Baseball for the Sega Genesis when I was a kid. I know about the other stats like RBI, or On Base Percentage, Wins and Losses. But, in the part of my brain that failed Algebra I the first time around… I don’t care about numbers. Never have. For me, all percentages are 50/50. Either something’s going to happen, or it isn’t. The only numbers I need are the ones on the score board for runs, hits and errors, as well as balls, strikes and outs. Sometimes, numbers just don’t have the answer. Leastwise, not for me (I’m going to be a terrible fantasy baseball player this year).
My mind has never told me to file away baseball stats. If you’ve ever seen me try to keep numbers straight, it is not a pretty thing to see in action. My mind however does file away emotional content. I have a keen memory for that kind of thing, even if numbers and chronology fail me. I can remember being in the nosebleed seats at the Vet when I was only eight or nine years old with my Cub Scout Troop and watching the one of the last seasons Schmidt played in. I remember the lights of the game and how empty the stadium was. The Phils were on the decline from the 1980 season that defined them for some time (though they got fans’ hopes up in ’83 and ’93), but I was nine years old, tops, so I didn’t really get it. The Phils were ‘my team,’ so all I could think of was that the stadium was filled with gods. Why would people not come to the game? I remember the disappointment at not seeing any home runs (the most important baseball event for a nine year old, next to maybe scoring hot dogs). I also remember the disappointment at the Phils losing. Not just a loss, but a crushing defeat. It was, I believe, my first live game.
I remember a few more fleeting, live Phils games here or there in my pre-adolescent years, but nothing noteworthy. After all, they lost these games too, making them forgettable in the eyes of a young child. By now, my grandmother was in a decline, but she still had us come up and visit on Sundays to watch games. These were the Dykstra and Daulton years. The love for baseball still wasn’t really ignited though. I knew that Philadelphia was the family team. It was something accepted and only hazily understood. I still carried the memories of Schmidt and Rose – but cared little for these pale-by-comparison baseball gods.
It changed in 1992. This was a very important year. It was the year that I became traveled. My parents planned out quite the summer for me. In that June, my father took me to England for the first time. And when that was done, we came home, took a breather, and we went out West to see my Aunt and Uncle in Wisconsin. At this point, I had seen Field of Dreams, but it hadn’t really clicked yet. I was just 14 and my emotional hardwiring had yet to truly cement and my world-experience was not yet broad enough to understand the absolutely profound effect it had on my father. I did not understand why this film could reduce him to tears every time he saw it. I did not understand why we were going out into the middle of goddamned Iowa to see a baseball field in a cornfield. I went along with it and started to understand, or maybe it was the heatstroke (it was 104 degrees in sunny Dyersville, IA that day). But something snuck in there. And it was just in time.
Because 1993 was a big goddamned year for Philadelphia.
1992 through 1993 is where I got a more refined understanding of the game. As I watched the assembled team – a motley assembly of almost comic athletic figures (as noted from Steve’s comments below -ed)- scratch and claw and fight their way to the playoffs, I figured things out with some help from my father. At this point he has been rejuvenated in his faith in and for the love of his chosen sport. He told me more stories about baseball in that year than I can remember. He told me about his father coaching the little league game. He taught me about why pitchers seem to love full counts. I gained an appreciation for pitching and for defense. And when the Phils took the pennant out of Atlanta’s mouth that year, I caught the fever full force. I remember feeling charged and excited that season. I remember being let down and disappointed just a short couple of days later when the Jays took it all away. It was a crushing feeling to see the Phillies only take two games of the series home (Dad got to see one of them via tickets a Neighbor had acquired). It wasn’t our year.
I took it kind of hard. I would have perhaps come back in full stride had the strike not happened then. The only good thing about it was that the Phils held the NL pennant for an additional year. There were no games that year, not Majors games anyhow. It was a good year for Frawley Stadium, home of the Wilmington Blue Rocks (a KC farm team), but it wasn’t the same as seeing the Phils out on the field.
I watched in my last two years of high school and into college for a year or two more, mostly on the television, and mostly on Sundays at Nana’s, like always. When she finally started to slip, her mind no longer functioning at peak after getting emphysema born of some sixty years of chain-smoking, she went to a nursing home after setting her kitchen on fire by way of pure absent-mindedness. Watching games became strained and awkward then. But, we’d go to the home when we could. We’d watch games and try to keep her sane. When she died… I stopped watching regularly. My interest in the team waned. I lost track of who the players were. Watching the Phils between ’99 and ’07 was a difficult proposition. I had new passions, new friends, new hobbies.
There were, however, a few banner games in the lean years: I saw one of the last games played in the Vet. It was heartbreaking to see the old venue first close its doors forever, then to see it torn down a few months later. The Vet was one of the few remaining ball parks in America that wasn’t named with the marketing of a megacorp in mind. Predictably, like every other game I’d ever seen live, the Phils lost. Another good one during this time was when my sister was highest bidder for her company’s box seats at the newly built Citizen’s Bank Park. We surprised my Grandfather (on Mom’s side) for his birthday, also a Phillies fan, with the spoils of said auction. I find it strange that I didn’t spend more time with Pop in my youth watching games – though that’s another story – though I’ve made up for it since. That game was versus the Kansas City Royals, and, like every other live game I’d seen to that point, the Phils lost again. But we watched that lost game with more free beer and food than I’d ever seen offered at any game before in my life. We also got to go to picnic games for the Wilmington Blue Rocks, the local KC farm team, on the company dime a couple times too. We brought Pop to as many of these as we could too. There’s a certain virtue to A-Ball. No one wants to be in A-Ball any longer than they have to, so every player pushes as hard as they can to get to the next tier, to make it big. There was also the fact that the Rocks could win in games I saw live at the stadium. This was something I could not say of the Phils, who only ever won when I watched on the television, and was not to be discounted.
But, I got my faith restored in 2008, the year that the Phils went onto the big game and finally won the World Series. It had been 28 long years. I had been born slightly before the win in ’80, so I had grown up, learned to read, gone to college, become a man, and started a career before I saw my next series win. When Lidge threw that final closing pitch, I completely lost my shit and ran to neighboring friend’s places in my complex with a vigor and animation that was refreshing. 28 years of eating crap sandwiches sucked. So to get a team like we had in ’08 was a whole new feeling.
After the series, I saw my next live game in ’09. In a game versus the Nationals, I saw my first live win. Playing the Nationals, there was little doubt of any other outcome. It was 5-1 and I saw it with a friend of mine who was new to baseball and has since seen the light that Baseball is a pretty good goddamned sport. He still would say Football is better, but no one is perfect.
Every so often I score company seats. The Nats game was one case, and so was the first game in the NCLS Post-Season against the Giants (a loss). The company seats are great – just under the eaves of the upper deck so, rain-or-shine, you get a good view. Every so often, a friend who has season tickets can’t make a game and sends them my way or to other like-minded friends. I make the most of these. I love being in the stadium, feeling the rush of the crowd as the game plays out.
And while I do this, I’m not thinking of numbers save for the score. I’m thinking of the game. I’m thinking of the friends and family I’m there with – because you never should go to a ballgame alone. I think of how the crack of the bat makes me feel, or savoring the sound of a fastball coming into the catcher’s mitt as it strands three base-runners under the stare of an aggravated batter (and a lot of those times, that batter is Ryan Howard, unfortunately – win some, lose some). It’s watching the team make the decisions that win or lose games and start or end careers. It’s about seeing the ball go over the fence and hearing the neon bell ring at CBP as the basemen bring home the runs. It’s about standing up and clapping and booing at all of the appropriate and inappropriate times (part of being a Philadelphian sports fan). It’s about getting my grandfather out there in the twilight of his life, making sure he’s getting as many games in as he can before the time comes when I can’t do it any longer. It’s about seeing him smile and watch the game like a ten-year-old kid stuck in an 87-year-old WWII vet’s body. In that second live game win I’ve witnessed, my grandfather was there for it with me, sitting on the first-base side, both of us freezing as we took in the next to last spring training game at CBP this past March.
That’s why baseball is about so much more than numbers to me. Baseball is about spirit. It’s about power and precision. It’s about acumen and guile. It’s about the feel of America and the pastime of a nation.
Baseball is what’s in my heart – not numbers or stats.
And for me, therein lies all the difference.