Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The City Of Brotherly Disdain

Originally written July 31, 2009

It is one of my deep regrets in life that I never saw Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. Supposedly it was one of the worst places to see a baseball game, but I am a firm believer in the inability to understand joy if we don’t experience pain. That said, I have no idea how to appreciate new baseball wunderkinds without being familiar with their lesser predecessors.

And the Vet was, by all accounts, lesser. A soul-less cylindrical wasteland not unlike Shea, its most exciting characteristic was its on-site courtroom and jail cell for Philadelphia’s more animated fans. Those particular animated fans may be more the norm than the exception in my mind, but that is, I ought to admit, perhaps unfair.

I come into this story with an ax to grind. As a lifelong Mets, Giants and Devils fan, the city of Philadelphia is not my favorite. Throughout the late 1990s, the Devils and Flyers regularly battled for the Atlantic Division, and on two occasions, Eastern Conference Championship. As a Giants fan, my hatred of the Eagles is an unspoken certainty. As a Mets fan, the Phillies broke my heart with late season comebacks to take the National League East in both 2007 and 2008. Both years I had tickets to the first round of the playoffs to boot.

Of course, those two incidents happened after my first trip to the Phillies’ not so much warmer, gentler home of Citizens Bank Park on August 17, 2006. At that point, the city of Philadelphia had not won a title in my lifetime. And I was damn happy about that. As I was born in 1985 I had just missed titles by the 1980 Philadelphia Phillies and the 1983 Sixers. The Flyers’ last Cup was in 1975 and before that, the Eagles, perhaps my most hated of all sports teams, hadn’t snagged an NFL Championship since 1960, six years before the first Super Bowl. While the Phillies did finally end the city’s title drought in 2008 in a bizarre rain-interrupted Game Five, it was still of great satisfaction to me that the rest of the teams were unable to reach the top of the mountain.
The summer of 2006 was winding down and I was preparing for my senior year of college when Weg and I had a Sunday to kill and decided to spend it checking out the Phillies’ home park as they wrapped up a four-game set against the Mets. As it currently stands, I can’t exactly remember what the impetus for the trip was aside from wanting to watch the Amazins at the top of their game. That season was, to that point in my life, probably the best I had ever seen for the Metropolitans. Jose Reyes and David Wright were finally recognizing their potential, Carlos Beltran had bounced back from a mediocre first season with New York and Carlos Delgado was providing the powerful bat to the middle of the lineup the Mets had missed since Mike Piazza was in his prime.

This would be the season I truly familiarized myself with the crapshoot nature of baseball’s postseason. New York would finish the season with 97 wins, the most in baseball along with, well, New York, as the Yankees, too, would win 97. This prompted some publications, such as The Sporting News, to wonder in early October if another Subway Series was inevitable. And if the odds bore themselves out as they should have, it would be.

But that’s why they play the games.

The Yankees would surprisingly fall to the Tigers in the opening round of the playoffs, while the Mets would be eliminated in an excruciating seven-game NLCS against St. Louis. It was at that point that I realized the true sign of a team’s greatness is merely making the postseason. The playoffs themselves are too short and prone to random variation. Anything beyond a postseason berth is gravy.

Of course, the analytical side of my mind tells me that. In my heart I pine for the ultimate prize, which I’ve yet to see. But in my mind I know building a team to win the World Series is a fool’s errand. Too much can happen, too much can change and in my brain I know that when the Mets finally do win the World Series it will merely be a product of luck and chance.

But what glorious luck it will be.

Of course, that day in 2006, I was less convinced of luck affecting the Mets’ chances than I was their skill. The Mets were running away from their NL East competition to such a length that even with six weeks left in the season, the division title was a foregone conclusion. I thought about this as I drove down to New Brunswick, New Jersey, where Weg was living for the summer along with some of his classmates from Rutgers University. After I picked him up we made sure to make a stop at the notorious grease trucks.

For those uninitiated, the grease trucks are a staple of undergraduate life for the Scarlet Knights. Each truck makes sandwiches that include a combination of just about any cellulite packing food you could want all thrown into the same bun with inspiring names like “Fat Darrell” or “Fat Bitch”. I first became familiar with the grease trucks when I was a junior in high school as I traveled to Rutgers with the Millburn High School Academic Quiz Bowl team for a tournament.

That’s right, I’m a nerd.

My personal favorite was a sandwich called the Fat Knight, a heart-clogging combination of cheesesteak, mozzarella sticks, chicken fingers, french fries and marinara sauce. As Weg and I made our purchases, we hit the road for Philadelphia, eating our multiple-thousand calorie sandwiches en route. New York and Philadelphia are not particularly far. A cheesesteak vendor in the East Village of Manhattan proudly calls itself “99 Miles to Philly” and it is approximately just that far. Philadelphia’s proximity makes it an ideal candidate for a day trip – the ride is rarely more than two hours – but some days the traffic can get heavy.

This was one of those days.

Indeed a number of construction delays sidetracked us and we hastily made up a new route using a map and some side roads, which, somehow, actually got us to park well in advance of game time.

Citizens Bank Park comes up in the horizon much like any other in the wave of faux-retro stadiums, with its old-timey steel banks of stadium lights high above it. The drive into the stadium parking lots is uninspiring. It rests in a complex of all the city’s major sports teams, and indeed, Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Eagles, and the Flyers and Sixers’ home, the Wachovia Center, are all within close walking distance. This is extremely convenient, but it also makes the area look like three gigantic stadiums surrounded by dozens of vacant lots.

That’s because it is. The lots are there not because Philadelphia can’t find businesses to fill the ground, but because the parked cars have to go somewhere. While the placement of the stadiums is not as aesthetically pleasing as most new stadiums that are intended to revitalize depressed downtowns, such as Coors Field in Denver, it does make getting in and leaving a whole lot easier if you’re driving – perhaps the only benefit of the rash of suburban arenas that popped up in the 1960s and 70s.

Weg and I parked my beige 1994 Camry Wagon in a dirt lot not far from the Park and began our walk. From afar, the stadium looks very nice, with its red-brick walls, and its intimate environs, supposedly far different from the spacious Vet. But it also includes those delightful Philly fans. This would be my first time walking into Philadelphia wearing the other team’s colors.

The baptism came quickly.

As Weg and I approached decked in our blue and orange, a group of Philly fans was tailgating in the parking lot, and they immediately began hollering. Perhaps they had a right to. Despite their superb play for most of the season, the Mets were currently in the midst of a four-game series in the City of Brotherly Love in which they had lost the first three. The Mets still led the season series 9-6 at the time, but the Fightins felt emboldened.

One of them cried out to us, “Did you guys bring your brooms? For the sweep?!”

We paused for a second, slightly dumbfounded at some unexpected ribbing and dramatically dumbfounded at arrogance that can come despite being nowhere near the top of the standings.

“No,” I replied. “… But we brought our 12 ½-game lead in first place.”


As so often is the case when we feel cornered, the fan relied on the only trump card he had left.

“Ah….. well, fuck you!”

Thoroughly bested, Weg and I proceeded to the stadium where we noticed long lines for walkups at the stadium box office. Apparently summer Sundays and beautiful weather are recipes for crowds, and at 45,775 this would be the largest in the three-year history of Citizens Bank Park. Weg and I, however, had no use for lines, and rather than wait through the first three innings with the plebeians, we quickly scoured for scalpers and found one who appeared to have no idea what he was doing.

He was more boy than man, with an unshaven lightly-grown in pre-pubescent mustache, a backwards Phillies hat and a constant look of “Huh?” on his face. One would surmise this was not your typical vendor. In fact, when he offered us $45 face-value tickets at merely $25 a pop, it became apparent he wasn’t a vendor at all – just a random kid trying to unload two extra tickets. Unfortunately for us, an actual scalper sensed the chance to make a huge score, re-selling the tickets at face value to make a sizeable return on his investment.

“SIXTY!” he jumped in with.

Fortunately for Weg and I, the kid clearly wasn’t comfortable dealing with the scalper, and when we informed him that we, too, would pay $60 for the pair, he gave us the tickets prompting outrage from the scalper. Weg and I sensed it wise to get into the park as quickly as possible.

We entered the stadium and passed by the Phillie Phun Zone, a children’s play area with a delightful plastic sculpture of the Phillie Phanatic – just about the only thing I like about this franchise – riding a roller coaster car. While walking to our seats, it quickly became apparent that we were not sitting in a typical section. We had somehow landed ducats to the Hall of Fame Club, the first snazzy club I had ever seen in a baseball stadium. Upscale bars, red baseball-themed carpeting, Phillies memorabilia and air conditioning stretched as far as the eye could see.

To boot, for a city so reputed for its crass fans, it was a shockingly environmentally conscious building – the beer cups were made of processed corn. A year after our trip, PETA would name it the most vegetarian-friendly park in the majors.

We walked out of the club to our seats, which were cushioned and in a private elevated section behind first base, and settled in to watch the game. Say, what you will about its inhabitants – and I do – Citizens Bank Park is a beautiful place to watch baseball. The park does indeed feel intimate and its ubiquitous brick facades everywhere give it a character and warmth that was unlike Miller Park, the other newer stadium I had been to at the time. It had plenty of what many new buildings do so well in that it had quirks and characteristics that reminded you that this was where the Phillies called home.

Along centerfield was Ashburn Alley, a collection of restaurants, shops and Phillies memorabilia named for Richie Ashburn, considered by many the greatest to ever play in Philadelphia’s pinstripes. The park also features a Phillies Wall of Fame and exhibits commemorating Philadelphia’s baseball history. As if those weren’t strong enough indicators, there were two remaining items that are uniquely Philly. For one there is a giant electric Liberty Bell that rings after each Phillie home run, and for another, and perhaps most endemic of its hometown fans, is the open-air stacked bullpens in right field.

Rather than having bullpens side by side, the Phillies built them one on top of the other, with the upper bullpen set back from the lower bullpen. The argument is that this enables both teams’ relievers a better view of the action on the field, but ulterior motives lurk. The upper bullpen happens to be right beneath a standing room passageway where fans either watch the game or walk by to get around the stadium. The location leaves visiting relievers in perfect position to be heckled, a practice which is allowed so long as they keep it clean.

That a stadium would be built with a fan’s ability to heckle visiting players in mind is stunning in my mind. Those fans might want to watch themselves if they aren’t paying attention to the field, however, as they might be hit by a home run ball that flies out of the stadium.

And fly they do.

In its infancy, Citizens Bank Park has gained a warranted reputation as a notorious hitter’s park. The stadium has been among the National League leaders in home runs each of its first six seasons, often leading the pack. The balls jet out of the building so often that the left field wall was actually moved back five feet after its first season. So prone to the long ball is the stadium, that two days before Weg and I showed up, Mets leadoff hitter Jose Reyes, a man far more reputed for his stolen bases than his power stroke, hit three home runs in one game.

It did little good as the Mets would lose that game 11-4, and while Reyes didn’t bring his power stroke along when I was in the stands, he didn’t have to worry about carrying the load.  Carlos Delgado did. Delgado clocked two homers that day, as the Mets scored in the first three innings to jump out to a four-run lead. With John Maine delivering six solid innings, New York would breeze to a 7-2 win, snapping its three-game skid and starting a seven-game winning streak. Beginning that day the Mets would win 13 of their next 15 games, effectively ending the race for the NL East pennant that year. While Philadelphia’s slugging first baseman Ryan Howard would hit his 42nd home run of the year that day, tying Boston’s David Ortiz for the Major League lead, there was little else good on the day for the Philly fans, who were unable to drown out a “Let’s Go Mets!” chant from the traveling New York crowd that had driven down for the Sunday matinee.

With a nice win in our back pockets, Weg and I left the park with smug looks on our faces. The only problem with the day was the eons-long wait to get out of the parking lot and back on the New Jersey Turnpike. While we had our hearts broken in October, August of 2006 was a good time to be a Mets fan. Yes, a year later the Phillies would cap a remarkable comeback in the standings to rob the Mets of consecutive division titles, forever putting fuel in the rivalry’s fire. But some days you’re able to waltz into enemy territory, take their barbs and leave with a smile on your face after taking over their building.

My first visit to Citizens Bank Park was one of those days. Were I clairvoyant enough to see what would happen the next three seasons, well, I probably wouldn’t have been so arrogant when I left the stadium. But I claim no guilt in that. Being surrounded by Philadelphia sports fans will always bring the worst out of me.

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