Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thankful For a Game?

It's Thanksgiving Day here in America, the fourth Thursday in November. It's a day where we give thanks to our God and spend time with the family and friends with whom he has blessed our lives.

The day usually includes a traditional meal of turkey, stuffing, vegetables, pies, and other foods and treats. It also includes watching pro football games on TV, and sometimes watching high school rivalry games in person.

Something that we don't usually think about or associate with on Thanksgiving Day is the sport of baseball. But I am going to take a little time to speak about the game on this day for one important reason. This is supposed to be a day on which we recognize and express our gratitude for the people and things that we love, and in my life there have been few things outside of my family that I have loved more than the sport that I like to call "The Greatest Game That God Ever Invented."

My love of the game encompasses every way that it can be enjoyed, from playing to coaching to spectating to fantasy. My involvement in the game pretty much began with the opening of Veteran's Stadium in my South Philly neighborhood when I was just 9 years old. Until that point the only real sports events that I had been exposed to were the Big Five basketball games that I remember my dad watching on television.

In the spring of 1971, 'The Vet' opened it's gates at Broad and Pattison, and my dad took my brother Mike and I to the 'Opening Day' festivities. It was an event prior to the first game, where fans could get in and walk around the ballpark and where all of the features were on display from the baseline picnic areas to the booming cannon of Phil & Phyllis that would follow each Phillies' homerun to the beautiful, colorful Dancing Waters fountain in centerfield. I was hooked by the place, and the team and game would soon follow.

The Phillies in those early 70's days were awful. The first three seasons at The Vet, the first three that I followed, saw the team finish in 6th and last place in the National League East Division. But my friends and I loved heading down to the ballpark where we could sit in the 700 level for just .50 cents. Because the team was so bad, there were many nights that we were able to move down to the lower levels in the later innings to seats vacated by season ticket holders.

We would go to those games in groups, often with a dozen or more kids together at one time. Sometimes we took the 79 bus on Snyder Avenue up to the Broad Street Subway, and then south to the Pattison Avenue stop at the stadium. But most times we just walked, since it was just a few miles and our legs, hearts and minds were all still young. The walk itself was often a part of the adventure and experience of having a good time hanging together.

My favorite players in that first 1971 season were slick-fielding, scrappy 2nd-year shortstop Larry Bowa, colorful rookie centerfielder Willie Montanez, and a powerful rookie outfielder named Greg 'the Bull' Luzinski. In 1972, two new players who would eventually change everything would join the team. Pitcher Steve Carlton came in a somewhat controversial trade for talented and popular pitcher Rick Wise, who had tossed a no-hitter the previous year. And a highly outed prospect 3rd baseman named Mike Schmidt would make his debut late in the season.

On the fields, playgrounds and schoolyards of my Two Street neighborhood in South Philly, I played the game as much as I could. Although I tried out and played a couple of seasons in organized leagues at the Murphy Rec Center at 4th and Shunk and with our local EOM sports organization, it was mostly in loosely organized neighborhood teams where I got my playing experience.

My friends and I played our version of stickball in the schoolyard at Sharswood Public School. We called the game 'longball', a game where the defense was setup the same as a baseball team, but where offensively you hit a rubber 'pimple ball' that was pitched to you underhanded on one bounce. You did your hitting with a stick, usually fashioned from a broom  or mop handle, though some kids came up with things over the years that looked like war clubs the origins of which were purely speculative.

We also had a game called 'fastball' that was played with the same stick and pimpleball used in 'longball', but in which the pitches were delivered overhand in the usual baseball pitching style. The batter stood at a 'strike zone' that was usually formed by a box drawn on a schoolyard wall, or that was formed by the window covering on the lower levels of the school building. The pitcher would deliver fastballs, curves, sliders and anything else he could come up with to fool the hitter.

A traditional South Philly game was 'half ball' in which you would take the standard rubber pimpleball and literally slice it in half. The two halves then each became a 'halfball', with the pitches delivered underhanded. The batters would usually face a large wall or structure, a certain level of which was designated as a homerun. We played these games every single summer from around age 9 or 10 until they disappeared from our radar screen when we reached around age 14 or 15.

During those early to mid-70's days of my developing love for the game, baseball was featured on network television in a 'Game of the Week' format. We also got to watch many of the Phillies road games on a local 'UHF' channel 17, and also the Major League Baseball playoff and World Series games.

My earliest memory of watching baseball on television involves following the 1972 NLCS where the Cincinnati Reds were facing off against the defending World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates. The Reds were in the early years of what would become known as the legendary 'Big Red Machine" and had players such as Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, and Tony Perez. The Pirates showcased Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell.

In the series, the Pirates took 2 out of the first 3 games in the best-of-5 series. The Reds stayed alive and tied the series up with big 7-1 romp in the 4th game, sending the series to an ultimate, dramatic fifth and deciding game. In that 5th game, the Pirates took a 3-2 lead into the bottom of the 9th. The Reds rallied to tie on a dramatic homerun by Bench. The Reds then put two more runners on base, and the Pirates brought in Bob Moose, one of their starters. Moose got two outs, one of them moving George Foster to 3rd base. Then it all ended suddenly when Moose threw a wild pitch, enabling Foster to score the game and series-winning run.

No one knew it at the time, but it would be the final game in the storied Hall of Fame career of the legendary Clemente. He would be tragically killed in an off-season plane crash while on a humanitarian mission to help victims of an earthquake. Both the Pirates and the Reds would remain contenders throughout the decade, and would both become rivals to the Phillies as our home team finally became a contender at mid-decade.

The Phillies fortunes began to change by 1974, when they finished at 80-82 and were a much more competitive club. By 1975, the team was a winner, and seriously challenged for the NL East title before falling short. That team was inspired by 2nd baseman Dave Cash, who had come over from the Pirates and whose slogan "Yes We Can!" inspired the ball club and was the rallying point for the team's advertising campaign.

The Phillies began to reap the benefits of the development of their own core of young players in Schmidt, Luzinski, Bowa, catcher Bob Boone, and pitchers like Larry Christenson, Dick Ruthven and Randy Lerch. Carlton developed from a good pitcher into a great Cy Young Award winner. And management made great trades to bring in Gary Maddox, Bake McBride and Tug McGraw among others. The stage was set for winning the NL East in 4 of 5 seasons from 1976 through 1980.

For the 1979 season, the team was able to make perhaps the biggest free agent signing in it's history when Reds sparkplug Pete Rose was signed. The '79 club ultimately fell apart down the stretch due to injuries and complacency, but in 1980 it all came together. The Phillies won the World Series for the first time in the 97 year history of the franchise. I got to attend Game #2 of that World Series, a Phils victory over the Kansas City Royals and future Hall of Famer George Brett, and my friends and I were right there in the middle of all the celebrations.

By the mid-1980's, I had been employed at First Pennsylvania Bank for a few years, and was a young father of two daughters. I had also been involved with the game by playing in a men's softball league, and had gotten involved with a team which we eventually came to call the "Brewers", mostly after our love of having a few cold adult beverages following each game.

The Brewers, their wives, girlfriends, and families became my 2nd family over the years, the best friends of my adult life. We would build the team into a perennial winner, and would take home league championships in 1985, '89, '90, '91, '92 and finally in 1994. I had the privilege of managing the '89, '91 and '94 champions. I also had my personal greatest moment as a ballplayer with the team when, on August 1st, 1991 in the final game of a championship series sweep, I homered over the fence at Archbishop Ryan high school's field.

Eventually, the playing career would give way to a combination of age and adult responsibilities. But the game never left me, as I continued to both follow the Phillies and MLB, both in person and on TV. I also got involved in the new hobby of 'fantasy baseball', in which you 'own' certain pro players and where your fantasy team success is based on their real-world performances.

In 1993, the Phillies would enjoy a rarity in Major League Baseball, a 'worst-to-first' season. The franchise had basically collapsed following the greatness of the late 70's and early 80's. That 1993 season would, in fact, be a rare contending season for the team over a two decade period. But those 1993 Phillies would prove to be the most fun ballclub that I ever watched. Players such as John Kruk, Lenny Dykstra, Darren Daulton, Curt Schilling, Mitch Williams and a cast of characters along with them moved to first place early, stayed there all year, and then upset the Braves in the NLCS. They took the defending champion Blue Jays all the way to the 6th game of the World Series, where Joe Carter beat Mitch in one of baseball's greatest finishes. Despite the finish for the Phillies, the season will never be forgotten by those of us who lived through it and enjoyed every inning.

In the summer of 1998, I formed the 'Whitey Fantasy Baseball League' with a number of other lovers of the game from all around the country. It is a 'keeper' league, where you get to keep and maintain control over your players unless or until you trade them away or release them. We have both Major League players and a full minor league/prospect/draft system now. I won the championship in this league with my Philadelphia Athletics teams in both 2002 and 2008.

Of course, that 2008 baseball season was important to all Philadelphia baseball fans, not just to my fantasy title-winning self. The Phillies, after floundering for most of the past two decades, had been building a winner over the previous few seasons. In 2008, it finally all came together. The team won the World Series led by players like Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jayson Werth, Shane Victorino, Brad Lidge, Cole Hamels and Brett Myers. They went back to the Series in 2009, and nearly made it three straight appearances this past season.

My love for the game remains strong as I turn 49 years old. I haven't stepped into a batters box since early in the summer of 1999, but the game still courses through my veins. This past season, my wife and I purchased our first-ever season ticket package for the Phillies, enjoying many Sunday games together at the place we consider our 2nd home, one of the most beautiful ballparks in baseball, Citizens Bank Park. Just last month, we stood in the stands and roared with the crowd as Roy Halladay threw a no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds in the NLDS, the only no-hitter and one of the greatest pro baseball moments that I ever experienced in person.

This Thanksgiving Day, among all the other things for which I am thankful, I include this game that has meant so much to my life's enjoyment. From the schoolyard ball of South Philly to the family of the Brewers softball team to the great Major League moments: Carlton Fisk waving a ball fair, a baseball rolling between Bill Buckner's legs, Brad Lidge dropping to his knees in joy, baseball has given me memories and experiences that have enriched my life in so many ways.

Finally, thank you, God, for allowing me to participate and enjoy your greatest game in such an intimate way. And almost as much as spending eternity in your loving presence and with my family and friends, I look forward to playing the game, once again in my youth, in your Heaven. To running the bases, sliding into the bags, diving for the balls, gunning the throws, smelling the freshly mowed grass, feeling the crack of the ball against the bat, hearing the cheers, feeling the embrace of teammates. For this great game, I am eternally thankful. Happy Thanksgiving to all.

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