Last night, Carlos Ruiz caught a foul popup, and the Phillies were, officially, in the World Series. It’s the second time in my life the team I obsess over has made it this far. And when Chooch caught that ball, what I felt was not elation, it was not joy, but rather, simply, relief. Soberly, Phillies playoff games this year have not exactly been the most fun I’ve ever had. They’ve been paranoid evenings. I’ve sat in my house for 6 of the 8 games. I’ve been mostly quiet. I felt my heartrate slow and my blood pool in my feet. I felt myself pale. When Victorino and Stairs hit the home runs in game 4 to steal the game, I was relieved, but not excited or proud. At least, not that day. Maybe the day after. And last night, and today, I think about that out and I don’t regret staying inside afterward, when I could hear people whooping it up outside, and Mrs Thursday wanted to join them. Because I was happy. I was glad this part was over.
When I was very young, my Dad would take my older brother and I to baseball games. Charlie, my brother, is about a year older than I am, and we have a younger brother, Stephen, who is about three years younger than I. I remember those first games so vividly. Frigid April Philadelphia weather, sitting about 7,000 feet above sea level in the upper deck at the Vet, in the 700 level, or the 600, right behind home plate. We’d go for the Phillie Phanatics birthday, too. When Stephen was old enough, he’d come, and we’d go as a family, my mom and dad and Charlie and Stephen and I. We either sat behind home plate, high above the Earth (which is now section 420 in CBP, and it is, perhaps, my favorite place in the entire world) or out in left field. A bit lower to the ground, sure, but you’re a long way from home, out there.
In 1989, I think, I played in my first little league. Cooperstown Little League, in Haverford, PA, or thereabouts. One inning, I went out to the field having accidentally grabbed someone else’s glove, and using it, playing shortstop, I think, I managed to backhand a ball and throw out the baserunner at first. My dad saw me do that, and saw I had grabbed a righthanded glove, instead of my natural lefty, and I was an immediate convert. He was an assistant coach on my first t-ball team, which he sponsored. He was frustrated with the head coach, who had doing baserunning drills every practice. Dad was competitive, sure, and wanted to see his son’s t-ball team do well, of course, but more than that he knew that if there is anything a five or six year old doesn’t need instruction on, it’s running.
Because I loved to play, though, we’d play catch before and after practice. He’d teach me to hit. When my great Aunt Kate would babysit us, we’d play wiffle ball, and I would line ball after ball right back at her head. She had a good sense of humor about it. Less good was a coach of mine in the next league up, who had to duck after each pitch, so often was I lining baseballs six feet off the ground right up the middle.
I kept playing little league and advancing (and also gaining weight: I was the little league version of Albert Belle, but with glasses and a better attitude). I played catcher, and I hit homeruns. My baseball viewing life kept advancing, too. The Phillies swayed somewhere between below average and awful, without quite reaching the status of Embarrassment, before exploding in 1993. 97 wins. Lenny Dykstra was Dr Dirt. Jim Eisenreich introduced this nine year old to Tourette’s Syndrome. Pete Incavglia looked like a plumber, and my dad knew every one of his 24 home runs about 30 seconds before Pete launched ’em. Dutch Daulton launched 24 of his own. Dave Hollins invented the concept of the between-pitch routine that Nomar would someday imitate, but never duplicate. Mariano Duncan played what seemed like every infield position. Mickey Morandini made every play at second, and had a knack for hitting triples. John Kruk was glorious and funny. Kevin Stocker took over shortstop late in the season and was a revelation. Terry Mulholland has baseball’s best pickoff move. Curt Schilling was young and brilliant. Tommy Greene was younger, and, it seemed, even more brilliant, albeit in a totally different way. Larry Andersen was goofy and through junk all day and night. And Mitch Williams, the Wild Thing, fell off the mound to the tune of 43 saves.
Baseball was so good that summer, we coudn’t get enough of it. Dad and I started following the local leagues. Minor leagues. Legions. High school. College. In 1993, if it had a box score in the local papers, Dad and I could tell you about it. And then the Phillies went to the playoffs, gloriously ruining the Atlanta Braves, and then fighting the Blue Jays to the teeth before Joe Carter hit that home run. Thinking about that home run causes me no pain. I loved everything about baseball in 1993. I don’t care if they were on steroids. I didn’t know it then, and I don’t care about it now. Those Phillies made me as happy as I have ever been.
But then, in 1994, the strike struck. My dad was not a union man in 1993, it seems. He blamed the players greed for the strike, and I was devasted. Schilling and Greene and Dykstra and the rest were all greedy villains. I went to a couple of minor league games that summer, but it wasn’t quite the same. The next year, I gave up baseball, little league. And I mostly stopped watching the sport. I remember Cal Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig’s record. I watched that game. And I had interest in the home run race in 1998, but what really got me back into baseball was, amazingly, a stunningly bad Phillies team. My friends in high school, as I was a freshmen and they were upper classmen, were into the Phillies, and so I kept going to games. Chad Ogea was terrible. Schilling was good and brash, and Rolen was good and sullen. Doug Glanville led the league in outs. Over 130 innings were given to relievers with ERAs over 7. And somehow, I was in love again.
I started going to games, again. With the exception of this year, I estimate I’ve gone to 20-25 games each year since 1999. My dad was still skeptical of this game with its strikes, but, somehow he gradually started accepting it again. At least, I wouldn’t have to fight to get the game on. When they signed Thome, my dad’s interest grew, and when Ryan Howard took his spot, my dad became a fan again. He went to a Steve Carlton bobblehead day a few years ago, probably his first live baseball game in a decade. He liked Rollins and loved Utley. He loved Hamels. He was frustrated by Brett Myers. He hated Wagner, and didn’t trust Tom Gordon.
We got him some tickets for the season. A small package. 6 or 8 games or so, for 2007. The final game of the year was Sept 30th, at home. His 55th birthday. The Phillies won the division that day, capping a fabulous comeback against the Mets. We sat in the sun and sang. We ate hot dogs and sausage and pasta salad and drank beer and soda. Me and Dad and Mom and Charlie and Stephen, Uncle Rob, and Aunt Diane. When I was very young, my dad gave me baseball. When he turned 55, I gave it back.
He died from cancer less than three months later. We miss him, of course, now. And in a lot of ways, we’re all still trying to put it into perspective. He had a lot of family members who died young. My dad buried one his seven brothers on the day my dad turned 18. He had a sister die before he was even born. Another brother survived 2 broken necks and a war, and died in his sleep when I was 14. The Shillingfords, they burn bright, and short. My own dad worked his entire life. He owned his own business, he was an electrical contractor. He charged one of the lowest rates around, not because he was bad, but because he felt guilty about raising prices. He had long running problems with religion, with his own faith, but he’d work for churches for free. He developed a drinking problem when I was very young, and corralled it as he got older, without giving it up. In retrospect, his ability to moderate his drinking is one of the more amazing feats I’ve ever seen. He loved to drive. He’s gone now, and the rest of us don’t really know what to make of it.
But the Phillies have won the pennant, and he’s largely what I’ve been thinking about. About how much more this means to me because of him.
I miss you, Dad. Still wish you were around.