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Covering all the bases

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Dressed in a tuxedo in the third-base dugout, Mark "Frog" Carfagno had a front-row seat, along with his fellow grounds crew workers, for the pregame festivities Sept. 23, 2003 — the final game at Veterans Stadium.

Current and former players and coaches took a final lap around the field where they played for 33 years and brought the city a World Series championship, three National League pennants and seven division titles. They even stopped to thank the grounds crew, Carfagno said.

"The players weren’t supposed to stop there, but they stopped there, shook our hands, hugged us," he said. "It was all unscripted. That was great for them to come over to us. We work hard. They understand we work hard."

Carfagno, 55, only missed a few games in his 33 years on the job, so he was on the sidelines for the Vet’s ups and downs, including Game 6 of the 1980 World Series.

"For the last out, I was in the dugout," he said. "I was kind of in awe when Tug McGraw struck out Willie Wilson."

He developed friendships with many players from that team, including Pete Rose, Larry Bowa and the late McGraw, as well countless others who graced the field at the Vet. Many he wrote about in his book, "Hardball & Hardship."

"I always had a good rapport with the players. I would never talk about [baseball] unless they wanted to talk about it," he said, adding discussions usually ranged from football to politics.

He developed an especially close friendship with Dick Allen, who won Rookie of the Year with the Phillies in 1964 and played with the team through ’69 before the organization reacquired him in ’75.

"When he came back to Philadelphia, he was traded [from the Braves] and I really didn’t know him," Carfagno said. "I just knew him as a player."

When Allen walked on the field for batting practice, Carfagno said, "Hey 15. Welcome back." Allen replied, "All right, Kotter, same to you" referencing the 1970s television show "Welcome Back, Kotter."

Allen constantly chatted with the grounds crew, or "Kotter Gang" as he called them, before games. Some of the gang even got together at Allen’s Perkasie farm. Allen and Carfagno still meet, discuss music and watch a football or basketball game, but their conversations never sway toward Allen’s career.

"We don’t have to talk baseball," Carfagno said. "To be honest, he doesn’t even want to talk about baseball."

Working at Connie Mack Stadium as a kid, the Vet for decades and briefly at still-standing Citizens Bank Park, Carfagno has his share of great memories.

He would arrive about three hours before a game to sell The Philadelphia Bulletin and scorecards outside Connie Mack before heading in to watch the game.

At 17, he landed a gig at the Vet in its inaugural year giving away promotions such as bats, balls and caps. Three months later, Carfagno was promoted after attending a game as a fan in July ’71.

The first game of a makeup twi-night doubleheader finished in just two hours, so the second was going into the sixth at 7:30 when the rain started, he said. The field was covered, but the umpire called the game. More bodies pulling the tarp on the field may have allowed the game to continue, Carfagno said.

Fans who took bus trips in arrived with the second game under way since it started early, so they were upset tickets wouldn’t be reimbursed as five innings counted as an official game. Walking from the stadium, Carfagno and two friends, Steve and Larry Blong, were approached by then-Director of Stadium Operations Pat Cassidy Sr., who knew the trio from their giveaway job. He asked what they were doing the next day and when they replied, "nothing," he told them to show up at the ballpark as they were now on the junior grounds crew.

"If [Cardinals pitcher] Bob Gibson didn’t pitch a fast game in the twi-night doubleheader, I wouldn’t have had the job," he said.

Although Carfagno grew up in Southwest with sisters Angela and Sharon and currently resides there with wife Kass, he would often visit the Italian Market with mother Frances, who grew up at 16th and Titan streets, and the boyhood home of his father Angelo, who grew up at 15th and Federal streets, where his aunt, Margaret Festa, resided.

"My father knew everybody [in South Philly]," he said. "Everybody."

His father, responsible for starting his son’s interest in the Mummers, saved a quarter a week beginning in ’61 until there was enough for the Cahill Comic Brigade to make its debut in the ’63 New Year’s parade. Carfagno served as the mascot and marched next to his dad, he said.

Carfagno continued to march with his father’s brigade until ’99. He was elected captain in ’83, serving for nine years.

In ’84, Carfagno set his sight on No. 1 in the Comics Division even though many doubted Cahill could beat South Philly’s Comics. He replicated something he saw on TV years before by constructing oversized clown heads for "Many Faces of a Clown."

"When I saw 42 heads on the street at Broad and Snyder, I knew right there we were going to win it," he said. "It was awesome."

After the parade, he couldn’t wait for the results, so he called the Department of Recreation posing as a reporter.

"[They] said, ‘Number One ‘Many …’ and that’s all I needed to know. I threw the phone up in the air."

Since 2001, he has performed as a banjo player with the South Philadelphia String Band and also with the band Mickey Finn at Cookies, 10th Street and Oregon Avenue.

"I love the music, love the people and trying to keep that tradition going because I don’t know if the young guys are going to maintain [the Mummers]," he said.

Along with his 47 years of Mummery, Carfagno has more than three decades of practice pulling a tarp on a field in a torrential downpour, but the wind is what makes the task difficult, he said, as he recalled a game when only eight crew members were on the cover and one flew in the air with tarp in hand. He then slammed to the ground, breaking his wrist.

"I tell everyone ‘let go of that thing. Don’t try to be Superman. You’re going to kill yourself,’" he recalled.

He accepted a full-time role with the grounds crew after graduating from Delaware’s Wilmington College in ’76 with a sports broadcasting degree. His job description eventually became more than painting lines and raking the infield. Carfagno participated in skits with the Phillie Phanatic and even filled in for public address announcer Dan Baker.

In ’04, Carfagno and the Phillies parted ways.

After more than 2,500 games at the Vet, Carfagno has enough firsthand memories of the team to last a lifetime, so March 21, ’03, was a sad day as he watched the stadium’s implosion from sister-in-law Ellen Lucchetti’s home at 13th and Bigler streets.

"Kind of that bittersweet, that empty feeling in your stomach," he said of watching the Vet’s ending.

Contact Staff Writer Amanda Snyder at asnyder@southphillyreview.com or ext. 117. 

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