Cardella: At the ballpark

It is a warm humid evening at Citizens Bank Park. More like August than June. The flags in center field are almost still. The Phillies are in the midst of yet another losing streak in a season of losing streaks. The visiting St. Louis Cardinals are not a good team either. But the Phillies are in a class by themselves. A listless crowd of around 18,000 people is in the stands. Only the scoreboard “bongo cam” between innings brings folks to life.

He thinks back to the change in the ballpark experience. He has been going to Phillies games since 1947 when his cousin took him to a game with the Braves. They were the Boston Braves then. One of their players, a guy named Phil Masi, hit two home runs. The man had been going to ballgames with his friends ever since. His first 25 summers were spent watching baseball at Connie Mack Stadium. He’d been there when it was called Shibe Park.

He thought back to how happy all of them had been when Veterans Stadium opened in 1971. Baseball had moved to South Philadelphia. The stadium was within walking distance of his home. His kids could see the fireworks from their front step when one of the Phils hit a home run. And the July 4th fireworks quickly became a community event with some of his neighbors setting up folding chairs on the corner of his street to watch the display.

His group had decided to buy a partial season ticket plan in 1976 when it guaranteed them seats to the All-Star Game, which was played at “The Vet” that season. They kept the plan when the team moved from Veterans Stadium to Citizens Bank Park. Baseball was a huge part of his life. Common interest in the sport had helped forge a tight bond in his family, including even his grandfather. Most of them were gone now, but the memories never faded. He’d been there for the bad years when the team lost 23 games in a row and during the good years, especially 1980 when he and his daughter watched the team clinch its first World Series championship. Nothing matched the excitement of the glory years that culminated in winning the World Series in 2008. He looked around now at the half empty park. Those years seemed far away.

The ballpark experience has changed dramatically over the years. Not always for the better. In the 50s at Connie Mack Stadium it was enough for a kid just to get away from his neighborhood and enjoy being outdoors in a place with real grass. There were no giveaways. No T-shirts or caps given out as you walked through the gates on a Sunday afternoon. Once when the Phillies decided to hold Bat Day, fans wound up throwing the bats onto the field. That ended Bat Day. There was no need for metal detectors in those days of innocence. No noisy music between innings. Just Dotty Langdon and later Paul Richardson playing “Take Me Out to The Ballgame” on the organ. You could hold a conversation between innings. No fancy electronic scoreboard. No racing SEPTA subway cars. No artificial cheering from the scoreboard to encourage fans to MAKE NOISE!! in the late innings when the team was behind. You supplied your own rallying cry when you felt real emotion. There was no team mascot. Kids were interested in the game being played on the field.

The ballpark menu was simple. You enjoyed your hot dog steamed or grilled. The beer was either Ballantine or Schmidt’s. In glass bottles. Until the historic day when angry fans littered the field with glass “missiles” after a controversial call went against the Phillies. The Phils were forced to forfeit the game. Thereafter, beer was poured into paper cups. You didn’t have to be a hedge fund manager to afford to take your family to a game or wait for Dollar Dog Night.

The crowds were more diverse. The game had changed when Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947. African-American fans were only too happy to greet him when the Brooklyn Dodgers came to town. Sold-out crowds noisily filled Connie Mack Stadium in the 50s when the Dodgers came to town. The Phillies played the Dodgers 11 times in their home park and all 11 games seemed like a New Year’s Eve celebration. The byplay in the stands between the mostly black Dodgers fans and the mostly white Phillies fans was spirited but good-natured. The Dodgers were the class of the National League at that time. The Phillies, with the exception of their pennant winning season of 1950, were mostly a team that finished in the middle of an eight- team league. But the Phillies no matter what their record, always seemed to play the Dodgers tough. Whether it’s cultural or something more nefarious, there are many fewer African-Americans playing baseball today. Most fans in the stands are white. Today’s game increasingly draws its players from Latin America and Asia.

Baseball is different now and it’s not just that the Phillies are terrible this season. The games are too long. The prices too high. The noisy music deafening. The scoreboard lacks information a fan gets at home.

He is awakened from his reverie. The game is tied 1–1 in the 9th, but many of the fans are leaving. Time to beat the traffic.