Philly, Foreign & Familiar

Kelly Salasin

In the span of one season, this unlikely sports fan is back in the stands at another professional baseball game– this time in Philadelphia.

Two decades in New England has made this mid-Atlantic city a stranger to me.   From parking-lot tailgaters to street cops to peddlers, the faces and attitudes in Philly are rough around the edges, but the connections are warmer than up north.

The air is warmer too– and filled with water.  My mountain-loving skin finds this steamy heat oppressive but I remind myself that I was once from the sea.

Cheesesteaks, soft pretzels and fries welcome me home.  Philly is a family-friendly stadium that competes with Fenway’s vintage charm with it’s own affordable seats, playgrounds and two dollar kids’ franks.  A ballpark says a lot about a city.

The huxters’ calls in the galleys are more robust than in Boston and yet more subdued in the stands where the attention is on the game. Field facing concessions and standing-room only counters keep all eyes on the players.

Philadelphia gets right into the action with a chorus of boos after the lead batter for the Cardinals slides safely into second. “It’s starting already,” someone cries in self pity, as if the “out” was entitled rather than earned.  Before inning ends, Victorina steals second– and is sent back to first.  The Phillies coach is out of the dugout and the umpire is in his face.  A sense of familiarity sweeps over me with this characteristic intrusion of personal space rarely experienced in New England.

When Ryan Howard steps up to bat, the man behind me calls, “C’mon big boy.”  There’s an emphasis on “boy” that reveals a prejudice barely under the surface.  This is a city close to the Mason-Dixon line.  Given this culture’s worship of big-name players, I can’t figure how racism jives inside their heads.

My own mind flashes to the nice white folks I knew growing up–the ones who dropped bombs like, “I’d never let a black hand in my mouth,” when the new dentist moved to town;  or “I hope I don’t get a nigger roomate,” when going off to college; or  “I don’t want a black man in my daughter’s wedding,” when the fiance brought  home his law partner.

With the election of a black president, I imagine something’s had to change in the psyche of this downtrodden city.   Just before Obama’s victory and after he passed through the town, Philly claimed their own power at the World Series– after 1oo collective sports seasons without a championship title.

I watch Philly take their new place in sports history with each throw of the relief pitcher, lifting him off the mound in their enthusiasm.  Standing together, they rattle the batter into a third out and return to their seats– satisfied– certain of their influence on the game.

A ballpark Liberty Bell rings for every home run and joyous faces are streamed on the big screen while a summer soundtrack grooves.  We belt out “Wildwood Days” and I reclaim this old home as mine.

At the seventh inning stretch, The Luau Girls dance on top of the duogout; and after two years of living among Red Sox fans,  I proudly sing out for the Phillies with “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” The  2009 Championship is in the air and I can’t wait to see these faces after a second win.

It was the afternoon of the last game of the 2008 Series when I reached back to Philly from my home in Vermont with this impassioned, but uncharacteristic post on a sport’s blog:

Philadelphia is the city of “brotherly love”– and the birthplace of our Nation.It is also home to the Philadelphia Phillies whose win tonight will clinch the Series.I can’t help but feel that this long-awaited triumph for Philly is aligned with the rebirth of Passion and Participation witnessed around this upcoming election.  Let us not forget that what we stand for as a Country is beyond the success or failure of any political party or candidate.  We the people are the ONES who demonstrate what it is to be American:  standing up for liberty and justice for ALL.Let’s reclaim that beautiful tender mission as we head into a new era of global interdependence.  And while we’re at it, GO Phillies!  May their win tonight create a surge in the tide for reclaiming our country’s Spirit with Obama’s leadership.

While I’ve never understood the link between baseball, patriotism, dollars and breasts, I did appreciate the instrumental version of the National Anthem offered by the middle-aged women in grass skirts and coconut bras.  Crossing the Delaware on the Walt Whitman, I felt a surge of pride for this foreign and familiar city.

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