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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Fenway Revisited

2009 Season
by Kelly Salasin

In less than a year, this library-museum-cafe lover finds herself back in the stands at Fenway, and writing about baseball again.

You might recall last summer’s Cracker Barrel and my article entitled, “An Outsiders View into Fenway Park.” In it, I pooh-poohed professional baseball and all its hype. Though I’d found old Fenway charming, I described the crowd as being “a lost nation in a sea of Budweiser Lights.” (Frankly, I was surprised not to receive any mad mail from those fanatic fans.

Despite my lack of interest in ball, however, I am the mother of two sons and thus have spent my share of time at games including: 5 seasons of T-ball, 4 seasons of Small Fry, 2 of Little League and one of Babe Ruth. Although I don’t always know what’s going on in the field, I’ve always been an avid supporter of my boys’ teams. What I don’t understand is million dollar players, $8 beers and bust-the-bank seats.

My son Lloyd dreamed of going to Fenway long before I knew how many innings were in a game. For years friends accused us of neglect before we finally begged tickets from the owner of the local market- whose brother lived in Boston- and had season seats that he wasn’t using on Marathon weekend.

Just a simple $200 later and we were there! (Plus gas, parking, souvenirs and meals.) Our seats were right past the first baseline and not too far up at that. My son was in heaven- and though I could appreciate that the posters on his bedroom walls had come to life- I still didn’t “get it”.

During the game, I was given the evil eye by both my boys for my lack of baseball coolness which apparently included: not sporting any team paraphernalia, cheering for the opposing team and pulling out a novel when I realized that the 7th inning stretch wasn’t the end of the game. (It was in Little League.)

I made the trip to Fenway to bring joy to my son, but in the process, he joined a “Nation” and left me behind. Just a few months later though, and this diehard fan turned 13. Suddenly he emptied his drawers of Sox shirts, retired his extensive collection of baseball caps, and removed every poster from his wall- including the hundreds of baseball cards that had trimmed his room- floor to ceiling.

I enjoyed this new clutter free space, but I missed my little sports fanatic who begged to stay up to hear “just one more inning” and learned everything he knew about the sport from the library, the newspaper and radio. (We live in the mountains. We don’t have cable.)

I was also concerned. With sports discarded, what would take its place? During the long winter months, action films and technology consumed more and more of Lloyd’s time. That’s why I was delighted one spring afternoon when his friend Jack called with an extra ticket to the Sox game the next day.

My delight quickly turned to dismay, however, when another ticket became available and I was invited to come along too – in what had been dubbed, a mother-son adventure. How could I say no? (I tried.)

On this return trip to Fenway almost a year later, we arrived just as they threw the first pitch with a foul ball headed our way. My attention was riveted with seats just past the third base line and close to the action.

Before the top of the first was finished however, a group of dark clouds moved in and it began to spritz- and then to pour- like I’ve never felt. As buckets of water fell upon us, I quickly learned that “good seats” become “bad seats” in a downpour. We stood in a line that moved at a snail’s pace to leave the stands– drenched.

This rainout should have been a godsend for me, but I was actually disappointed—and then surprisingly thrilled- when the storm passed and the game was set to resume. We returned to our seats- jubilant- passing paper towels across the aisles while the field crew worked on the diamond.

It felt “good” to be here—together– united in common appreciation; and I could feel America’s pastime seeping into my bones. Just as the players returned to the field, the sun appeared and steam rose off our wet bodies.

Innings passed without any concern for time. In fact, I even experienced a “timeless” moment when the outfield and the infield moved like a hand—fingers flowing into palm—like a dance. It was a thing of beauty and it caught my breath and swept me up into the mythic current of the game.

The score was of little concern, but the Sox were well ahead. Our hosts asked if we minded leaving at the top of the ninth, and to my surprise, I did. But what could I say? I had been the one who had asked, “Are you sure you want to waste a ticket on me? I don’t even like baseball?”

As we left the park, it was like leaving a part of me behind. Crowding into the subway car with other fans, I had an unfamiliar sense of belonging and buoyancy.

Once home, my 13 year old- who once could tell me everything I didn’t care to know about every player and play in the history of the Nation–was shocked to find me scouring the papers for more. The whole family was taken aback when I came home from the library with Boston magazine for its feature, “67 Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know about the Local Nine.” I didn’t know anything, but I still enjoyed the read and the history of Fenway that was included.

For days I covertly pursued my new passion, and then- it faded–back into the field of dreams–where, no doubt, some other unsuspecting soul is falling prey to its magic.

And yet, if tickets were to find me again, I’m not opposed to returning to Fenway this season. My younger son should get the chance to enjoy a game with his mom. (But don’t tell anyone that I was looking at  Sox shirts… in my size.)

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