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.

An “Outside” View into Fenway Park

by Kelly Salasin
2008 season

Like any good first timer, my twelve-year old made sure we arrived at Yawkey Way the moment the park opened. Lloyd waited a “lifetime” for this day, had begged and cajoled his father and me to take him to a Sox game ever since he first played ball.

Unfortunately for my son, I prefer cafes, libraries, and art museums to ball games. Yet as soon as I stepped through the gates to Fenway, I felt the magic. Like a visit to a holy shrine or to the city of Boston itself, the past here was palpable. Despite the fifty dollar seats and the five-dollar dogs, Fenway held a bygone charm whose vintage blue-greens embraced even reluctant me.

Time must have stopped for a moment as we stepped into the Park because the next thing I knew, we were running past the beer and kettle corn stands to keep up with Lloyd who was searching for the entrance to his Field of Dreams.

We rounded the dark cavernous galleys past signs for boxes: 86-88,89-91, and 92-94. Finally, Lloyd stopped breathless, ticket in hand. “This is it,” he said, pausing in great expectation before leading us up the ramp and into the Light.

It was a Hollywood moment– an empty stadium beholding a bright come-to-life field, teaming with activity. We stood starstruck at the entrance until an elderly gentleman appeared before us, leading us down the “red carpet” to box 97, section 10, row DD, seats 12, 13, 14 and 15- the “best” seats in the house.

To my astonishment, this graceful usher moved down the aisle to turn down our seats and wipe them with the cloth he pulled from his pocket- a timeless gesture.

Despite this humble service, it was a world of equals in the hours before the game. We weren’t just first-time Fenwayers who could hardly afford to be there; and the usher wasn’t just an old guy in an underpaid job who was beginning to loose his balance walking up and down the aisles. Players in unnamed jerseys practiced on the field which had no center so that I wasn’t sure if we were just past third or just past first. Even the maintenance guys were heroes as they entered and exited with brooms and turf replacement and baseball maintenance whatnot.

We weren’t seated a moment before Lloyd headed off with his father and little brother to “Autograph Alley.” I pulled out the novel I had packed for the long wait but found myself distracted again and again. Of particular interest was the way that each newly arriving two or threesome stopped to assess their their view before sitting down, and then proceeded to share the placing and assessment of their last seats and the ones before that. Celebration and anticipation vibrated in the air.

“Over here! Over here!” came cries of children in the stadium above the outfield. To my surprise, players threw balls directly to them.

The Texans replaced the Sox on the field and I wondered if they didn’t appreciate this fresh Boston air. It was a bright as anything April day, but crisp; and the sun would soon drop behind the Grand Stand.

The clumps of children above the outfield grew and now hung over it like icing on a warm cake. Their cries could no longer be distinguished from that of gulls clamoring for food. Each time a ball flew into the air above them, they would fall silent, and then cheer, only to return to their begging caws. The Rangers rolled with it much better than I expected, teasing them now and then with a ball just a tad out of reach, and then laughing at their moans of disappointment before returning to the work of warming up the catcher.

The stadium at once speckled with spectators, now began to fill. The field was emptied of players and restocked with the entire maintenance crew- mostly men in their twenties with one or two middle agers who’d probably been at it a lifetime.

All kinds of Pageantry ensued, ceremonial and commercial, though not half as bad as what we endured when we caught a Celtics game a few years back. It was Marathon Weekend in Boston and Lance Armstrong was there to throw out the first ball. Then names I’d heard my son rattle off came to life on the field: Papelbum, Ukelis, the Big Papi- a figure he’d gotten in his stocking.

The game began and the aisles filled and emptied and filled again with men selling cotton candy, popcorn, peanuts, and even New England Clam Chowder. At the bottom of the third, I discovered that there nine innings- not six- as in Little League. I curled myself around my book so that no one would notice. My son was appalled.

During chapter 12, my husband interrupted me to whisper that the beer guzzling couple in front of him had gotten engaged. He was touched.

When the Red Sox Nation (who knew they were a nation?) announced their rules including, Rule #7: Drink Responsible, my 12 year old- adrift in sea of Budweisers- asked his father how many beers it took to get drunk. I tried to share his concern and was dismissed as clearly, I wasn’t part of the “mation.”

I suddenly realized that while I had been “checking out” with my novel, my family had been “checking in” and “signing on” the dotted line- to become a member of this strange nation with whom they cheered and jeered in masse.

The divide between us grew when I rooted for the other team- just once- because they were down. All familial biological ties were severed in the
7th inning stretch when we sang “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and I shouted for my late mother’s favorite team- the “Phillies,- for which I received such looks of disgust from my sons that I closed my book for good.

Half of these people in your “nation” aren’t even paying attention, I wanted to rail. They’re on their cell phones, in line for concessions and bathrooms, and even watching the Bruins on suspended television sets.

To me, this is a lost generation- searching for meaning and community in commercials and million-dollar players and alcohol. Imagine what they could do with their lives and in the lives of others if they channelled this amazing passion in a direction of service. These people felt more strongly about baseball than I had for just about anything.

Like a walk around the park from the outside, I’ve been looking in on baseball ever since my son’s small fry team won the division and then the title; and he was hooked. I’ve had glimpses in, but I’m still not on the field. The depth of meaning and connection that baseball has on the hearts and minds of my countrymen seems to be beyond my reach.

In our first moments inside the Park, I overheard someone say, “I’m not a Sox fan, but I’m a Fenway fan,” and I guess that might be true of me now. And although I admire old Fenway- in her beauty and grace- I’d take my sons’ games over this any day. I want to sit next to the people I know who aren’t blowing a hundred bucks on concessions. We could feed a nation (or at least an entire village) with what my son guessed the Park brought in with beer sales alone.

What if the Red Sox Nation took a day off? What if they stayed at home to watch their own small town games, players and all, pulled their money to offer something for which America and baseball could really be proud? I’d be the first to join their Nation then.

This afternoon, I’ve had a glimpse into America’s favorite pastime and I’ve said goodbye to another chunk of my sons. Someday, someone smarter and more inspired than I- maybe my own two boys- will channel the amazing fervor of the Red Sox Nation, and then imagine how Fenway will glow.

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