For many moons, I had romanticized about the idea of using spring break to make the gruelling eighteen hour drive to Clearwater, Florida, and live out of my car for a few days, all to see my beloved Philadelphia Stupids trot a bunch of no-name minor leaguers out to play in games that don't even count for anything. This may seem frivolous to you, oh non-believer, but what you don't understand is that after a long winter, even the most superficial signs of the coming baseball season bring comfort (and the knowledge that yes, once they blow a game they should easily win I will blow my top and in that fleeting moment of senseless anger at something I can't control and that doesn't affect me personally I will know that indeed I am alive!). I had always flirted with the notion, but had never done anything about it; it had always remained a pipedream on the edge of my own madness, born of an admittedly unhealthy obsession with a group of twenty-five men who wear a frightening shade of red and play a little boy's game for a living.
Finally, however, I mentioned this idea to the wrong person: my roomate, Jeremy. Whereas before I had always mentioned it to someone much more sensible than myself, or at least just as scatterbrained and incapable of advanced planning, Jeremy was exactly the sort of person to get me into trouble: he was just as nuts about the Phillies as myself, and he was good at thinking things through ahead of time. So, quickly, it became apparent that we were actually going to do this thing. Showing a spirit of uncommon daring, Jeremy even agreed that we should go down despite the fact that we could not get tickets for the day we wanted to go --- all advanced sales had been made, and the only thing left available was day-of sales of lawn seating. So, despite the threat of having it all be for nothing dangling over the whole plan like the sword of Damocles, Jeremy, his brother Jonathan, and myself piled into my automobile and made the daunting trip down interstate 95 to the Valhalla of baseball --- where the weather is warm, the young players are still stars in the making, and the untainted hope that every new season brings still washes over everything and everyone who touches it. Only one question remained: would they let us in?
The drive itself was long, endless, long, and, oh yes, very, very, long, completely devoid of the small-town Kuraultian sentimentality that is supposed to be the backbone of the mythic "road trip." No, the dominating feature of the I-95 corridor on the eastern seaboard is the strictly preserved sameness of everything south of Richmond. North Carolina and South Carolina are scarcely discernable from the expressway, with one garish and glaring exception that announces itself for one hundred miles in either direction --- the radioactive "South of the Border," an unspeakably horrid conglomeration of tawdry souvenir stands, rickety third-rate carnival rides, and booths serving a variety of cheap fried food and fireworks, all splashed in a veneer of technicolor neon paints. The place is inspired by the already kitsch tradition of roadside America, only now given a back-alley face lift and sprayed with a coat of fluorescent glitz, in a misguided attempt to have it compete with the Nirvana of roadside attractions, Disney World.
The trip down was marked by fast food and Cracker Barrel (though what the distinction is I'm not sure), music and conversation, cramps and cruise control. When we finally arrived at the Econo Lodge in Clearwater, exhausted, some eighteen and a half hours after we left, it seemed as dear to me as my home, sweet home.
The three of us crawled our way up to the room, and discovered there were two beds for three people; not wishing to seem like a jerk, I took one bed and declared it mine and that Jon and Jeremy could fight for covers and sides. This way, I was a jerk, rather than just seeming like one. I hate that. Anyway, when I miraculously awoke some time around 9 the next morning (we had gone to bed at 2), I brushed my teeth and took off my sweats just in time to have Jeremy walk through the door (caught with my pants down, once again!). Fortunately, he brought incredible news: not only had we acquired tickets (hey, I knew we would), but we had acquired three seats FOUR ROWS BEHIND HOME PLATE! Oh miracle of miracles! Oh sign of the eternal holy splendor of the baseball gods! Oh frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!
We started our Phillies adventure by going to the only restaurant in town for the discerning Phillies fan: Lenny's, a popular diner near the new Brighthouse Networks Field and the Carpenter Complex, which is where the Phillies "home base" operations are for all spring training type activities that are not games: running drills, having the minor leaguers practice, the works. Lenny's is not, however, anywhere near where the Phillies used to do their spring gaming, old Jack Russell Stadium, which closed as of last spring (indeed, sadly, we never saw that building, although it purportedly does still stand somewhere out in the boonies --- check out some photos that I did not take but rather stole from the internet here). I found this rather odd, and figured that maybe this place had been totally blown out of proportion; boy was I wrong. Lenny's is, indeed, the home-away-from-home for all true Phillies fans, an isolated Northeastern diner serving a little slice of Philadelphia with a side of scrapple and a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. I asked the waitress if they took all of the Philadelphia-related goop off the walls for the other eleven months of the year, but she said only the stuff that was the most rare and valuable... which of course made me wonder why they would save that stuff to put on the walls when the actual people from Philadelphia actually showed up here once a year --- remember, as certainly the national media will never let us forget, we booed Santa Claus. How can we be trusted around such fine artifacts?
After a hearty meal, we started towards the ballpark itself, with a brief stopover to examine a makeshift shrine built to the Virgin Mary outside a Clearwater office building across highway 19 from the ballpark. Apparently, her image had formed in three of the windows of the building some years before, and an unofficial shrine had built up around the plexiglass miracle. However, a week before our arrival, some person or persons had taken it upon themselves to crash reason down on these people (or crash God upon themselves), throwing ball bearings through the affected panes. Nevertheless, a lone believer still sat in hopeful silence.
From all this pre-game driving around, we had gotten a pretty good look at Clearwater, Florida, itself. It's a suburb of Tampa, and aside from a long approach into the area on a bridge over Tampa Bay, there is aboslutely nothing whatsoever about the place that is the slightest bit interesting. It's all broad, suburban boulevards and strip malls; I felt as if we had travelled eighteen hours and 1500 miles down I-95 to end up in Hackensack, NJ. I hear the beach is beautiful, but, sadly, we never got there.
When we finally arrived at the parking area for the stadium itself, we were directed to park around and even on a high school baseball field, not at all unlike the Church carnivals that occur in the Philadelphia area every summer for a month following the schoolyear. It occurred to me, even as we parked, that this was Florida's version of that exact phenomenon --- a special month or so period where a special attraction dominates the local area, then disappears for eleven months and appears again just as it is threatening to be all but forgotten. We hiked across the unassuming field, and made our way to the facade of the Phillies Spanish-inspired spring bungalow: Brighthouse Networks Field.
Entering into the stadium for the first time was at once the fruition of all my baseball experiences and a distinctly un-baseball like experience. The fans milling about in their Phillies jerseys and hats and the familiar call for programs was immediately ubiquitous, but the small, unassuming concourse adjacent to a field in a sleepy suburban neighborhood made it feel more like a high school soccer match than a baseball game. They did, however, have a big-league attitude about outside food and drinks at this Mini-Me of Citizens Bank Park; I was told to eat the half of the sandwich I carried or trash it, for I could not bring it in. I moved off to the side and pathetically attempted to hold my camera and my glove while slopping a half-eaten turkey pastrami sandwich in my mouth. After three bites, I gave it up, and tossed it into the nearest trash can. So much for Lenny's. With that, we turned and entered, and were treated to the site of a little patch of paradise.
The view inside the park was simply breathtaking; the field unfolded before you, surrounded by what seemed like a suddenly charming stucco facade painted in appropriate Florida pastels. Everywhere people were obviously relaxing and enjoying the weather (including the players), and the world inside this little concrete bowl seemed isolated from time itself, an endless paradise of rest and relaxation and baseball.
After drinking in the vacation atmosphere of the main concourse, we made our way to our seats; it was only then, as we descended the stairs, moving lower and lower and lower still, that I finally was able to appreciate how close we were going to be. I will likely never again see seats like these at a Phillies game in my life --- at Citizens Bank Park, they are sold only to full-season plan holders for $90 a seat. These seats were so good, I turned around to see Ed Wade (the Phillies GM) and Dallas Green (special assistant to the GM) seated behind where we were sitting. The players were as close as I've ever seen; it really felt like I was at my local high school team's game.
Suddenly, all those players who were mostly abstract concepts in my mind--- a weird collection of visual, verbal, and statistical information --- were real people, with expressions and mannerisms and personalities. I felt bad suddenly for all the times I had yelled or called one of them stupid or worse. I could see the details of their faces, hear snippets of their conversations, watch as they laughed and observed the crowd just as we observed them --- suddenly I wondered who the speactators were and what the spectacle was.
Sitting so close, and having made such a special trip that most fans don't make, led me to indulge in a guilty little fantasy that is admittedly absurd: I allowed myself to imagine, just for a moment, that I was somehow a part of the team. Silly, I know, but I'm not afraid to confess it; after all, that really is what it felt like. When you are that close to everything, the whole event seems to take on a personal quality. I knew the players could hear me when I shouted the empty advice that fans are wont to shout; everything seemed closer, louder, more distinct. I could analyze Pat Burrell's swing and really feel like I had some insights, that I could talk with him after the game and offer constructive comments and really know what I was talking about. What spring training does more than anything, I discovered, is offer the fan the chance to feel like, even if it is only for a day, he (or she) is part of the proceedings, like a scout, rather than just another spectator. It was that feeling, that experience, that made the impossible drive, the crappy meals on the road, and the break-neck pace of this distinctly unrestful "vacation" entriely worthwhile.
After drinking in the action of the game for awhile --- the Phillies got off to an early lead, thanks to some fine at-bats by Pat Burrell, I did decide to do a little exploring of this strange little venue for baseball. Now that I have been inside Citizens Bank Park, I can say that Brighthouse Networks Field truly is a mini-version of the Phillies new stadium in South Philadelphia. The field, of course, repeats the exact dimensions of the park, with the only difference being fence heights. The concourses, too, are equally reminiscent of "The Bank." They are wide and offer a continuous view of the field, with concessions stands lining them in much the same way they are set up in "The Bank." I am happy to report that Brighthouse Networks Field offers the finest lemonade I have ever had, although at $3 for a sixteen ounce cup, it is also the most expensive lemonade I have ever had.
Indeed, the place is beautiful, and I have only two complaints, both very much related to my gripes about "The Bank." First, on the right field side there is an area to stand, then a small gulley with a spring running by (and, amazingly, in that spring are alligators!). Beyond that is a spectacular view of... US Highway 19. Now, I realize they did not build this with an eye towards having it be in symbiotic balance with the surrounding architecture, which they (sort of) did with Citizens Bank Park, and that no matter which way they pointed it it was still going to look out over Clearwater, but even Jack Russell Stadium had a peaceful view of palm trees across the entire panorama of the outfield (see here). Secondly, this place, amazingly, is located adjacent not just to the Carpenter Complex, but more obviously (and more accurately) to a strip mall! This is a fact I discovered after I expended my first role of film. I asked one of the ballpark attendants if any place in the ballpark sold film, and he told me "No, but there's a dollar store right out there." He stamped my hand and ushered me out the door as I stammered in dumbfounded amazement. Shuffling across the VIP parking lot, I quickly discovered the dollar store, along with a row of other faceless shops; when I turned to look back, I realized that Brighthouse Networks Field was the Wal-Mart, the anchor store of a putrid suburban strip mall! The horror!
Upon returning from my brief excursion, I went back to touring the field. As I made my way to the left field seating area (where there is a giant Tiki Pavilion and Bar), I looked out beyond the wall of the left field side of the park and discovered, much to my delight, the Phillies minor leaguers practicing their little hearts out in the Carpenter Complex across the way! And who was leading those drills? Well, as you can guess by the photo above, it was none other than Michael Jack Schmidt, rookie manager of those Clearwater Threshers! I was very excited to get his picture, and to see him back working with the Phillies. Who knows? Perhaps he will even manage the big-league Phils someday!
I walked around the rest of the park, and returned to my seat just in time to see the game end. The Phillies won, 4-1. But, as is really always the case with spring training, the game was of secondary importance to the day. I'm glad the Phillies won, but it was the chance to get to see the players working on all the different things they need to work on to make the magic happen --- the chance to see and to know that they are human beings like the rest of us --- that I will always remember from seeing the Phillies in Florida.
Spring Training is a special time for the really die-hard fans to get to see their heroes as men, not gods. And in the little tragedy that is that demystification also comes a little apotheosis, for the fan, even for just a fleeting afternoon, is suddenly given the opportunity to feel as if he moves from mere paying customer to the hallowed position of "insider," that he has scaled a poorer Olympus. Leaving behind Brighthouse Networks Field wasn't so much sad as it was inevitable; just as the moment of religious ecstasy must eventually yield to the commonplaces of the everyday, so too must the timeless space of the spring training ballpark return you to the reverberating reality of our normal lives. But, we return with a sense of accomplishment, and the triumphant knowledge that, for nine innings, we were all something more than just another "fan."
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