Major League Baseball

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A front page article in today’s Wall Street Journal has my Irish up (and I’m mostly Scotch-German). It concerns the Washington Nationals organization trying to have it both ways — full stadium attendance when the Phillies come to town, but with those seats occupied only by Nationals fans. Currently, this is the work (and job) of one Andrew Feffer.

Feffer is outraged that marauding Phils fans have traveled south to take over the mostly empty Nationals stadium whenever the NL East rivals played. The article cites the usual predictable nasty anecdotes about how horrible the sports fans of Philadelphia are. In this case, vomiting on a local fan’s shoes when he took his father to opening day. Well, there are horrible Philadelphia fans, but they are in the minority. Also, they are in roughly the same proportion as horrible fans from other cities. Philadelphia fans are the polar opposite of fair-weather, they are knowledgeable about their teams and their competitors, and they are passionate enough to take their support on the road.

Philly sports fans are proud to root on their teams even in enemy territory.

Philly sports fans are proud to root on their teams even in enemy territory.

Last summer, I had the pleasure of witnessing this phenomenon while vacationing in Los Angeles with my family. We wanted to take in a Dodgers game that week and were thrilled to learn the Phils were on a West Coast swing. Our only concern was awareness that LA had gotten some serious bad press after Dodgers faithful had beaten a Giants fan nearly to death in the parking lot earlier in the season. Turns out our concerns were unfounded. Like the Nationals, the Dodgers were having real trouble filling seats and as a result Phillies fans turned out in force. It was a great atmosphere and a real kick to watch our team notch a win in someone else’s ballpark. During every trip to the concession stands, a sea of red was high-fiving fellow travelers.

Back on the East Coast, for the past few seasons, Phils fans have actually helped boost the Nationals’ revenue by selling large blocks of tickets that would otherwise have been empty seats. Now, Andrew Feffer is leading an organizational charge to, in his mind, keep the barbarians at the gates. Really sad and shabby idea.

The solution is to field a winning team. The Nationals have been so bad as to be nearly unwatchable in recent years. It’s understandable to not fill seats when your team is terrible. There have been times in recent years, when the Braves and the Marlins had good teams and were unable to fill their stadiums, even at playoff time.  This year, the Nationals have improved from those tough seasons and look like they might be more than competitive. Feffer should trust that winning baseball will attract people to the ballpark. I know there will be at least one. My friend, Glenn, has been a Nats ballpark regular when they were like watching paint dry. THAT’S a fan. Now, it’s thick. Glenn was also there through thin.

Competition is good for sports rivalries. You don’t build a fanbase by keeping other teams’ fans out of your own ballpark. I hope the Nationals new stadium is filled to capacity this weekend. With Nats and Phils fans watching some great baseball, cheering on their teams, and not vomiting on each others’ shoes. Go Phightins!

 

 

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Citizens Bank Park, Phils-Red Sox, game 3, view from behind home plate

Citizens Bank Park, Phils-Red Sox, game 3, view from behind home plate

I enjoy watching other sports. I love watching baseball. The unpredictability of so many possibilities on the field (and out of the park) resulting when pitcher, batter, and fielders square off via that small stitched ball make it endlessly enthralling. We are fortunate in my town (Philadelphia) to have arguably the best team in Major League Baseball right now. Definitely, the best starting pitching staff. It gives me bragging rights when trading jabs with my friends who are Yankees, Nats, and Mets fans respectively and my cousin from Atlanta, whose Braves are right behind the Phils in the standings and who e-mailed me at the start of this weekend series to say, “Hey, sincerely hope you guys win………………………………………the Wild Card.” That’s why I was giddy beyond words last week when my friend Steven called with an extra ticket to the 3rd game of the Red Sox series. Nothing like taking in a game at the ballpark and watching events and sports history unfold live.

That enthusiasm spills over to my family, too. My oldest son this morning and three of his friends are trying (so far unsuccessfully) to find tickets for today’s Phils-Braves game on StubHub and eBay. And my youngest had one of our greatest father-daughter bonding memories last fall when I took her to the Phils-Giants NLCS playoff game for her birthday. We sat in the last two rows of centerfield among a section of mostly guys in their twenties who divided their time between drinking beer and high-fiving her after every Phillies hit.

You can’t get more All-American, wholesome, fan-friendly entertainment than Major League Baseball, which is why I can’t get what happened on Thursday at the Texas Rangers game out of my head (and I haven’t even seen the endlessly played video nor do I care to). Drive-time radio talk show host Chris Stigall first brought the incident, and the troubling ethics of news stations constantly replaying the sad footage, to my attention on my way to work yesterday. The family has requested that MLB not post the video, which they haven’t, but news stations are still airing it.

Today’s account in the Inquirer was hard to read. A father, Shannon Stone, who took his young son Cooper to the park in the hope of snagging a ball, fell over a railing, as Cooper watched in horror, upon losing his balance when snagging a ball tossed by the boy’s idol AL MVP Josh Hamilton. Shannon plunged 20 feet onto concrete, then died a short time later at the hospital. Shannon was a firefighter just looking to fulfill a dream for his son. A sadder script, a modern-day Shakespeare could not write.

The zero risk tolerance crowd will soon descend. However, the stadium’s railings met and exceeded Arlington’s building code (26 inches height are required, the Rangers’ park had 33 inches). Major League Baseball leaves safety issues to each club, but a review is promised.

The Rangers as an organization are reeling. Their President, and one of the greatest pitchers of all time, Nolan Ryan, said “We’ll do whatever we have to do to make this stadium as safe as we possibly can for our fans.”

From a PR perspective, it sounds like the Rangers and MLB are saying and doing all the right things in response. But unfortunately, some things cannot be made better with words or deeds. It is very hard to fathom how a moment so wonderful and can be transformed into something so tragic and unfixable. A 6-year-old boy and the baseball player he idolized are linked together forever — both watched in helpless horror as the father suffered that fatal fall.

A different troubling saga is played out in the current and excellent documentary, “Steve Bartman: Catching Hell” about the infamous Chicago Cubs fan forever scapegoated for costing his team the 2003 NLCS over his “interference” with a foul ball that Moises Alou was about to snag for the final out against the Marlins in game 6. It has cost Bartman his life in a very different way, driving him underground a la the witness protection program.

Both these stories have made me question the value of chasing down professional sports immortality in the form of a baseball lofted into the stands. How has the national pastime suddenly become more risky than running with the bulls at Pamplona? No easy answers here. Just immediate thoughts and prayers to the Stone family, Josh Hamilton, and the Rangers organization, and belated ones to the unfairly maligned Mr. Bartman.

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