Baseball: On the whole I'd rather be in Philadelphia

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The Independent Online
FOR the whole of the 1993 season, I've been asking myself: 'Why does it please me so much that the Philadelphia Phillies are doing so well?' After all, I've not lived in Pennsylvania for 30 years, and I've lived in England since 1970. But then, just as the Phils were poised to win their National League play-offs with the Atlanta Braves and go forward to the World Series, I solved the mystery: my earliest father-son memories are tied up with the Phillies.

It is autumn, 1950. I am six years old and I am at my first baseball game, in the dark green, wood- walled Connie Mack Stadium in North Philadelphia, with my dad and a couple of his friends.

We are seated along the third- base line and all I am aware of is the feel and sound of the large, male crowd and the wonderful new diet of baseball food: hot dogs decorated with bright strips of yellow mustard, soft, salty pretzels and root beer in waxed paper cups with flat bottoms. Then, some way into the game, I look up from my food and I am dazzled by the bright green field, the players in their white flannels edged with red, the pitcher on his raised mound.

My father explains some of the fundamentals of baseball, and tries to impress on me the importance of this particular season. I listen but I don't really follow. Some years later I discovered that I had been watching the first Philadelphia team since 1915 to take the National League pennant and go forward to the World Series against the New York Yankees. (Unfortunately, that was not the best series for us: we lost four games to nil, mostly because of the legendary Joe DiMaggio, who beat us at bat and in the field.)

The Phils of 1950 were the new 'Whiz Kids', and my father and I would spend much of the rest of the decade at Connie Mack (occasionally at 'father and son' nights, at which each boy would be given a bat to take home) watching these players grow old and gradually slip down the league tables.

Richie Ashburn, the hustling centre-fielder who batted first in the order and was said to have once fouled off 96 balls before eventually getting on base, was a particular favourite. Now, when I watch the Phils play at the soulless, concrete Veterans Stadium, I see Ashburn's name with his famous No 1 emblazoned on the outfield wall. Robin Roberts' 36 is on that wall, too.

For years and years, Roberts won 20 games a season, and led off the All Star pitching for the National League. As the Phils slid inexorably down the standings, Roberts, a switch-hitter, took to batting in the runs he needed to win, in addition to shutting down the opposition. Del Ennis, the clean-up batter; Curt Simmons, the lefty pitcher; Bobby Shantz, the second-string pitcher from Pottstown, Pa, my home town - I can still see each of them.

Although I've never again known the personnel of a Phillies team as well as I got to know the Whiz Kids, the club's fortunes have never stopped being important to me.

This year's Phils are a particular pleasure. They are a heavy-hitting, hard-playing team of stocky, tobacco-chewing veterans who came last in the National League only a year ago. No one quite understands how it is that they led their league from the outset of the season, or how they could beat the young, clean-cut superstars from Atlanta in the play-offs, let alone come away from Toronto on Sunday with the series even at one game each.

But this line-up of toughs is a perfect fit for the blue-collar, beer- swilling fans of Philadelphia, famous for their partisanship. Connie Mack Stadium was the first to have to ban beer in cans, to stop the fans from throwing them at visiting outfielders. Their first victim was Whitey Lockwood, of the New York Giants. I was in Brooklyn when the New York Times reported this unprecedented assault in outraged tones. New York's refined fans may have been shocked, but I was secretly pleased that our gang could get noticed in the big city.

None the less, I was a middle- class, suburban fan. My father's secretary's brother was the treasurer of the Phillies and this guaranteed us club seats behind third base, not to mention World Series tickets in New York every year.

Today's Phils may be nothing like those eager Whiz Kids who captured my childhood loyalties, but they wear the same uniform (or, rather, an only slightly updated facsimile); their fans are as devoted and mean as ever; and if my father were still alive, he and I would be sitting behind third base at Veterans Stadium tonight, rooting with all our hearts for the home team.