Eric Conklin - Use this One

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To young baseball fans everywhere.

Like many Americans, I'm craving Major League Baseball.

I've yet to experience a shortened season. Thanks to a high school graduation present, I'm surviving the sport’s absence for now.

While penning this piece, I'm seven chapters into Nicholas Dawidoff's novel, "The Crowd Sounds Happy," where a young Dawidoff’s newly acquired love for America’s pastime pacifies a period of adversity in his family life. I've reached the most enjoyable part yet, his first major league game, which made me reminisce of mine.

Unlike Dawidoff, whose father brought him to Flushing, New York, in the '70s, to witness Roberto Clemente and the Pittsburgh Pirates visit Shea Stadium for a showdown with the New York Mets, my parents brought me to my first major league game south of New York on I-95 in the Phillies’ home, which I’ve learned to acknowledge as "The Bank." 

I was only a spectator of Atlantic City Surf games as a child, so this mid-summer quarrel against the visiting Atlanta Braves was my chance to trade a PlayStation controller and my miniature lounge chair for plastic, blue seats, a realistic humming crowd, and Center City Philadelphia’s view from the ballpark off Broad Street.

I was amazed to see Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell, David Bell, and others materialized before me and not on my TV screen. My nose was working, too, as I first experienced beer’s sour smell that lingers throughout a stadium’s corridors.

The game was suspenseful, so a Philly Phanatic popcorn baptism provided comic relief between innings. I wonder what it’s like to have one of sports’ iconic mascots embarrass you for a few minutes.

Unlike many children - especially in today's world with smartphones - I was reluctant to place my eyes anywhere but the field and the iconic liberty bell, in center field, on an occasional glance. It was an abode of its own.

Ryan Howard was new to the team, at the time filling an injured Jim Thome's spot. Once I was older and understood professional sports more thoroughly, I learned that, at the time, Howard, later nicknamed "The Big Piece," was a top prospect in the organization when his presence from the minors was requested. He'd eventually become my favorite player.

I witnessed his strength firsthand when he clouted a ball slightly beyond the left-field fair pole. The crowd roared, the liberty bell in centerfield rang, and I broke out into Michael Jackson's hip thrust as Ryan circumnavigated the bases. My dance moves earned me a scolding from my mother, one we still haven't forgotten after 15 years of trips to the ballpark.

Looking back, I acted like an irrational, uncivilized 10-year-old during those five seconds of fame in Section 325. It's one of my mother's less fond moments of her son, but for me, it meant the world because a Philadelphia sports fanatic was born that night.

That first game, an unfortunate 4-3 loss, spawned countless memories for 15 years. It's always thrilling to be at the ballpark and contribute to a flood of boos when PA Announcer Dan Baker, in his iconic voice, says "Batting for Atlanta, number five, First Baseman Freddie Freeman.”

I've enjoyed countless games in South Philadelphia, but I know there’s a new generation of 10-year-olds yearning for their first chance to visit the ballpark. Unfortunately, they must wait to savor an atmosphere that is captivating and irresistible once a COVID-absent world becomes reality.

Nothing beats walking into the stadium for the first time, hiking to your seat, enjoying a major league hot dog, and sitting awed by the vastness before you.

In these times, we must use what makes us cherish memories to satisfy our anxiety, sadness, and disappointments. For me, Dawioff's novel feeds my summer with the Phillies.

Baseball will return, along with its fans. For now, I'll enjoy reminiscing until then.

ED. NOTE: The author is the editorial assistant at the Cape May County Herald. To contact Conklin, email econklin@cmcherald.com.