Since its inception, the morning game has targeted the Reading community, drawing different demographics that aren't normally found at an evening baseball game.
"The reason we play in the morning is it appeals to a different group of people," Reading Phillies general manager Scott Hunsicker said. "It doesn't mean that some of these people wouldn't be here if this game was at night, but most of these fans are senior citizens or second- or third-shift factory workers who otherwise wouldn't be able to watch the Reading Phillies play."
Despite the early start, there were still pregame festivities galore at FirstEnergy Stadium. Fans lined up at 5:30 a.m., so they could enjoy free hot dogs and coffee when the gates opened at 6. Bobby Newton and his jazz combo performed a concert during early-morning happy hour, and an hour before the game the field was available for fans to take a morning stroll around the warning track.
"I think it's unbelievable this many people get up this early to watch a baseball game. At first, I thought it was a joke when I saw the tickets, I didn't know anybody played baseball this early," said Bob Harner, 60, of Boyertown, who took the day off from his job at John Middleton Co. to attend his first morning game. "My walk around the warning track was a great way to start my morning."
The game has come a long way for an idea that originally was considered to be a joke. About a dozen years ago at the organization's annual staff retreat, the concept of the morning game was born while staffers were participating in a simple exercise. The objective was to think of the worst possible idea and then someone else would try to pitch it to the group as a great idea.
"Our clean-up guy at the time wrote down, ‘Play a game at 7 in the morning so we can go home early,' " Hunsicker said. "The person that was selling it mentioned that there are a lot of factories in Reading so there are a lot of third-shift workers, second-shift workers and senior citizens that don't normally come to games. All of a sudden we realized that this was a great idea."
But for most of the players who were experiencing the morning game for the first time, this idea was easier said than done. Baseball is all about routine, and a lengthy one at that. Often this routine begins as many as 6 hours before an evening game. With the first pitch scheduled for 9:35 a.m., there would be no time for extensive warmups or batting practice. It was a system the Reading Phillies described as "show and go."
"You just cut your prep time down," shortstop Troy Hanzawa said. "You just need to get your body ready. Other than that, there's really not much you can do this early in the morning."
For the players, this was like a baseball game turned upside down. Most arrived at the ballpark around 8, less than 2 hours before game time, with their alarms still ringing in their ears. The parking lots were nearly full and the players had to weave through droves of fans just to get to the clubhouse. Senior citizens were still finishing their morning stroll on the warning track when the teams took the field for a brief warmup.
This lack of preparation likely contributed to the game's slow start. Pitching dominated the early innings, as the Phillies managed just one unearned run and the teams combined for three hits in the first six innings. Phillies starter Jonathan Pettibone threw seven innings, allowing just two runs on four hits and striking out eight.
"It felt good. I was just trying to attack the hitters and throw my strikes," Pettibone said. "I'm sure they weren't too happy about the early game, too. It probably took them a little longer for the bats to get warm."
Both teams' hitting came alive as the game hung in the balance. Akron (42-25) forced Pettibone out of the game and the Aeros took the lead in the eighth inning when Nick Weglarz singled to drive in Thomas Neal. The Phillies (39-28) strung together three consecutive hits in their next at-bat as Darin Ruf notched an RBI single. Hanzawa led off the 10th for the Phillies with a leadoff double. Third baseman Abreu, who made the defensive play of the game in the third inning when he dived over the railing and leaned on a fan to catch a foul ball, ended the game just in time to grab lunch.
With the victory, the Phillies took four out of five from the Eastern League-leading Aeros. After the game, the Phillies boarded their bus bound for New Hampshire to face the Fisher Cats Tuesday night and continue their stretch of 30 games in 27 days.
"We've been coming to this game for 4 or 5 years in a row. It gives me an opportunity to come to a game with my son," said Larry Barrell, of Reading, who attended the game with his 3-year-old son before he started his shift working at the Berkshire Country Club. "I wish they did this more than once a year. It's a great place to watch a baseball game." n