Michael Vitez: Local student psychs out at Phillies games - in a good way

Doctoral student Brian Barber cracks the books within booing distance of the crack of the bats at the Bank.
Doctoral student Brian Barber cracks the books within booing distance of the crack of the bats at the Bank. (MIKE VITEZ / Staff)
Posted: July 04, 2012

Brian Barber, 35, is busy.

He works full-time as a psychotherapist for the poor and addicted in a mental-health clinic in Norristown. He's enrolled in a doctoral program at Chestnut Hill College to become a clinical psychologist. He's completing his practicum at Montgomery County Youth Center one day a week.

And on top of all that, he's a monster Phillies fan.

He was standing at the gate the other day at Citizens Bank Park, as he does about 20 games a season, when it opened at 5:30 p.m. sharp. He "speed-walked" to his spot - standing room only on the drink rail in Section 124, right behind home plate.

He opened his textbook, Cognitive Psychology and Its Implications.

He had a midterm.

Picture this: Barber was standing in his blue Carlos Ruiz 1980s throwback jersey, wearing matching blue sneakers, drinking a blue sports drink, and highlighting with a blue marker (always blue or red pens at the ballpark). He was studying arcane and sometimes interesting theories. For instance, "state-dependent learning."

It asserts, Barber said, "you can remember information more easily if you are in the same emotional and physical state as when you learned it."

Hence: "If I wanted to optimize my grade," he said, "the test would be taken while I'm at the ballpark.

"But that's not happening."

Another thing he's learned in this class: "Cognitive psychology tells me people aren't good at multitasking."

He said he has no choice.

He studied at Broadway plays, but that didn't work too well because they dimmed the lights.

"I did try to study in the shower," he added.

This surprised even Kathy Jeffries, the usher in Section 124, now his good friend.

"How long do you shower?" she asked.

He didn't answer.

As Barber reviewed his text, power-point printouts, and quizzes, the woman standing next to him grew inquisitive herself. This often happens.

"What are you doing?" asked Joan Wilkins, of Abington.

"I'm studying for a midterm in psychology," he said.

"Oh," she said. She paused a beat to ponder then added, "Good luck."

She's a nurse at Jefferson Hospital. "I studied a lot in various places when I was in nursing school, but not at a ball game, that's for sure," she said.

Barber, who lives in Delaware County, graduated from Radnor High, went to Ithaca College, and then went to work on the television production of the World Wrestling Federation.

"I was looking for something more fulfilling," he said. He entered St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, N.Y., and earned a master's in divinity. The idea of studying at Phillies games was planted there. "One of my professors said, 'When you leave here, watch television but read the Bible during commercial breaks.' "

In the seminary, Barber found his real calling was to become a clinical psychologist for the mentally ill and disadvantaged.

He has rules about studying at the ballpark. Study before the game, between innings, and during pitching conferences. When the ball is in play, focus is on the field.

Sometimes he is so engrossed in his text that he is still reading when play resumes. He missed a leadoff walk to Victorino, for instance, but did see him steal second and whistled loudly.

His attention always comes back to baseball when he hears "In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins on the public address system signaling Ruiz at bat.

But actually, Placido Polanco is Barber's favorite player, in part because Polanco accomplished so much last season, winning a gold glove for his defense. Barber wore a Polanco jersey when he ran the Broad Street Run in May.

Does cognitive psychology, and in particular studying it at Phillies games, give him insight into a last-place team?

"When they're down on their luck, if they have a high level of emotional intelligence, they'll be able to bounce back," he said. "Positive moods make positive outcomes appear more likely."

Saying this, he began to clap and cheer.

"As I feel with my clients, I refuse to give up on the Phils," he said. "Perhaps I'm just Dostoyevsky's Prince Myshkin, but we'll see."

(Switching from psychology to literature for a moment: The Russian novelist wanted to create a character who was entirely positive, with a beautiful nature, so naturally he made him an idiot.)

Barber is no idiot, that's for sure. "Why pay $70 to sit when I can stand for $17?" he asked. He bought his ticket that day on StubHub for $8.

Barber rarely stays past the seventh inning. That would be inefficient. He beats the traffic and gets home in time to make his lunch. He has to be at work early in the morning.

Contact Michael Vitez at 215-854-5639 or mvitez@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @michaelvitez.

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