A Philly sports lifer, with the scars to prove it

Connie Mack Stadium in the painful year of 1964. Two years later, the writer was a vendor in the grandstands there and got to see Dick Allen hit some majestic home runs for the Phillies.
Connie Mack Stadium in the painful year of 1964. Two years later, the writer was a vendor in the grandstands there and got to see Dick Allen hit some majestic home runs for the Phillies. (Inquirer file)
Posted: October 14, 2013

Last week, on the day when my age finally matched the year of my greatest childhood agony - 64 - I stood in front of a mirror and took physical inventory of my life as a Philadelphia sports fan.

I saw my body as an emergency-room diagram, one covered by arrows pointing to those areas where decades of devotion and disappointment had inflicted the worst trauma.

Multiple organs had been damaged by overuse, none more so than what was left of my heart. My tear ducts likely were those of a 90-year-old. And there were scars, both visible and invisible, everywhere.

Rubbing the back of my head, I located the still-smooth spot where on Jan. 18, 1968, a Minnesota North Stars team doctor had stitched a battle wound. The collateral damage to my innocence, it turned out, was irreparable.

That day, along with a fellow University of Wisconsin freshman, I'd hitchhiked to the Metropolitan Sports Center in Bloomington, Minn., where the North Stars and first-year Flyers were playing. We'd written to publicist Joe Kadlec requesting two tickets the next time our home hockey team came to neighboring Minnesota.

We got them. And more.

Late in Philadelphia's 4-2 victory, we raised a bedsheet banner on which was scrawled something completely unimaginative and - we believed - innocuous. "Go, Flyers!," as I recall.

But at least one North Stars fan took exception. He hurled a long, desk-set pen at us. The missile struck the back of my head and stayed there. Blood seeped onto my white cable-knit sweater. I wasn't sure what had happened, or why, until a woman behind me screamed, an usher arrived, and I was escorted to the North Stars locker room.

There I shared a table with Minnesota defenseman Mike McMahon, who must have been puzzled by my presence. Sweaty, profane, and quite annoyed, he spit several teeth into a metal basin as routinely as he might lace a skate, then grumbled at the suddenly overtaxed physician to get him back on the ice.

It was my first exposure to NHL hockey, nasty fans, and, coincidentally, the power of the pen.

Looking next at my right wrist and forearm, I could see that both were larger than their counterparts on the left side.

They'd been overdeveloped during the spring and summer of 1966, when for inning after inning I toted heavy metal trays laden with 24 large cups of Coke and 7-Up through Connie Mack Stadium's sparsely populated grandstands.

Resting my wrist and consuming a Coke whenever Dick Allen came to bat, I made little money. But I did get to see some astounding home runs. Even now, nearly a half-century later, I can still conjure images of those balls disappearing into the fuzzy glare of the rooftop lights.

My right thumb, considering its workload, has held up surprisingly well.

It got me rides to countless Catholic League basketball and football games, to Palestra doubleheaders and to Franklin Field on autumn Sundays. At least twice I hitchhiked to Ann Arbor, where I stayed in a friend's dorm room and went to Michigan football games as well as to the live Crisler Arena broadcast of the first fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, both of whom were, in my intensely parochial view, Philadelphians.

There's a lengthy scar on my right shin where, after Jack Ramsay's St. Joseph's Hawks were beaten by Duke in the 1963 NCAA East Regional final, I petulantly punted the living-room couch.

My eyes seem perpetually red now. Maybe it's all the time I spend staring at computer screens. More likely, it's the result of the tears I shed whenever Nicklaus beat Palmer or the Celtics beat the Warriors or, on Oct. 4, 1964, when the Phillies collapse became official, destroying forever my youthful optimism and what had been the best summer of my life.

Thankfully, I didn't pull out all my hair on Black Friday. My back is still strong enough to endure nine innings of a Phillies game in a recliner, though often during these last two seasons my stomach hasn't been. And despite all those nights sitting at the cigarette-smoke-shrouded kitchen table with my mother, the two of us straining to hear dim radio broadcasts of Warriors, 76ers, and Big Five games, my hearing isn't bad and my lungs are OK.

The worst part of the self-assessment was seeing the voids. Those places once occupied by missing relatives, friends, and coworkers who shared and nurtured my love of sports, by vanished voices, ballparks, and arenas, by idols dead and diminished.

It's rarely been easy here in Philadelphia. The lows always seem to outnumber the highs. The peaks tend to be brief, the valleys long and deep. Since 1983 we've enjoyed just one major pro championship. The Eagles have never won a Super Bowl. The Flyers have gone nearly 40 years without another parade. The Phillies and Sixers don't figure to win anything any time soon.

But despite all those punches, all those scars, I'm still a Philadelphia sports fan who after every painful blow feels the same way Mike McMahon did that long-ago night in Bloomington.

Patch me up, Doc, and get me back out there.


ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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