Fun and ritual on Phillies' opening day

Amid the excitement of the season's home opener, the Phillie Phanatic leads the team into Citizens Bank Park to face the Milwaukee Brewers. After this year's hard winter, the return to baseball was a welcome tonic for many.
Amid the excitement of the season's home opener, the Phillie Phanatic leads the team into Citizens Bank Park to face the Milwaukee Brewers. After this year's hard winter, the return to baseball was a welcome tonic for many. (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 10, 2014

After a bleak, white winter straight out of a Russian novel, the Phillies got to finally play their home opener at Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday.

Loud and loose, a sellout crowd of 45,061 luxuriated in the game's ritual rhythms unfolding in front of them.

Never mind that winds snapped and rippled flags all day, or that the guys lost to the Milwaukee Brewers, 10-4.

The sun shone, the beer was cold, and a region that nearly had its spirit broken by snow, ice, and potholes could once again contemplate hardball and renewal.

"It feels like a holiday, even though we're losing," said Bob Waldis, 53, a mason from Lumberton who was at the ball yard with his 17-year-old son, Ryan. "I hope coming here becomes a tradition for my son and me."

Unlike the other 80 games played here during the course of a season, opening day is freighted with hope and portent.

That notion was evident on the train ride to the ballpark for the 4:05 p.m. start.

"Opening day is symbolic, the gateway to spring," said Jason Briggs, 43, of Bala Cynwyd, who didn't want to mention his employer.

Taking that idea and running with it, fellow rider Ron Costello, 65, compared baseball to religion. Both rely on faith and ritual, after all. "My wife grew up with strict Catholicism. I grew up with baseball," said Costello, a fund-raiser for Drexel University. "There's a pageantry to it."

At the ballpark, lots of people joked that they shouldn't be seen there away from their offices. Some smilingly hid their faces as friends tried to include them in incriminating snapshots.

Many thought this wouldn't be a problem, having displayed the foresight to ask their bosses for Monday off for the original home opener.

But after the game was rained out and moved to Tuesday, more than a bunch of folks had to construct elaborate excuses for not being on the job.

"I finagled a bunch of stuff to be here," said Paula Gehman, 48, a bartender from Quakertown. "I pretty much lied."

She was sitting in the bleachers with her boyfriend, Jim Butler. For them, opening day is a seven-year tradition that could not be broken.

"Opening day 2007 was one of our first dates," Gehman said. "We want to keep this going. I'm just waiting for an engagement ring. You hear that part, Jim?"

If Butler heard Gehman, he didn't let on, letting her remark be swallowed by the wind and crowd noise.

The postponed opening day caused Mark Heltzel to push back his trip to Hawaii. Baseball is just too important for the Luzerne County financial adviser. "Today means the end of winter. And baseball is the everyman's game, a social event," said Heltzel, 49, in the standing-room section.

Nearby, Michael Murphy, a chief warrant officer with the Pennsylvania National Guard from Pottstown, sat watching the Brewers rally.

Earlier in the day, Murphy and 119 Guardsmen held an 80- by 100-yard American flag on the field as part of the day's opening ceremonies. He has carried the flag on Phillies opening day fields for 20 years, back to the days of Veterans Stadium.

"It's the most patriotic feeling you could feel," Murphy said. "And being here reminded me of when my father used to take me."

The start of baseball each year makes some remember their parents. The game is a palpable connection to the very people who introduced the sport - and the world - to us, folks said.

Cheryl Stanitis, 47, was there with her daughter and her 6-month-old granddaughter, Zoey, at her first opening day.

"We want to make Zoey into a fan," said Stanitis, a food service manager for the state Department of Corrections.

Similarly, Kathryn McNamara, 38, a social worker from Warminster, brought her son, T.J., 8 months, to build a fire for the Phillies in his tiny belly.

"It'll be fun to make it a tradition for my son and me to come here each year," she said.

When the game ended, a line of red-cap-wearing fans dutifully made their way to the subway. Although their team lost, the crowd wasn't hangdog or sad. An opening day loss doesn't sting like one in August.

"Hey, the game was fun for a while," said lawyer Mike Bootier, 33, of Newtown, Bucks County, on the train to Center City. "And I can still be relatively optimistic - at least for a few months, anyway."



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