FirstEnergy Field, Reading, PENNSYLVANIA
Number of states: still 38
States to go: 12
First game: June 28, 2019 (Reading Fightin’ Phils 5, Portland Sea Dogs 4)
(Click on any image for a full-sized version.)
The nerdiest thing I do in my life–and this has quite a bit of competition for the honor–is my spreadsheet.
That page that has all of the records and stats for games I have attended? That doesn’t build itself. That comes from me
inputting everything that happens in my presence into a spreadsheet. And it gives me a ton of joy. On the minor league spreadsheet, I have a box for “MLB All Star,” which I look at every year over the all-star break. Any player I have seen that makes an all-star team gets a check-mark. (Kirby Yates becomes the 19th pitcher to get the check mark in 2019: Ketel Marte, Austin Meadows, and Daniel Vogelbach bring us to 48 on the batting side.) On the major league side, I put a check mark by any player who makes the Hall of Fame.
What I do not yet have is a player I have seen as a minor leaguer who has made the Hall of Fame. (Joey Votto and Buster Posey are probably my best shots right now.)
Why do I bring this up? Because if my spreadsheet had a ballpark, that ballpark would be FirstEnergy Stadium in Reading. It was a delight to be there. Or, as Matt put it, “I think we hit the jackpot tonight, Paul.”
Indeed, we did.
The ballpark is old: it doesn’t match the current ideal of “gleaming place downtown by the river.” Indeed, the seats and such are a throwback compared to the perfectly-oriented green seats I am accustomed to elsewhere. It isn’t in much of a neighborhood: wedged between an arterial street and a factory (appropriate for central Pennsylvania). It is built out of the gorgeous red brick that most of Reading seems to be built out of: surely there’s a reason for all that brick, but I am too lazy to
look it up. When I saw signs touting “America’s Classic Ballpark,” I was a little skeptical. But man oh man did this place ever live up to that standard.
For starters, the pre-game party in the pavilion was absolutely fantastic. Music, local food booths to supplement the traditional ballpark fare, carnival games…it felt like a party and I was into the party. The Friday night crowd–6,004–was pretty festive, but not in that we-are-having-fun-because-we-should-be way. It was more in line with gearing up for the real show: the baseball game.
Underneath the home plate bleachers, we had the entire history of Reading baseball. Again, the town gives itself a nickname, “Baseballtown,” that I was unsure about…but not for long. Beause the celebration of baseball played on that site for nearly 70 years was as good as it could get. Photos of every Reading team over that time are there: check out the mid-to-late ’70s to see the Phillies building up to the first major league title. On top of the local history, they celebrated local baseball, noting the high
school baseball champions from the area. Also–the girls’ softball champions. That was a nice touch that I was delighted to see.
So I was smitten…and then it got better.
Past the museum as I walked up the third base side, there was a line of people waiting for autographs. That’s because the players had to walk through the concourse to get between the locker room and the field. There, right outside the room, was Cody Asche, he of 390 major league games,
chatting with an elderly couple that one might think he knew. There was a similar run of autograph possibilities for the home team as well. It’s a touch that brings players and fans closer together–I think emotionally.
Then there’s a trip up the ramp, where the Fightin’ Phils celebrate the building of the 2008 World Series champion Phillies through Reading. And after that, there is my absolute favorite spot–the most spreadsheetiest of thespreadsheety aspects of this park.
The Hall of Fame bar and grill. There, one can have a beer and some food underneath the faces of every baseball Hall of Famer who has ever played at the ballpark in Reading. I couldn’t get over how cool it was. Just as I had the checkmark on my
spreadsheet, they have the checkmark on their ballpark. They acknowledge the visiting players (and beyond: even Pat Gillick is there…made the hall as a GM, but played a game at Reading as a visitor). I just couldn’t get over how cool that was.
Promotions were fine and integrated. It was Latino baseball night, and they did the pregame weather forecast and player introductions in Spanish. We learned that the Spanish word for “thunderstorms” is “tormentas,” which is too cool for words (Matt nearly broke with joy at this discovery). Beyond the occasional on-field wackiness, there wasn’t anything disruptive.
And that was reflected in the culture at the ballpark. A night after sitting with a ton of people not watching baseball in Allentown, but instead making pig noises, I was surrounded by baseball here. Case in point: The Fightin’ Phils have a pool in right field. I’m not a huge fan of the pools in Arizona or Tampa Bay: it feels like conspicuous luxury and antithetical to watching a game. Gorgeous people sit there and not-watch-baseball.
But in Reading, it was entirely different. The pool was mostly filled with kids, which
is not the image I have of the other couple of baseball pools I can think of. The certain result of that, I would have thought, would be an aquatic version of Lord of the Flies.
But a simple geographic choice shifted the whole culture. The pool is set up almost flush with the top of the right field wall. As a result, kids swim across the narrow pool, perch on the side, and peek over the edge. At a baseball game.
Kids, in a pool, were choosing to watch baseball rather than play Marco Polo or splash the crap out of each other.
If we set up a world where it is assumed that people will watch baseball, people will watch baseball. Which is what we do at baseball games.
So I was even more smitten…and then it got even better.
After my first-ever game with the minor-league rule of start-with-the-runner-on-second in the extra innings, after a loud walk-off win, it was time for Launch-A-Ball.
Rob pointed out to me that most of the hula hoops into which we could throw our balls were not prizes we could use: lots of gift certificates from spots we couldn’t go. If we were going to play, we were going to go big: closest to the pin.
Whoever got their ball closest to the pitching rubber would win a hundred bucks. Why not?
Ball #1: I threw it a line drive over the net. The friction from the grass slowed it down, and that meant it came up short.
“Huh,” I thought. “I might want to get a little more arc on it: have it bounce instead of roll. That will get it closer to the rubber.”
I chucked it over the net. It bounced to the mound, rolled up it…and I was closest to the pin.
I. Was. Closest. To. The. Pin. And I won a hundred bucks.
Most of that money went to Fightin’ Phils hats for Matt and me, and I was delighted to return that money (which I would have spent anyway) to the team. Because after already having fallen so hard for this ballpark, to have them hand me a Benjamin Franklin as I walked out of the ballpark? That ain’t too shabby.
I was made into a hundredaire. And I want to go back. Heck, I want to do season tickets from two thousand miles away.
Reading, you are Baseballtown. You totally got this right. Thanks for a fabulous night, and keep up the fabulous work.
Regional Feel: 9.5/10. Just amazing. Loved the focus on so much history. Only a view would have brought this up to perfection.
Charm: 5/5. All over the place.
Spectacle: 5/5. Again, as good as anyone can ask.
Team mascot/name: 2.5/5. By changing from “Phillies” to “Fightin’ Phils,” the team managed to get the worst of both worlds: both too cutesy and too dull. Many mascots: all fine, but maybe too many to present a cool feeling. Here I am with Screwball.
Aesthetics: 4/5. Great, in spite of aging bleachers and wood.
Pavilion area: 5/5. I’d give it a six if I felt I could.
Fans: 4/5. Quite nice
Intangibles: 5/5. Dude, I won a hundred bucks.
BASEBALL STUFF I SAW HERE:
My first extra-inning minor league game since the new (dumb) rule about putting a guy on second to start an extra inning came into effect.
The Fightin’ Phils took the early lead on a three-run shot by Grenny Cumona, but the SeaDogs scrapped back to tie it at 3, as pitcher Denyi Reyes settled down nicely.
The SeaDogs scored one on a sacrifice and a fielder’s choice to start the 10th, but Alec Bohm singled home two runs to win it for the home team in the bottom half.
Written July 2019.