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Haven’t we met?

The last time I saw Joe Musgrove, reigning champion of the (American) baseball world, he was trying to work his way out of a jam in front of four thousand people in Fishkill, New York.

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Musgrove pitched in four World Series games this fall for the champion Houston Astros, winning one of them. His name sounded familiar when I read it in the news, but I couldn’t place why.

Today I remembered. In August 2014, while vacationing in western Connecticut, I saw a Class A New York-Penn League game between the Tri-City ValleyCats (an Astros farm team) and the Hudson Valley Renegades (a Tampa Bay Rays farm team.)

Musgrove, who nowadays works out of the bullpen, started that game for Tri-City. He pitched into the seventh inning, didn’t allow a run, but didn’t get the win either. (Tri-City ended up winning 2-0 on two runs scored after he left the game.)

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Three other members of the 2017 Astros also played on the 2014 ValleyCats — outfielder Derek Fisher, third baseman J.D. Davis and first baseman A.J. Reed. Fisher played the night I saw them, and also appeared in the 2017 World Series; Davis and Reed didn’t do either.

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Meanwhile, only one member of the opposing Renegades has made the big leagues to date — and he spent just about the minimum time there, appearing in one game and pitching one-third of an inning. (He got his man, anyway.)

Most people who tout minor-league baseball as a place to see the stars on their way up probably keep close track of who they’ve seen — through programs, through autographs, whatever. That, or they make it a point to go see the hot prospects.

I like my method better. Go spend a night under the lights in an unfamiliar town, have a beer and soak in the scene. And then see what comes back to you after a couple of years have traveled their course.

That night also happened to be Superhero Night at the ballpark, and the interns and summerhelp were decked out in all kinds of costumes.

Perhaps there were people in the building that night who remember nothing of Joe Musgrove but have always remembered the time they saw Spider-Man.

That’s fine too.

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For the turnstiles.

I love baseball but hate hype; and it is a combination of these two things that will put a few hundred fresh words on the blog tonight.

My local Lehigh Valley IronPigs, with whom I have something of a love-hate relationship, put out a news release Tuesday announcing what seemed to be a remarkable achievement: “IronPigs Remain Attendance Leader Since 2008.”

The news release announced that the Pigs had topped 600,000 fans for the eighth straight year — each year of the team’s existence, in other words — and that the Pigs “remain Minor League Baseball’s per game attendance leader since their debut season.”

In other words, the team has sold more tickets per game on average than any other minor-league team over the past eight years. They’re averaging just over 9,000 tickets sold per game over that span. (I have been to enough games and seen enough empty seats to be convinced that “attendance” really means “tickets sold,” not “fans through the gate.”)

After reviewing the International League’s official attendance data for the past eight years, I decided the Pigs’ spin was a nice way to camouflage the fact that the team’s per-game attendance had a down year.

The second-worst year in team history, to be precise:

pigsgraf1The Pigs like to boast about their per-game attendance, but they haven’t led the International League in this department since 2012. In the year just past, they fell all the way to fourth, with 8,769 fans per game — trailing Charlotte (9,428), Indianapolis (9,331) and Columbus (9,016).

In other words, that “per game attendance leader” business seems to rely a whole lot on that hot streak from 2009 through 2012.

(I am powerless to explain their weak showing in their very first year, which marked the return of affiliated baseball to the Valley after a four-decade absence. I would have thought they were above 9,000 a game that year too. Guess not. Perhaps the dreadful opening to their season — 13 straight losses, if memory serves — tempered the Valley’s interest.)

There are all kinds of yeah-buts, in-defense-ofs, and caveats to be made about the Pigs’ attendance this year; and I’ll throw in as many as I can think of:

  • Fourth in a 14-team league ain’t bad. Certainly, the Gwinnett Braves and Syracuse Chiefs — both averaging around 3,800 tickets sold per game — dream of support like that.
  • By my rough math, the International League average for fans per game was 7,130 this past season, so the Pigs remain well above average.
  • Coca-Cola Park only has 8,089 fixed seats, so the Pigs continue to admit more arses than they have seats for. This is not quite as remarkable as it sounds: Pretty much every Triple-A park of the past dozen years has a general-admission outfield berm that can hold 2,000 fans or so. Still, if they’re selling 8,769 tickets per game, that’s every seat in the park plus maybe one-third of the berm, which is pretty impressive.
  • The Pigs are stomping their Pennsylvania rivals, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, who averaged 5,753 fans per game last year despite completely revamping their ballpark just two or three years ago.
  • The Pigs’ on-field performance has been so-so to downright lousy. They went 63-81 this past season, the second-worst record in the IL, and have finished above .500 only twice in eight years. Their performance at the gate is a tribute to management’s promotional ingenuity … ’cause all those people aren’t coming to watch well-played baseball.
  • I’m not focusing on total year-end attendance here, because the Pigs picked per-game to be their measure of choice, but 600,000 fans a year at the Triple-A level is nothing to sneeze at.
  • Finally: You can’t read anything conclusive into one relatively slow year.

Yeah, this past year was a good one by many attendance measures, and it wouldn’t have looked bad at all if the team hadn’t concocted questionable ways to crow about it.

Still, seeing the gradual downturn in per-game attendance, I wonder whether the Valley is starting to cool on the IronPigs … and if so, where the attendance levels will eventually stabilize.

Will we dip to around 7,000 to 7,500 and hold there, like longtime International League markets Toledo and Pawtucket have done in the past few years? (Pawtucket was pulling 9,200 per game a decade ago and 8,300 five years ago.)

Farther down to 6,000 to 6,500 per game, like Rochester, another defining International League market? All the way south of 4,000, like Syracuse, also not a fly-by-night market?

Or, who knows? Maybe the Pigs’ front office will find the magic promotional formula to bring attendance back to 9,000 per game. Maybe they’ll hit on just the right tap-dance to keep all eyes fixed on them. They’ve been pretty good at that so far.

My preference, for what it’s worth, would be for the Pigs to settle in at a level where they are well-supported, comfortably profitable … and free of spun-up claims about their attendance performance.

It’s hockey season now.

It’s sort of a tradition here for me to write something about the start and end of each baseball season … so here goes.

I took the family to the Lehigh Valley IronPigs’ last game of the year earlier today. This is the third straight year we’ve gone to the last home game. My younger son likes the idea of buying half-price concessions; the rest of us just like a last trip to the ballpark before hockey season starts.

(I remember last year Lehigh University played a few games of fall ball. If they do that this year, and if I have the free time, maybe I’ll go check that out. I recently checked their website and saw no word of anything.)

There was nothing all that noteworthy about the game. The Pigs never seem to play that well for us, and today they fell behind early and lost 8-1 to the Rochester Red Wings. It was fiercely hot (93 degrees) and even my last ballpark beer of the season, a Victory HopDevil, didn’t do much to cool me off.

We sat in a new section of seating next to the bullpens; and in the eighth inning, one of the Red Wings’ relief pitchers started handing out baseballs to nearby kids (including mine). Made for a nice souvenir, and a complement to the New York-Penn League foul ball I took home earlier in the summer.

For some reason I am especially jonesing for fall and winter this year, so I am content to put another year of baseball-watching to bed. I want cold and bare trees and hockey. Sorry, baseball. Your time will come again.

A few sights from the day:

Sitting next to the 'pens means we got to watch both starting pitchers warm up at once. Rochester's Tyler Rogers in the foreground; Lehigh Valley's Severino Gonzalez in the background.

Sitting next to the ‘pens meant we got to watch both starting pitchers warm up at once. The bullpen buds are Rochester’s Tyler Rogers in the foreground and Lehigh Valley’s Severino Gonzalez in the background.

Red Wings relief pitcher Aaron Thompson, warming up the left fielder between innings.

Red Wings relief pitcher Aaron Thompson, warming up the left fielder between innings.

Veteran IronPigs reliever Dustin McGowan, also in warmup mode. Will he be back next year? The Sept. 1 roster expansion has come and gone, so almost no one on the field for this game has any hope for a September callup. (Three IronPigs who did not play were called up after the game.)

Veteran IronPigs reliever Dustin McGowan, also in warmup mode. Will he be back next year? The Sept. 1 roster expansion has come and gone, so almost no one on the field for this game has any hope for a September callup. (Three IronPigs who did not play were called up after the game.)

Right fielder Tyler Henson is also in the will-they-be-back? file. After 10 years in the minors, he's yet to crack the bigs, and the Phillies won't be calling him up this September.

Right fielder Tyler Henson is also in the will-they-be-back? file. After 10 years in the minors, he’s yet to crack the bigs, and the Phillies won’t be calling him up this September.

In the official team store, numbers wait to be attached to jerseys.

In the official team store, numbers wait to be attached to jerseys.

Wings left fielder Eric Farris enjoyed turning around and sharing the out count with nearby fans. It was a little Junior Griffey-ish, and we enjoyed it.

Wings left fielder Eric Farris enjoyed turning around and sharing the out count with nearby fans. It was a little Junior Griffey-ish, and we enjoyed it.

For a vacation day, the crowd was kinda sparse: The outfield berm was pretty empty, and so were these seats down the right-field line. I'm sure the IronPigs management will spend its offseason coming up with ever more frantic stunts to put asses in those seats for 2016.

For a vacation day, the crowd was kinda sparse: The outfield berm was pretty empty, and so were these seats down the right-field line. I’m sure the IronPigs management will spend its offseason coming up with ever more frantic stunts to put asses in those seats for 2016.

This pig is involved in some sort of fundraiser at Coca-Cola Park. Maybe the nostrils aren't the best place to paint the word "Coke"? *snort*

This pig is involved in some sort of fundraiser at Coca-Cola Park. Maybe the nostrils aren’t the best place to paint the word “Coke”? *snort*

Mike Quade -- best known as one of the dozens of managers who have failed to win a World Series with the Cubs -- is in Rochester now. Here he commiserates with fellow major-league refugee Argenis Diaz.

Mike Quade — best known as one of the dozens of managers who have failed to win a World Series with the Cubs — is in Rochester now. Here he commiserates with fellow major-league refugee Argenis Diaz.

The last out has been recorded; Eric Farris and his teammates jog off the field; and I've seen the back of live baseball for another year.

The last out has been recorded; Eric Farris and his teammates jog off the field; and I’ve seen the back of live baseball for another year.

213 days, eh? (Of course, *my* live baseball season starts with college games in mid-March. So for me, Opening Day is closer to 194 days away. Not that I'm counting. Yet.)

213 days, eh? (Of course, *my* live baseball season starts with college games in mid-March. So for me, Opening Day 2016 is closer to 194 days away. Not that I’m counting. Yet.)

Among my souvenirs.

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In almost 35 years of watching live baseball, this is the coolest thing I’ve ever come home from a ballpark with, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

2102_1119The New York-Penn League, like Charles Ives, is one of those American institutions I endorse wholeheartedly and without reservation.

It’s a short-season Class A baseball league, the second-lowest rung on the U.S. professional baseball scale, with a scattered history going back to the 1890s (more consistently, to the 1920s and ’30s.)

Over the decades, it’s brought big-league-affiliated professional baseball to the kinds of glamour-free third- and fourth-class New York State towns that I like to bum around in when I’m off The Man’s time. Places like Elmira and Oneonta and Little Falls, and Geneva and Newark and Utica, and Batavia and Jamestown and Wellsville and Olean and Corning.

(Also Pittsfield, Mass., and Welland and St. Catharines, Ontario, and Norwich, Conn., and Burlington, Vt., and now even Morgantown, W. Va. The New York-Penn League is New York and Pennsylvania in name only, but has never changed its name to try to curry favor with its outlying territories. This is part of what makes it great.)

The New York-Penn League is a charming caucus of historic brick downtowns, and 4,000-seat ballparks surrounded by residential neighborhoods, and old commercial buildings with fading Indian heads painted on the sides, and free parking, and quiet rivers like the Chemung and the Mohawk, and Genesee or Saranac on tap at the park, and farm stands with jaw-dropping fresh produce dotting the countryside from town to town.

I’ll stop short of calling it idyllic — you’ll see a fair number of weed-rimmed old houses and down-at-the-heels commercial areas in a tour of the league’s footprint. But, as small-town America goes, you could do a whole lot worse.

The New York-Penn League also offers a nice middle ground between the college baseball I love to watch, and the major league and Triple-A ball I attend from time to time.

College ball is wicked intimate. All the seats are up close. The players come out of the dugout between games to talk to their parents and eat sandwiches their mom brought. You might find yourself tossing a foul ball back to a player, or even taking a leak next to one between games in the public bathroom. I’ve learned not to startle and look up when I hear the click-click-click of spikes on the concrete floor.

But, unless you’re watching a powerhouse team, the chances are pretty slim any of the players will go pro — and the play can be sloppy enough to remind you you’re watching nine future engineers out in the field. It sometimes fails to fulfill the side of me that enjoys professionalism.

Major-league and Triple-A ball, by contrast, is bright and shiny and professional. But the major leagues cost an arm and a leg to watch in person, while Triple-A teams rub me raw with their incessant between-pitch and between-inning attempts at entertainment. And, when you watch a guy earning $1 million a year miss a cut-off man or pop a bunt attempt foul, you question whether they’re working as hard to earn your money as you did.

Class A, then, is right in the money spot between the extremes. It’s intimate, maybe a little dowdy around the edges. If autographs are your thing, the players are abundantly available, whether sitting at a stand on the concourse …

102_0388… or approached from a front-row seat:

102_0412The play can be sloppy from time to time. But the players work hard; they aren’t jaded yet, and they’re still burning to climb the ladder.

And the affiliation with the major leagues lends a dose of professionalism. The teams of the New York-Penn League are all linked to a major-league squad, and everyone on the field has at least some margin of potential, or else they wouldn’t have a pro contract. Despite the high washout rate, there’s a decent chance that at least a couple guys on the field are good enough to make The Show.

The first two New York-Penn teams I saw — the 1992 Welland Pirates and Geneva Cubs — boasted 10 future big-leaguers between them. The 2009 Batavia Muckdogs and Jamestown Jammers had 12, including current Cardinals Matt Adams and Matt Carpenter.

I’m sure I’ll go back in five or six years and look up the Staten Island Yankees and Auburn Doubledays teams I saw play earlier this week, to see how many of them attained the dream.

The Yankees seemed most ready for prime time: They won 7-3, and looked for all the world in their Yankees-facsimile road grays like they were ready to help in the Bronx if needed. Only their youthful faces and a few details on their uniforms gave them away as minor-leaguers.

102_0576I think it was Staten Island outfielder Jhalan Jackson, a seventh-round draft pick known for his power, who was at bat early in the game as I walked back from the beer stand with a Genesee Scotch Ale. I’d considered some food as well, but the line was long, so I made a fateful decision to go back to the game.

I was minding my own and evaluating my first sip when I heard the tell-tale thonk of horsehide landing on concrete. I took about four steps to my right and there it was — a freshly fouled-off New York-Penn League baseball, sitting on the green grass between the party pavilion and the bathrooms.

The kids who inevitably chase foul balls were just getting out of their seats; there was no one with a better claim.

So I snapped it up. A tiny piece of the storied history of the New York-Penn League, the coolest professional baseball league in America, was going home in my pocket.

There is a place in hell reserved for adults who beat little kids out of foul balls in direct combat, and I am aware of this … but there was no one near this one, honest. It was just short of hand-delivered.

(One girl came up to me about 30 seconds after I picked it up and asked, “Did you just pick up that foul ball?” I thought about what a decent adult would do, and then lied: “Yeah, I’ll probably bring it home to my kids.” She smiled and said, “Great job!” and ran off. A few innings later I saw her on the field with her sister, grinning ear to ear, taking part in a between-innings promotional contest. So it worked out in the end; she got something special out of her day at the park too, and she probably hasn’t given a second thought to that foul ball.)

I spent part of my weekend going through handed-down belongings of my grandparents. Perhaps this ball will end up going down the same path.

Fifty or sixty years from now, my descendants will find it in a box, marvel at its yellowed patina, wonder if it has any worth, make a mental resolution to call a sports memorabilia dealer sometime and put it back in the box.

They can do what they want with it when that time comes. For now it is in my hands, solid and hefty. And I’d reject any dealer’s offer for it.

Day off.

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I took a mental health day off work today and went to the ballpark.

(My mental health is actually pretty good, all things considered. But the local minor-league team doesn’t play too many morning games. This was a relatively rare opportunity for me to go see them during the day.)

What began as a charming idea turned into an endurance test.

The temperature topped out at 48 degrees at game time, while a whipping wind made it seem much colder. Rain threatened the whole time, and finally broke through with increasing intensity in the fourth inning.

It was one of those permanent-grimace kind of games, the kind where everyone in the crowd bundles up and squints a lot and feels brave and put-upon.

The ‘Pigs weren’t any too motivated by their surroundings, allowing the visiting Pawtucket Red Sox a seven-run second inning.

The umps called the game after five innings with Pawtucket up 8-0. The final inning, played in spattering rain, seemed like one of those affairs where the plate umpire whispers to each batter, “Swing at everything, kid, ’cause if it’s in this area code, it’s a strike.

For all that, it wasn’t the worst experience in the world.

The weather took some of the insistent fizz out of the IronPigs’ usual game presentation. The between-batter and between-innings promotions seemed fewer in number and less annoying. If you could get into the game, there was less to take you out of it.

The beer lines were pretty much nonexistent — always one of the nice things about a 10:35 a.m. start. (Yup.)

And fewer people at the ballpark meant more space to roam. Wanna be the only person on the outfield hill? The only person in the right-field standing-room area? I was both of those people at various points today, and it felt good.

Of course there are pictures of my morning at the ballpark. They’re nothing to write home about, but they capture some of the flavor of The Salaryman’s Day Off.

The Bud Light Trough overlooking right field is usually bustling with beer drinkers before game time. Not today.

The Bud Light Trough overlooking right field is usually bustling with beer drinkers before game time. Not today.

Plenty of good seats available -- and this was *before* the rain set in. I never did hear an announced attendance. It was Education Day, and a couple sections were full of local schoolkids, which must have driven up the total.

Plenty of good seats available — and this was *before* the rain set in. I never did hear an announced attendance. It was Education Day, and a couple sections were full of local schoolkids, which must have driven up the total.

IronPigs third baseman Maikel Franco sports a balaclava.

IronPigs third baseman Maikel Franco sports a balaclava.

Most of the PawSox players opted for hoods. This is Daniel Nava at the plate, with a few of his hooded teammates visible in the dugout.

Most of the PawSox players opted for hoods. This is Daniel Nava at the plate, with a few of his hooded teammates visible in the dugout.

Nava fends off a wicked googly with what looks like a cricket swing.

Nava fends off a wicked googly with what looks like a cricket swing.

Another shot of the empty stands. I think this was during the endless second inning.

Another shot of the empty stands. I think this was during the endless second inning.

Nothing special going on in this shot; I just liked the way the pitcher, second baseman and right fielder lined up from bottom to top.

Nothing special going on in this shot; I just liked the way the pitcher, second baseman and right fielder lined up from bottom to top.

Pigs right fielder Tyler Henson can't bear to watch any more.

Pigs right fielder Tyler Henson can’t bear to watch any more.

PawSox outfielder Bryce Brentz is the hero, having hit a grand slam. The Pigs' shortstop appears to be kicking the dirt in frustration.

PawSox outfielder Bryce Brentz is the hero, having hit a grand slam. The Pigs’ shortstop appears to be kicking the dirt in frustration.

A group of schoolkids from -- Lower Saucon? Macungie? Emmaus? -- glows in the stands like a cluster of pale tulips.

A group of schoolkids from — Lower Saucon? Macungie? Emmaus? — glows in the stands like a cluster of pale tulips.

I took this picture for Pigs center fielder Tyson Gillies' facemask. I didn't even notice left fielder Clete Thomas in mid-squat at top right. It was the sort of day where you're willing to look ridiculous if it means staying warm.

I took this picture for Pigs center fielder Tyson Gillies’ facemask. I didn’t even notice left fielder Clete Thomas performing some sort of baroque squat at top right. It was the sort of day where you’re willing to look ridiculous if it means staying warm.

The Pigs' Phillippe Aumont works to the plate amidst visible rain.

The Pigs’ Phillippe Aumont works to the plate amidst visible rain.

 

Roots.

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Awash in tradition and bourbon tonight.

Drove up to Coca-Cola Park to buy IronPigs tickets yesterday morning with the Grateful Dead playing on the car stereo (this show, to be anal-retentively specific.)

Every year I buy tickets to see the hometown Rochester Red Wings here in Allentown at least once, and the semi-adopted-hometown Pawtucket Red Sox at least once.

It made me think of the old days when Grateful Dead fans would throw their ticket applications into the sea of demand each year, hoping to get tickets to catch their old favorites at some locally convenient point.

It’s not a perfect apples-to-apples comparison, of course. The Dead’s lineup was reasonably stable, whereas you never know who will make up the Pawtucket Red Sox from season to season.

Still, it struck me as a sort of compatible tradition … a willingness to buy into the brand name from year to year, and an interest in seeing how this year’s version compares to last year’s.

At some point the ticket booths get thrown open, and the faithful — driven by the pleasures of the past — queue up with visions of happiness and transport to come.

Meanwhile, the kids’ bedtime tonight got put off by 20 minutes for a discussion of their heritage. (The youngest is disappointed that he’s only something like 1/416th Native American.)

Driven by that discussion, I went to ancestry.com — where the genealogical research of my grandma and my mom is preserved in great detail — and began looking through the list of people to whom I am related.

There’s a noteworthy overlap, particularly in eastern Massachusetts, where I lived for seven or eight years. There were relatives of mine living and dying there in the 17th and 18th centuries, long before I staked out a small piece of the same turf to get married and start having kids.

I see, for instance, an ancestor who died in Framingham, Mass., in 1715, not quite two centuries before my first son was born in the same town. Was I meant to be there, in some cosmic fashion, or is it just coincidence that I found my way there?

And then there’s the branch of the family that made its way to my hometown of Rochester, N.Y., but that we never knew existed until a few years ago. One of them, a distant cousin of mine, died in Rochester on the same day I was born there. (Not in the same hospital, but within a couple minutes’ drive, I believe.)

I look at the list of names and I wonder about their stories. What did they do all day? What did they want out of life, and what did they get? What were their achievements and their disappointments?

And will some descendant of mine in 2o0 years — presuming mankind makes it that far — look at my birth and death information on a single line and wonder the same about me?

All of which is far too heavy a subject for a school night, I suppose.

So maybe some other night, we’ll line up some more of Kentucky’s finest, and open ourselves up to the mystic, and think about it some more.

I won’t get any closer to the eternal then, either; but it’s always worth a shot.

A call to arms.

People of Berks County, Pennsylvania, I beseech you, with a quaver in my throat and sweat on my brow:

Hold the line. Stay strong. Don’t give in.

Nothing less than the future of America’s pastime — at least, in its minor-league permutation — depends on you.

As you’ve probably heard, the Reading Phillies minor-league team announced a branding change — or, as a 21st-century marketer might call it, a content enhancement — last month.

The team, which had successfully carried the name of the parent Philadelphia Phillies since the Lyndon Johnson administration, is now the Reading Fightin Phils.

Fair enough as a roots move — the “Fightin'” nickname for the Phillies goes back many decades — though I do sorta wonder where the apostrophe went.

But, as you’ll soon find out, grammar is the least of this team’s problems.

The branders who came up with the new name were allowed to run rampant with the team’s uniforms. As a result, the 2013 Fightin Phils will have:

– Four separate jersey designs, at least one of which will be used at random intervals at home or on the road.
– The inevitable minor-league cute animal mascot. In this case, it’s an ostrich with its fists raised. Why? Because ostriches are native to Berks County, known for fistfighting and closely associated with baseball.
– No fewer than seven different caps, including separate home and road batting-practice caps. What?
– A second mascot — a snarly hot dog named Bunbino — who will appear not only on (some of) the road caps, but as a sleeve patch on (some of) the road uniforms. Repeat: Professional baseball players will take the field in a bright blue cap with a pissed-off hot dog on it.
– Oh, yeah, about that bright blue: The F-Phils now have different color schemes at home and on the road.
The (most common) home jersey will be Phillies-red stripes on white.
The (most common) road jersey will be gray with bright yellow and teal accents.
Meanwhile, the two alternate jerseys are dark blue and black … so really, they have four separate color schemes, none of which echo the other three.

(Really, I strongly recommend you go check out the announcement on their website. This is all lavishly illustrated, and must be seen to be believed.)

The news release proclaims triumphantly, “The Reading Fightin Phils will have the most on-field gear of any minor league team in history” …¬† as though this were worth celebrating.

I wasn’t going to write anything about this. The news came out almost a month ago. Everyone else who cares has already chimed in.

And honestly? I’ve bought tickets to two Reading Phillies games in 10-plus years in eastern Pennsylvania, and I didn’t even go to one of them. The net effect of my rage on the team’s bottom line will be nil.

But as I think more about the potential long-term impacts of this, the more I feel the urge to rise from my seat and hector the world, gibbering hoarse, messianic warnings like Howard Beale in Network.

I’m mad as hell. I don’t want to take it any more.

And I fear that — if this smiley-happy nonsense gains traction — I’m going to have to take more and more of it, everywhere I go.

The success of this absurd gambit will be measured, as success generally is, in merchandise and ticket sales.

And if the F-Phils sell out all their games and move merch by the buggyload, every single minor-league team worth its salt is going to follow suit, laying on different outfits for every day of the week — all of them available at the park for less-than-extortionate prices, of course.

There will be no escape from cutesiness-for-cash at any level of pro ball. It’s already getting hard to avoid, as minor-league teams tap-dance faster and faster, buying into the notion that attracting kids and families has to mean an endless stream of promotions and shiny things and between-innings distractions.

If the F-Phils’ scheme succeeds, every ballpark will offer caps on top of caps, replica jerseys on top of replica jerseys, alternates on top of alternates. It will be possible to sit through an entire homestand without being consistently able to recognize the home team. (You know, the one you’re supposed to be rooting for.)

And the soul of the game will go from My father and grandfather took me to the game to My father and grandfather took me to the game, where they bought me a home batting practice cap after I lost my alternate Saturday road cap on the moon bounce.

Enough, goddamnit.

You can offer a pleasant, entertaining, affordable family night out without smothering it in gimmickry and marketing. The people who run the F-Phils know this, because not too long ago, they did it every night.

Seeing an otherwise rational leadership group fall sway to dopey, trendy brand enhancement initiatives¬† is like seeing the affable, well-liked teacher from your high school leave his wife and kids for a 19-year-old waitress who can’t spell her name right.

Speaking of kids, I question whether the eight-year-olds who are drawn by the nonstop distractions will develop into actual baseball fans. My guess (and that’s all it is) is that the attraction of the colorful caps and the mascot races will fade over time. And when it does, will the action on the field keep drawing them back?

The final shot in my cannon is entirely personal and not at all reasoned.

I love baseball because there is a stillness at its core. And minor-league marketers are doing their absolute damnedest to break it down and drive it away — as if a quiet moment to reflect between innings was something to be shunned, or the sight of the home team night after night in its familiar striped whites was an intolerable boredom to be avoided at all costs.

As I said, 950 words or so ago, our best way out of this is for the people who inhabit the F-Phils’ home region to spit this whole marketing idea out like a sunflower seed, and do it as noticeably as possible.

With all the power at my discretion (can you feel it?), I beseech the good burghers of Sinking Spring and Womelsdorf and Lenhartsville and Upper Tulpehocken Township:

Do not buy Fightin Phils merchandise. Write emails and letters to the team, telling them kindly but firmly you disagree with their change. Tell them you would buy Reading Phillies merchandise, were it still available. Tell them you go to the games for the baseball, and everything else is secondary at best. Do not engage the ostrich. Do not befriend Bunbino. Turn your backs. Do it for the rest of us. Do it for the children!

God go with you, Berks County.

Glove story.

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Went to my first minor-league game of the year yesterday and saw Domonic Brown go deep.

Domonic Brown is a young outfielder who has been a hotly touted Phillies prospect for what seems like years and years and years.

Until he gets it together at the big-league level, we are catching his act here in the Lehigh Valley … and yesterday he hit a bullet into the right-field standing-room area, and made a sweet diving catch to boot.

Maybe I’ll tell someone I saw that, someday.

You never know what kind of future star you’ll learn about at a minor-league ballgame. It was at a minor-league game six summers ago that I first heard about a megastar whose name you all know.

I didn’t actually get to see her play, though.

(Yes, I said “her.”)

This is the front of the Class AA Reading Phillies game program for the homestand of August 18-20, 2006.

On the cover is J.A. Happ, a crafty lefthander who, judging from his recent performance, is being forced by the Houston Astros to pitch in the big leagues against his will:

 

 

And this is the inside front cover, featuring an ad for an aspiring young singer born in Reading, pursuing a career in Nashville, and beseeching the hometown folks to request her first single on the radio.

None other than Taylor Swift, who has since gone on to sell something like 22 million albums and win a shelfload of music awards.

In the summer of 2006 she was just starting to get known outside Baseballtown, thanks to that first single.

She released her first album two months after I went to the game, and it went platinum five times over. By the time spring training of 2007 rolled around, she no longer needed to advertise in Reading Phillies game programs to get her songs played on the radio.

I had not heard her song(s) when I went to Reading, but I was dimly aware that she was local. (Or had been local. She’d moved to Nashville by 2006 but was apparently still courting her hometown roots.)

A country singer from Berks County, I thought. Yeah, that’ll go far.

Clearly, I am not a talent scout — not in country music, and not in baseball either.

So, while Domonic Brown impressed me yesterday, he may have some work to do before he — like Taylor Swift — can leave minor-league game-day programs behind forever.