||Jim Thome smashes the first hit in new Citizens Bank Park over the right-field fence for a home run on Saturday afternoon. (AP)
Let the record show that the very first chorus of boos in Citizens Bank Park drowned out every word of mayor John Street’s pregame address at exactly 1:03 p.m. on Saturday afternoon.
That Philly cheer morphed into the first standing ovation a minute later when Jim Thome stepped to the microphone to thank the fans and the construction workers for their role in opening the spanking new ballpark.
But the real ovation came barely 25 minutes later, and this one came complete with a curtain call, to boot. That’s when Thome smashed a 2-1 offering from the Indians’ Jeff D’Amico into the seats in right field for the first ever hit at Citizens Bank Park.
Yeah, it was exactly like a corny Disney movie. The team’s blue-collar, Paul Bunyan-esque slugger with that everyman/aw-shucks demeanor coming back from an injury to sock a homer against his former team for the very first hit in his new team’s brand-new stadium? Come on. That’s too hokey.
The only thing that would have made the blast more Hollywood was for Thome to step out of the batter’s box, point his bat toward the outfield fence and call his shot.
“Yeah, I knew it,” pitcher Randy Wolf said. “I knew he was going to hit [a home run in his first at-bat].”
Wolf, who called the blast from the dugout, believes Thome sensed something was about to happen, too.
“I think he knew it was his moment,” Wolf said.
Certainly, Thome has a flair for the dramatic. Last spring, the slugger smashed an opposite-field homer in his first plate appearance as a Phillie off — coincidentally enough — D’Amico in Bradenton, Fla. In his first regular season appearance with the Phillies, Thome smacked a screaming liner that missed clearing the fence at ProPlayer Stadium by two feet. A few days later, he came just as close to knocking one out in his home debut at the Vet.
So was a home run for the first hit at the new ballpark really that shocking? Come on, you could see this coming from a mile away.
“You couldn’t have scripted that any better,” manager Larry Bowa said.
Said catcher Mike Lieberthal: “It was pretty incredible. He didn’t just hit a home run, he hit a bomb.”
Meanwhile, Thome played down the big blast. After all, Saturday’s game, which ended in a 6-5 victory for the Indians, was nothing more than an exhibition and a dress rehearsal in the brand-new ballpark. Thome played just five innings while Bowa tried to get his bench players some game action before the season starts on Monday. Admittedly a bit behind schedule after missing three weeks of spring training with a broken finger, Thome says he went to the plate with the intent to get his timing down.
“It is an exhibition game, but it means a lot because of what they’re trying to do here,” Thome said.
But a Jim Thome at-bat is more than a mere workout even during spring training. With the buzz from the sellout crowd growing louder with every pitch, the atmosphere in the park was more like a game during a hot pennant race in late September than a silly exhibition in early April. Thome, still just out for a workout, felt the excitement.
“The atmosphere here was great,” he said. “You can build a new ballpark, but it’s still all about the crowd.”
But it wasn’t just the crowd that got a chance to be impressed on Saturday.
“He the one guy who turns me into a fan in the dugout,” Wolf said.
First time out
Not only did the fans get their first glimpses of Citizens Bank Park, but also the Phillies got their first opportunity to check out their new digs. Though it’s hard to judge a ballpark after just one game, Citizens Bank Park seems to be on its way to becoming a bandbox. During batting practice, players had very little difficulty smacking the ball into the seats, and they did not have too much trouble making the transition to live action. Aside from Thome’s bomb, Pat Burrell clubbed a three-run shot that he did not think was going to reach the seats.
“I don’t think it would have gone out at the Vet,” Burrell said.
For the Indians, Casey Blake and Chris Clapinski both homered to left, while the Omar Vizquel and Jody Gerut knocked out doubles. For the Phils, David Bell and Lieberthal both skied long drives to the warning track that just might find the seats when the chilly air turns warm in the summer.
“It seemed to be carrying very well,” Thome said. “It was not that cold today, but still for the most part in April the ball does not carry very well in any park. I remember when we opened the new ballpark in Cleveland, the ball did not carry very well and it carried pretty well today.”
The Phillies — at least the hitters — seemed to enjoy how well the ball carried.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen down the road, but judging from BP, it’s a hitter’s park,” Burrell said.
Needless to say, the pitchers aren’t exactly overjoyed by this development.
“I’m going to enjoy hitting here,” Wolf said. “But it looks like I’m going to have to try to keep the ball down.”
As for making the switch from NeXturf (phew! Thank goodness we aren’t going to have to use that word anymore) to natural grass, the reviews were good.
“The grass is soft,” said Jimmy Rollins, who had seven chances on Saturday. “It played true. It’s good dirt for running. It’s a pretty fast track.”
Rollins also noticed that the outfield grass played slower than the infield sod and added that there are definitely slower infields in the National League.
“This infield is faster than Wrigley,” he said. “I’m sure in the summer when it’s warmer and after they’ve cut it a few times, it will play a little quicker.”
Following the game, the Phillies sent Chase Utley, Geoff Geary, Lou Collier, Jim Crowell and A.J. Hinch to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. That means the team will carry six bench players and seven relief pitchers. It also means that the club could not find another team willing to make a trade for Ricky Ledee and that veteran Doug Glanville and rookie Ryan Madson earned spots on the team.
“I still can’t believe it,” Madson said after learning his fate. “I’m going to take it all in, call my family and celebrate a little bit.”
Though the moves do not come as much as a surprise, Bowa says the decision to send Utley down was one of his most difficult as manager of the Phils. In the end, Bowa says, it came down to both what was best for Utley and Glanville’s versatility.
“The toughest (cut) for me was Utley. But getting 10 at-bats a month wouldn’t do him any good. He was the player probably most disappointed. But, barring injury, it would’ve been tough getting the at-bats.”
Glanville will, more than likely, see most of his action as a late-inning defensive replacement or pinch runner.