Baseballtown, USA

reading outsideThe first time I ever walked into Fenway Park, I thought to myself, “Hey, this is just like Reading, only bigger…”

And older, of course. Fenway Park opened shortly after the Titanic went down in 1912. Reading Municipal Stadium, as it was known when it opened, has been hosting baseball games since 1951. That makes it a relic by today’s standards, but the ironic thing is the movement in stadium building (which ought to be about finished now, right? Doesn’t every city, town and hamlet have its own new ballpark by now?) is to be both old and new at the same time.

Reading appears to have gotten that part right in 1951.

I was the last Philly-area scribe out of the ballpark last night following Kyle Drabek’s 10th outing for the R-Phils, and on the way out I flashed back to a few of those times at Fenway. Walking those empty corridors in search for an exit was reminiscent of a time in 2004 when Jim Thome and I (name-dropping!) did the same thing. See, at Fenway, the visitors’ clubhouse opens right out on the main concourse and the ballplayers have to walk through the same halls the fans traipsed through during the game. So when looking for the way out – me to an elevator to write a story before walking back to the Marriott, Thome to his waiting town car – Thome talked about the ambiance of the joint and I mentioned how it reminded me of Reading, Pa.

Back when Thome played in the Double-A Eastern League, he probably saw the same thing. Just like Fenway, the clubhouses at FirstEnergy Stadium (as it’s called now) open right onto the concourses. The difference is that the ballplayers actually have to wade through the fans in order to get back to the showers and training room. Another difference is that the home clubhouse in Reading is larger than the visitors’ clubhouse at Fenway.

Another difference is at Fenway they sell chowder and lo mein on the concourse. At Reading it’s funnel cake and Yeungling.

Anyway, Reading’s moniker as, “Baseball Town” is well deserved. In fact, the web site Minor League News rated FirstEnergy as the second-best ballpark in the country. The funny thing about that is all the other minor-league parks rated in the top 10 all opened since 2000. To me that should give Reading more points since those other places seem to be attempting to create what FirstEnergy has naturally.

It looks like a smaller, chowder-less Fenway inside, a little like old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore on the outside, which opened around the same time as the park in Reading, but was demolished in 2001. But comparisons aside, the little ol’ ballpark in Reading, Pa. is pure baseball through and through.

For those into the game at its bare essence, it’s tough to beat Reading, Pa.

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view from left-field cornerAlong those lines, Coca-Cola Park in Allentown is nothing to sneeze at either. Chances are Pedro Martinez will be working in his second rehab assignment this Friday in A-town, so some folks who rarely venture out of the city confines might make the trip up the NE Extension, too.

Which brings up an interesting point…

Here in Lancaster they have an Atlantic League ballclub managed by ex-Cardinal/Twin/Phillie Tom Herr where they play games in one of those nouveau minor-league parks that pop up everywhere like a big box store in a strip mall. Truth be told, it’s a pretty nice way to spend an evening in a place where there are a dearth of truly exciting things to do.

Nevertheless, Lancaster’s ballpark will never be a destination for the hardcore baseball fan simply because there is no reason to watch a game there. In Lancaster, the pro team will never have Major Leaguers in town for a rehab game or the hot prospects around for a summer or two on the path to the big leagues. With no affiliation with a big league club in a city that could very well support a Double-A club, the team is filled with guys just hoping for one last chance or just playing for the love of the game.

Nothing wrong with that.

But it doesn’t make for quality baseball. Sure, the majority of folks don’t go to baseball games for the quality of the game, but, you know, I do. And there are other seamheads out there into the same thing.

Quality… why is that so difficult a concept to accept these days? And that just ain’t for baseball, either. Give people something good instead of a sales pitch and they’ll beat down the door.

That’s guaranteed.

Von Hayes to meet Von Hayes

Sometimes when a door closes – or in this case, never appeared – a new one opens. In the case for Von Hayes it appears as if they will finally come face to face with Von Hayes.

No, that wasn’t some type of Zen thing. Far from it. Instead, the muse will get a first-hand look at the poets.

So to speak.

Here’s the deal: The indie rock band Von Hayes, based in Newark, Del. and North Jersey, will play a set before the Sept. 20 game between the York Revolution and Lancaster Barnstormers of the non-affiliated Atlantic League and then will perform “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” during the seventh-inning stretch.

The game/gig will be played at York, Pa.’s Sovereign Bank Stadium at noon as part of a two-town, day-night doubleheader. The Lancaster club, it appears, is missing out.

Nevertheless, the Barnstormers are managed by Von Hayes, the former star-crossed Phillie turned modern-day cult hero. The group Von Hayes, as chronicled by Jeff Pearlman for ESPN.com last week, petitioned the Lancaster baseball club for a chance to perform “The Star Spangled Banner” (or anything) with the hope of paying homage to its hero.

“Von Hayes is our inspiration,” Peter Bothum co-founder with Andrew Zitelli of Von Hayes told Pearlman.

According to Pearlman (as well as my past experiences), it wasn’t so much that the Barnstormers’ were standoffish about the idea of Von Hayes performing on the same field as Von Hayes, they just didn’t seem to care or return any phone calls.

As Pearlman wrote, “Somewhere, Bill Veeck is rolling over in his grave.”

But that’s when York team stepped in. In another salvo in the long-simmering War of the Roses (York is white, Lancaster is red), York seems to be taunting Von Hayes with Von Hayes. It’s as if York is claiming to have a Von Hayes of its own, only with power chords instead of a .259 lifetime batting average.

The York-Lancaster rivalry runs deep with the local press, despite the fact that it hasn’t really galvanized the citizenry. The fact is, York is just another town one sees as they drive on Route 30 to Baltimore or Washington. Kind of like how Lancaster is just a blur through the windshield to folks from York as they head to Philly or New York.

Who knows, maybe Von Hayes can be the spark to get a buzz back on the streets?

Or not.

Either way, Von Hayes is very excited about the possibility of meeting Von Hayes, however, Bothum wrote in an e-mail, “Hopefully he doesn’t come out and beat us up.”

Von Hayes was known for hitting two home runs in the first inning of a game at the Vet against the Mets, but these days Von Hayes recently released an album called Evident Eyelid on the independent label, State Capital Records.

It’s hard not to like the fact that both Von Hayes and Von Hayes are working for indie organizations.

Nevertheless, Bothum sent along the first single (“If there is such a thing anymore”) called, “You Should Call Clyde.” The group also maintains a MySpace page where all other relevant information is kept.

In the meantime, Von Hayes and the Barnstormers appear to be limping to a last-place finish with a 53-69 record. The other Von Hayes will play at the Franklin Tavern in Lawrenceville, N.J. on Sept. 12.

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You Should Call Clyde (mp3)

Hello, Von Hayes, hello

Von Hayes was one of the more intriguing players in the history of the Phillies. Actually, it’s Hayes’ legacy as a Phillie that is the interesting part. That’s much more the case than Hayes’ actual baseball performance. Hayes was a good player – there’s nothing more to parse in that statement. Perhaps if he had played for another team he would be remembered differently. Perhaps with less animosity.

Apparently, Hayes heard a boo or two at the ol’ Vet.

That last part might have more to do with Philadelphia and the Phillies than Hayes. After all, it wasn’t Hayes’ fault the Phillies sent five players to the Indians in the trade for him. It also isn’t Hayes’ fault that he landed in Philadelphia when the Phillies were transitioning from their golden age to mediocrity.

Anywhere else Hayes would have been a nice complimentary player – maybe like Jayson Werth for the current club – and not counted on to be a star.

Again, not Hayes’ fault.

But there certainly are perks to showing flashes of brilliance on the field in Philadelphia. Hayes, of course, once belted two home runs in the first inning of a 26-7 victory over the Mets in 1985. For many adolescents of the ‘80s who followed baseball religiously before the proliferation of cable TV and the mass media, that two-homer inning was enough to make fans for life. Back then there wasn’t a game on TV every night, so we lived vicariously through the box scores in the paper. Here in Lancaster, on the distant end of the Philadelphia media market, Hayes’ name stood out.

Actually, the positive media reports regarding Hayes’ potential was what made the most impact. He had a swing like Ted Williams, we were told. A contender for the rookie of the year in ’82, the Phillies were right to deal five guys (Manny Trillo, Julio Franco, George Vukovich, Jay Baller and Jerry Willard) to get him, they claimed.

Based on the numbers – which look quite skimpy in the post-steroid era – Hayes seemed like the quintessential Phillie of that age. He was a .267 lifetime hitter, but hit .305 in 1986. He hit 124 home runs in 9½ seasons for the Phillies, (an average of around 13 per season), but in ’89 he slugged 26 to finish seventh in the National League.

There were the flashes of brilliance, but mostly Hayes never quite lived up to the hype. In hindsight, those flashes proved to be aberrations.

But one of the best parts about sports is romanticizing the past. Playing remember-when works well in any time regardless of demographics or media dynamic. Though the games look different and our experiences with them have morphed from following along on the radio and newspapers and TV to the Internet, but the sentimentalizing transcends all that. For instance, yesterday I was visiting with a friend who is going to a game at Yankee Stadium this week for the first time since he was a kid in the early 1960s. He remembered the last trip so vividly it sounded damn-near Rockwellian.

Mantle, Maris, Yogi, Rizzuto and his dad. Top that. I’m anxious to hear about how his return trip went.

Anyway, what stirred the Von Hayes memories was a story written by Jeff Pearlman for ESPN.com, about a group of guys that formed a lo-fi alt-rock combo named for the ballplayer. No, they aren’t a Hayes tribute band or anything silly like that. They just claim to be inspired by the old Phillie.

There were two things that piqued my interest about the story. One was the subject matter. These days Von Hayes is the manager of the Lancaster Barnstormers, who play in the independent Atlantic League. The Barnstormers ballpark is located just on the other side of Franklin & Marshall College from my house. From a second-floor window I can see the light towers from the ballpark and on weekends the non-stop fireworks shows launched after ballgames annoy the crap out of the entire town.

But think about that for a minute… Lancaster, Pa., Von Hayes and fireworks. If I had a Turkey Hill slushey, some Atari games or APBA baseball, I’d hop onto my Mongoose bike and roll over to the games. It would be like I was 13 all over again.

The most interesting part about Pearlman’s story, however, was the few grafs near the end where he wrote about his attempts to contact the club’s front office. Apparently, the PR department or some other group in the team office didn’t return Pearlman’s calls.

And here I thought it was just me.

Pearlman and I are in the same boat in this regard. The fact is, I’ve called and e-mailed the Barnstormers’ president and a few folks in the PR department and have never, ever had my messages returned.

Never, ever.

Look, I just work for Comcast SportsNet. We’re bigger than anything in Lancaster, but we’re not as big as ESPN. Nor are we as big as Pearlman’s former employer, Sports Illustrated. So if the Barnstormers aren’t returning calls for Jeff, I guess I shouldn’t be so upset.

Right?

Well…

Pearlman just finished up an in-depth book about the glory days of the Dallas Cowboys. He also wrote a book about the 1986 Mets and Barry Bonds. He famously wrote about John Rocker for SI and even cracked The New York Times best seller list. Not too shabby.

Meanwhile, I’m just used to professional courtesy. In fact, every team in Major League Baseball has always returned my calls or e-mails (some faster than others), and every U.S. Representative, Senator and governor I ever have needed a response from has followed through promptly, too. But if the Lancaster Barnstormers don’t call back Jeff Pearlman for a fun story for ESPN, I guess that Von Hayes story I wanted to write is a no-go.

Oh well.

Here’s a funny part: As I was preparing research and awaiting a reply for access from the Barnstormers for a potential story on Hayes, I contacted the front office of Oakland A’s, whom Hayes worked for as a manager in the minors. Not only did someone from the A’s return my call, but actually showed up in Philadelphia at the ballpark to answer a few questions and talk about baseball. It was a really fun afternoon.

I was told the A’s liked Hayes, among other little nuggets. It might have made for a nice story.

Instead, this is all I got out of it…

And you just got a little whine.

P.S. One more thing about Von Hayes: When I was a kid I was a prolific letter writer. I wrote to anyone and everyone. Once I even wrote a letter to Von Hayes, and guess what?

He wrote back!

Based on that, what’s he doing with the Barnstormers?