Last week, a package arrived at my house. It came from retired New Jersey state trooper Mike Dittmar. It had been many years since we last connected, but I will always remember the few words he said to me when we met.
I met Mike in 2002. I was struggling as a starter for the Philadelphia Phillies for most of the season. My father had been gravely ill since Opening Day 2000. It was a year when a lot was going wrong.
On the diamond, it was the first time as a big leaguer that I had lost my starting job. Meanwhile, 100 miles away, my father was again in the hospital. He had heart issues to go with the strokes and a lung cancer diagnosis.buy nike nfl jerseys cheap
After returning from a road trip around my birthday, I drove up from Philly to North Jersey to meet my mom at the hospital. My dad was in and out of a comatose state but focused just enough to recognize us. I drove home knowing that time was limited, and in my distraction, I sped past the speed limit. Mike pulled me over.
Converging to Arizona spring training locations makes sense on paper given the concentration of facilities and the roof-sporting big league park at Chase Field. Yet the practicality of isolating hundreds of players and personnel must address the potential separation from families and a host of other significant issues.
Outside of the logistical and safety challenges of pulling this off, it would be a shame to return without fans. I played for the Phillies when we returned from 9/11 and it was important that we were able to come back together. It put us all on the playing field as one people, all of us fans of baseball. It gave the sport deeper value, showcasing its healing powers and its ability to unite and unify. It was a feeling that would not shine through a flat-screen TV or an iPhone when watching players in an empty stadium, even if a little baseball is better than none at all.
I played college baseball at the University of Pennsylvania, not far from Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, then home of the Phillies. We did not draw many fans. There were times when I resorted to distributing hand-drawn maps of the campus to show people how to find our stadium. The field was on the edge of campus and nowhere near where students would naturally pass, so it was mostly family and friends who attended our games.
After my junior year, the MLB draft took place in June 1991. When I signed with the Chicago Cubs that summer, I had little experience playing in front of big crowds. A few NCAA tournament games and the Cape Cod All-Star Game drew well, but mostly I played in front of my 25 to 50 people.nike nfl jerseys cheap paypal
As I got closer to the big leagues, the number or people in the stands increased. By Double-A in Orlando, during the Michael Jordan years, I started to feel the crowd over my shoulder. It was not comfortable, even scary at times, especially when your success and failures are responded to in real time. Cheers and boos, home and away.
By Triple-A, I was in Iowa and we averaged 10,000 fans a night. Our fans were engaged, loyal and supportive on and off the field. By this point, despite a minor league player’s obsession to get out of town and to the next level, I had a fuller understanding of what so many of the fans meant at the many stops I had made along the way. The booster club in Winston-Salem, the fan mania of playing in Orlando during the World Cup, the loyal and dedicated crowds at an Arizona spring training workout. People whom I could talk to one-on-one before and after every game or practice.
One super loyal Iowa Cubs fan was the daughter of a local memorabilia collector. In my second year there, I agreed to do a signing at her father’s store, Cornelius Collectibles. I asked for the address, and they said, “Let’s just meet at a local McDonald’s.” I was a little confused. I met them as they suggested and followed them into town. We literally made a turn into a cornfield. I could not see anything but a dirt road and corn. On the other side, I was introduced to Bagley, Iowa. Four blocks by four blocks. Population: 300. A fan exposed me to a place I could have never imagined outside of “Field of Dreams.”
But I was in Triple-A. At the doorstep of The Show. I had finally learned how to perform on a bigger stage, a place where everyone was counting the numbers and counting on me. In fact, I had come to embrace it. This led to one of the most transformative fan experiences I would have in baseball, when I spent the next two offseasons playing winter ball in Puerto Rico.