The Boeing 737 was packed to the brim. When one thought the plane could fill no more, another group of five entered. Soon they settled in and buckled their seat belts. And if one squinted his eyes at the front of the 737, it would resemble that Halloween scene on Broad Street: A sea of red.
This Southwest Airlines flight was direct from Philadelphia to Tampa on a chilly Saturday morning. Passengers eschewed coats for the morning, shivering it out in sweatshirts — many depicting that iconic 2008 world champion logo. On this March morning, in the midst of an economic crisis and a dreary winter still ongoing, the faces were all bright. A beaming red, really. Almost all the passengers on this flight were venturing to Clearwater, Fla., to see the Phillies at spring training.
It’s a ritual that tracks back to the Model-T: Teams training for the upcoming season in warm-climate cities and towns, getting a jump on the season with some pitch-and-catch. The Phillies set shop in Clearwater in 1947; fittingly, many fans who frequent spring training became adults the very time the Phils landed in Florida. So, in a sense, these fans grew up with Clearwater. When they had enough money and time, they would travel south to catch the Phillies in action, take in the warm weather, play golf and enjoy life. In many ways, Clearwater is more about the fans than the ritual of season preparation.
Most days in Clearwater begin early, despite the partying undertaken the night before. Fans line up in droves outside Lenny’s, the classic Phillies-themed diner near Bright House Field. Owner Dan Farrell outfitted his diner this year to reflect the champs, showcasing new renderings of popular players and the Phillie Phanatic. Meanwhile, a sign over Lenny’s exclaims, “One Dollar Yuenglings.” Head to most bars, convenience stores and mini marts in the Clearwater area, and you can grab a six of Yuengling anytime.
Rummaging through the Phillies Majestic Clubhouse Store, too, is like landing at an American embassy — suddenly you feel at home looking at the logo-emblazoned T-shirts and stuffed Phillie Phanatics. And when at the practice fields at the Carpenter Complex, you’re suddenly a part of the family, walking alongside top prospects in street clothes, chatting with moms and dads, picking out the youngsters by their faces. Search long enough and see Scott Palmer running around, or Chuck Lamar pacing through the complex. For once the names you’ve heard and seem so untouchable are right there in plain view.
Of course, it’s not some awe-inspiring thing. They have jobs. They have lives. But when you follow a team so religiously, you tend to hold certain people to higher plateaus; to be able to humanize them and catch them in their most ethereal is quite taken. It’s fun watching a game at Citizens Bank Park, but on a small practice field in Clearwater? You’ll never see a major leaguer so up close again.
And you’ll never see a Philadelphian so unabashedly happy.
And why not? Throughout the complex and Bright House Field the words “2008 World Champions” cover everything. Banners hang from fences. Logos stick on doors. The offseason indicated the Phillies weren’t shy from recovering their 2008 accomplishments, as the front office locked up several young players for giant raises or extensions. The Phillies seemed immune to the economy, boasting their world championship status like a newfound fortune. And somehow, the fans are still coming. As if Clearwater was immune, too.
Interestingly, Major League Baseball is not suffering from the economic doldrums this spring. Attendance at spring training facilities is up two percent from last year. But how? Part of it might be the World Baseball Classic. But likely, it’s an indicator that baseball fans need a diversion from the harsh realities of everyday life. Finances are dwindling. Homes are seeing foreclosure. Workers are losing jobs. What better time to scrounge up a couple hundred dollars, hop a cheap flight and catch a couple games in the sunshine?
For Phillies fans, Clearwater is a diversion, as well. It’s a chance to soak in the heat while the city recovers from winter. And it’s a chance to reconnect with those regular haunts such as Lenny’s and Frenchy’s, a chance to buy that Phillies merchandise in preparation for the 2009 season. And it’s a chance to reconnect with old friends, sit around a table with a couple beers and chat about other friends, kids, college and high school, romances, and of course, the Phillies.
In many ways, Clearwater is a state of mind. It’s the place where we escape from our realities. We can forget about work, forget about responsibilities. We can merely concentrate on having the best time possible. And, of course, baseball. This is the time the nickname “The American Pastime” really means something.
For the hundreds of Phillies fans on that Boeing 737, they were already transitioning. The Phillies gear, out in plain sight, never looked so good. As a calm flight began its descent onto the Florida soil, passengers chatted about their experiences — not working in Center City or the Northeast, but watching the Phillies.
One man next to me talked about the reason for his trip to Florida: Golf. A round a day for the next week. Oh, and baseball: He was seeing the Phillies play the Marlins in Jupiter. He had been coming to Clearwater for years thanks to his “Phillie connections”: mainly, his nephew, Tom Burgoyne. Yes, the Phillie Phanatic. He waxed about seeing the franchise grow through the years, admitting the free agent failures of the past but confirming “they are a very well-run organization.” Most would agree these days — they started slow, but suddenly the Phillies are a gold standard. Right down to the marketing department — his nephew would know.
Before exiting the plane and feeling the warm Florida air, the man wished me a fun trip. I returned the favor. “I will enjoy it. I think I deserve it. I’ve took my lumps for years.”
Seemingly, we’ve all taken our lumps. And Clearwater lets us remember what it’s like to be happy.
Mug of Malcolm is published weekly at PhilliesNation.com