PHILADELPHIA — I needed the money. It was that simple. When you’re 11 years old, your allowance is gone, and there are all these great comic books to buy, well, what choice does a kid have? I went to work. I took my first job. I got on the subway, rode down Broad Street and got off at my personal field of dreams. It was new at the time, round, with different colored seats, and a machine that shot fireworks out beyond centerfield. They called it Veterans Stadium.
“Don’t say anything dumb,” my friend warned me. He already was working there, selling programs, and he said he could “get me in.” He dragged me to this dank room beneath a concrete ramp on the stadium’s lowest level. It smelled of cigar smoke. On the gray walls hung dozens of red-and-white-striped uniforms. I was a small kid. They looked awfully big.
“How old are you?” barked a man. I spun around. He had a cigar between his teeth and thinning gray hair. The boss.
“Thirteen,” I said, glancing at my friend. I lied. Should I have picked a higher number? Thirteen seems pretty old when you’re 11.
“Thirteen? Can you handle one of these?”
He hoisted a canvas bag containing 20 Philadelphia Phillies programs and five Philadelphia Phillies yearbooks. I tightened my shoulders as he draped it over me. “Yeah, no problem,” I said, gritting my teeth.
“Good.” He stuffed another 30 programs into the bag. Suddenly it felt like two bowling balls hanging around my neck.
“You get a nickel for every program, and 15 cents for every yearbook,” he said. “Get out and sell them, and don’t come back until they’re gone.”
He turned. He never asked my name. Others were now filing in, bigger kids, grown men, grabbing the bags wordlessly, taking a uniform off the hook. It was another day on the job for them. But it was a whole new world for me. Someone was paying me to do something. I grabbed a striped shirt and slipped it on. Too big. I scampered out before anyone saw me, looking like I was wearing a dress.
Death of a salesman
That I can remember all that, I think, is due to what came next. I walked through the opening and was hit with the most startling visual burst of my life. A major league baseball field. Such a view! A huge stadium full of colored seats, a round blue sky, green turf, brown dirt, and the steady plunking sound of ball meeting bat as the players took early practice.
I was knocked out. There was Steve Carlton and Tommy Hutton and Greg
(Bull) Luzinski, real live players, just a few feet away. And suddenly I bonded with them. We had all come to work. This is what Disney calls an E-ticket sensation.
“Get moving,” my friend said, breaking my trance. He and the others were fanning out across the stadium, claiming ground, holding positions. As the fans began to file in, it seemed all my colleagues were right where they needed to be, selling programs like jugglers moving balls.
And there I was, always a second too late, missing a sale, losing to someone else, my bag drooping. I ran foolishly to the upper deck. My shoulders ached. The sweat poured down my face and soaked me under my uniform. I yelled what the others yelled. “Programs! Yearbooks! Scorecards! Lineups!”
I saw a man waving at me from the last row of the stadium. I trudged up, my bag bumping me with every step. Breathless when I finally got there, I stammered, “Program, sir?”
“Nah,” he said. “Send the hot dog guy up, OK?”
Boys of summer
Eventually I learned the tricks of the trade — although, admittedly, the most I ever made was $43 the night of a July doubleheader against the Cincinnati Reds. Usually I went home with about $9 for five hours’ work. And I never complained. Because as long as I had that red-and-white uniform, I could sit and watch the games when I was done.
And I did. I watched. I learned every player. We would get there early and catch the balls they hit out during batting practice. Once or twice, the Phillies let us come onto the field and throw to them. It was the most incredible summer, night after night of hawking programs, then “relaxing” in the seats, sharing hot dogs, guessing what song the organist would play. We cheered, we argued, we booed bad calls. The summer wind blew. This is how boys fall in love with baseball.
I quit the job when I was 14. I left for college a few years later. I grew into one of those men who would rather leave his roots than nurture them. Eventually, sports became my work, and on nights off, going to a ballpark held no magic.
Until tonight. Tonight, Game 3 of the World Series, will be my first baseball game at the Vet since I walked out the employees’ exit as a teen. And for some reason, I am excited. Why? I seem to have reached that midpoint in life, where glimpses of our youth become vitally important. We want to remember how it smelled, how it felt, how it tasted. Why is this?
Maybe because it was fun. These Phils are fun, and I’m glad they inhabit my old stomping grounds. For me they carry on tradition. They even look a little like we did in the early ’70s, long hair and all.
Fun. There was no finer backyard for a boy than that stadium. I’m not sure I ever appreciated it until now. But tonight, just before game time, I’m know what I’m going to do. I’m going to find the youngest-looking vendor, and I’m going to buy up all his programs, just to see the look on his face.