Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Chasing the demons of '64

In a city that is holding its breath as World Series Fever turns our world upside-down, my thoughts this morning took an odd turn.

I have been thinking about 1964. That’s really where all this starts. This notion that we are cursed, that our sports heroes are fatally flawed, doomed to failure, sure to stab us in the heart.

It started when Chico Ruiz stole home to propel the Reds over the Phils. Up six with 10 games to play, the ’64 Phillies went belly-up to earn a permanent spot in the darkest recesses of our sports-addled minds.

The city has struggled with the emblem ever since. Even a World Championship in 1980 has not completely dispelled those feelings of inferiority, that somehow, some way, our sports teams will fail in the clutch.

I was 9 years old in 1964. I loved two things: Playing baseball and the Phillies. I followed them religiously, either at my father’s side as he sat in the yard listening to the transistor radio, or on TV, which my father eschewed because he could “see the game better” on the radio. Today, all these years later, as a person who loves nothing more than sitting on his porch on a steamy summer night doing the same thing, I finally know what my dad was talking about.

I grew up in a little town out in Chester County. Oxford, Pa., has a fairly famous connection to the Phillies – and that 1964 team – that I bet you’ve never heard of.

His name is John Ogden. Ogden was a scout for years with the Phillies. As kids we would often hang around outside his house because we knew the kindly older man had a penchant for giving out tickets to see the Phils at Connie Mack Stadium. To be honest, we probably were just pestering him and he likely offered the ducats as a way of getting us off his lawn.

And what would Ogden’s connection to the ’64 Phillies be? As I said Ogden was a scout. During one of the endless trips that scouts took in those days, before every moment of every prospect’s life was captured on video, Ogden found himself beating the bushes in another little Pennsylvania town. Ogden was in Wampum, Pa.

Ring a bell? It should. That was where John Ogden laid his eyes on a young slugger. His name was Richie Allen. We would later know him as the “Wampum Walloper.”

Ogden signed Allen, who starred as a rookie on that 1964 team. Allen was known for his prodigious power, and his occasional blasts over the Ballantine Scoreboard at Connie Mack Stadium.

I’m not sure if it was after Ogden signed Allen or later when he was terrorizing National League pitching, but Allen once joined Ogden on the front porch of that Oxford home. Every kid in town was there to see the next great hope of the Phils.

Kind of like that ’64 team he starred on as a rookie, Allen was a bit cursed. He had a running series of disagreements with team management, as well as the fans. He once famously etched the word “Boo” in the dirt around first base. He got involved in a famous tussle with teammate Dick Stuart, and was involved in an equally infamous injury to his hand, which he claimed happened when he put it through a headlight while pushing his car. Eventually Allen was traded.

But it never diminished my admiration for him. That’s because I had another reason to like Allen. Like my dad, he fancied the ponies. He was a bit of a horse player.

He once famously said about the arrival of Astro-Turf artificial surfaces: “If a horse can’t eat it, I don’t want to play on it.”

Which brings us full circle. The Phils will play Game One of the World Series tonight, inside a domed stadium, on an artificial surface.

Maybe if they win, we can finally put away the demons of 1964. But some elements of that team will be with me forever.

Seeing your favorite player sitting on the front porch of a house in your tiny home town will do that to you.
*
Finally. Or maybe that should be Phinally.

The Phillies and Rays will tee it up tonight in Game 1 of the World Series at Tropicana Field in Tampa Bay.

Of course the Phillies clinched their spot in the Fall Classic last Wednesday by dumping the Dodgers in L.A. That was seven long days ago. In the meantime the Rays and Red Sox were in the throes of a seven-game struggle before the Rays finally prevailed.

Crazed Phillies fans have been biding their time, buying every piece of Phillies paraphernalia they can get their hands on, for the last seven days.

We waited 15 years to get back to the World Series, what’s another seven days.

Here is one man’s view of the Series. Tonight is the key. And Cole Hamels is again in the spotlight. He’s been lights out so far in post-season play. He’s compiled a 3-0 record and a sparkling 1.23 ERA.

If Hamels wins, the Phils will follow his lead. I say Hamels delivers again. He goes eight strong and then hands it off to Brad “Lights Out” Lidge.”

You heard it here first. Phillies in six.

Anyone ready for a parade?

*

If you just can’t wait until 8:35 (yes, I know that is ungodly late. Just thank your lucky stars you’re not a newspaper editor with an impossible-to-meet deadline), there’s any number of rallies for you to get your Phillies fix while waiting for Game One.

In Delco, fans will converge in the courtyard of the Delaware County Courthouse Government Center in Media from 12:30-1:30 this afternoon. Wear your red.

If you’re going to be downtown, the city is holding a pep rally at noon at Dilworth Plaza outside City Hall.

And if you’re feeling really adventurous and like your baseball with a chill in the air, there will be a Phillies Viewing Party in the Great Plaza at Penn’s Landing to watch Game 1 of the Series in the great outdoors. Game time is 8:35. Imagine that, 2,000 fans huddled outside in the October chill to watch a game being played in the climate-controlled indoor atmosphere of Tropicana Field.

Go figure.

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