Back On Track

April 25, 2004

He is a lucky man who finds himself on a train, bound for a
distant ballpark, while breaking the seal on a pack of playing
cards. And if those cards are Bicycle brand and the train is
leaving Penn Station (where Babe Ruth first set foot in New York
City as a Yankee) and he's booked into the Quiet Car, bereft of
bleating cellphones, then it might as well be 1920.

Every baseball season should start on a train. Railroads have
inspired some of baseball's best nicknames, from Walter (Big
Train) Johnson to Clarence (Choo Choo) Coleman, a man incapable
of staying still even when squatting behind home plate. Asked to
name the toughest man he ever pitched to, teammate Chuck Churn
replied, "Coleman."

We have ballparks on railways (Camden Yards, as the name
suggests, is on the old B&O rail yard in Baltimore) and railways
in ballparks. (The Astros play at the former Union Station and
keep a locomotive in leftfield.) We have ball clubs named for
railways. (The Gary SouthShore RailCats of the Northern League
come to mind.) But we are, alas, no longer blessed with ball
clubs on railways, sluggers in sleeper cars, traversing the big
leagues from Boston to St. Louis.

"We did take the train to Baltimore a few years ago," says
Phillies outfielder Doug Glanville, wistfully. "We played cards
and kicked back. But in the blink of an eye we were there."

And so I resolved not to blink while boarding the serpent-headed
Acela Express in New York City, bound for Philadelphia, my eyes
shifting from passenger to passenger as if I were Hercule Poirot
on the Orient Express.

Only days earlier Amtrak police had arrested on this very line,
at my very destination, a suspected jewel thief. When the Indians
were in town to play a preseason game against the Phillies at
Philadelphia's new Citizens Bank Park, Tribe leftfielder Matt
Lawton had more than $100,000 worth of jewelry heisted from a
Gucci bag in his room in the luxe Ritz-Carlton. While the man
apprehended at 30th Street Station--with the bag, a ticket and
several watches--did not have Lawton's loot (he was charged with
ticket fraud and drug possession), the case did highlight, and
not for the first time, this fact: Almost any professional
athlete, regardless of achievement, could replace the monocled
man on the Monopoly card as the cartoon manifestation of
richness.

In baseball a player who strikes out four times in a game is said
to have earned the Golden Sombrero, and--given the casual
decadence now on display in sports--it won't be long before that
player is given a real, 14-carat gilded sombrero.

But I'm getting off the track, an undesirable thing to do on a
train, from which I disembark too soon, at 30th Street Station.
In 1992, in his 120-page senior thesis at the University of
Pennsylvania, Glanville studied the feasibility of building a new
Phillies ballpark here, adjacent to the train station, on the
edge of Center City. "It would have been real nice," says
Glanville, a science and systems-engineering major who is now the
Phils' part-time centerfielder. "We could take the Acela up to
play in New York. But it would have cost at least twice as much
[as Citizens Bank Park] and taken quite a few more years to
build."

Now Glanville sits contentedly in the home clubhouse of the $458
million ballpark, next door to the rubble pile that was Veterans
Stadium. Surrounded by dark wood and red leather club chairs,
basking in the glow of a plasma TV, he says, "I got an A on the
paper. It's now in the Hall of Fame. So I can say"--Glanville
smiles--"that I'm in the Baseball Hall of Fame."

Citizens Bank Park is stunning. The statue of Steve Carlton is
less stoic than the actual Steve Carlton. On the centerfield
concourse, at Bull's BBQ, ex-Phil slugger Greg Luzinski mans two
grills, twin Webers the size of on-deck circles, while signing
caps and brushing rib racks roughly the size of the one in the
opening credits of The Flintstones.

Perhaps it's best that the park isn't at 30th Street Station,
where teams could train directly to its door. "The pet aversions
of all Pullman porters are professional baseball players, most of
whom are ... vulgar and uncouth youths," wrote Stewart H.
Holbrook in The Life of the Pullman Porter, published in 1947. In
it one porter says, "[The players] tear up the linen, destroy
pillows in their adolescent horseplay, and abuse every piece of
equipment aboard. Cattle cars would be too good for a majority of
professional baseball players."

Still, if you're weary of removing your shoes and belt before
boarding a plane, as if being booked into prison ... if the ivy
at Wrigley is eclipsed, in your eyes, by the elevated train
beyond the rightfield rooftops ... if you simply cannot hear a
train go by without longing to be on it, then you know that
baseball should allow for occasional ties. Railroad ties.

Me, I cabbed to the ballpark from the train station in Philly.
The driver didn't recognize the name Citizens Bank Park, which
raises the question, What to call it? It seems likely to become,
in everyday conversation, the Cit. But true insiders--those of us
who were there the first week--will quietly call it the Zen, just
as Buck Henry once said that people really close to Hugh Hefner
don't call him Hef.

They call him Ner.

COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY

A ride down to Philly's stunning new Citizens Bank Park proves
that baseball should allow for ties: railroad ties.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)