For as much as baseball fans enjoy waxing poetic about how unpredictable the sport can be, many will also concede that if one attends enough games, you’ve just about seen it all.
Maybe now and then you’re blessed with a no-hitter or some hot shot prospect making his debut, but things start to blend together for the most part.
At least I thought that was the case on July 22nd, 2011 — three years ago today. In a rather predictable regular season, it was one of the most ordinary Phillies games I have ever attended. until it suddenly wasn’t. In the blink of an eye on a scorching mid-summer night, things changed drastically, producing one of the most memorable conversations I have ever been a part of.
On the three-year anniversary of this event, I have decided to transcribe and reflect upon what happened that night.
As I alluded to earlier, the big detail that I recall from the early portion of this day is how painstakingly hot it was. I was working as a camp counselor at the time and spent practically all of the workday outside. Thermometers eclipsed triple digits. Heat warnings ran rampant on the east coast, and several temperature records were broken.
To show that I’m not making any of this up, here’s a douchey tweet about it.
I was heading to the game with my friend Steve and one of his friends. Steve and I were high school friends, and we had kept in touch through our first two years of college. Steve was driving; remember this detail for later.
The Phillies were in the midst of a historic regular season, and Citizens Bank Park was the place to be on summer nights, but on this particular Friday evening, 45,383 folks were just trying to avoid falling victim to heat exhaustion and dehydration.
The ESPN box score records the first pitch temperature as 98 degrees. Usual ballpark favorites like cheesesteaks and crab fries only made you more thirsty, and if you didn’t have a bottle of water within arm’s reach at all times, you were doing it wrong.
The game itself was about as cut and dry as you could get for the 2011 Phillies. Cole Hamels, the only player whose performance has not dipped from three years ago, tossed eight dominant innings, only allowing one run. Chase Utley had two hits as an aging but still kinda formidable lineup produced three runs. Ryan Madson retired three straight Padres in the ninth, and everyone joined Harry Kalas in singing “High Hopes.”
The game lasted less than two and a half hours, but five minutes into the return trip, it became clear that we wouldn’t be getting home anytime soon. Steve’s car had all the signs of a vehicle about to break down — Overheated engine, unable to go faster than 40 mph, steering wheel about to lock.
Here is an Internet picture of I-95 in Philadelphia. This was not our exact location, but it will do to convey what we had to pull off.
The car on the far left might as well have been us. We figured we had less than a minute to get across four lanes of oncoming traffic and reach the safety of a shoulder. Steve obviously had the hard part of operating a car on its last leg. I was sitting in the back left seat behind him, so my job essentially was to verify that it was clear for him to switch lanes without getting smashed.
I’m normally a somewhat upbeat person, but as we proceeded through this 30-second challenge, I think I said to myself once or twice ‘We’re gonna die.’
Thankfully we didn’t die. Steve made it. A similar thing had happened to me with a different friend two years prior at an Eagles game, but having already experienced it once made it no less scary.
We tried the typical let the engine cool down and start up the car 10 minutes later strategy. No dice. Steve called for a AAA driver to tow the car and also get us close enough to home where someone could pick us up.
Forty minutes later, the tow truck came lumbering down I-95. The sun had long since set, but temperatures still hovered in the 80’s, and we were just excited to feel some air conditioning again.
Our driver was a hulking man with a shaved head wearing a T-shirt that looked like it could burst at the seams. He said his name was “Chris” as we boarded the car. It wasn’t a real friendly introduction but certainly not standoffish either.
The best way I can describe Chris is to say that while you might not be best friends with him, he was the type of guy you want to like you because if shit goes down, he could probably take out two or three people at once without much effort. You want Chris on your side.
Chris noticed the three of us wearing Phillies shirts, and this is where things got interesting.
“You kids coming from the game?” he asked. Typically I’m pretty shy in these situations, but for some reason I was the one to answer.
“Yeah,” I replied.
“They win?” Chris asked.
“Good shit. Hamels look good?”
“He did. Ten strikeouts over eight innings. Looked real sharp.”
“Nice. I was trying to watch before my shift. Looked like he was pitching a decent game.”
I kinda gave a casual head nod. At this point, Chris had been driving for a few minutes, and I figured the rest of the ride would pretty much feature silence.
Chris had other ideas though. Soon after, he asked if we had been alive for the 1993 season. Had I been a few years older, that World Series loss to the Blue Jays would have been my first sense of sports pain and not the Flyers getting swept by Detroit in the 1997 Stanley Cup finals, but we explained to him that while we remember watching, we were too young to really understand the magnitude of it at the time.
Take it away, Chris.
Phillies man, they’ll break your heart, man. I remember in 93, I was pumping gas in North Philly. We had a little TV set up outside there. I saw Mitchie-Poo give up the home run. It crushed my soul, man. I didn’t watch another game for 10 years after that.
We transitioned to talking about the then current Phillies. Hunter Pence was the name on everyone’s mind with the trade deadline a week away and the team in need of a corner outfield upgrade, but Chris had other ideas.
I think if we trade for a guy like Coghlan, could be a real sweet move. Guy like that would pop 15-20 home runs in this bandbox of a park.
Chris Coghlan was in the midst of a -.5 WAR season with the Marlins. The most home runs he has ever hit in a year is nine. At the time of this conversation, he was actually in Triple-A, trying to work out of a rough patch. Aside from sharing a first name, I’m not sure what could have possibly attracted Chris to the idea of trading for Coghlan, but he was passionate about it.
Last but certainly not least came one of the greatest lines I have ever witnessed. The topic shifted to Ryan Howard who was slashing a pedestrian .245/.341/.448 with 18 home runs. Three years later, the Phillies would yearn for anything close to these numbers.
Chris was ready.
Howard’s gotta shoot up a little bit, man. Not enough to get caught, just a little bit. Look guys, I’m 36-years old, I’m in the best shape of my life. I bench 350 every day. Pay me 20 million. I’ll pop a few pills and hit 30 home runs for ’em. Pay me 20 million.
By now, we were less than a minute away from where Chris would be dropping us off, and perhaps that was a good thing because other than to all laugh together along with Chris, we had no good response ready for something like that.
Here is another tweet to show this actually happened and that I haven’t just drawn the whole thing up in my wildest imagination.
I highly doubt Chris remembers this conversation as vividly as I do. Hell, he probably doesn’t remember it at all, and that’s okay.
One of the beauties of baseball is that it can hold friendships together as life begins to change and sometimes — even if it only lasts 25 minutes — introduce new people from different walks of the world into your life.
Chris’ opinions weren’t necessarily informed, but they were the perfect combination of humorous and outlandish to make us forget that we had previously been stranded on the side of I-95 without a way of getting home during one of the hottest of summer nights.
Rock on, Chris.
Despite one-bloody-nil, Roy Halladay’s arm falling off, Charlie Manuel being fired, and the ongoing malaise of the last two and a half years, I hope you’re still watching ball — and entertaining some college kids after their car breaks down on a major interstate.