My itinerary to take in Friday night’s Mets-Phillies game at Citizens Bank Park was not configured by an app that promises to suggest only the longest journeys possible, but it could have been. One of the things I like about Citizens Bank is it’s close enough to be accessible and far enough away so that I know I’ve been somewhere.
I was somewhere, all right. I was on my way there, I was there and I was on my way back. It took a while. But that’s OK. It’s baseball season. Where else do I have to be?
The instigating factors pulling me across a pair of state lines for one afternoon, evening and early morning were a user-friendly starting time of 6:05 PM (CBP was adding a postgame concert by a musical act called Old Dominion, which I thought played college basketball when not moving freight) and the man who brought it to my attention, Jeff from Great Neck, who’s technically Jeff from somewhere else — the DC area — for more than thirty years, but in his soul he’s never left the Metropolitan Area. For one day, in deference to a family affair, he was Jeff in Jersey, which was good enough to lure me into the wild, or as it’s been known since 1682, Philadelphia.
Six o’clock loomed as logistical triumph, allowing a Long Island Rail Roader like myself an ample window to leave home during the day, take in close to an entire game and return before the dawn. Train to Penn. Train to somewhere in the middle of New Jersey. Jeff picking me up and driving us to the ballpark. Later, when we’d have to part company, I’d reverse the journey via a pair of SEPTA subway lines, a SEPTA regional train, another NJ Transit ride and, sometime after one in the morning, the good ol’ L-I-Double-R. The commuting took longer than the baseball, but since it was all in service to baseball, what’s a few hours’ schlep between friends?
Let’s pick up the action as Jeff and I arrive at beautiful and I do mean beautiful Citizens Bank Park, where I hadn’t been since 2010 . It’s grown only prettier since it and I last spent a day together. The people who staff it have grown only warmer, and not just from the Friday night heat. I should be past the compare-and-contrast reflex, but geez, what a better place to experience a ballgame than Citi Field on virtually every level. The Phanatic’s kind of a clown compared to Mr. Met (Mr. Met has never smothered Jeff with his oversized Phillies jersey, whereas the Phanatic very recently has) and you hardly ever see anybody at Citi Field displaying fealty to UTLEY 26 on their backs, but other than that, it pains me to say the Phillies outdo the Mets at hosting baseball.
They’re also outdoing them in the standings, Friday night serving as a prime example of why. The same legitimate contender we throttled to within an inch of its franchise charter in the opener of Thursday’s twi-nighter definitely showed itself the more competent combatant when granted one of the 161 do-overs baseball grants every year. The Phillies won, 4-2 , and it wasn’t even that close. Noah Syndergaard  was clearly off his game, but he did keep us in the game, which is a skill not to be readily dismissed. When Steven Matz is clearly off his game, you can make out the overture to John Phillip Sousa’s “Relentless Bullpen March” as early as the second inning. Mostly, the Phillies stole bases while Syndergaard and Kevin Plawecki  tossed a ball back and forth. The Mets’ defense wasn’t airtight and Aaron Nola suffocated Mets hitters, as if it wasn’t stifling hot enough already.
Teams near first place are occasionally going to outclass teams buried in fourth place, just as teams in fourth place are occasionally going to bombard teams near first place. Baseball both rewards and defies consistency in an effort to keep you from figuring out what it’s up to. The afterglow of that 24-4 romp  through the Phillie gloves (during which Howie Rose observed the home team might as well have been handling hand grenades) was aberration enough to tamp down Jeff’s and my grumbling that we were watching a more typical 2018 Mets performance, scoring next to nothing in what we could have sworn was a visitor-amenable bandbox. Sure, a more efficient distribution of runs than the Mets’ recent trajectory of 3, 16, 24, 6 and 2 would be more sensible in a quest for success, but it’s August, we’re out of it and, besides, who doesn’t want to see a record set? Dedicate proper allocation of resources where the concept can do the most good, like in the electoral college.
Better yet, let the Mets score 24 runs every night.
If we couldn’t have that, though, give Jeff and me a ballgame to enjoy together roughly midway between where he lives and where I live when we don’t live particularly close to one another. Give it to us on a Friday night in summertime, first pitch shortly after six. Give it to us in as beautiful a ballpark as we could have asked for and we’ll look the other way when the Mets don’t pour on the runs.
The ballpark is beautiful, which I mentioned earlier and mention every time I show up  (this was my fifth game there), yet I’m always stunned by what an ideal setting Citizens Bank presents and how enhanced it is by the most genuinely helpful and friendly staff I’ve encountered in 34 major league ballparks and how even the presence of people thinking the best of Chase Utley can’t bring it down. Usually there’s a little edge to these Mets at Phillies showdowns in the stands, some genuine verbal brushbacks delivered by both sides, but not last night. I attributed the overwhelming comity between normally clashing tribes to a combination of the following:
• How high and mighty can Phillies fans act less than twenty-four hours removed from surrendering twenty-four runs?
• They’re so new to the sensation of contention that they’re too happy to be sore at the likes of us.
• The likes of us are too beaten down by this season to pick any fights.
• The Old Dominion crowd wasn’t there to be feisty.
• Niceness pervaded amid the heat.
I’ll go with that. Phillies fans watched Jeff’s bag for him. Jeff watched Phillies fans’ bags for them. (The only ones not watching bags were Thor and Plawecki.) The guy charged with searching my bag at the entrance let my open beverage containers be. The guy transacting my Bull’s BBQ purchase practically invited me behind the counter to take all the trays and utensils I wanted (while the Bull himself, Greg Luzinski, sat nearby autographing and kibitzing as easily as the Phillies stole bases off our battery). Whoever sold Jeff our souvenir sodas said the “Good For ONE REFILL Today Only” sticker applied to the cup would not prevent us getting all the refills we wanted anytime; it also led us to hope that the Phillies would soon call up top outfield prospect Juan Refill. And Jackie, the lady who ushered our section, answered our frenzied New Yorker question about showing our non-existent tickets to regain entrance to our field level section — they were on Jeff’s phone and we had no printouts — with a relaxed “I know who you are now, and if I’m not here, just tell that young man down there.” When I asked someone working the exit gate to confirm directions to the subway, he walked me out to the street himself, explained everything slowly and pointed twice for good measure.
With friendliness like that the rule, you can forgive the Phillies for pilfering a few too many bases and their fans for wearing a few too many UTLEYs.
Little touches make Citizens Bank Park rule, especially when Citi Field lacks them. The Ashburn Alley street sign in center field is just so damn whimsical. Also, they have pictures of Richie Ashburn up everywhere. Same for other Phillie greats, and you don’t feel they’re there because their fans grumbled there weren’t enough of them when the park opened. There are more statues in around their ballpark than there are open concessions most nights in Citi Field’s Promenade…not to mention statues on the grounds in Flushing. Attendants come around regularly to collect empty plastic bottles and aluminum cans. The public address announcer made a point of welcoming us to see “National League baseball,” the best kind, and welcomed Daniel Zamora , who was “now pitching for New York” (I like the formality of “New York”) by noting that he was making his major league debut.
Which, incidentally, represented the highlight of the evening for Jeff and me, alongside Bull’s unbelievable barbecue and everybody’s uncommon courtesy. We knew Daniel Zamora, called up from Binghamton to replace DL’d Bobby Wahl, was our 54th Met of 2018. As with the 24 runs, this was big-time record-setting, or at least record-tying. The answer to the question some of us have been asking ourselves since 1967 — “Met 54, where are you?” — was finally answered. Knowing this milestone had been touched made us authorities on Daniel Zamora compared to not only Phillies fans but Mets fans in our section, which is understandable. There must have been a flock of Temple Owls in the house because Zamora was greeted primarily with “who? who?” It’s a common refrain at Mets games everywhere these days. At one point Friday, a majority of the nine Mets on the field were either ballplayers no reasonably informed Mets fans had heard of when the season started or ballplayers no Mets fan had ever thought of in a Mets context. McNeil. Jackson. Bautista. Miscast left fielder and nine hole batter (behind Syndergaard) Jack Reinheimer. And now, to make Reinheimer seem as much of a Met old-timer as Richie Ashburn, lefty reliever Daniel Zamora.
Zamora looked pretty good, but then again, to us, he just had to appear to meet with our instantaneous approval. We’ve had 54 Mets this year, as many as we’ve had in any year. With 41 games remaining and roster churn the modus operandi of the moment, 55 seems within easy reach.
Citizens Bank Park is the kind of place where a kid can wander in off the streets of Binghamton and feel at home. I wandered in from Long Island and felt that way. I applauded for Asdrubal Cabrera his first time to bat, which was understandable. After some Phillie base hit or another, I mindlessly applauded as well. Jeff was aghast. So was I when it occurred to me what I was applauding, but I realized I was getting caught up in the good vibe, something I haven’t felt too often at Citi Field of late. Open, airy Citizens Bank on Friday struck me as the kind of place people go to have a good time, reminding me claustrophobic Citi Field in 2018 is a place Mets fans have been filing into prepared for thudding dismay.
Jeff, despite having been unwillingly Phanaticized, was boosted by the experience as well. He was so willing to spark upbeat conversations with total strangers, I had to ask, “Are you like this in real life?” No, he acknowledged, not really, but the night was bringing it out in him. Earlier in the day, he was packing up stuff from his late mother’s home somewhere in the middle of Jersey, trying to decide what to dutifully haul home and what to send to others “so they can throw it out.” A ballgame, no matter that your team of choice is losing it, can provide quite the contrast with the unpleasant aspects of regular life.
We would have preferred a Mets win. We would have preferred a more effective breeze beyond that which Nola induced with his eleven strikeouts. We might have wished to have witnessed a 24-run Met outburst with our own eyes. We would have liked fewer stolen bases accompanying our stolen moments. But you can’t beat being happy, and that we were for a few hours.
Then for a few hours more, I was a commuter. The 6:05 start was swell, but I had to implement a 9:15-ish, eighth-inning curfew to ensure I’d make the 10:18 out of 30th Street Station. Every step of the reverse commute unfolded as planned (SEPTA employees and riders must study at Citizens Bank Park, because they were also extraordinarily helpful to this out-of-towner), but my long way home was long as hell. Not hellish, just long, winding and pausing its way through every Southeastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey railroad depot in creation. The rains that threatened CBP held off while we were there, but they deluged the Garden State as we rolled toward New York. Official flood warnings blasted from myriad phones and, judging from a glance out the window somewhere north of Linden, with good reason.
Ah, but a rainy night in Jersey, just like a steamy one at Citizens Bank, has its charms. I had tucked away in my bag a pocket-sized book titled A Drive into the Gap . Written by the novelist Kevin Guilfoile, it is a brief memoir of his father, who worked for the Pirates, and Roberto Clemente, who handed his dad the bat with which he recorded his 3,000th and final career hit, off Jon Matlack in 1972, three months before dying on his mission of mercy to earthquake-rattled Nicaragua. That bat was immediately shipped to the Hall of Fame, where it was displayed in a place of honor for the rest of time. Except was that bat really the bat? That question, and the stories with which the author surrounded it, layered my journey with a swath of unexpected grace. Read a book that good on your post-ballpark trip and you’ll make every last stop from Bridesburg, PA, to Metuchen, NJ, with a smile that will pry your eyes open until you return to Penn Station, a 1 AM slice of Rosa’s Pizza to kill another sliver of time, and a final connection home.