A few months ago I went to a Phillies game. I didn’t take The Knucklehead. I didn’t take My Bride. I went with a guy I’d seen around my small town for the past fifteen years but had never really gotten the chance to get to know.
I went to the Phillies game with Larry.
Let me tell you about Larry.
* * *
I first met Larry when my son began playing Little League baseball. Larry is a big guy, a friendly guy. Larry is what you’d call “a hugger,” but he’s learned along the way that kids aren’t fans of his bone-crushing hugs, so for them he’s switched over to high-fives. Larry is also what you’d probably call a “special needs” guy. Larry’s independent, seems to function well enough on his own, but lacks the basic emotional filters (and volume control) that most of us have learned to keep a low profile as we pass through our communities.
One thing Larry is not is a low-profile guy.
Larry is our rural community’s #1 sports fan. Every spring you can find him at the Little League field, cheering his head off for… whomever. Though there are teams Larry seems to root for, he often switches allegiances mid-game for whoever is batting. If you’re a kid, and you get a hit in a Little League game, you don’t need to watch the path of the ball to know if it fell between fielders. Larry will let you know.
Such are the man’s pipes that he’s usually given the responsibility for hawking the 50/50 fundraising tickets during the game; there’s no way you’ll be unaware of our friend passing through the stands. When it comes time to announce the winning ticket number, we’ve long given up trying to tell Larry he doesn’t need to both yell and use the microphone. We’ve just learned to cover our ears.
Larry joins the post-game huddle after every ballgame – both winning and losing teams. He’s there for encouragement, and generations of local players have grown up accustomed to Larry patiently waiting out the coaches’ analysis, and then loudly proclaiming his deep pride in the sportsmanship of each and every athlete. The kids are respectful – Larry is something of an institution in our town – but they also appreciate the support. Larry takes the sting out of a loss. Larry knows how hard you fought for a win. The game ain’t over until Larry sings.
My introduction to Larry was through Little League baseball, but he’s a presence throughout the community. This town is big on high school football, and Larry wouldn’t miss a home game. Even among the roar of the crowd, you’d miss it if you didn’t hear Larry’s distinctive voice booming from goalpost to goalpost. Basketball, wrestling; like I said, the man is our #1 sports fan. It’s what he lives for.
You get used to seeing Larry around town. He’s a fixture. He socializes at the usual small-town haunts – the church suppers, the fire halls – and he’s a regular at the local brewpub, which is where I often run into him. Nobody can work a room like Larry. Politicians could learn something from him. Larry doesn’t drink, but he makes his rounds in the pub, laughing (loud) at whoever’s telling a joke, greeting (loudly) each table like they’re long-lost friends. The man greets everyone, but he doesn’t linger too long at any one table, because he knows he can’t play favorites. He’s there for everyone. Gotta keep moving, gotta lotta people to greet. He presses the flesh – if a little overenthusiastically – masterfully. Larry is our local celebrity, and it’s a position he takes seriously.
* * *
One evening this past April I was writing The Knucklehead his weekly letter from my usual perch at the bar when Larry dutifully strolled over on his rounds. Larry knows me as The Knucklehead’s dad, and that’s about it. I don’t really know Larry outside of his public persona, but I’m grateful for his presence at the Little League field, and I’m always happy to say hello and engage him in a little small talk. (Some people don’t, and I think it’s important Larry know his value to the community.)
“HOW YA DOIN’?!” Larry offers; it’s his standard greeting, given at the standard volume, whether you’re on the other side of the bleachers on the ballfield, or two feet away in a pub.
“Lawrence,” I smile. I don’t know why I call him “Lawrence,” I just do, and he seems to get a kick out of it. “How do you think the Phillies are going to do this year?”
“Good!” he assures me. “The Phillies are going to go ALL THE WAY this year!”
Now, for many of us in America, a rite of passage is going to a major league baseball game. If you live in eastern Pennsylvania, that usually means a Phillies game, and until 2004, the Phillies played at Veteran’s Stadium, a giant cookie-cutter astroturfed monstrosity they shared with the Eagles. The place was a dump, but it was our dump, and you couldn’t help but wax nostalgic for the place, even though the current Citizen’s Bank Park is a much, much better venue for a baseball team (ticket ads for the new ballpark back then featured Phillies players cavorting in a field of real grass). I had assumed Larry had been to the Vet at some point, as had almost everyone over the age of 25 within a 500-mile radius of Philadelphia. And so, just making conversation, looking for something to say, I asked Larry,
“Hey, have you made it down to Citizen’s Bank Park yet?”
Larry looked down at his feet, and just shook his head. “Nope. I’ve never been to a major league baseball game.” Larry said those exact words, so help me, and from anyone else they would have sounded at least melodramatic if not manipulative. From Larry, they were just a statement of fact.
* * *
Now, I am not Larry’s family, and I am not his caseworker. I’m not really even his friend; I know him only because you can’t live here and not be aware of his existence. Larry knows even less about me. Someone should have taken him to a Phillies game years ago, and I’m sorry no one did. But it’s not my job.
Except… it is my job. I’m a baseball fan. I have the time, I have a car, I have a some extra bucks for tickets. My family can easily spare me for a weekend day. And, hasn’t the man supported my son through his entire youth sports career? Hasn’t he devoted himself to boosting his neighbors, whether he knows who they are or not? Hasn’t Larry made me smile at least as often as anyone else I know in this community?
This is life in a small town. Social services are stretched thin, and they’re stretched across miles and miles of rural countryside. The resources of an urban center aren’t available here. You find out early on that if things are going to get done, there are fewer citizens to spread the responsibilities among than in more populated communities. You see a need, you step up. Like the lady said, it takes a village.
I didn’t choose my home community, but I’m a part of it. It’s true that my heart lies elsewhere, but I’m here, so I have a responsibility to make myself useful. So I pay my local taxes. I shop locally, donate to the local library and fire companies and youth sports, and give blood that stays in the community. I’ve volunteered in the local schools, and tend to my neighbors in my work as a nurse. I vote. I do my bit.
And so it fell to me to take Larry to his first Phillies game. We decided on a day game in May.
* * *
In the weeks leading up to the game, I realized I had no idea what I’d gotten myself into. I’d be in a car alone with Larry for almost six hours in addition to the time we’d spend at the game. Would there be medications involved, food allergies? It never occurred to me to ask if I needed to clear the trip with someone; a case worker or a family member. Was there anything I needed to know? I had told both My Bride and The Knucklehead that they were welcome to join me, “but I understand that this is something I’ve gotten myself into, and I’m ready to brave it alone if I have to.” It turned out that they each had their own (legitimate) commitments for the day, so I was on my own.
But as I cautiously mentioned to a few friends my plans for our trip, sort of feeling out if there was any local lore that might help me, I found a surprising thing. I was not, by far, the first person to step up to the plate for Larry. It turned out I wasn’t really doing anything exceptional for the man; I was simply the latest member of a loose club of community members who were also grateful to Larry for the joy he’d brought them, and had done something to enrich his life in return. I found out that a friend and coworker had invited Larry to her wedding, and made sure he had a way to get to both the ceremony and reception. I remembered that when The Knucklehead’s 11-year-old all-star team had made it all the way to the state tournament, Larry was there, riding in the minivan with the family of one of my son’s teammates. Lots of people in the community had included him in their lives. Now, it was simply my turn.
I had thought I was doing a favor for Larry, but it turned out to be the other way around. Larry was helping me to become part of the heart of my adopted community.
* * *
Surprise fun fact about Larry: he’s actually pretty good company on a road trip. The boisterousness (if not the volume) gets turned down when you’re one to one, so it was a more relaxing trip than I feared it might be. We chatted a little, and Larry actually seemed surprisingly reticent, until it dawned on me that I was as much of a stranger to Larry as he was to me. As we traded bits of information about each other, we loosened up some; I learned that Larry comes from a family of five, all in nearby towns, but since Larry doesn’t drive and there’s little public transportation, he’s learned to be independent. Larry has a job he likes going to, and likes that his coworkers can depend on him. We’re about the same age (Larry’s a few years younger). I had my iPod on shuffle, and that suited Larry fine, so we learned about each others’ musical tastes. Neither one of us seemed to mind passing stretches in silence; Larry would point out something interesting on a billboard if he felt like talking.
When we got to the stadium, however, the Larry I was more familiar with started to bloom. As we approached the huge façade outside with The Phanatic leering down at us, Larry’s little-kid side definitely took hold. I told Larry I’d pay for the tickets and lunch, and his giddiness was so infectious I decided on the spur of the moment to spring for the good seats in the Hall of Fame Club. That really impressed Larry – I think he thought I had an in with the front office, but in truth, I wanted to make his ballpark experience as memorable as possible. We had gotten there early, so decided to walk around so that he could get a look in person at what he’d only seen so far from television: Ashburn Alley, the chicken and donuts stand (don’t ask), the flower garden in left field.
Any person who would remotely establish eye contact with Larry, he would greet with, “HOW YA DOIN’?!” I was amazed at how many people responded warmly to this, especially as he can be a fairly intimidating presence. (Did I mention he was dressed in red basketball shorts and a red t-shirt from a local ice cream shop? Larry told me he didn’t have a Phillies shirt, so he must have assumed this would be the next-best thing. Also he’d brought his glove.) Strangers – both Citizen’s Bank Park staff and ticket holders – seemed to respond to Larry with as much warmth as his homeboys and -girls do. The man makes people feel good. By the time we sat down, I was laughing and yelled a few “HOW YA DOIN’?!”s of my own.
Now, the Philadelphia Phillies are not a great team this year. In fact, as of this writing, they have the second-worst record in all of Major League baseball. But the Sunday we went down, they were finishing a weekend series against the Arizona Diamondbacks, and had won the first two games, and were now looking for the sweep. Larry was fully aware of this, and when the Phils scored a run in the bottom of the second inning, giving them a 1-0 lead, Larry leaped up and screamed, “WE’RE GONNA SWEEEEEEEEEP!” Oh, dear god, Larry, I thought, you cannot rely on this team to hold a one-run lead through seven innings. Especially not with Sean O’Sullivan pitching, who hadn’t recorded a win since, I don’t know, Connie Mack was in town.
But O’Sullivan and the Phillies, like hundreds of rural ballplayers before them, must have heard and been emboldened by the screaming support Larry was bellowing out to them. O’Sullivan ended up pitching six scoreless, the Phillies offense came through, and the bullpen did its job. The Phils won 6-0, and yes, Larry, they swept the Diamondbacks.
* * *
On the trip back, Larry and I were mostly quiet again, but there wasn’t that much to say – we’d both yelled ourselves hoarse at the game, and had enjoyed a pretty good afternoon together. The iPod was doing its usual bouncing around and about my music collection when it settled on Queen. “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
I turned to Larry: “I love this song.”
Larry grinned back: “Me, too.” After all, we’re about the same age. The same Top 40 hits went through his formative years that went through mine. We hit it.
So there we are, speeding up the Northeast Extension of the PA Turnpike, singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” together at the top of our lungs. And all of a sudden, I’m not a civic-minded man serving a less fortunate member of the community. Larry is not a challenged citizen with his responsible party. We’re two dudes on a road trip. Welcome to Club Larry.
* * *
These days when I see Larry at the local pub, I still call him “Lawrence” but now he calls me by name. We shared a great day together, one that gave him his first Phillies game, and one that gave me claim to a larger stake in my son’s hometown. We bro-hug, or high-five, and catch each other up on the latest in our lives. And then Larry moves on to greet the rest of the pub.
I’m telling ya, politicians have a lot they can learn from this guy.