ONE FAN IS all it takes.
Last week, a package arrived at my house. It came from retired New Jersey state trooper Mike Dittmar. It had been many years since we last connected, but I will always remember the few words he said to me when we met.
I met Mike in 2002. I was struggling as a starter for the Philadelphia Phillies for most of the season. My father had been gravely ill since Opening Day 2000. It was a year when a lot was going wrong.
On the diamond, it was the first time as a big leaguer that I had lost my starting job. Meanwhile, 100 miles away, my father was again in the hospital. He had heart issues to go with the strokes and a lung cancer diagnosis.
After returning from a road trip around my birthday, I drove up from Philly to North Jersey to meet my mom at the hospital. My dad was in and out of a comatose state but focused just enough to recognize us. I drove home knowing that time was limited, and in my distraction, I sped past the speed limit. Mike pulled me over.
Our exchange was brief, but I remember what he said: “Don’t worry about your batting average, you are invaluable to our community.”
I still got a ticket, but I left that exchange lightened from a crushing weight I didn’t quite realize I was carrying. I was lifted simply by his words of kindness.
That was one fan in one moment.
I hit .337 the final five weeks of that season.
MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL is weighing everything that many of us who are part of this game are weighing at this time: When is it the right time for the game to return? When will we be able to interact without concern? No one knows, but the planning must continue. One option being considered is to play in front of empty seats. At least fans can watch games on TV and online broadcasts or listen on the radio, though no one would be physically on-site for the game.
Converging to Arizona spring training locations makes sense on paper given the concentration of facilities and the roof-sporting big league park at Chase Field. Yet the practicality of isolating hundreds of players and personnel must address the potential separation from families and a host of other significant issues.
Outside of the logistical and safety challenges of pulling this off, it would be a shame to return without fans. I played for the Phillies when we returned from 9/11 and it was important that we were able to come back together. It put us all on the playing field as one people, all of us fans of baseball. It gave the sport deeper value, showcasing its healing powers and its ability to unite and unify. It was a feeling that would not shine through a flat-screen TV or an iPhone when watching players in an empty stadium, even if a little baseball is better than none at all.
I played college baseball at the University of Pennsylvania, not far from Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, then home of the Phillies. We did not draw many fans. There were times when I resorted to distributing hand-drawn maps of the campus to show people how to find our stadium. The field was on the edge of campus and nowhere near where students would naturally pass, so it was mostly family and friends who attended our games.
After my junior year, the MLB draft took place in June 1991. When I signed with the Chicago Cubs that summer, I had little experience playing in front of big crowds. A few NCAA tournament games and the Cape Cod All-Star Game drew well, but mostly I played in front of my 25 to 50 people.
As I got closer to the big leagues, the number or people in the stands increased. By Double-A in Orlando, during the Michael Jordan years, I started to feel the crowd over my shoulder. It was not comfortable, even scary at times, especially when your success and failures are responded to in real time. Cheers and boos, home and away.
By Triple-A, I was in Iowa and we averaged 10,000 fans a night. Our fans were engaged, loyal and supportive on and off the field. By this point, despite a minor league player’s obsession to get out of town and to the next level, I had a fuller understanding of what so many of the fans meant at the many stops I had made along the way. The booster club in Winston-Salem, the fan mania of playing in Orlando during the World Cup, the loyal and dedicated crowds at an Arizona spring training workout. People whom I could talk to one-on-one before and after every game or practice.
One super loyal Iowa Cubs fan was the daughter of a local memorabilia collector. In my second year there, I agreed to do a signing at her father’s store, Cornelius Collectibles. I asked for the address, and they said, “Let’s just meet at a local McDonald’s.” I was a little confused. I met them as they suggested and followed them into town. We literally made a turn into a cornfield. I could not see anything but a dirt road and corn. On the other side, I was introduced to Bagley, Iowa. Four blocks by four blocks. Population: 300. A fan exposed me to a place I could have never imagined outside of “Field of Dreams.”
But I was in Triple-A. At the doorstep of The Show. I had finally learned how to perform on a bigger stage, a place where everyone was counting the numbers and counting on me. In fact, I had come to embrace it. This led to one of the most transformative fan experiences I would have in baseball, when I spent the next two offseasons playing winter ball in Puerto Rico.
It was in Puerto Rico where I put it all together. I went from this high-draft-pick-on-paper talent to someone with confidence I could produce in the moment. It would be easy to say that I stayed on the breaking ball better, that I laid off bad pitches, that I finally had a plan at the plate, but that would grossly underestimate the impact the people had on me. The fans.
I was welcomed and brought into the family. Every day, as I improved as a player, I was uplifted as a person. Validated with a sense of belonging, a true connection with Puerto Rican culture. And to this day, 25 years later, I can still feel that power. It was no coincidence that I made two All-Star teams and won an MVP trophy in Puerto Rico after only flashes of success in the minor leagues. I felt as if I were at home with the people there. I was their son, and that feeling stayed with me through my major league career and endures even now. You cannot quantify what that connection can mean to a ballplayer’s life and his performance.
By the time I reached the big leagues in 1996, I understood a fundamental truth: Fans were an integral part of my success, of what I enjoyed and loved about the game, but also a constant reminder of the legacy that flowed through basic appreciation for others, from belonging. The value of those who come out to support their team and your journey, loyally, is priceless. Players often are a long way from home, and anyone who helps you build a home where you are, no matter how temporary the stop might be, improves your well-being. They also pass the game on, often studying everything about their team with a raw passion. It rubs off if you let it, and in that exchange you not only recall the innocent times of your childhood fandom, but you understand that it’s the people who give the game its deepest meaning.
I have the luxury of being on the other side of my career — I have been retired for longer than I played professionally. I have a family with four children and a mortgage. I am homeschooling with my wife in the comfort of my bunker that playing this game afforded me. And it is even clearer that the humanity of having fans return with the game, after what we have been experiencing, would be its own magical moment.
As any player gets further from that last career game, the small gestures fans made matter more and more. We realize fans are everywhere. Many are with you without being at the ballpark, often in the least obvious places. They pray for you. They write letters that might never be opened, they yell at the TV, they even curse you — because they care. They rode this journey with me through everything, and at times, I didn’t even know.
IN 2000, WHEN news of my father’s illness became public, I received letters. I was asked all day about his health. At the time, it was highly stressful and I sought privacy, but at no time did I question the fans’ genuine concern for my family and his health. I didn’t have time to absorb what it all meant in the throes of another season with hundreds of at-bats to take. I wondered how well I could perform with concern about my father’s health weighing on me. Yet whether it was my best year in Philly, or moving after signing with the Texas Rangers, or recovering from surgery in a Fort Worth, Texas, hospital after tearing my hamstring tendon, the fans were paying attention.
A player lives in this world where 162 games are coming at you in 180 or so days. In-season, there is no time to attend weddings, to be there every day for your ailing father, or for birthday parties for your 5-year-old son’s classmates. You miss so much.
But the fans are there for your milestones. In my case, notching the 200th hit in a season, the 1,000th hit of my career on the day my father died, my big moment in Game 3 of the 2003 NLCS. Those are the easy ones. The injury rehab in Texas, the trade before Christmas, getting released by the New York Yankees, the loss of a teammate in a tragedy — they were there then too. They hurt too.
I pinched myself whenever I had a coach who was a player I had watched as a kid. The Phillies were particularly special, but anyone from the ’70s and ’80s was awe-inspiring to me. So when I had Glenn Adams, Hal McRae, Richie Hebner, Greg Gross and Billy Williams as hitting coaches or Joe Kerrigan, Vern Ruhle and Fergie Jenkins as pitching coaches, or Larry Bowa, Terry Francona and Dusty Baker as managers, I paused. I watched these guys play from the stands when I was 9. It was simply a cool experience every single day. I was a fan, even when I was going to the batter’s box in Dodger Stadium. It never leaves you.
Now I cover the game for a living. I engage the next generation to tell stories. And many of my stories come from still being a fan of the game, renewed at different stages of my life but never wavering. And as that fan, I would want the game to return with my baseball family in the stands, together with me if possible. I know firsthand, fans make as much magic as the players.
Since the time I met state trooper Mike Dittmar on the New Jersey Turnpike nearly 20 years ago, I have experienced quite a journey. In one sentence, I was granted perspective from an unexpected source. A reminder of value and what is important. Opening his package last week — filled with New Jersey state trooper shirts — brought it all back, his generosity, the power of a moment, my father and the meaning of legacy.
Soon, baseball will have to make a decision. When is the time right and what is most important?
I was fortunate to have met many people who were gracious in my time of need, simply by loving the game and those who play it. I just happened to be the recipient by being one of those fortunate to play it for a living. I was touched by many fans.
For me, it only took one.
Imagine what millions can do.