A. C. Cain

Finding the major stories in the minor leagues

Category: Local Sports (page 2 of 2)

The soundtrack of the game

Fans attend minor league sporting events for the atmosphere as much as the entertainment. Being surrounded by other fans and eating typical concession food is an important part of the experience. Another crucial part of the experience, though often overlooked, is the music.

Minor league sports, just like major league sports, are fueled by a constant soundtrack used to keep the fans energized and engaged, and to keep the players’ blood pumping throughout the game.

Fans tend to overlook the importance of music because it is always there, but a closer look at the numerous roles music plays proves that it is a crucial part of every game and every fan experience.

Benjamin Smith can attest to the importance of music, he is the Music and Sound Coordinator for the Reading Fightin’ Phils and the Reading Royals. Smith began working for both teams in 2011, and knows music’s many roles better than most.

At a typical home game for the Reading Fightin’ Phils, double-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies, the music starts long before fans even enter the stadium. The music coordinator is in charge of providing music while both teams take batting practice, and the music being played on the field fills most of the stadium as the game-day staff prepares for the game.

Smith says he generally arrives at the stadium 3 hours before game time to make sure he is fully prepared, because the job comes with a lot of stress.

“There can be certain situations where your patience is tested,” Smith says, “We do a lot of pre- and post-game activities, which keeps you on your toes.”

Once the gates open, a band performing on the Weston Center Winning Smile Stage during Happy Hour may replace the batting practice music. This music is piped through the entire stadium, serenading fans as they search for their seats.

When the pre-game festivities get underway, the music changes to highlight any theme the day might be celebrating, be it Elvis, Disney, or even Jimmy Buffet. A crucial part of the pre-game is the theme songs for both the Fightin’ Phils and Baseballtown, which include a karaoke style video encouraging fans to sing along.

When the game begins the music switches to a blend of walk-up music, selected by the players as they begin their at-bat, warm-up music, chosen by both starting and relief pitchers, and stock music that plays whenever certain events happen on the field.

This music is managed effortlessly, constantly switching from one scenario to another and always starting and stopping at the proper time to provide seamless transitions.

Post-game festivities may also call for music; particularly fireworks shows, which are always complimented with music Smith mixes live. The stadium finally falls silent when nearly every fan has left.

The Reading Royals, the ECHL affiliate of the Philadelphia Flyers, offer a different look at the role of music.

Yes, some of the tasks are the same. The music keeps fans energetic and keeps the players’ pumped-up, but in other ways it is very unique.

MusicinSports

Graphic designed by Ariane Cain. Graphic created using easel.ly. Info courtesy of Benjamin Smith

While baseball uses batting practice music, hockey relies on warm-up music to get both the players and the fans ready for the game.

Hockey is a much faster game than baseball, meaning the music has to change faster to react to scenarios. The goal of music in hockey focused much more on crowd participation and leading the fans in chants and songs to keep the players energized, and Smith says this fast-paced, high-energy atmosphere can make the job more challenging.

“You constantly have to have music ready to go during games because of how drastically a situation can change. Again, your patience can get tested.”

With less downtime, hockey doesn’t provide as much opportunity for music during play, but each period break is filled with entertainment for the fans, which must be appropriately accompanied.

Whenever you hear and feel a crowd getting louder and louder at a game, thank the music coordinator. Smith says that he knows he is successful when the crowd gets louder and responds positively to the music being played.

Despite all of the stress, Smith knows that the job comes with benefits, and the impact of the music on the crowd makes everything worth it.

“The fun and energy that I have experienced over the years on those sell-out games makes me absolutely speechless.”

For local scholastic athletes, community recognition helps

Nearly every professional athlete, at some point in his career, thanks the fans and the city for contributing to his success, but is the connection between a community and a player or team really that important?

Many studies answer yes, and a quick look at the Exeter Township Senior High School Girls’ Tennis program shows that the relationship between a team and the community is a lot more important than one might expect.

When Abigail Rutt began coaching Exeter’s girls’ tennis team as an assistant coach, the team was far from the best. Now, 9 years later, the team is division, Berks County, and District III Champions for the second consecutive year.

For several years the team played at the community park across a creek from the school. Their matches were sparsely attended, and many other teams overlooked the small program.

When the on-campus courts were resurfaced, the team relocated to its original home next to the football field. Suddenly every team knew when the team had matches. The football team walks past on the way up from the practice field and doesn’t hesitate to clap and cheer for a good point or a concluding match.

Suddenly, the team had once again become a part of the school community, and as their success began to grow, so did the community’s awareness.

ExeterGirlsTennis

Graphic created by Ariane Cain. Graphic created using easel.ly. Data gathered from PennLive and Berks Game Day.  Graphic shows each tennis season and the team’s record for each year.  Years the team made the playoffs show an individual regular season record, which excludes any county, district, or state tournament results.

In 2014, after becoming the first Girl’s Tennis District Champions in the school’s history, the team was honored during halftime of a football game. Coach Rutt, who served as head coach from 2010-2013 before switching back to assistant coach, references the moment as the time the team began to notice the community’s support.

“Using one of the biggest athletic programs to bring attention to one of the smallest really created a sense of belonging and community within the student-athlete population, and gave the girls a wonderful experience of being recognized and supported by their peers.”

The football game was the first, but not the only, major recognition the girls have received.

The team’s accomplishments have been recognized at school board meetings multiple times. For the past two years the Reading Fightin’ Phils have recognized the team’s accomplishments on the field at FirstEnergy Stadium during “Exeter Night.” The tennis team, along with other Exeter teams, will be honored again this June.

The rise in community attention has had a large impact on the team. Rutt says the support gives the girls great motivation, and the recognition gives them a sense of pride and achievement. They work harder every year to be able to share more accomplishments with the community.

“Their interest in following our program has grown,” Rutt says, talking about the community. “We’ve certainly gotten more recognition as a program, and I like to think the popularity of our sport is growing, all due to our achievements over the past few seasons.”

The girls have done their part to foster the growing relationship between the team and the community. Rutt says the girls have not only helped to expand the high school program, but have also encouraged interest at the younger, developmental levels with a strong presence as volunteers and instructors at local camps and clinics.

Hopefully the success and recognition will prevent the program from fading back to the forgotten team it once was. The smiles that fill the girls’ faces at each event prove that the increased community support has meant a lot to each member of the team. For Rutt, everything is captured by the first public recognition at the football game.

“Walking back into the stands with the girls and watching them being stopped and congratulated by complete strangers was really a thrill.”

50 seasons in Reading should not surprise fans

The Reading Fightin’ Phils are gearing up to celebrate 50 Phillies seasons in Reading beginning at the end of March. While the feat is impressive, they currently boast the longest active affiliation in professional baseball, fans should hardly be surprised. If any city deserves to host one of the longest successful minor league franchises, Reading, Pennsylvania is it.

Reading has a long baseball history. The close link between the sport and the city has earned Reading the name of Baseballtown.

The title is well deserved as Reading first hosted a professional baseball team in 1883, and has fielded a team for 109 baseball seasons. The Reading Actives were an independent team, which played in the Interstate Association. Reading hosted various teams over the next 20 years, rarely facing a baseball season without a team. Prominent teams include the Reading Coal Heavers, the Reading Aces, the Reading Pretzels, the Reading Coal Barons, and the Reading Marines.

Despite always having a team, the independent teams were constantly moving and shifting with no team remaining in Reading for more than four or five years at a time.

That changed in 1923 when the Reading Keystones, a double-A team playing in the International League, came to town. The Keystones stuck with the city for 10 years, before calling it quits after the 1932 season.

BaseballinReading

A history of baseball in Reading, Pennsylvania beginning in 1933, the year the city first acquired a major league affiliation. Infographic designed by Ariane Cain. Image created at easel.ly. Data gathered from Baseball-Reference.com. Logos gathered from sportslogos.net

Somewhere in these 10 seasons, the small baseball-loving city caught the eye of Major League Baseball, and in 1933 the Boston Red Sox brought their single-A team, the Reading Red Sox, to the city. The Reading Red Sox played in the New York-Pennsylvania League, which later became the Eastern League, the league the team still plays in today.

Boston was unable to create a successful franchise in the city, and the affiliation lasted only 2 seasons.

In 1935, after Boston left, the Brooklyn Dodgers decided to test their luck in Reading, and introduced the Reading Brooks.

After one season of poorly attended games, the Dodgers moved their franchise elsewhere and Reading was left without a baseball team for 4 years.

In 1940, desperate for baseball, the city once again hosted an independent team, this time the Reading Chicks took the field. The determination of the Reading fans caught the attention of the Dodgers, and, determined to create a successful franchise in the city, they returned with the Reading Brooks. Once again the team only lasted one season before abandoning the city.

Reading fans were left without baseball for 10 years, until the Cleveland Indians came to town and introduced the Reading Indians, another single-A club.

Cleveland fared better than its Major League predecessors, and the team remained in the city for 10 years, playing its final season in 1961.

In 1963 Boston attempted to be successful in the city once again, and returned with the Reading Red Sox. This time, however, the team was a double-A team, giving the fans a slightly higher level of baseball to watch.

The Red Sox lasted 2 seasons before leaving, and in 1965 fans welcomed the Reading Indians again, a double-A team this time, hoping that the teams previous success would be replicated.

Unfortunately, the Reading Indians only remained in the city for one season before Cleveland decided to move their team elsewhere.

This opened the door for the Philadelphia Phillies. Inspired by the geographical closeness of the two cities, the Phillies decided to give Reading a try, and in 1967 the Reading Phillies were born.

Fans were, by this time, used to the ever-changing series of teams and affiliations running through the city, so no one expected the affiliation to last.

The Phillies somehow managed to figure out something that the other clubs missed, however, and the affiliation is now preparing to enter its 50th season. For many of those seasons the Reading Phillies have led the Eastern League in attendance.

In 2013 the team was rebranded as the Reading Fightin’ Phils in an attempt to create an identity that differed from the parent club, but the affiliation has remained as close and successful as ever.

Phillies top prospect lists promise another bright season in Reading

As most of the world enters the holiday season and the long winter months ahead, the baseball world enters the free agent season: a time of big free agent signings and huge deals that find key players switching from one team to another in the blink of an eye.

While this time is filled with excitement for major league fans, minor league fans can find themselves saying goodbye to fan favorites that they have watched develop and are now whisked away as an added bonus in a deal. An exciting season for some can be a depressing season for others.

Fans of the Reading Fightin’ Phils, double-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies, probably don’t have much to worry about this offseason.

The Philadelphia Phillies are in the midst of a rebuild in their organization, making them unlikely to trade any high caliber minor league players that could provide help in the majors later down the road. Reading’s roster was packed with top prospects last year, and this year looks to be filled with more.

Baseball America recently released its annual top prospects list for each organization, and the Phillies looked much like many fans expected. Five of the top ten prospects, J.P. Crawford, Nick Williams, Jake Thompson, Andrew Knapp and Roman Quinn, were all part of Reading’s team last season and had a successful season that ended in the championship series.

While many of them may be moving up to triple-A this season, the Phillies system is stocked with talent to fill the gaps in Reading’s roster. Roman Quinn, number 8 on the list, missed the majority of the 2015 season with a groin injury and will probably need another season at double-A, where he is sure to light up the stadium and the base paths. Jorge Alfaro, a catcher acquired in a late-season trade and ranked at 5 on the list, finished the season at single-A and may be moving up to double-A in the coming season.

A look at mlb.com’s prospect watch shows the Phillies top 30 prospects, many of whom were playing at double A or lower last season. As these young players move up toward the majors Reading’s roster, and fans, will benefit.

Brock Stassi, one of the Fightin’s top players from last season and the Eastern League MVP, does not even make the top prospect lists. When one of the team’s best players doesn’t even rank in the organizations top 30, the talent behind him is something to keep an eye on.

Recognizing the quality of their farm system, the Phillies have recently announced a treat for fans. This season will feature the first ever Phillies Future game; a game where all of the top prospects in the organization will face-off against the major league team. In honor of 50 years of affiliation between Reading and Philadelphia, the Fightin’s will host the game on March 31, giving their fans the rare opportunity to see the top prospects and the major league players up close.

While the holiday stress mounts and the weather grows colder, Reading fans can look forward to another bright, exciting and hopefully successful season of baseball with all of the young stars of the future Phillies.

To purchase tickets for the 2016 Fightin’ Phils season, or for more information on the Phillies Future Game, visit www.fightins.com.

Benjamin Smith: The man behind the music

Thousands of fans pack the seats at FirstEnergy Stadium for each baseball game cheering, clapping and dancing to the music. No one glances back to the press box to see the man behind the music.

Photo courtesy of Ben Smith

Photo courtesy of Ben Smith

That man is Benjamin Smith, the Music and Sound Coordinator for both the Reading Fightin’ Phils and the Reading Royals. Smith thrives in the press box, watching over the game and the fans, and creating the atmosphere with music.

Smith’s love for music began while attending Reading Phillies games with his dad and hearing the range of songs that were played. At the age of 18 he began working for the Reading Phillies.

“Since I was a kid I’ve always wanted to do music for them,” Smith says. “I grew up going there a lot, and I just fell in love with the atmosphere and passion that the Fightin’ Phils provide.”

When baseball season ended, Smith began working for the Reading Royals and discovered a completely different atmosphere.

The view from Ben's workspace at the Reading Royals. Photo courtesy of Ben Smith.

The view from Ben’s workspace at the Reading Royals.
Photo: Ben Smith.

“With hockey, the pace of the game is always pretty high, and that’s one thing that I love,” Smith says. “You constantly have to have music ready to go during games because of how drastically a situation can change.”

Four years later Smith is still encouraging Reading fans to get up and dance. The job can get stressful at times, he arrives three hours before game time each night and also works numerous pre- and post-game events, but the fans give him the energy to keep going.

“I use the talent that God has provided me to entertain, in some cases, as many as 9,000 people in one night,” Smith says. “The energy that it provides is simply amazing.”

His fellow employees can see the impact Smith makes at events.

“He does a great job pumping up the crowd during Royals games,” Kurt Roberts, a fellow employee at both places, says of Smith. “Getting the crowd into the game can sometimes get the team more into the game.”

Smith’s work even has a noticeable effect on the players.

“His music plays a big part,” Roberts says, “He plays a warm-up music mix to get the Royals players ready during warm-ups for the game, and at the stadium the walk-up music gets the player pumped up for his at-bat or pitching appearance.”

Maybe the next time the crowd is dancing and cheering to the music, one fan will turn around and see the man behind the music, but even if no one does, Smith is happy to be doing his job.

“I just love how much music tells a story and how it causes people to show all of their emotions,” Smith says; his passion is clear as he in unable to stop the smile that slides across his face. “It also creates an atmosphere of fun and laughter and that is just something that has always put a smile on my face. I figure if I can make people happy then I’m doing my job right.”

Exeter finally makes Districts on home turf

On a blustery November night fans packed Don Thomas Stadium for a District 3-AAAA football playoff game between the Exeter Eagles and the Cedar Crest Falcons, and were treated to a 49-0 victory.

For Exeter, hosting a District play-off was the victory of an undefeated season. When head coach Matthew Bauer took over the team, the Eagles were coming off of three consecutive winless seasons. Bauer led them to one win his first season, and the Eagles never looked back.

With over 1,000 tickets pre-sold, there was not a seat to be had when the Berks County Champion Eagles took the field. The “Blue Crew,” Exeter’s student section, all decked out in blue and white, filled one end of the home stands. The other end was filled with Exeter’s 200 student marching band, resplendent in tuxes, bowties and blue and white parkas.

The Blue Crew huddles for warmth as the team stretches.

The Blue Crew huddles for warmth as the team stretches. Photo: Ariane Cain

“I was so cold,” Ellie Doughton, a sophomore member of the marching band, said. “I didn’t think I’d be able to play when we took the field!”

The game started slowly, but when Exeter’s Nick Bentz kicked a 40-yard field goal with 6:55 left in the first quarter, the crowd erupted. The momentum remained with Exeter as college recruit Michal Menet recovered a Cedar Crest fumble on fourth down. Exeter quarterback Gabe Schapell followed with a 73-yard pass to Leroy Longenecker.

Exeter scored on a one-yard keeper by Schappell, and Bentz made the extra point to give Exeter a 10-0 lead. By halftime the Eagles held a 24-0 lead.

The Eagles huddle before beginning the second half.

The Eagles huddle before beginning the second half. Photo: Ariane Cain

“They were taken completely by surprise,” Exeter principal William Cain said. “They came out fully prepared to stop our run game, and Bauer had a completely different game plan. All season we’ve run, run, run, but we came out passing and they weren’t prepared to stop it.”

The Exeter fans didn’t let the seemingly one-sided game dampen their spirits.

“It’s exciting,” Exeter’s camerawoman, Kassandra Scheese, said. “Normally a game like this gets boring, but it was exciting the whole time.”

The Eagles did everything, including a two-point conversion, on their way to a 39-0 lead that put the mercy rule into effect.

Even freshman Michael Stout got to contribute, throwing a 70-yard touchdown pass for Exeter’s final touchdown of the night.

“Everyone was screaming and chanting, it was really great,” Doughton said.

“My hand was so cold, it hurt so much,” Scheese added, “but it was worth it!”

The victory has Exeter fans looking ahead to the rest of the District 3 tournament.

“When you think about it, Wilson only beat Cedar Crest by 15 points,” Scheese said, referencing school rivals, the Wilson Bulldogs, “and we held Cedar Crest scoreless, so we really have a shot!”

The Eagles have to get past Cumberland Valley before they get a chance at Wilson, but the details were lost on fans who finally believed that their team could win.

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