Reading is where Fightin Phils’ hearts are
With a .680 winning percentage, the best in all of professional baseball, a course set to pass the franchise’s single-season win record, and two players set to break the single-season home run record, the Reading Fightin Phils are a force to be reckoned with. The team had two players selected for the MLB Futures Game and six players selected for the Eastern League All-Star Game. With all of the excitement, the most impressive stat of the season is often overlooked.
The Fightin Phils are celebrating their 50th season of affiliation with the Philadelphia Phillies.
The mark, which is tied for the longest affiliation in professional sports with the Lakeland Flying Tigers, the Class A Advanced affiliate of the Detroit Tigers, is even more impressive in a city that has always had baseball, but has struggled to keep a team for more than a few years. Before the Phillies, the Reading Indians, the single-A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, had the longest stint in Reading with a 10-year run.
Why have the Phillies been so successful in Reading? The proximity of the two teams allows the minor league club to easily draw from the major league fan base. Fans can travel easily between the two cities, and the majority of local fans will cheer for the same players in the majors. Reading is traditionally at the top of the attendance figures for the Eastern League, and was the first minor league baseball team to welcome 10 million fans.
Reading has avid supporters in its fans and employees, to the extent that outrage erupted when the team announced a rebranding effort and changed the name from the Reading Phillies to the Reading Fightin Phils, swapping the traditional “R” logo for a fighting ostrich in honor of the fan-favorite Crazy Hot Dog Vendor.
Fans insisted they wouldn’t support the new team; they wouldn’t buy the new merchandise. The public address announcer, who had called over 2,400 games, left the team in the midst of the chaos due to the new direction the organization was taking.
When the new season started, with a new name and a new uniform, the fans returned to the ballpark.
The organization is unshakeable, with the fans always returning regardless of how good the team is or what changes the organization has made. The community that has been created always stays the same. Regardless of whether the team is winning or losing, fans love being at the ballpark. Many game-day employees are fans that enjoy being at the ballpark so much game nights never feel like work.
Carol Moyer, who supervises the Upstairs Hot Dog concession stand, is one of those fans turned employee. Her badge says that she has worked for the team for 28 years, but she has been a part of the organization for far longer.
“I used to have season tickets, too. I used to be in the front gate, this was with the old gates, they’d open up the gates and Andy would be standing there, ‘Can you help us work?’ after I paid my ticket! ‘Can you help us work?’ And then I would come up here and work,” Moyer says.
Between working games when extra help was needed, and relieving the high school boys who were tired and wanted to go home before the game finished, Moyer spent more time working than sitting in her seats. When the time came to renew her season tickets, she asked if she would be working again, and instead of a season ticket package, she ended up with a uniform and nametag. When she lost her full-time job in 1995 she asked if she could work a few more hours, and has been at every game since.
“Obviously I like baseball, I’m here every game even if I’m not working!” Moyer says, when trying to figure out what brings her back to the stadium year after year. The minimum wage, seasonal job on top of her full-time job keeps her summer months busy, with little time to catch a breath. “The reason you keep coming back every year is you meet all kinds of new people each year, and you look forward to seeing them when you come back every April.”
For Moyer, as for many Reading fans and employees, the ballpark is about more than just baseball. The ballpark forms a family that reunites each season and spends the summer months together. Moyer’s hot dog stand is a smaller family within that larger group.
“The lady that was in here quit, and Diane came up, and she’s been here for the past 20 years,” Moyer says, “The two of us have been here for 20 years.”
Diane Greenwood has worked at the stadium for 24 years, and has become as much of a staple in Moyer’s hot dog stand as Moyer herself. Always manning the grill, Greenwood knows which fans prefer dark hot dogs and which fans like them hot, but not blackened at all. While she’s serving food, for Greenwood, the job is more about the people.
“I like baseball, and I like meeting a lot of new people,” Greenwood says.
Greenwood acknowledges the strength of the community the organization has built. In 2015, the team made the decision to remove the section of general admission seats from the main grandstand, behind which the hot dog stand sits, and turn the grandstand into reserved seating. Many feared the regular fans, who purchased general admission tickets each night and would partake in a mad dash when gates opened to claim their favorite seats, would be relegated to the outfield general admission seats, but when the gates opened on the newly organized grandstand the same fans returned to the same seats; the higher price of a reserved seat ticket couldn’t keep the regular fans away.
“I think probably the whole atmosphere,” Greenwood says when asked why the fans keep coming back, regardless of the talent of the team or the changes to the stadium. “Good team, and it’s just a friendly, home place to be.”
With that thought, Greenwood seems to have captured exactly what makes the Reading organization special: home. The fans and employees have become a family, and the ballpark is their home.
No one has felt the importance of that family and home as strongly as Greg Pomian. Pomian began working for the club in 2000, but had been attending games at the ballpark since 1974. While taking his son to games, Pomian would joke with the right-field grandstand usher about getting a job so he wouldn’t have to pay for tickets. One night the usher’s supervisor came up, heard the joke, staged an impromptu interview, and sent Pomian home with shirts and a badge. The next night Pomian came to the stadium as an employee.
Pomian is now an usher with the job of manning the entrance to the field from the concourse. One of the Reading ballpark’s unique
charms is that players must cross the concourse to get to the field from the clubhouse; unlike more modern ballparks there is no private, direct access to the field. Pomian makes sure the Reading players get to and from the field quickly and safely, while preventing fans from pestering them during games or preventing them from exiting the field after games. Due to the style of the gate and entry, which herds players and others onto the field, and the large crush of fans surrounding it before and after each game, the entrance is referred to as the “cattle-herder” by employees.
Pomian has become a staple at the stadium, and in 2014 became the first recipient of the Neale Bechtel Employee of the Year
Award. Fellow game day employees voted on the award, and the winner surprised no one, except Pomian himself. The award was the only way fellow employees had to show how much they cared about the man at the cattle-herder.
In December 2011, Pomian became very sick and was hospitalized. Upon hearing the news, the Fightin’s front office sent a balloon arrangement. The next day Pomian went into a coma, which would last for two months, and nothing from outside was allowed in the isolation room. Pomian’s wife, who also works at the ballpark as a ticket-taker, refused to let the balloon arrangement be removed. She explained to the hospital employees that the balloons were helping.
“When I finally woke from my coma on February 23, 2012, there was the arrangement, balloons all deflated, hanging over the counter and ratty looking. It was the only thing in my room not hospital related. Carol told me the story and I balled like a baby, because she was right,” Pomian recalls. “My ballpark family was praying and thinking about me.”
As Pomian recovered, the balloons followed every stage of his journey.
“I took them when I left ICU to a regular floor for another month, and they went with me to the rehab hospital for another month, while they taught me how to feed myself, walk, and care for myself. I would tell everyone the story about how my ballpark family had my back,” Pomian says.
Pomian knows the strength of the baseball family that the organization has created, and he loves watching fans come to the ballpark and sample a small part of the home that generations of fans and employees have built.
“I take great joy in seeing the look on a little kid’s face when he or she gets to meet a player, get a BP ball, I usually have two or three in my bag that I just hand out, or get one of the autographed pics that I take, “Pomian says.
Benjamin Smith, the Fightin’s Music and Sound Coordinator, takes the same joy as Pomian in sharing the special atmosphere of the ballpark with the fans. Smith loves having the opportunity to create an atmosphere that is different from any other ballpark, minor league or major league.
“When I see people posting things on social media or emailing the front office and they say that they had the time of their lives and created so many memories, that is special to me,” Smith says.
Pomian also acknowledges that the Reading ballpark is unique, and that is one of the reasons the fans continue to flock to it. Through numerous renovations, the main portion of the ballpark, including the main seating grandstand and concessions concourse, has remained relatively untouched, giving fans the chance to walk through history and earning the name of America’s Classic Ballpark. The stadium was originally built as a memorial to the veterans of the community, and when the name was changed from Memorial Stadium the team erected a monument to remind fans of the memorial, and to keep the stadium’s history a focal point.
“Our place has character and personality,” Pomian says. “It may not have all the amenities of the newer ballparks, you may not be able to see the field from all concessions, but it has the feel and history of all those players who played here and walked the concourse dating all the way back to the early 50’s.”
Fans can now see the complete history of the ballpark, the team, and the players spread out on the walls of the concourse. Reading is proud of its lengthy baseball history, and proud of every player that steps onto the field.
“The Reading Fightin Phils fans enjoy seeing the future,” Pomian says, “and they are possessive! Some still consider Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz Reading Phillies who play in the big leagues. The Phillies fans enjoy seeing the future Phillies, the players who will hopefully return us to the top of the N.L. East.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if she ended up working there as a teenager,” Abby says with a laugh. She knows how close the baseball family is, and how it has a way of drawing everyone in.
“It’s an incredible atmosphere there, especially when you’re in the position that we were, growing up and working there, you develop a lot of friends, a lot of bonds, a lot of strong relationships. Like she said, I mean, every summer comes around and you get to see those faces again and it’s nice and refreshing because, it, it’s almost like a sense of home away from home if you want to call it that,” Travis says.
Describing what keeps the stadium and the organization running strongly is difficult for even those fans and employees that have spent the most time there. The ballpark is a family, a home. As Travis Rutt said when trying to describe the atmosphere, the ballpark is tradition.
This tradition has been running strong for 50 years, and has the potential to run for another 50. The Phillies double-A home field has become a home for more than just a baseball team; it has become a home for a family and community.