A. C. Cain

Finding the major stories in the minor leagues

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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.

Fightin’ Phils invite fans to help celebrate 50 seasons in Reading

The Reading Fightin’ Phils are preparing to celebrate their 50th season of affiliation with the Philadelphia Phillies, and they are inviting fans to join the action.

The 50th season officially starts in April 2016, but fans don’t have to wait for the excitement.

In a time when minor league teams are frequently switching parent club affiliations, 50 years is a relationship to be proud of. In the 114-year history of Minor League Baseball, only 3 teams have reached the 50-year mark. The affiliation is the longest current affiliation in professional baseball, and only 3 years shy of the all-time longest affiliation mark. The Bluefield Orioles were affiliated with the Baltimore Orioles for 53 years.

The Fightin's "50 Seasons in Reading" logo Photo from www.fightins.com

The Fightin’s “50 Seasons in Reading” logo
Photo from www.fightins.com

The Fightin’s will spend all season commemorating the relationship between the two teams, and recently unveiled the logo that will be used to represent the historic season. The “50 Seasons in Reading” logo will be visible throughout the ballpark and on merchandise during the upcoming season. The logo was designed by Fightin’ Phils Director of Graphic Arts Matt Jackson and Brandiose, which is based in San Diego, California.

The Fightin’s are asking fans to help with the celebration by selecting the 50 greatest players to have played in Reading. In a city that has watched countless great players come through, including the cores of two World Series Champion Philadelphia teams, fans will have a tough decision to make.

Fans will have to choose from all-time greats such as Robin Roberts and Ryne Sandberg, hometown favorites such as Darin Ruf, Ken Giles, and Mike Spidale, and Philadelphia heroes such as Jimmy Rollins, Darin Daulton, Pat Burrell, Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard and many more. Currently Philadelphia favorite Mike Schmidt is leading the voting.

The top prospects expected to begin the season in Reading will also be an integral part of the 50th season. Fans will have the opportunity to see the core of the next great Philadelphia team play every night. Reading is giving fans a chance to celebrate the past while watching the future.

The 50th season officially begins on March 31st with the Phillies Future game, an exhibition featuring the organizations top prospects facing-off with the major league team.

Reading fans will then get to see many of those same prospects compete in the 222 Showcase, the annual exhibition game between the Fightin’s and the AAA Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, on April 5.

The Fightin’ Phils will play their home opener of the 2016 season on April 7 against the Portland Sea Dogs, AA affiliate of the Boston Red Sox.

Season tickets, mini-plans, group tickets and individual game tickets are now available at fightins.com. The Fightin’s “Cheaper by the Dozen” ticket books are also available, and make a great stocking stuffer for the Phillies or baseball fan on your list. Each book contains 12 general admission tickets good for any game throughout the 2016 season, as well as two tickets for opening night. The general admission tickets can be upgraded to reserved seats at any time throughout the season.

Baseball season may seem far away, but Fightin’s fans can already get involved and begin to celebrate 50 seasons in Reading!

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.

Rescue a pet with the Royals

The Reading Royals invite fans to join them on December 19th for Pucks and Paws, a night of hockey, charity, and four-legged friends, at Santander Arena.

Pucks and Paws is the fourth game featured this season as part of the Royals’ Community Series. Celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, the Community Series is a set of nine games throughout the season that raise awareness and money for local charitable organizations. In an interview for Royalshockey.com, Reading Royals team President Drew Bell said, “The Greater Reading area is full of really good people doing really great things, and we need to shed the biggest spotlight we can on them and their initiatives.” With Pucks and Paws the Royals ask fans to help them support the people trying to help the abandoned animals of the community.

Fans attending the game will be treated to a lot more than just hockey as the Royals face-off against the Elmira Jackals. The festivities begin at the doors, so fans may want to arrive early for the 7:00 game.

To kick-off the event the Royals are featuring a brand new giveaway: a pet calendar! This unique calendar stars the Royals’ players and their pets on every page.

In keeping with the animal theme, the Reading Royals will be wearing specialty themed jerseys. These jerseys will be auctioned off at the conclusion of the game, and all of the money will go to local animal shelters and rescue missions.

While the focus of the night will be the animals, fans are asked to show their full charitable spirit as the game will also feature the annual Toys for Tots Teddy Bear Toss. This event is a fan favorite, and all fans are invited to bring a teddy bear, which will be tossed on to the ice after the Royals score their first goal. All of the bears will be collected and donated to Toys for Tots.

The animals won’t be upstaged by the teddy bears though, the game will also host the brand new puppy race, an event that will have fans cheering for dogs instead of hockey players.

Fans looking to adopt a cat or dog will have even more to cheer about: several local animals will be available for adoption at Santander Arena during the game. Even those fans not looking to adopt can stop by and say hello to a few furry, friendly faces.

Tickets for the 7:00 game are available at Royalshockey.com.

“To me, it’s critical for organizations like ours to do everything we can to promote positivity and help push our community forward,” Drew Bell said. Fans can help the with this goal by coming out on December 19th and supporting the Reading Royals as well as all of the four-legged friends in search of a home this holiday season.

For a complete schedule of the Reading Royals Community Series games, visit royalshockey.com.

How to entertain the entire family at a minor league sporting event

Finding new and exciting ways to entertain the entire family can be difficult and, depending on the size of the family, expensive. Minor league sporting events can offer the perfect solution, as they boast family-friendly environments, are less expensive than their major league counterparts.

According to MiLB.com, during the 2015 season a family of four could enjoy a game for an average of $64.18, making it one of the most budget friendly options in sports. Other lower-level professional sports offer fans the same perks. Families can make the most of these inexpensive, unique options by following a few simple steps.

The view from the top of the grandstand at FirstEnergy Stadium, home of the Reading Fighting' Phils. The least expensive reserved seats give families a great view.

The view from the top of the grandstand at FirstEnergy Stadium, home of the Reading Fightin’ Phils. Photo: Ariane Cain

Step 1: Arrive early to the game. Teams frequently provide giveaways to a certain number of fans, and an early arrival guarantees that your family will get some. Arriving early also makes you eligible for some great deals. The Reading Fightin’ Phils feature a happy hour before most games with one dollar off of select beers and free Phunland for the kids. The Fightin’ Phils provide a complete promotional schedule listing theme nights, giveaways, and gate opening times. The Reading Royals post the same information. Be sure to check the team website or your tickets for gate opening times and plan accordingly.

Step 2: Look for posted rules and listen to announcements. Rules that are prominently posted or announced are important for assuring fan safety. All family members should be made aware of all important rules in order to make the event safer and more enjoyable. Most organizations provide an opportunity to read up on important rules before arriving at the game to leave more time for fun. The Reading Royals provide fans with a basic rundown of rules and official signals to avoid confusion and make the night more enjoyable.

Step 3: Explore the venue. By doing this you can make note of intriguing food stands and streamline your trips away from the seats later. Also, most sporting venues feature some sort of area for kids with games and contests, and several themed areas. Taking a lap or two around the stadium will allow every member of your family to find something that interests them.

Santander Arena, home of the Reading Royals, before the crowds have arrived. Photo by Benjamin Smith

Santander Arena, home of the Reading Royals, before the crowds have arrived.
Photo: Benjamin Smith

Step 4: Talk to the employees. They spend more time at the stadium than anyone else, and chances are that they are the team’s biggest fans. Ask them for suggestions such as their favorite food or favorite spot to view the action from. You never know what secrets they’ll tell you, and sampling some of their favorites might make your experience more interesting.

Step 5: Don’t feel compelled to remain in your seat during game action and only leave between innings or periods. Most of the entertainment happens during the breaks in the action in the form of games and contests, and your family will surely enjoy seeing it. Nearly every venue will have televisions in the areas where the game is not visible, so you won’t miss much action even when standing in line for a burger.

You never know what surprises you'll find at a minor league game! This past summer the Fighting' Phils hosted a surprise appearance by the Galapagos Gang, friends of the Phillie Phanatic, from Citizen's Bank Park.

This past summer the Fighting’ Phils hosted a surprise appearance by the Galapagos Gang, friends of the Phillie Phanatic, from Citizen’s Bank Park. Photo: Ariane Cain

Step 6: Be alert for in-game announcements regarding mascot appearances. You may be able to catch them in the stands, but nearly every organization has a designated area where mascots will appear at specific times throughout the game for pictures and autographs.

Searching for other ways to make the most of your experience? Try talking to other fans and following their suggestions. Many teams feature specific games or contests, so ask around and sign your family up for any that accept volunteers. Give your family their chance in the spotlight! You can also check to see if the organization features any sort of kid’s club, which are generally free and offer prizes and giveaways for the youngest members of the family. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to try new things and step out of your comfort zone!

Professional sports may not be the first thought on the search for affordable family entertainment, but the minor leagues provide an inexpensive, enjoyable night for the entire family without much work or preparation.

For more information on games and other family friendly events hosted by the Reading Fightin’ Phils or the Reading Royals be sure to visit their websites.
www.fightins.com
www.royalshockey.com

The Autograph

Each summer FirstEnergy Stadium, home of the Reading Fightin’ Phils, is filled with fans hoping to see the baseball stars of tomorrow and get an autograph or two. Three times a season the stadium is not filled with typical fans, but with school fieldtrips.

“School Days,” as the employees refer to them, are mid-morning, mid-week games held in late May and early June. The pre-game festivities focus on Science and Music as the stadium promotes education, but all of the teachers and students are there to have a good time.

Donna Guy, a fourth grade teacher in the Coatesville school district, has attended School Days for the past several years. This year she was inspired to bring the joy of the fieldtrip home, and purchased team baseball card packs at the stadium. Each student received a card and was instructed to write a letter to the featured player and send the letter, baseball card, and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the stadium.

The students were skeptical: why would a professional athlete bother to respond to them? Still, each student, and their teacher, harbored some hope that the letters would be received and read, so they sent them and waited.

About a week later, a student Mrs. Guy described as “quiet and withdrawn” marched into the room and up to her teacher with her arms outstretched, her hands clutching an autographed baseball card. Her player had responded, the first of many players to respond.

“She was so happy,” Mrs. Guy says, reenacting the moment with a huge smile on her face. “I’d never seen her smile so much.”

For the player, signing the card was a simple gesture that didn’t require much time or effort. For the girl, the simple signature told her she was important. For the teacher, the signature created a smile that will live forever.

Minor league sports are filled with moments like these, but the moments get lost among all of the prospect rankings, statistics, and game recaps. These moments are why fans fall in love with sports, and these moments are why they will always come back to their local minor league ballpark with their children and grandchildren. This site will attempt to capture moments and stories like this one, and allow us all a chance to look at the human side of sports, instead of the numerical side.

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