Thursday, June 6, 2013

Gifts from a Friend-- Browning Ross

Browning Ross officiating at the Woodbury (NJ) Relays

While writing a book about my coach and friend, Olympian Browning Ross, I realized that most of the jobs I’ve had after meeting Browning in 1974 could be traced directly to his influence on my life. I’m sure many readers can look back with gratitude at a teacher or coach who opened doors for them similarly in unexpected ways.
For me, it was the people I’ve met and the doors that have opened for me directly and indirectly through running and meeting Browning.
Browning encouraged me to become a distance runner after my first mile race almost 40 years ago. The decision to run really shaped all of my life experiences from that point on.
     In what could only becalled another life altering moment Browning also asked me to coach the Gloucester Catholic High School Cross Country team with him in 1981, an offer I immediately rejected citing a lack of confidence that high school kids would ever want to listen to a young coach who was not much older than they were.

Browning nodded his understanding, but knowing what was best for me, he came to pick up anyway the next day. That started a coaching career that is still active today. The coaching position led to a teaching job, at Gloucester Catholic when I graduated college. Despite reservations about teaching, Browning urged me to “grab” the job at once. (I was a business/computer major and not an education major.) He said I could figure it out on the fly.  That first teaching led to other jobs including part time jobs teaching at Rowan University and writing for the Gloucester County Times.

 It also led to other full time jobs where I was able to work and continue coaching. It also led to my most interesting job, working with the Phillies. Since 2001 I’ve worked in Security for the Phillies and have been on the field, in the dugout, and with the Phillies families and this has led to some interesting experiences.
After I was interviewed and hired by the Phillies, one of the Phillies hiring managers mentioned that I was hired in part because of my running background and ability to catch “field runners”, and for the people skills that I had developed coaching and teaching. I immediately thought of Browning and how even this job could be traced back to Browning’s positive and unique influence on my life.
I started working for the Phillies in Veterans Stadium and in one the first few minute of my first game I knew this job would be different. We encountered a belligerent fan in the 700 level (8 dollar seat!) that refused to stand for the National Anthem while trying to drown out the Anthem with obscenities.
 We escorted him to the exit. He was definitely not a constitutional scholar and went without an argument, eager to get back to the bar he came from.
After a few games in the 700 level, I was asked to go down on the field where I would

Veterans Stadium Photo Mike McCann
stay for the next 5 years. One of our main duties was to keep fans from running on the field. On the rare occasion when someone did enter the field it always came as a shock. You would hear the roar of the crowd and know it was up to you to escort them off the field as quickly and as safely (to themselves and the players) as possible. The correct method to apprehend a “field runner” was to walk after them slowly until security or better yet a police officer could grab them by the belt. They would then be escorted to the stadium jail and a possible $3000 fine. Walking and not a sprint chase was the preferable method for apprehension of the field  crasher since 1) a couple of security guards had blown out their knees after being “out juked” on the infamous  Vet stadium Astroturf while giving chase to the field crashers  and 2) the crowd would get behind the field runner egging him on.  The alcohol and adrenaline from the crowd noise would only give the field runner super human strength and agility which was heightened by a chase—the old “flight or fight” response mechanism we runners know so well.

The low point of field captures for me was when a naked man wearing only a Reagan mask bolted on the field narrowly missing Pat Burrell catching a fly ball. I was the first one to notice him and ran onto the field only to call off my pursuit when I saw his lack of proper attire. Two policemen ran out of the dugouts and grabbed him by the wrist and another security guard provided a moving “fig leaf” as he was escorted from the field. One of the policemen kiddingly asked me “why I veered off my pursuit on that apprehension”. This field crasher faced additional charges for his lack of decency in front of a family crowd but had one thing in common with 99% of all problem fans—he was extremely drunk.
One of the drunkest fans I saw at Veterans stadium was over 400 pounds and was throwing punches at the other fans near him. He had no shirt on, was sweating profusely and was too slippery for the police to get a grip on. I noticed he had a mostly empty industrial sized 2 liter bottle of Jagermeister in his back pocket. I had never seen a bottle that big and wondered how he got it in the stadium. It took a police cart and 4 officers holding down each limb to remove him from the stadium. As he was being secured I yelled, “Hit him with the Rhino tranquilizer dart!”  Which got a laugh and agreement from the Philadelphia Police Sergeant and officers on duty.

Some of the other major duties of field security involved providing protection for the players when they were on the field signing autographs and giving foul balls to the fans. Almost all of the players were extremely nice and very nice to the fans—especially little kids seeking autographs. One player who was not was Mike Mordecai a mediocre player who often hurt the Phillies. For some reason

Author with Luis Gonzalez of the Diamondbacks
Mordecai delighted in taunting the fans. “Hey would you like a ball? Well you can’t have it.” He would then stick the ball in this pocket and walk away. He would taunt the fans the same way over his autograph. “Want my autograph? Got ten bucks on you? Then I guess you can’t have it!”  Finally one of the security guards Tom said, “Hey Mordecai, you’re not funny,  and you sure ain’t good enough to be taunting those kids!”

Most of the players enjoyed interacting with the fans in a more positive way. One 20 something fan with his date had a glove but was missing easy foul ball after foul ball down the third base line during batting practice. Finally Colorado Rockies outfielder Larry Walker couldn’t take it anymore. Walker came running over and asked the fan for his glove. Then he said “You’re doing it wrong, watch this (as a foul ball came dribbling towards them) keep the glove OPEN until the ball goes in and then close it when the ball is IN the glove.” Walker handed the glove back to the fan with souvenir ball inside. The fan embarrassed in front of his date, didn’t appreciate the lesson and snatched his glove back.

 While standing on the field before a game one small boy asked me if I could autograph his ball. I looked at his ball which contained autographs from Ken Griffey Jr and Bob Boone and handed it back without signing,  knowing he would thank me some day for not signing his ball.
At the time I was teaching a week-long Lean Six Sigma class at Lockheed Martin (it’s a process improvement class for managers), and one night after a class I was standing behind Randy Johnson of the Diamondbacks as he signed autographs before the game.

 Suddenly we heard a fan yelling on the concourse “Hey, Hey wait, wait!” he was also waving like crazy  and running down the steps toward us, dodging  other fans on the steps.
Randy looked up at him and I  (and probably Randy) figured it was a fan who really wanted his autograph and was afraid he would leave before he could get down to him. Breathless, the fan finally made it down to us and said,  “Hey Jack I have a question about the Root Cause analysis we are doing in  class, if you have a minute….”
Randy looked at him like he was nuts and started to walk away (before I could ask Randy to answer it!) Talk about focus--  I don’t think the fan even noticed Randy Johnson was there or who he was, he had spotted me and sprinted down to ask that question.

Besides getting to watch every home baseball game, one of the best things about working for the Phillies is seeing families enjoying baseball. Little kids walking around the stadium in awe, many know almost every player on the team and all wearing their

Baseball is by far the most family friendly sport.
favorite player’s name on the back of their Philllies t-shirts. It was also fun to watch the Guide Dogs for the blind at the stadium. When a hot dog or French fry would drop within reach of their resting spot you can see the struggle in the dogs eyes between discipline and canine hunger. They would love to have gobble up the fallen food, but instead just stare at it without flinching-- their behavior a standoff between canine nature and nurture (their guide training).

Before a game with the Marlins, a fan leaned over the rail and a bottle of rum dropped out of his pocket on to the field. The security supervisor saw it at once and told the fan he had to leave. The fan protested “You can’t kick me out, Juan Pierre game me these tickets.” The supervisor responded, I don’t care if “Frenchy Pierre gave you those tickets, you have to go.” And he did.

In Veterans Stadium there was a rubber warning track surrounding the artificial turf and the Barnum and Bailey circus elephants passed through Veterans stadium on their way to the Spectrum during the game as a walking advertisement for the circus. When one of the elephants passed by me I noticed the impression of his feet still clearly visible on the rubber warning track. Those impressions stayed in the rubber, if you knew where to look until the Vet was demolished. One of my last memories of the Vet was an unrecognized Pat Burrell running up and down the stadium ramps wearing a hooded sweatshirt during batting practice while trying to recover from an injury.

Marlins manager Jack McKeon
Marlins manager Jack McKeon led the Marlins to a World Championship in 2003 and was very friendly. I read that McKeon went to mass each morning during the season. Standing next to him on the field before a game, I asked him about that. Then Jack mentioned St Theresa of Lisieux. I mentioned that I had only one returning cross country runner in August one year until I said a prayer to St Theresa. Shortly after the phone started ringing and we ended up with the biggest boys and girls cross-country teams ever at Gloucester Catholic in September. McKeon said "Everything I've accomplished in baseball and life I owe to St. Theresa. I am dedicating a chapter to her in my autobiography." McKeon showed me a St Thersa card he keeps in his wallet. His autobiography"I'm Just Getting Started" does have a chapter about St Theresa's impact on his life.

The Phillies hold a fundraiser dedicated to ALS Association (Lou Gehrig’s disease) research each season. The players and employees volunteer their time for the annual fundraiser which has raised over 13 million dollars since 1984.
During one of the ALS fundraisers,  I was assisting with the logistics of some of the charitable fan activities on the field at Veterans Stadium when long time Phillies Coach Mage McDonnellapproached me, “Jack we have a lot of fans who paid $5 to throw 3 pitches in the Phillies bullpen, they’re lining up but we don’t have a bullpen catcher! I think you can do catch, I’ll get you a glove.” I asked if he was serious. He said he was. I mentioned catcher was the one position I had never played in little league. He said, “I know you can do it, or I wouldn’t have asked you. It’s just  until the regular catcher from Villanova gets here. Maje then admitted he didn’t have any catcher’s equipment, but quickly found an old fielder’s glove and handed it to me.

Maje McDonnell
     The Phillies bullpen was concrete with a dirt mound, and I noticed that the back end of the bullpen was a small swamp of four inch deep rancid water with sunflower seeds, tobacco juice and mosquitoes—it looked like a real toxic mess.
Maje must have read my mind,  “By the way, we only have a limited number of balls, if they get by you into the swamp-- they’re history.  If we run out of balls we’re in trouble, some people won't get to throw. Good luck kid!”
The next 40 minutes were some of the longest and hottest I’ve spent, as I tried to catch or block wannabe major leaguers with varying degrees of control-- all trying to get their money’s worth by throwing 3 pitches as hard as they could.
Drenched in sweat I noticed Ruben Amaro Jr. stroll into the bullpen. I stood up and said “Hey Ruben, didn’t you used to be a catcher?” He said, “I think I have an important phone call here...” put the phone to his ear and quickly turned and headed out of the bullpen.  I reluctantly went back to catching. A few minutes later Maje came back. “Good news, the varsity catcher from Villanova is here, you’re done!” I noticed the catcher had brought his own catchers gear and mitt.
 I staggered out of the bullpen only down about 6 baseballs lost to the bullpen swamp.  Exhausted, I felt like I had at least made a unique contribution to the ALS effort that day. I thought about that bullpen with no trace of sentiment when the Vet was imploded in March of 2004.

When the Phillies moved to Citizens Bank Park in 2004 I remained on the field for a few years and spent an extended period of time in the Visitor’s Dugout. I was in the dugout with the Marlins during Chase Utley’s first full season. The protocol was not to talk to or disturb the players, but many of the players were friendly and would sit next to you and strike up a conversation. Dontrelle Willis, a pitcher for the Marlins sat next to me when Chase came to the plate, “Utley, that’s only about a letter away from ugly. If the man is ugly he’s going to hear about it.” Willis peered out at Utley and said, “No, he’s a good looking guy, he’s got nothing to worry about.”
I enjoyed the interaction with the fans and so did most of the players. One inebriated fan asked me if I could “get an autograph from David Bell for his aunt who passed away last month.” I replied with the obvious, that if his aunt had already passed away their wasn’t any urgency for the autograph.

Right before one game Pat Burrell, standing over 100 feet away on the field yelled to another Security guard on the field, “Hey Tom!” and then a  motion  for Tom to move out of the way. Tom said, “Me?” Pat nodded yes ant Tom moved to the side. Tom wondered, “How does he know my name? The print on my badge is microscopic and he is far away. He must have tremendous eyesight” Tom looked behind him in the stands to see the 2 beautiful women with low cut Phillies shirts whose view he was blocking.
Another security guard on the field-- Rich was in his 70’s and collected baseball pins. He had a collection of over a dozen that he wore on his hat. A fan asked me “Why does that older security guy have so many pins on his hat?” I replied that they were awarded for “take downs on the field”. He whistled softly, “Man, that guy’s good!”

I took advantage of my time on the field to talk to the major league trainers about state of the art things I thought might help me with coaching cross country at Gloucester Catholic. I took their recommendations for Airex balance pads, wobble boards and pickle juice. The pickle juice experiment later became a Runners Gazette article.
The worst part about working at the stadium was waiting out rain delays which could last for hours. We often sat in the dugout during the delays with the players. During one delay Jim Thome came out of the clubhouse, sat down next to me looked at my name tag and said,  “So Jack is this the rain that’s coming from Cleveland?” I answered that I thought it was since weather patterns often move from west to east, but it gave me a clue that his heart was still with his long- time home of Cleveland.

You could hear the fans comments from the stands very clearly and I liked watching the umpires try not to laugh from some of the comments. “Hey ump, I’ve seen better eyes on a potato!” was one that almost broke up an umpires concentration.

While we were in the dugout for another rain delay Tom mentioned to Placido Polanco that he made a good play before the rain started. Polanco answered in Spanish that he didn’t understand so Tom pantomimed a good fielding play. Polanco shrugged and said he still didn’t understand and Carlos Silva came over and translated. Polanco with excitement answered “Si, Si, and Gracias Gracias!” Then he said, “Hey Tom, I speak English just as good as you do man, I’m just messing with you! “Tom turned bright red.
After a couple of years on the field at Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies asked me to move into the stands.  After a few innings I realized that they had assigned me to work with the Phillies families. It is a great section to work and I enjoyed getting to know the player’s families and also getting away from the intense sun and rain that are a part of standing on the field.
The players families are great people, and it is painful to see spectators (I won’t call them fans) who have had too much to drink stop by the rail near the family section and yell that someone’s son or husband “sucks” because they didn’t pitch a perfect game or hit 1000. My theory is that the people yelling those things were never athletes. An athlete or true fan could never yell anything derogatory-- they know how hard it is to play major league baseball in front of 45,000 fans each game. I did see Josh Beckett politely tell a fan who was yelling at him, “Hey pal, I don’t come to your job and yell at you or tell you how to do your job-- so why don’t you give me the same consideration?” The fan sheepishly looked down.

I could feel the anxiety standing with Mr. and Mrs. Victorino when their son Shane was a rookie and hoping to stick with the Phillies after having started with the Dodgers and Padres organizations. That relationship led to another Runners Gazette article, an interview with Shane. The Victorino’s are extremely thoughtful and generous, and always managed to bring us back pineapples and macadamia chocolates from Hawaii.
I also enjoyed talking baseball with Jamie Moyers father during Jamie’s great years with the Phillies. I saw the look of amazement on Mr. Moyers face when a fan bragged to his friends that he had just spent over hundred twenty dollars on beer. Mr Moyers said “I just bought a case of beer at home for ten dollars. Why would anyone ever want to spend that much on beer? You should be here to see the game.”  I agree and could never see the point of heavy drinking at an event you want to see like a game or concert, and possibly missing some of it-- working at the Phillies has only strengthened that feeling.

Before direct deposit, we received the same Phillies logo checks that the Phillies players received albiet much smaller. I was cashing a pay check when I heard the bank cashier whisper to her partner “ I think this guy plays for the Phillies, but he must not be very good—his check is only for twenty five bucks!”
Asa runner and coach, I had to take advantage of the Phillies employee suggestion program to make two running related suggestions. The first suggestion, a 5k race at the stadium in March was eventually adopted. The second “Racing Tastycakes”-- like the racing sausages in Milwaukee, and racing Presidents in Washington Nationals Stadium has not been adopted yet. I think it would give Phillies fans that have had so many thrills from our Fightin’ Phils the past ten years one more thing to cheer during the game.
 The late broadcaster and Hall of Famer Harry Kalas graciously did his call for the Gloucester Catholic Cross Country Team and it is located on the team website at I think Browning would have enjoyed hearing the call.

 Written by Jack Heath.  This article appeared in Runners Gazette Magazine:


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