One warm August evening we went to watch the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, the Triple A minor league affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies, take on the Syracuse Chiefs, an affiliate of our Washington Nationals. It didn’t really matter to us or to the hometown crowd that the Chiefs, like their parent Nats, were doing well in their league and the Iron Pigs, like the Phillies, weren’t. We were going in the traditional American summer spirit of a friendly night at the ballpark, in this case the fine new Coca-Cola Park, an 8200-seat stadium, which opened in 2008 at the edge of Allentown, Pennsylvania.
We were also going in honor of Casey Shearer. My husband, Jim, had given the annual Casey Shearer Memorial Lecture at Brown earlier this year, established after the world lost Casey just before his graduation in 2000.
A promise we were pleased to make to his parents was that while flying around the country for our American Futures project, we would seek out local sports events that we thought that Casey, a sports journalist at Brown, would enjoy. We think he would have loved going with us to see the Iron Pigs, which looked to be just as much fun as the collegiate summer baseball league duels we saw between the Duluth Huskies and the Eau Claire Express.
Coca-Cola Park is more than a lovely stadium. It is a stepping stone in the economic and spiritual revival of Allentown and the Lehigh Valley after the loss of nearby Bethlehem Steel and other iconic industries and businesses. (Jim Fallows and John Tierney have written about the revival here and here and here.) Lots of people questioned the wisdom of building the 50-million-dollar stadium, doubting it could draw or sustain a crowd. But it did and it has! People flocked in from all around the Lehigh Valley, and the stadium now boasts the biggest attendance record of any minor-league stadium in the U.S.
The stadium's success was also used as an argument to undertake the newly-finished downtown arena in the PPL Center, a 200-million-dollar complex including the home rink for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, a professional team with the American Hockey League. If the Coca-Cola Stadium worked for baseball, Allentown and the Phantoms reasoned, the downtown arena should work for hockey. So far so good for the PPL; The Eagles came to town on September 12, inaugurating the center for a sold-out crowd. The first Phantoms home game, against the Philadelphia Flyers, is scheduled for September 27.
Saturday night’s double header was so much fun that we returned with our friends from Marketplace radio a few nights later for another game. You can hear their broadcast here. People poured into the stadium in droves: groups of high school cheerleaders, Boy Scouts, employees from the nearby Amazon distribution center, busses of senior citizens from their assisted-living homes, a set of twins celebrating their birthday, couples celebrating anniversaries, service groups, the Villanova alumni, a church group from nearby Emmaus Episcopal, the management staff from the Saucon Valley Country Club, and groups representing various mysterious acronyms HJSC, TCR, and the PA credit union. They all popped up on the stadium’s big screen, one after another.
The evening was hardly a splurge at the family-friendly price of $7 a ticket, or an upgrade to $10, which included a $5 food coupon! In fact, some people came for the food alone. Lee Butz, the builder of the stadium, who walked us around one evening, told me about one such friend of his. “He didn’t really care that much for baseball," Butz said, "but he loved to have dinner at the park." Butz described that his friend would sit at the little tables in the esplanade as long as it took him to eat his dinner—about the end of the third inning—and then go home.
Making my own choice for dinner was difficult. Being Pennsylvania Dutch country, there were all kind of hot dogs and local sausages on offer. The longest lines were for the spicy corn on the cob—implausibly huge ears of corn, dunked into vats of melted butter, and then sprinkled heavily with parmesan cheese and hot spices. Next up were funnel cakes.
I realize I’m stepping into delicate territory here by bringing up funnel cakes, but here goes: I had noticed that the lines for make-your-own waffles at the free Marriott breakfast at our hotel were as long as the lines for funnel cakes at the stadium. Funnel cake? Waffles? One and the same? They looked the same to me. I thought it was perhaps time-of-day nomenclature: waffles for breakfast and funnel cakes after that. Locals whom I asked in Allentown launched into a heartfelt discourse, describing that funnel cakes looked more like a pile of spaghetti than a well-defined waffle. A quick Internet search on waffles v funnel cakes reveals fine parsing of the definitions of the genre and heated discussion of the quality of batter. I waited for a break in the corn line, which I decided would pair better than funnel cakes with the local beer.
The acoustics were as good as the food. A strong, dramatic tenor named Don Nixon sang the Star Stangled Banner with punctuation points on “land of the freeeee” and a deeply trilled “Home of the brrrrave.” A lucky little local girl announced the Iron Pigs players to a cheering crowd. Star Wars music accompanied the introduction of the visiting Syracuse Chiefs, and music from the TV series Dragnet played for the umpires.
Not a single announcement went unsponsored: We heard the Allied Bank national anthem, the Toyota “Play ball!” call to action, the WAWA RBI batter of the game, Dave’s Vacuum clean-up hitter, Service Master clean sweep. The litany, and the signage that covered every square inch of the stadium might be wearying in the big leagues, but the hometown flavor was charming; it felt like a walk through the local yellow pages of the Lehigh Valley.
Inning breaks were a sideshow of acts: races between a slab of bacon and a hotdog (we’re in pork country!); a blindfolded jump-rope contest; a sumo-wrestling match featuring wrestlers inside giant transparent plastic bubbles trying to roll each other out of bounds.
Only one such interstitial struck me as heartless: a little boy who looked to be about eight years old was the lucky winner of two tickets to nearby Six Flags amusement park. The thrilled little boy was brought onto the field by a Vanna White-like woman, who offered him a choice: keep his two tickets or take a chance on one of three mystery boxes in front of him. He gamely chose the smallest of the boxes. “Vanna” held us in suspense, opening first the middle-sized box. It revealed a few tickets and some freebies. Then the big box: six tickets and lots of paraphernalia. Ouch. Then, finally, the smallest box. He had exchanged his two tickets for nothing but a spool of black thread. A collective groan from the crowd as the little boy, certainly crushed, was rushed off the field with a "Tough luck, Kid!" shrug.
On a stroll around the perimeter of the stadium, we saw playgrounds for the little kids, a grassy seating area for families to spread out, booths for fast-pitch, batting, and other skills contests. There was something for everyone. Despite that, we were surprised to see few Latino faces in the crowds. Allentown is about 43 percent Latino. Julio Guridy, Allentown's City Council president, told me that I would be likely to see many more Latino families at the town's parks playing and enjoying soccer games than at the Iron Pigs stadium.
The baseball wasn’t bad either. In the first game, Michael Taylor, who had recently been called up to our hometown Nats and hit a game-winning hit, was back down with the Syracuse Chiefs. Maikel Franco was playing for the Iron Pigs, and we heard later that week that he was going up to the Phillies to slot in for their 3rd baseman. And Tony Gwynn, Jr. (my husband, a Southern Californian, was impressed)! He was down with the Iron Pigs for a stint before going back to the Phils.
It was a pretty good run for the Iron Pigs, they won both of the seven-inning double header (minor league rule for double-headers), but then fell a few nights later in 9. It didn’t matter. Final 2014 standing of the International League North put the Syracuse Chiefs at the top of the league, the Iron Pigs at the bottom. But win or lose, the Iron Pigs are a gift to the revival of Allentown and the Lehigh Valley.