2017 Freitas Awards: Reading Fightin' Phils
Most devout baseball fans flock to minor league ballparks for a glimpse of the future—to see tomorrow’s stars in action. And certainly, the Reading Fightin' Phils have had no shortage of young talent over the years.
But Reading's all-in celebration of the past sets it apart from most other minor league teams.
That was made abundantly clear in 2017, when the team revamped its Baseballtown Hall of Fame at 67-year-old FirstEnergy Stadium to include larger-than-life murals of past greats like Mike Schmidt, Robin Roberts, Rocky Colavito and more. The stadium, as the Fightins refer to it, is a field of history. Fans are immersed in it as soon as they walk through the gates. They often spend an hour or more on the concourse, looking at every Phillies team picture dating back to 1967, tracing the timeline of when those big leaguers appeared at Reading. On the visitor’s side of the park, another hall of fame recognizes all of the greats—Phils and opponents alike—that have passed through the historic minor league field.
“It sort of completed the stadium, those two areas,” Reading general manager Scott Hunsicker said. “And now, literally, there’s nowhere you walk where you’re not sort of experiencing that history from the left-field foul pole to the right-field foul pole.
“It’s a really unique opportunity to take historical relevance and find a way to weave it into the artistic and atmospheric parts of the ballpark.”
The Double-A franchise has been affiliated with the Phillies since 1967—tied with the longest affiliation in all of Minor League Baseball. In that time, the Fightin' Phils have firmly entrenched themselves within the Reading community. The Fightins led the Eastern League in attendance for the second straight year in 2017, and they’ve posted attendance figures of more than 400,000 in 19 of the last 20 seasons.
Simply put, Reading has a tradition of excellence. It has won two Freitas Awards prior to this year’s. Hunsicker credited an atmosphere of “continuity and community” established by owner Craig Stein and former GM Chuck Domino, and that continuity extends well beyond Reading’s 50-year affiliation with the Phillies.
Just look at the staff: Reading has more than 170 employees that have worked for the team for at least a decade. Hunsicker himself has been with the organization since 1992, starting as an intern before moving up the ladder to GM, and there are many employees who predate him. The staff oozes with a sense of pride and ownership. FirstEnergy Stadium is their home.
“We even have a concession stand where we have a grandmother, a mother and her children that all work in the same concession stand,” Hunsicker said. “That repeats itself around the ballpark.”
Fans have come to expect an intimate, family-friendly experience. Before every game, players on both teams walk through the concourse—among the fans—on their way to the field. Over the years, several Fightin Phils with musical talent have played postgame concerts, and it’s not uncommon to see them mingling with spectators. After all, those fans are as much a part of the Reading experience as the players themselves.
One fan in particular, Adam Briscoe, has developed celebrity status at the park with his signature “Briscoe Disco” arm-waving dance. In January, Briscoe was struck by an SUV and hospitalized with life-threatening injuries, but, fortunately, he made a full recovery. True to the welcoming culture at Reading, the Fightins rallied around him. On Opening Day, they sold Briscoe Disco “bobble arms” with all proceeds going toward Briscoe’s medical bills.
The Fightins take care of their own. They honor not only their on-field greats but also their veterans in the concession stands, front office and box seats. An award for Reading is, in a sense, an award for the community.
“All people are a part of this,” Hunsicker said. “There’s no reason that we can’t all be nice to each other.
Johan Rojas Receives Rave Reviews
The Phillies will be closely watching the 20-year-old center fielder to see how he progresses in his first stint at a full-season level.
“It was like that when I got here as an intern, and it’s like that now, and it’s one of the things we’re proudest of.”