There are three rules if you want to watch a Phillies game with the Phandemic Krew, a surprisingly organized, semi-official group of fans who gather just outside Citizens Bank Park during every single Phillies game (yes really, we’ll get to that) this season.
No. 1: Wear a mask. No. 2: Make trash, take trash. And No. 3: Don’t blow the air horn between when the pitcher comes set and when the catcher has the ball or else it’s been put in play.
“That one is not a hard and fast rule,” said Brett MacMinn, 44, one of the two founders of the Krew.
Most of the ambient noise on baseball broadcasts this year is artificial. The fake cheers and animatronic audible intake of breath piped in to provide some desperate ambience and distract from just how strange this season really is. Sometimes, though, the unintentional effect is to underscore any live noise — whether that’s chirping from the dugout or a four-letter exclamation of frustration from the field or the air horns outside the center field gate in South Philly.
If you’ve watched a Phillies game in 2020, you’ve heard them. The press box and the broadcast booth are probably 600 feet away from where the Krew sets up just outside Ashburn Alley, but the sound is loud and clear in person and on TV. Drums, cheers, real live applause that makes the stuff on the speakers seem hollow, and of course the air horn, which gained some notoriety earlier this season when Yankees manager Aaron Boone complained that it was distracting his pitchers. (Inspiring the ostensible nod to courtesy.)
Phillies manager Joe Girardi, if you can believe it, has a different take.
“I mean I love hearing those horns, I really do. It makes you feel like you're not so alone,” Girardi said. “And when the horns are going off a lot that means we're doing well, so I like those horns.”
That kind of biased perspective is sort of the point. The Krew claims they’re lending their guys a level of home field advantage that’s hard to come by in a season without a single ticket sold. They’ll tell you to look at the stats, and that numbers don’t lie. With four games left to play, all on the road, the Phillies are 19-13 at home and 8-16 on the road. To the people who just want an excuse to feel like they’re at the game, whether it’s causation or merely correlation doesn’t matter.
Like a savvy first-year manager, Girardi said it’s a testament to Philadelphia’s bona fides as a hardcore sports city. It’s the sort of thing all cities, and managers, like to say. Characterizing an entire fanbase is an inherently flawed and foolish venture, but one of the specific things that stood out to Girardi this summer is that often the Krew stayed at the stadium later than the team did.
“A lot of times when we drive out at night, they're still there with their signs,” he said.
Eventually, they do leave. Oscar Alvarado, 39, the other cofounder of the Krew, goes home to Audubon, New Jersey, and tries to get some sleep before waking up at 4 a.m. to get to his job as a manager at a big-box retailer. Working the early shift has made this experience possible, so he welcomes the insane hours. After work, he’ll head back to Citizens Bank Park to meet up with MacMinn, who is a fourth-grade teacher. They try to be the first ones there and the last to leave every night.
“I only get like, three, four hours of sleep cause I'm always out here. It doesn't affect me, though,” Alvarado said. “This is something I love to do. I mean, this is my passion.”
‘No we're serious, we're coming out’
When Major League Baseball announced that “summer camp” would resume at home ballparks without spectators, MacMinn and Alvarado, who knew each other through the Philly sports collector scene, just assumed fans would descend on stadiums to soak up any atmosphere there was to be had and hopefully sneak a peek of some on-field action.
“I just imagined coming out here with my dad and a chair and radio and a couple beers,” MacMinn said, “At the Steve Carlton statue or the Mike Schmidt statue, just kind of being here.”
There wasn’t a crowd, but there was a spot outside center field where, if you were standing on something like a chair or a ladder, you could see the infield and live baseball being played. A couple of concourse monitors are visible, too, to keep track of what’s actually going on. That was enough, at least to keep MacMinn and Alvarado coming back.
The Phillies noticed them right away, and some security guards gave them a little bit of grief over the ladders at first. But pretty quickly the relationship evolved from tacit approval to warm patronage.
The first weekend of the regular season, the Marlins were in town.
A staff member from the Phillies came out to talk to the Krew. “[He] was like, ‘Hey, man, we love what you guys are doing. We can hear you now this is great,’ ” MacMinn said. “He's like, ‘But we can hear the Marlins bullpen more we can hear you guys, and we need you guys to step it up.’ ”
That was the series of the first COVID-19 outbreak of the season. After several Marlins players tested positive, the Phillies were sidelined for a week. That gave MacMinn and Alvarado time to turn this into a real movement. They came up with a name — the hardest working portmanteau that pays homage to the city, the circumstances, and Bryce Harper’s son Krew — and a logo that featured a fuzzy green Phanatic hand blowing an air horn.
They also reached out to the team to explain that they planned to be there for all the road games, too, and could the stadium staff put the game on the TVs inside the concourse.
“They didn’t believe us in the beginning though,” Alvarado said.
“It was sort of like, ‘No we're serious, we're coming out.’ And we mobilized on social media to make sure they knew,” MacMinn said. “And we came here the first road game and boom, the TVs were on.”
Phillies grow to love the Krew
Over the past two months, as the season sputtered along, the Krew’s presence has grown to include Phillies pennants, a logo banner with the Phanatic’s face on it, signage extolling Dick Allen’s Hall of Fame worthiness, calling for Matt Klentak’s termination, and one that just says “Karen Boone” under a picture of the Yankees’ manager. There’s a QR code you can scan to purchase Phademic Krew merch that benefits Phillies charities. So far they’ve raised over $15,000.
The unmistakable sound of air horns has garnered regular recognition on the broadcast. During home games, the stadium staff collected foul balls and passed them through the fence to be distributed among the kids who came out. MacMinn and Alvarado are going to be officially licensed bobbleheads soon, sold at the team store with proceeds going to charity.
And a few weeks ago, the Phanatic, who regularly drove his ATV out to Ashburn Alley to acknowledge the few three-dimensional fans in attendance, led the small assembled masses in singing happy birthday to Alvarado. It was a total surprise, MacMinn’s doing, and nearly moved Alvarado to tears.
“I went home and I had to sit back on my couch at three o'clock in the morning watching videos like, wow, this really happened,” he said.
“It's a cliche to say, ‘Oh, we got the greatest fans in the world,’ ” said Tom Burgoyne, the man “behind” (read: inside) the Phanatic for the past 32 years. “But when this kind of stuff happens, it kind of validates that.”
After the last home game of the pandemic-shortened season, Andrew McCutchen tweeted his gratitude at the Krew.
Tuesday, with the team in Washington D.C., Girardi had pizzas delivered to the fans still standing outside Citizens Bank Park.
MacMinn explains that they show up for road games because the broadcasters are still in Philly — a coronavirus precaution to limit travel and personnel at each ballpark — which means you can still hear the air horns on the Phillies broadcast.
In October, the broadcasts are national; even if the Phillies make the postseason, there won’t be much action at Citizens Bank Park. Except the Phandemic Krew, that is.
Even if you can’t hear the horns on TV and even if their guys are at a higher seed’s stadium or a neutral site in Texas, for as long as the Phillies are playing baseball in 2020, MacMinn and Alvarado will be standing outside Ashburn Alley — along with anyone else who wants to join them.
A much-needed home away from home
By the final two homestands of the season, the crowd had swelled to 100 people or more every game. They brought foldable chairs and dinner and maybe even a mini drum kit. Kids played catch in the quiet streets around the stadium. Some of them knew MacMinn or Alvarado but many more simply showed up on a whim, having learned about the semi tailgate situation on social media or else because they heard the cheers on the broadcasts at home.
The social distancing wasn’t quite up to CDC standards, but masks were ubiquitous and the Krew’s founders were militant about enforcing their usage. They have spare masks on hand to offer passive aggressively to anyone who arrives without one. They’ve only had a few people all season refuse.
“They just kind of huffed and left,” MacMinn said.
As long as they’re wearing masks, even Mets fans are welcome. For the last game between the NL East rivals this year, Lauren Roeder drove down from New York. She’s working on a yearslong project photographing all 30 baseball stadiums. She’s already been to Citizens Bank Park, but the Phandemic Krew presented an opportunity to capture something unique this season, which would otherwise have been a total bust in terms of material.
“Phillies fans usually have a bad rap, so I wasn’t sure if I should wear my Mets hat,” she said. But the Krew welcomed Roeder and at least one other deGrom-jersey clad outsider last week.
The vibe is more family friendly than what you’re imagining if your impression of Philadelphia sports fandom is rooted in tabloid tales of the worst iterations. MacMinn and Alvarado greet each group of newcomers and give them the lay of the land. They say to make sure the regulars give you a turn on the ladders pressed up against the metal gate.
From the top steps you can sorta see the field, but frankly, the view is terrible. MacMinn said that as long as you see grass you can say you went to a game this year. That’s something, but people aren’t here to watch the game so much as to feel it, interact with it. It’s a visceral expression of fandom. So what if you can’t see? The team is there, or the broadcasters, or at least the stadium itself. This season, this year, has been defined by restrictions — what you can’t do, where you can’t be. It’s a small reclamation of agency to just get in the car and go to the baseball game. Even if they won’t let you in.
Twelve-year-old Brayden Magee said it best. He’s been begging to come see the Phandemic Krew all summer, his dad Joe said. He’s a huge Philly sports fan and there are four-year-old twins at home, so he has to be quiet watching the games at night.
“This,” Brayden said, “is the only place I can scream.”
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