First of two parts
WASHINGTON - In the corner of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito's stately chambers is a book case. Hanging from the top is a red banner with "2008" in white numerals, a replica of the world championship flag that flies over Citizens Bank Park. On the shelves are a Phillies cap, several framed pictures depicting various Phillies players, autographed baseballs, a book on the 1950 Phillies Whiz Kids and other Phillies-related memorabilia.
Justice Alito's work couldn't be more serious. The decisions he participates in have an enormous impact on the country. Baseball is his escape. And the Phillies have always been his favorite team.
A week ago today he took his entire office to the first game of the season at Nationals Park. Last Wednesday, still sporting the pink face that resulted from 3 hours of sitting in the Opening Day sun, Alito, 60, sat down with the Daily News. In Part 1 of the interview, he discusses his baseball roots, his favorite team, the debate between sabermetrics and traditional scouting, the year he attended Dream Week, how the court breaks down when it comes to rooting interests, Pete Rose and the Hall of Fame, and steroids in the game.
Daily News: You grew up near Trenton. You could have been a Yankees or a Mets fan. Why the Phillies?
Justice Alito: I could have, I really have no idea. My father was a Phillies fan, so I guess that's the explanation. But, yeah, my neighborhood was split down the middle. My friend across the street and his father were rabid Yankees fans. In those days there were some [Brooklyn] Dodgers fans and New York Giants fans, but I was a Phillies fan from the beginning, when I first became interested in baseball.
DN: And you had a Phillies uniform with Richie Ashburn's No. 1 on it. Where did that come from?
Alito: I think my mother actually made it from scratch. I still have it someplace. I have a picture of myself and my sister and we both have Phillies uniforms on. But I asked her to put the '1' on the back.
DN: Do you remember the first game you went to?
Alito: I can't remember the first day game I went to. Our family often went to the Sunday doubleheader. That's what we liked to do. You got two games for the price of one. We had a particular spot far down the rightfield line in Connie Mack Stadium where we tried to get tickets, which didn't cost very much in those days.
I remember that with the doubleheaders there was always an issue about whether they were going to get the second game in before the curfew. In those days, Philadelphia had a Sunday curfew. I don't know if it was 6 o'clock, but there was a certain time [and] you couldn't start an inning after that.
Anyway, I very vividly remember the first night game I went to with my father. I must have been 8 or 9 years old. I remember it was very exciting walking there, walking to the stadium in the dark and how it looked totally different lit up.
The Phillies were playing what in those days were called the [Cincinnati] Redlegs. And I remember Ted Kluszewski, who was the first baseman for the Reds. Because in those days the Reds had sleeveless uniforms and he had huge muscles. [Laughing] Which was a lot more unusual in those days than it is in the modern era. And he hit a ball like a rocket off the big rightfield wall in Philadelphia.
DN: Didn't he also cut off the sleeves of his undershirt?
Alito: [Laughing] Yes, he was definitely showing off his biceps.
DN: So do you take your children to games?
Alito: I do, although they're both grown up. My daughter is a senior in college and my son is in law school . . . My son is a very rabid baseball fan. He's really into the sophisticated baseball statistics. He does computer programs, analyzing everything. My wife accuses us of talking only about baseball. [Laughing] Once the season begins, she gets tired of hearing us.
DN: So you're more of a sabermetrics guy than a traditionalist?
Alito: Well, I'm very interested in it and I'm attracted to it. I can't say I really understand it all that well. But it makes a lot of sense to me. I guess it has its limits. But the nature of baseball just lends itself to a statistical analysis.
DN: So if you had a choice of having dinner with Bill James or a top scout, you'd go with Bill James?
Alito: I don't know. It depends on what the scout would tell me. I think they know things but either they don't want to tell ordinary people or they have trouble explaining it.
I don't think you can look at a high school kid, or even a college kid, and tell how that player is going to do in professional baseball. So the scouts have to be able to see something in a very nascent form, which I think is very, very difficult to do. I don't know what the secret is.
DN: Did you play growing up?
Alito: I played into my high school years and then two things happened to me. [Laughing] I became nearsighted. And in those days nobody wanted to wear glasses to play baseball, and contacts didn't exist. And pitchers started throwing curves. Those two things sort of hampered my playing.
DN: Did you follow other sports growing up, or just baseball?
Alito: I was interested in other sports, but baseball was the primary thing. My friends and I spent all summer playing baseball. We played Wiffle ball. We started out playing regular baseball in my back yard until we broke too many windows. So then we played Wiffle ball endlessly. And we played pickup games on sort of a makeshift field that wasn't too far away, which I don't think kids do anymore. And I played on Little League teams.
DN: What position did you play?
Alito: Second base.
DN: Bats right, throws right?
Alito: Righthanded, yeah.
DN: You went to Phillies Dream Week in 1994, the year after the Phillies went to the World Series. Why did you decide to go and what are your memories?
Alito: What prompted me to do it is my wife signed me up for it. It was a Christmas present. I enjoyed it. It was fantastic.
The manager of our team was Larry Bowa. [Laughing] He was more subdued there, but not entirely, than he was as a regular manager. Tony Taylor was one of the coaches. Tony Taylor called me 'Alto Man.'
My most prized possession was the 'Silver Glove Award' for Dream Week, the best fielder there. I was very proud of that. I won't say anything about my hitting. But my fielding was pretty good.
You know the setup. You play games against each other all week. By the end of the week every single person there, I think without exception, had pulled his hamstring. So nobody could really run.
Then we played our last game against the old-time players. In the field, I turned a doubleplay. That's another great memory. When I came up to bat, the pitcher was Al Holland, who had been out of baseball for a while and grown a big beer belly by then. And I'm sure he was throwing the ball as softly as he possibly could when I got up to bat. So he threw the first pitch and I hardly saw it. So I just said, 'All I want to do is just get my bat on the ball, put the ball in play. I don't want to embarrass myself by striking out.' And I did manage to do that. I hit a ground ball to the right side of the infield. He must have thrown it even more slowly the second time.
DN: Do other justices have favorite teams? Do you talk about baseball with them?
Alito: Yes. Unfortunately I had a bet with Justice [Sonia] Sotomayor about the outcome of the World Series. She's a Yankees fan. Justice [Antonin] Scalia is a Yankees fan. So we had a bet, cheesesteaks vs. Nathan's hot dogs and I had to provide Nathan's hot dogs.
Justice [Stephen] Breyer is a Red Sox fan and Justice [John Paul] Stevens is a Cubs fan. He claims to have been present when Babe Ruth called his shot [in the 1932 World Series] at Wrigley Field. [Smiling] Although about 200,000 people claim to have been in attendance at that game, I trust him that he actually was.
DN: Is it difficult for you to go to a game, to find the time?
Alito: Well, going to games in Philadelphia is hard in the sense of getting up there and the traffic is unpredictable. But my son and I try to get to a number of games in Philadelphia, even if we take turns driving home really late. And I go to most of the Phillies games here [in Washington].
DN: How do you follow them otherwise?
Alito: I have the MLB package.
DN: So how many games would you estimate you get to watch during a season?
Alito: Many. At least part of, I don't know, a hundred. That's just a guess.
DN: When you go to a game, what's your favorite ballpark food?
Alito: [Smiling] Cheesesteaks.
DN: Not to put you on the spot, but there are two places in Ashburn Alley you can get them. Which do you prefer?
Alito: [Smiling] I won't do that.
DN: On your shelf you have the famous picture of Pete Rose catching the ball the bounced off Bob Boone's glove in Game 6 of the 1980 World Series. Should Pete Rose be in the Hall of Fame?
Alito: I shouldn't talk about whether he should get in. He was a great player and it's a tragedy. The things that he did off the field are a tragedy. But he really was a great player and that play is kind of an illustration of the intangibles that he brought. I remember seeing that live on TV like it was yesterday. The ball bouncing out of Boone's glove and Pete Rose is there to catch it.
DN: You mentioned that more players have big muscles today than they did when Ted Kluszewski played. There have been congressional hearings on steroids, literally right across the street. Were you ever tempted to go watch? What are your thoughts on steroids?
Alito: Not to watch the hearings, no. The whole era is a real tragedy for baseball because baseball is a game where statistics are so important. I don't know that there's any other sport where statistics have the same meaning that they do in baseball. Everybody knows about 60 home runs or 714 home runs or hitting .400 or winning 20 games and all that. So when you have a whole era in which it seems pretty obvious now that a lot of players were using illegal substances and as a result have elevated statistics, it undermines something that's very important to the game.
DN: If you had a Hall of Fame vote, how would you factor that in?