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Spare A Thought For Samuel Alito, America’s Worst Phillies Fan

Supreme Court Justice and Philadelphia Phillies fan Samuel Alito seen at the July 2019 swearing-in of Mark Esper as Secretary of Defense.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

As a Supreme Court justice, Samuel Alito is used to speaking before two very specific types of audiences. The first is the one he encounters at his place of work: solemn, reverent, the lawyers arguing before him fully expecting his interruptions and sometimes even thanking him for posing such piercing, insightful questions. The second is louder and ruddier: garish hotel conference rooms filled to capacity with seal-clapping Federalist Society goblins, nodding in appreciation for his unmatched ability to express their revanchist grievances with just the right amount of legalese. Like most Supreme Court justices, Alito is otherwise careful to avoid public appearances that are not meticulously scripted and responsibly moderated, and wants nothing to do with events at which he cannot remain anonymous.

The crowd at Game 5 of the World Series in Philadelphia last week was like neither of these audience archetypes, but Alito was undeterred. Midway through the seventh inning, Fox cameras caught the 72-year-old Supreme Court justice, a mere four months removed from writing the opinion that overturned Roe v. Wade, glowering down at the field like he was trying to figure out if there were any stray civil rights he could pry away from it.

It is more than a little funny that the Fox production team decided it was a good choice to extend the Local Celeb Roll Call treatment to perhaps the most infamous living member of perhaps the most toxic political body in America, as if Alito’s participation in the festivities were just as charming as that of, say, Julius Erving or Meek Mill or Tim McGraw, son of former Phillies pitcher and 1980 World Series hero Tug McGraw. It is even funnier that on one of the rare occasions when Alito deigns to appear before a mainstream national TV audience, he wore the facial expression of a man waiting to speak to a manager at P.J. Clarke’s because his order of warm zucchini chips was served a little too room temperature for his liking.

In theory, however, Alito was there to have fun: A native of Hamilton Township, New Jersey, he is a lifelong Phillies fan who attends or watches about 100 games a year, per a 2010 interview with the Philadelphia Daily News. When asked why he became a Phillies fan rather than a Yankees fan while growing up between the two cities, Alito once told an interviewer, “Rooting for a losing team when you’re growing up is good for your character.”

The Daily News interview, which went long enough that it ran in two parts, is the sort of thing justices do not do anymore. In it, Alito reveals himself to be the kind of sports fan with detailed opinions about DH rule expansion (“the purist in me doesn’t like to see changes like that”), the Donovan McNabb trade (“a change of scenery is a good thing”), and the impact that Brad Lidge’s elbow injury might have on the Phillies’ division title odds (the bullpen, he said, is “obviously the biggest question”). The fact that the Court heard oral argument on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of last week—in cases that could, among other things, forevermore ban affirmative action at colleges and universities—meant that Game 5 was Alito’s only chance to see his team play a World Series game without missing work the next morning. 

Alito’s passion for the franchise runs so deep that in 1994, as a federal appeals court judge and adult man in his mid-40s, he spent a week cosplaying as a professional baseball player at Phillies Phantasy Camp—a Christmas gift from his wife that, he says, he would not have spent the money on himself had she not already made the choice for him. Here is Alito on a souvenir trading card, staring off into the middle distance looking like Reactionary Bret Boone.

A 2014 profile of Alito describes the experience as an “aging baseball junkie’s nirvana”: a week of instruction led by Phillies greats, many of whom the attendees grew up watching. Alito’s team was managed by Larry Bowa, then the Phillies third-base coach and forever and always the most relentlessly irascible baseball guy of his era; Alito described Bowa as “more subdued there, but not entirely, than he was as a regular manager.” Things went as you’d expect for a gaggle of middle-aged dudes running wind sprints in polyester pajamas: “By the end of the week everybody had pulled their hamstrings,” Alito said. “The locker room smelled overwhelmingly of Bengay. Nobody could run. Everybody was hobbling.” 

The scouting report on Alito was not always so grim. He was a “powerful hitter and pretty good first baseman” on office softball teams, according to Carter Phillips, a Supreme Court lawyer who is also the sort of person that felt comfortable casually admitting to a New York Times reporter that he displays an Alito baseball card on his desk. As a college student, Alito even aspired to become the commissioner of Major League Baseball one day, a revelation that at last provides a definitive answer to the question, “Who would be a worse commissioner of Major League Baseball than Rob Manfred?”

By his own admission, Alito couldn’t hit for shit by the time he showed up at Phantasy Camp, but was proud to have at least made contact during the end-of-the-week scrimmage against the retired pros. “All I wanted to do was put the ball in play, so I started to swing before he even released the pitch,” he said, remembering his at-bat against 1983 National League Rolaids Relief Man Award winner Al Holland. “I managed to get a ground ball. It was a moral victory.” Here is our guy sitting for what appears to be an official camp photo, the telltale pair of crumpled khakis stuffed in the locker behind him.

KRT/ABACAPRESS.COM

Alito’s ascendance to the Supreme Court in 2006 opened up a whole new world of baseball-adjacent novelty experiences. A few months after his confirmation, Alito was invited to throw out the first pitch at a Phillies game; the Wall Street Journal reported it as a strike. The Phillie Phanatic also dropped in on his Supreme Court welcome dinner, a gesture organized by his new colleague Stephen Breyer. Here, Alito speaks fondly about a photo of the Phanatic being hugged by Clarence Thomas, an indignity that I can only hope earned a sheepish apology and hazard pay for whoever had to wear the furry green suit that night.

Alito’s Phillies went on to lose Game 5 before succumbing to the Houston Astros on Saturday night in six. For the sabermetricians out there, before the only Phillies superfan in recent memory to have robbed hundreds of millions of people of their right to bodily autonomy made his World Series TV cameo, the scrappy Phillies had surprised and delighted by going toe-to-toe with the Astros, scoring just one run fewer than their opponents in a series that was knotted at two. From the moment that Alito’s grimace made it into the national TV broadcast, the Phillies were outscored 5-2, and did not win another game.


Adapted from a post that originally ran in the Balls and Strikes newsletter.

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