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Ed Crowley arrived at the concession stand behind home plate at Spectrum Field around 8 a.m. Tuesday. He had his earbuds in and the radio app on his phone tuned to WIP. This is the way it is before every home Phillies spring training game. There's a lot of prep work to be done when you're serving up mouth-watering authenticity on a pillowy roll and when it's St. Patrick's Day, well, you'd better be on top of your game.
"It's the busiest day every year," Crowley said. "Everybody eats and everybody drinks. It's a no-brainer."
Crowley and his longtime girlfriend Cindi Bowers are co-owners of Delco's, the great, real-thing cheesesteak and hoagie shop in Dunedin, Fla., just a few miles up the road from the Phillies' spring training site in Clearwater.
They've sold cheesesteaks at Phillies spring training games since 2001 and their concession is not hard to find. Just follow your nose toward the sweet smell of grilled onions - and look for the longest line in the place.
St. Patrick's Day has long been the highlight of the Phillies' spring schedule. The players wear green jerseys, a tradition started by Tug McGraw in 1981 and now observed all over baseball, and fans flock down from Philadelphia for the festivities. They cover their noses with sunblock and fill their bellies with beer.
And when they need a taste of home, they visit Delco's behind home plate.
One St. Paddy's Day a few years ago, Ed and Cindi and their staff served up a record 1,700 cheesesteaks.
Not bad in a ballpark that maxes out a little over 10,000.
• • •
There weren't 10,000 people in Spectrum Field on Tuesday.
As Ed Crowley talked on the phone five hours before what would have been a 1 p.m. first pitch against the Toronto Blue Jays, there were just two people in the ballpark - himself and longtime groundskeeper Opie Cheek, who was mowing the grass.
The coronavirus health crisis forced Major League Baseball to shut down spring training last week. Crowley was in the ballpark Tuesday morning to pack up supplies and take them back to the shop in Dunedin.
"Yeah, it's sad," he said. "St. Patrick's Day is such a tradition here. We feel bad for the fans and all the stadium and concession workers and we just hope everyone stays safe."
Losing seven games at the peak of spring training isn't ideal for business, but Crowley and Bowers still have their day jobs.
And they are quite busy.
Their shop in Dunedin sits in the middle of a strip mall and all the big chain sub shops are nearby.
Delco's blows 'em all away.
Your trusty, hoagie-lovin' correspondent visited the shop late Saturday afternoon before leaving town. I probably picked a bad time to visit, about 4:30 in the afternoon, just as the dinner crowd was picking up and the line was beginning to stretch toward the door. Ed was working the grill and Cindi was taking orders. Seven other employees were hustling around, making hoagies - using Amoroso rolls and Dietz & Watson meats, of course - taking orders, cleaning tables and rushing deliveries out the door. The place was packed. Certainly, Ed and Cindi didn't need the distraction of a goofy baseball writer with no baseball to write about hanging around at the peak of their business day, but they fit me in.
Ed hails from Aston in Delaware County, Cindi from nearby Claymont, Delaware. Ed started making cheesesteaks at the original LaSpada's in Parkside when he was 15. Cindy had a background in the restaurant business. In 1998, the couple moved to the Clearwater area and brought a taste of Delaware County, of Philly, with them.
Right out of the gate, people loved Delco's. One of them was Dan McDonough, an executive in the Phillies' Florida operations department. The always gregarious McDonough grew up in Chester County and knows a thing or two about Philly and cheesesteaks. He finished getting a haircut one day in Dunedin when he spotted the Delco's sign in a nearby storefront. He wandered in, introduced himself to Cindi, slapped his business card on the counter and said, "If they're legit, we can do business." McDonough loved the cheesesteak and business was indeed done. For three years, Delco's had a small stand at old Jack Russell Stadium. They moved uptown when the Phils opened Spectrum Field in 2004 and have been a fixture at the ballpark ever since. Their blue double-wide ad, which also touts Ed's brother Rich's shop in Chadds Ford, is an icon on the outfield wall in front of the Phillies' bullpen.
• • •
Ed and Cindi credit a few folks for initially helping spread the word about their great cheesesteaks and hoagies.
The first was Steve Duemig.
"He was sort of the Howard Eskin of Tampa Bay," Ed said.
Duemig, who died last May, often talked about his Philly-area roots on his sports talk radio show. One day, Ed and Cindi sent him over some 'steaks and he couldn't stop talking about them.
The Delco's brand also gained big popularity through its affiliation with the Phillies.
"The exposure has been huge," Ed said. "Phillies fans find us. They need a cheesesteak, some Tastykakes, Herr's chips, they find us."
A trip to Delco's is like a sports-themed trip back to Philly. Main Street in Dunedin might as well be Oregon Ave. in South Philly or McDade Blvd. in Delaware County.
There's room for 46 customers in the dining room. The walls are lined with Philadelphia sports memorabilia from the front page of The Inquirer the day after the Phillies won the World Series in 1980 to dozens of bobbleheads. While you're waiting for your pickup order, you can sit in an old seat from Veterans Stadium, right under Allen Iverson's jersey. Scott Rolen discovered Delco's when he was playing for the Blue Jays, who train in Dunedin. There was a picture of him in a Phillies uniform on the wall. He signed it. Chris Wheeler is a regular. Jose Bautista was a regular when he played for the Jays. Fred McGriff and Dick Allen have been in. The golfer John Daly, too.
The signature piece of memorabilia is a 10-x-6½ foot flag that takes up most of the east-facing wall. The flag is faded orange and emblazoned with the Flyers' winged-P logo. Once upon a time, it flew outside The Spectrum.
"It showed up in a big box in the mail one day like 20 years ago," Ed said. "Two weeks after it arrives, this little old lady comes in, orders a 'steak and says, 'I see you got my gift.' She got it from someone she knew at The Spectrum and gave it to us."
Cindi loves the flag.
"I have more stuff in back that I could put up on the wall, but that's never coming down," she said.
My whole visit to Delco's was like a trip to Philadelphia. Authentic Philly 'steaks. Authentic Philly fans. (Memo to the office: Send these guys an NBC Sports Philadelphia banner for the wall.)
But the moment when everything felt totally Philly didn't come until I'd stepped outside and took a seat at one of the tables on the sidewalk. As I sat there going over my notes, Cindi popped her head out the door. She had her arm around a woman and she wore a big, you're-not-going-to-believe-this grin.
"Hey," Cindi said with a laugh. "This is Howard Eskin's stepmom!"
Sure enough, this nice woman was Cheryl Eskin, the widow of The King's late father, Donald. Cheryl, a Northeast Philly native who now lives in the area, explained that her husband loved Delco's and she still comes by for lunch or dinner at least once a month.
Cheryl asked me if I saw Howard Eskin's bobblehead on the shelf inside the shop. I sure did. Right next to Charlie Manuel's. Someone has a sense of humor.
"I did that," Ed said with a laugh from behind the grill full of sizzling steak and onions late Saturday afternoon.
• • •
Fast forward three days to Tuesday and Ed is behind the grill again, only this one is at the ballpark and it's as cold as a January sidewalk. No sizzling steak. No onions. No baseball. No Phillies. No fans. No St. Patrick's Day fun in the sun. Just a box of supplies to take back to the shop and one sincere hope for all the little people who work behind the scenes that are affected by this pause in the sports world.
"Safety first," Ed said over the phone. "Hopefully this will pass and things will be back to normal for everyone real soon."