Phillies exec mourns brother, warns of the pain coronavirus can cause


Back in 1968, when he was in fifth grade, Chris Pohl was assigned a book report. The Pohl family, mom, dad and four boys, was living in Waterloo, Iowa at the time. Green Bay Packers territory. Chris loved football so he went to the library and checked out Run to Daylight, a book authored by legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi.

In those pages, Pohl learned about Lombardi Time — always be 15 minutes early — and that old-school principle has been part of him ever since.

So, it was no surprise that Pohl was standing there, waiting for me outside the press box at Citizens Bank Park, one recent morning. I was on time for our 10:30 a.m. meeting. But I was not on Lombardi Time.

Pohl had already been at the ballpark for hours by the time we caught up. The temperature was on its way to 95 smokin' degrees so the air conditioning on the press level felt refreshing, especially after Chris had completed his morning chores with the grounds crew, you know, dragging tarps and hoses, setting up nets and doing whatever else needed to be done so Phillies players could get their work in.

I wanted to chat with Chris because I was grabbed by his story. He is one of those behind-the-scenes Phillies lifers — he started with the club in January 1983 after a one-and-done interview with a guy named Dave Montgomery — who would do anything at any time (not just during a pandemic) for the organization.

So when the club put word out internally that it could use a few people to help prep fields and work security, both at CBP and FDR Park, as the players got back to work two weeks ago, Chris, the team's longtime director of ticketing technology and development, along with a number of other staffers who'd been working out of their homes during the shutdown, raised his hand.

"There was a need and that's what we do here," he said. "And, besides, there's something special about a ballpark. I love walking in here and hearing the crack of the bat."

In the Phillies' media guide, Chris Pohl is listed second in the ticket office's batting order. Through his career, he has been at the forefront in developing advanced computerized ticketing methods, not just for the Phillies but for the entire industry. He was honored by the club with the Richie Ashburn-David Montgomery Special Achievement Award in 2017.

Pohl's transition from ticket executive to grounds crew/security force is just temporary. Someday, fans will be back in the stands, he'll be back doing his thing in the ticket office and the world will seem right again. Really, Chris' role change during these trying times was only a small part of the reason I wanted to chat with him and tell his story.

• • •

Back on March 18, just days after the sporting world shut down, Pohl received a text from his sister-in-law outside of Chicago telling him that her husband, Chris' older brother Warren, was bedridden with a raging fever.

Suddenly, the growing coronavirus pandemic that had been playing out on the nightly news became harrowingly real for Chris and his family.

Two weeks later, LuEllyn Pohl made her daily phone call to Chris and his wife, Vicki. By this time, Warren had been hospitalized, with no family allowed in the facility, for more than 10 days. It was about noon on April 1. LuEllyn informed Chris and his wife that the end was near, that she and the girls, daughters Kristin and Allison, with the help of a nurse who was holding the phone at the hospital, had said their goodbyes to Warren. 

For a moment, there was a heartbreaking silence on both ends of the phone.

The conversation resumed and LuEllyn and Chris chatted for several minutes before there was a beep on the phone. LuEllyn took the call and returned to Chris. Warren had passed. He was 68.

It all happened so fast and it was all so scary. Chris' heart bled for his brother and his family. He thought of his mom, 92 and living outside of Pittsburgh. She and Warren had spent a week together in February when she buried her sister. Chris called his mom. No answer. She was at the cemetery, planting flowers at his dad's grave. Chris marveled at the strength she showed when he finally was able to deliver the news.

After speaking with his immediate family, Chris began to think of his other family, the Phillies, and his friends. He went to his computer and wrote an email, beginning it with Dear Friends. He wrote about how wonderful Warren was and how awed he and his family were by Citizens Bank Park when they visited Philadelphia two years earlier. And, of course, he warned that this coronavirus thing was not to be taken lightly.

"This devasting virus took my brother Warren in a matter of two short weeks," Chris wrote.

He wasn't looking for sympathy.

He just wanted people to know how serious the virus was, how deadly it could be.

"We're just one of more than 130,000," said Chris, referring to the number of deaths caused by the virus and the families who have been left behind. "Hopefully we can overcome this if everyone toes the line, but we need a vaccine.

"No one is indestructible. Warren didn't set out to get this and it took him down in two weeks."

• • •

Chris Pohl has always been a morning person. During normal times, he's one of the first to arrive at Citizens Bank Park each day. He likes to get in a workout before getting to his office.

With the park closed for regular business these last four months, Chris has taken to rising with the sun and getting in a two-hour walk at home in Montgomery County. He thinks of Warren with every step. They were five years apart. They had been best man at each other's wedding. As kids, the family moved from Staten Island to Iowa and then to the Pittsburgh area for dad's job. Chris loved football and dreamed of being a running back at Mt. Lebanon High School. His dream came true but only with the help of Warren toughening him up in the back yard and challenging him to do those pushups every night.

Warren spent most of his formative years in the Midwest and ended up settling outside of Chicago while Chris and his other two brothers spread out. Chris ended up in Philadelphia and over the years didn't see Warren as much as either would have liked. They talked often, though, on holidays and birthdays because brothers are always brothers, no matter how miles separate them.

During his morning walks, Chris will sometimes feel a pang of regret. While he was busy becoming an adult, raising a family and chasing a career in Philadelphia, Warren was doing the same outside of Chicago. Late in his teenage years, Warren had begun learning to play the guitar. He played in several bands. Chris remembers a cassette tape arriving at the family home near Pittsburgh when he was a teenager. Wow, Warren is pretty good! But it wasn't until after his death, when the tributes started pouring in, that Chris realized just how good Warren was ...

As a musician.

And a man.

In recent years, Warren, who had been retired from Sears Holdings Corporation, partnered with another musician named Randy Leggee. They formed an acoustic duo called Bourbon Country that was very popular in the Chicago area.

"I knew Warren played," Chris said. "But I didn't know what I know now. Warren just didn't tout himself."

Warren was a people person. When he wasn't on stage, he used his musical talent to perform good works in his community. He and Leggee worked regularly with Musicians on Call, an organization that brings the healing power of music to hospitals and health care facilities.

After his death, Warren's goodness was chronicled in local newspapers and on music-based websites in the Chicago area.

Warren's "life well lived" was also featured on the iconic TODAY Show.

A tear welled in Chris' eye as he recalled seeing his brother on television.

"As soon as he appeared on the screen ...," Chris said.

He patted his heart.

No other words were needed.

• • •

My chat with Chris Pohl, the one that didn't exactly start on Lombardi time, was about to end. He needed to get to work. Yes, he's a little conflicted about being out in public, especially now with all the pain that coronavirus has caused him and his family, but he's taking precautions, and, hey, being back at the ballpark is more than a little therapeutic. Chris made a point to say that he just wants to help educate people of the dangers of coronavirus and that if "everybody does things right we can beat this thing." 

Before heading back down to the field level of Citizens Bank Park, Chris adjusted his face mask and reached into his backpack. He pulled out a binder filled with newspaper stories, Facebook messages and other tributes to his brother. 

"Here," he said, handing me the binder. "Heaven just got a whole lot cooler with WP up there. See for yourself."

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