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Flight of the Kiteman: The violent theater of opening day in Philadelphia

Generations of daredevils have tried to start the Phillies’ season. Few of them succeeded.

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Fans stand for the Anthem Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

On the eve of yet another entire season, we see baseball at its most enthused: Away all winter, it returns to us excited, overstimulated, falling on its face. In the past, it has assumed that we need to be drawn back in by pre-game carnivals, while in the present, a simple parade of the players through the outfield and into the dugouts while music plays typically suffices.

Lineups are announced man-by-man, someone yodels a poem written by a colonial lawyer, a few high-powered jets streak overhead, and for the next 25 weeks or so, we are occasionally captivated by the only thing ever referred to as a “pastime.”

But this was not so in the olden days of Veterans Stadium. Deep in the archives, past signs pleading with curious parties to turn back, there are legends written on rotted-together pages; stories of the Kiteman who once soared over, or onto, Veterans Stadium, with several men taking up the mantle over many years.

When he was Richard Johnson, he owned a hardware store.

In April 1972, he appeared at Veterans Stadium, ball in hand, kite on back, Philadelphia crowd simmering with bloodlust. The intention was to sail into the stadium and bring the Phillies the baseball that would start their typically horrible season. He skittered down a 150-foot ramp in center field and, veering off the edge, obliterated himself on the bleachers in a wreck Phillies promotional director Frank Sullivan called “just one hell of a crash.”* Phillies owner Bill Giles said he thought Johnson was dead.** But Johnson got up and tried to throw the game ball 400 feet onto the field; it landed in the bullpen.

The crowd hated it.

He was only there because the real Kiteman had dropped out, his skills needed south of the border to teach the president of Mexico to waterski. Giles had dug up Johnson, who, upon observing the venue, denied the opportunity for a practice run, saying to Giles, “If I’m going to kill myself, I want someone other than just you watching me.”*

When he was BJ Beaty, they called it “foolish.”

Sullivan said Kiteman came back, this time in 1980, because the Phillies simply needed to fill their stadium. Kiteman’s presence that year is often forgotten, as he was the first Kiteman to complete his job successfully. Just as how the 1972 Kiteman destroyed his body and probably his mind for the people he served, setting off a baseball season as disastrous as his attempt at flight, the 1980 version of Kiteman handed the game ball off to the players on the field, allowing baseball to finally return to Philadelphia, and ushering in a one-year run of World Series championships that kept this city alive for generations.

When he was Pete Bonifay, he was a professional water skiier.

He fell in love not just with the water, but on it, and married a water ballerina. They put their child in skis and pulled him around the living room before he was six months old. “The Bonifays rule Lake Alfred, Florida,” Waterski Magazine told us in June 2001, about the Bonifays in their hometown, which was “slightly larger than your bathtub.” As Veterans Stadium teetered on the edge of its destruction in 2003, Kiteman was summoned one last time in August. Bonifay had been asked at 53 years old if he was getting too old to perform the Kiteman routine. He was now 56. They were still asking him. All he could do was smirk, gaze at the setting sun, and gravely mutter one of his classic Kiteman witticisms: “It does seem kind of stupid, doesn’t it?”

He was Richard. He was BJ. He was Pete. In a way, he was every member of the Veterans Stadium rogues gallery that balanced, exploded, and fired themselves into the sky: Cannon Man. Rocket Man. Parachute Man. Cycle Man. The Great Wallenda. The World’s Largest Jumping Easter Bunny. This was the draw of baseball over wide periods of Phillies baseball: Not just the team on the field, but the man flying above/into it.

If Kiteman sounds like a bottom shelf comic book villain, that’s because he was one of those, too: debuting in DC Comics in 1960 as a foil for Batman, Robin, Hawkman, and Hawkgirl, Kiteman is pretty much exactly what the real life Kitemen were, only in tighter clothes, and yes: he is defeated with his own kite multiple times. He is also thrown off a building to his perceived death (an absolutely terrible way for a flying supervillain to die), but fortunately survives, only to be eaten later by Bruno Mannheim, a gangster cannibal.

No fate as final or as grisly awaited any of the Kite Men of Veterans Stadium. They lived on through the will of Bill Giles, the former Phillies president who coordinated the team’s death-defying opening acts. His need to bring fans to the stadium was necessitated by his team’s inclination to lose. Being Philadelphia fans, watching a man taunt death before nine innings of sighing was simply keeping some sport in the game.

The Kitemen lived on in the people themselves, as well; drawn from their homes to watch a spectacle setting off a baseball season that would end in anything from 100 losses to a World Series parade.

Opening day celebrations are now typically more about parading the team through the stadium and onto the field, rather than logging a body count. Which, in the Phillies case, is for the best. Throughout the 2012-17 seasons, the Phillies really could have used a guy on rocket skates jetting into the stratosphere or a man covered in garbage being chased by a family of raccoons through the outfield to keep people engaged. But baseball just doesn’t offer that level of carnage anymore, unless you count mascot race mishaps or the The Freeze in Atlanta decimating a man’s dignity.

But perhaps, Phillies fans no longer have to watch a man almost die to have a good time. Perhaps the dynamic manager, the exiting young players, the top-down revamped franchise that has moved on from its stubbornly Stone Age perspective and now sports a more intriguing philosophy, will be enough to keep people in the seats. And isn’t that what Kiteman was all about?

No. The opposite, really. And Kiteman will be always be there, in some form, waiting for the call when the next 40-win Phillies team takes the field. But on the cusp of a new era, unsure of what lies ahead and who will be there, let us take to heart the words of the third Kiteman, Pete Bonfiay:

“It’s really scary,” he said. “But it’s real exciting, living on the edge.”

*Baseball Hall of Shame 3, by Bruce Nash and Allan Zullo

**Pouring Six Beers at a Time and Other Stories From a Lifetime in Baseball, by Bill Giles